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Shang Qinghua looks up from the fourth — fourth!  — marriage proposal Mobei Jun received this week alone with a quiet huff. His king is beautiful! Glorious! Intimidating in a sexy way! He knows this. But isn’t this just a little excessive? Shang Qinghua is the one in charge of politely rejecting them all in a way that makes the suitors feel like they’re the ones being flattered. This is not the flowery bullshit he would like to be writing! 

He stretches out his wrist in preparation for the scroll’s worth of a response he’s going to have to write and rolls his neck. 

“Leave it.”

Speak of the demon. Or, well, think of him. Mobei Jun is leaning against the wall, arms and ankles crossed, looking bored and concerned at once. It’s something to do with the sharp tilt of his eyebrows, probably. 

“Leave … what, my king?”

Mobei Jun blinks at him and doesn’t move. Seriously, how long had he been standing there? Weird! Act like a human, please, my king!

“The marriage proposals. Ignore them.”

Shang Qinghua glances around the room to make sure they’re alone before he starts whining. “But everyone else is bad at it. I can’t just leave them to someone else, that’ll start a war! A war you’ll win, but you’ll be gone for a while, and there will be so much laundry to do to get bloodstains out of, and Shen Qingqiu will come and laugh at me for being bad at writing again .” He drops his head into his hand and pouts. It’s probably not as cute as he was going for, but his sister in his first life got away with murder with this expression, so it’s probably not a bad idea!

But Mobei Jun just scoffs. “Then announce our betrothal and be done with it,” he says witheringly and sweeps out of the room as Shang Qinghua gapes at him, speechless. 

Their what?!?

| | |

Shang Qinghua knows a thing or two, okay. About himself and about Mobei Jun. He might be an idiot about a lot of things, but he knows his own characters! Even the violent, broody ones with a carefully-hidden heart of … well, maybe not of gold. But Mobei Jun does have a heart, anatomically speaking. 

And what he knows intimately is that Mobei Jun is eye-searingly attractive on purpose . He’s the guy Shang Qinghua never once had a chance with, because of who and what Shang Qinghua is. Worse, he’s smart, and concise, and assertive, and reserved, and everything that Shang Qinghua admires on top of being a magazine-cover wet dream. 

Shang Qinghua takes a deep breath in the small room at the heart of Mobei Jun’s castle, where the arctic desert winds don’t howl and freeze him to death in the middle of the night and he can get away with lighting a fire and setting warming talismans around the space without fear of attracting feral animals seeking warmth at any cost in the dead of winter, and tries his best not to sniffle as he reminds himself of this in front of his full-length mirror.

He’d had to haul it out of the closet for this. 

Usually, it’s hidden behind his best set of robes, where he can check his appearance and the lay of the fabric and then go back to ignoring the fact that he’s stuck with a body even in the world he created. 

Unfair! If he still talked to the System anymore he’d be filing a formal complaint! 

Luckily for everyone, after offering the chance to return home, the System had gone dormant. It’s still there, if he prods for it, but they don’t … talk, anymore.

It’s strangely lonely. 

He pushes the thought away and returns to looking at himself in the mirror.

For all that he believes in writing the world you want, in having fun and hijinks, he’s a pragmatist at heart. And if Mobei Jun won’t answer him about their alleged engagement, then he’ll just have to figure out what the plan is himself. 

The mirror shows a man in his late 20s, maybe early 30s — older than he ever got to be in his first life, younger than he should be, thanks to his golden core. His hair is a rich, deep black, combed neatly if underwhelmingly. His face is … fine. No acne marks this time around, which is still weird every time he looks, and the beginnings of stubble, since he hadn’t had time to shave this morning. His cheeks are puffy with fat, just like the rest of him. It’s not the heaviest he’s been — that was definitely a little before he died in his first life, when he’d been eating instant noodles for almost every meal and snacking between, stressed about his sister and his job and pretending to not care about the negative reviews from Proud Immortal Demon Way. 

He’d cared a lot, though, and work had sucked, and his sister had been failing all her classes and their parents had always resorted to yelling before any real help, and he was several thousand miles away, too far to really help besides calling every Friday after dinner. 

At least the elaborate robes, with their multiple layers and belts and fluttering sleeves, mostly cover his belly and smooth down his lumpy chest and hide his thick wrists most of the time. 

Shang Qinghua takes another minute to slowly, exactingly comb his eyes over every inch of himself. What is it that would make Mobei Jun think that marrying him is a good option? Harems exist in this world. It makes no sense to marry one man to stave off suitors. Unless he’d made the Northern Desert value monogamy more than other places?

He doesn’t really remember. 

Another look, and still nothing, no idea sparks in his brain to make this make sense. 

He presses his fingertips into his eyelids until he sees fireworks and tries to think of anyone who could help.

Shen Qingqiu is obviously out of the question. One of their first conversations that didn’t involve bodily assault started with him opening his dumb, vicious mouth and asking why Shang Qinghua was fat in a wuxia novel. Not helpful. Liu Qingge is a traitor and would probably report their whole conversation verbatim to Shen Qingqiu. Mu Qingfan would find a way to circle the conversation back to losing weight. Any demon is out of the question, as they’d first and foremost report back to Mobei Jun, then gossip about yet another demon lord picking up a hapless human consort. Pass.

Well, there’s only ever one person on Qing Jing Peak that he should really go to for advice anyway, he supposes. 

| | | 

Lesbians know everything.

It’s a fact of life in any world, which is what he reminds himself when he lands on Xian Shu Peak and is escorted by a sharp-eyed disciple to Qi Qingqi’s residence.

“Oh, are you coming to play at being human again? Not too busy fucking your demon sugar daddy?” Qi Qingqi asks, making Shang Qinghua jump. He hadn’t realized she’d walked in with a tea set and a stony expression.

He smiles sunnily. Of all the characters in this world, she’s the most like his little sister. Not exactly, but there are familiar echoes that make his shoulders relax and spine slump immediately. “Mean, Qi-shijie! Too mean. I came here because I don’t have a demon sugar daddy. And it’s weird that you know what that is.”

She snorts. “Men have been snatching up young women to fuck since the beginning of time, I’d have to be a lot dumber than I am to not know how to take advantage of that.”

“... Right. Okay then. So. I don’t know what to say to that.”

“Then don’t. Say what you came here for.”

“Well now I feel stupid, because it’s kind of on topic.” He sniffs and shifts in his seat. She must take pity on him, because she pours them both a cup of tea and raises her eyebrows, waiting for him to continue. “This stays in this room, right?”

“Sure.”

She sounds bored, but she also isn’t much for gossip. Or, not the kind that gets people hurt.

Shang Qinghua takes a sip of his tea and cradles the cup in both hands. They both ignore how much it shakes.

“Mobei Jun said that I should announce that we’re getting married.”

“Good for you,” she says flatly.

“What?!? How is that what you get out of this?”

They both pause to make sure his screeching hasn’t attracted any kind but misguided disciples. “I am, and I cannot emphasize this enough,” she says, still monotone, “getting out of this that the only surprising thing about this is that you came all the way here to tell me. What kind of logistics master doesn’t have his own spy network that can deliver messages for him.”

He pulls out his best pout again, which does absolutely nothing for the Xian Shu Peak Lord. Probably because she sees better, cuter pouts every day.

“Why would — what — no! No, Peak Lord Qi, this is surprising! We aren’t. I’m not!”

Qi Qingqi places her teacup meticulously on the table, precisely aligns it with the teapot, and meets his gaze head-on. “If you’ve come here to tell me that you’re angry that Mobei Jun is attracted to men —”

He jerks back like he’s been slapped. “No!! No, Mobei Jun has always been attracted to — he’s never cared about gender, like that. I’ve always known that! I just!!” He trails off into a muffled squeak and gulps at his empty teacup. Maybe he shouldn’t have said that bit? Is outing a thing in this world? Is Mobei Jun going to rightfully hunt him down and mount his head on a pike for this?

“Then what.”

“Then why is he trying to marry me! Why is he telling me to get rid of all other marriage proposals!”

“Shang Qinghua,” she says, startling him a little. He didn’t come here prepared to be addressed by name. He doesn’t want to acknowledge that he’s a part of this conversation so directly. “I don’t want to know anything about demon courtships. Frankly, everything you’ve told me about your life down there, I’ve tried my best to not think about, because I’m busy enough up here to not nurse sympathy for the people who regularly try to kill my disciples. But I know that that demon has been in love with you for almost a decade. And if you try to yell in my home again, I will have you dragged off my peak by your pretty crown and have you permanently banned.”

He swallows and nervously taps his fingers against his thigh. She most definitely means it. She’s also one of the only people he trusts to tell him the truth, though, so he presses on. 

“Peak Lord Qi, you must know that I would like to marry him! Don’t give me false hope here! He can’t love me. It doesn’t make sense for him to be marrying me!”

“Aside from you already running most of his kingdom, if what Shen Qingqiu would have us believe, and being his best friend, it hardly makes sense for him to marry anyone else.”

“That’s going a little far —”

“Do me the favor of not lying to me and I’ll show you the same courtesy.”

“Okay that’s maybe fair. But still! That doesn’t mean he has to marry me!”

Qi Qingqi pinches the bridge of her nose in exasperation. “Stop talking around the subject. What are you panicking about, if not the marriage.”

He opens his mouth and snaps it shut. Pours them both another cup of tea. Draws a swirling pattern on the table with a fingertip. “You’ve met me,” he says at last. And then, in a smaller voice, “you’ve seen me.”

“Yes.”

“He couldn’t. He wouldn’t want me. Like I want him. Want to be married to him.”

When he looks up again, after several moments of tense silence, it’s to a scrutinizing look. He feels flayed open. Worse than looking in the mirror, because at least if he’s the only person who can see himself, then he can … hide it. Himself. He can disappear, somehow. 

“Why not.”

Talking to Qi QIngqi is like trying to go three rounds with a heavyweight. It’s his mental exercise for the whole month. She bludgeons everything out of him and leaves him wincing for days. 

Unfortunately, it’s also really cathartic. 

“Because I’m not — beautiful. We basically work out for a living as cultivators and I’m still fat. I’m human and he’s a demon king!”

Qi Qingqi leans forward, never once looking away from him. “It doesn’t sound like any of that matters to him. Or maybe you’re hiding too much from him for him to make a real decision, or to talk you down from your hysteria.”

Her bluntness soothes something in him. There’s no denials about who or what he is, just a level acceptance. But maybe the problem is that Qi Qingqi is too beautiful. Too thin and graceful. Everyone here is, really, to understand. Even Mobei Jun, who is built like a brick shithouse, doesn’t have much fat on him.

It’s easy to pretend being fat isn’t a problem when it’s not your problem. It’s easy to be in a relationship when you’re the one who’s out of someone else’s league. 

Qi Qingqi must see his dismissal on his face, because the leans forward and purses her lips, serious and earnest in a way she usually avoids like the plague. She’s about to give him a talk she gives to her disciples, he just knows it. “Stop making this into whatever game you’ve built up in your head. This isn’t a political courtship. This is your king and friend. He deserves better than this from you.” She leans back and frowns. “Now never make me take a demon’s side again.”

He sighs in defeat and plants his hands on his thighs. “You’re right. Thank you, Peak Lord Qi,” he finally says, and lets the conversation detour into the gossip on their respective peaks and the accomplishments of their students. 

| | |

Back in his first life, he’d had a boyfriend, once. Shang Qinghua has to stretch his memory to remember his name at all. But he’d had one, and he’d hated it and didn’t know why.

Part of it, at least, was that his writing and his job and his boyfriend and his family were all neat parallel lines in his head. They couldn’t be allowed to touch, or deviate, or fray. His boyfriend would make fun of him for his ridiculous, porny stories if he knew. His family hated his job, several cities away and not in the field they wanted. 

His boyfriend and family meeting was one of his worst fears. 

He’d avoided mentioning his family when he could, didn’t add his boyfriend on social media. There was that anxiety at the back of his throat for the few months they’d been together that he didn’t know what would happen if his boyfriend contacted his family after they broke up, what he’d do if he had to be a person beyond who he was here, now.

Shang Qinghua wanted to be one person at a time. Being himself, his whole self, would take up almost as much space as his body did. He didn’t think anyone would want all of that. Himself, his dumb hobbies, his snacking habit and his weird family and busy schedule.

Now, back in Mobei Jun’s palace, waiting in his office where Mobei Jun is sure to come looking for him after his duties have been more or less pacified for the day, he’s not sure he’s ready to be one person all the time. But he might be able to … consolidate, a bit. For Mobei Jun.

| | |

It’s less than a few hours before Mobei Jun shows up in Shang Qinghua’s office.

Shang Qinghua had left early in the morning to talk to Qi Qingqi, using Official Peak Lord Business (™) as his excuse over breakfast for why he’d be abandoning Mobei Jun to his regular advisors for the day. 

He’d been grumpy about it, mostly because his advisors always disagree with each other and usually encourage bloodshed. Which he agrees with on principle, but Mobei Jun has also, Shang Qinghua thinks, come to appreciate the simple efficiency of Shang Qinghua’s scheming, too. Mobei Jun likes elegance as much as he likes brute force. 

As far as contradictions go, it’s kind of a cute one. 

Mobei Jun walks in heavily, sitting tiredly on the spare chair next to Shang Qinghua’s desk. The feeling is mutual, my king! It has been a long day! 

And he’s about to make it longer. 

Shang Qinghua rolls up the correspondence he was proofreading one last time before stealing a glance at Mobei Jun. He looks exhausted. 

“We make a good team, huh?” Shang Qinghua asks quietly, a tentative opening sally. It’s easier to be less timid, now that Mobei Jun has made it clear that he wants him in his court, his home, trusts him with his life and kingdom. 

Still, it’s a weird feeling — to be trusted more than he trusts. It’s usually the other way around, mostly by necessity, and sometimes by habit. 

“We do,” he easily agrees.

“And you want to marry me?”

“Mm.”

“Why?”

He can feel Mobei Jun turn his full attention on him. “We make a good team.”

“Oh.” It’s fine, if that’s what this is. He can talk his way out of it, or around it. 

Or not. At this point, it’s probably best if he admits that Mobei Jun is it for him. They’ve been together for so long that Shang Qinghua can’t imagine a life without him. Without his dry humor and straightforwardness and his protection and warm cloaks. He could make a marriage out of that.

There’s a drawn-out silence that Shang Qinghua does his best not to itch and fidget his way through.

It’s almost funny that Mobei Jun is the one to break the silence. “You are … my most trusted advisor,” he starts, clearly uncomfortable. “You are intelligent. Very silly. Creative.”

“You’re really digging for compliments here, my king,” Shang Qinghua cuts in drily. He tries to hide a grin by looking at the piles of paperwork on his desk.

Mobei Jun nods. Words are hard for his king, so Shang Qinghua doesn’t take it too hard. He waves it off with a lazy hand. “Don’t worry about it then. If it’s what’s best for my king, I’ll start planning it.”

Ice cracks across the flagstone floor, crystallized on the walls and makes the candles and torches in the room sputter dangerously. “You think that I would marry you for convenience.” It’s not a question. 

What’s with this overreaction? He pictures batting at Mobei Jun’s nose with a rolled-up newspaper every time his king lashes out with his ice when he’s upset. Use your words!

“Um?”

What’s the right answer here, is what he wants to know! You’ve just said that’s what it was! Why are you mad about hearing your own answer?!

Mobei Jun stands with a flair of his cape. Very dramatic, my king! A very good argument! Really! Not. 

“I asked to marry you because we are good together. You make me better. I make you better. I have managed to convince the entire extended family and my advisors that we would be a good match. If you do not feel the same way, I will not accept you settling for me.” He spits the last sentence out like it tastes foul in his mouth, and then sweeps out of the room. 

“My king!” Another step. “Mobei Jun!” Shang Qinghua barks, a little louder this time. Mobei Jun hesitates, but when he looks over his shoulder, he looks hurt and furious. It’s a lethal look. A little sexy. 

“A-Lan,” he chokes out, the enormity of his mistake swallowing him whole even as he says it. It might be a step too far, to call his given name. It might be too much to know it, to show that he knows it. He gulps in a shaky breath. 

Mobei Jun goes stock-still for several heartbeats before fully turning back, slow as the moon, to stare at him. “What did you say?”

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I’ll never use it again! I didn’t want you to leave but I’m sorry!”

“You said my name.”

A nod.

“You know my name?”

“I … please forgive this one for his presumptuousness! It’ll never happen again!”

“It’s fine,” Mobei Jun says dismissively, striding up to him. “How do you know my name?”

Another nervous breath. “This one knows a lot of things, my king.”

That earns him a bemused snort. “That much has been obvious for years,” Movie Jun shoots back. But his voice is less tense. The air warms by a few degrees. It doesn’t hurt to breathe anymore.

“Sit down?” Shang Qinghua asks, motioning toward the chair he’d been in previously. 

He sits in stony silence. 

“I started this wrong. I just wanted you to know more. About me. If we’re going to get married.”

“I’m listening.”

“I do want to marry you. I want you to marry me.”

Mobei Jun levels him with an extremely unimpressed glare. What do you call all this, then? he seems to be asking. 

Good question, my king. “I want you to marry me because you love me. Or could love me.” Shang Qinghua doesn’t mean for it to come out in a hoarse whisper, but, well. It’s a lot to admit. He wrangles his voice into a more even tone as he continues. “It’s okay if that’s too much to ask. I’d be happy with you wanting me by your side! But I got wrapped up in the idea of you wanting me, I guess, and then knowing you don’t. I don’t … I don’t really know what you’re mad about. Or what I’m upset about,” he finishes with a watery laugh. 

“I am. I do.”

“What?” Shang Qinghua squeaks. Do what? Am what???

“I am in love with you. I do want to marry you.”

| | |

There is a moment when you wake up after dying and being transmigrated into a world of your own imagination and the whims of internet strangers, where everything seems translucent, where there’s no real connection between cause and effect anymore. Your hand moves, your mouth speaks, the sun rises and sets, and you’re outside of it all.

Shang Qinghua mentally runs over their conversation again. Mobei Jun’s words.

He looks around.

This certainly feels like he got transmigrated into a fanfiction of his own writing.

“Okay Qinghua,” he mutters to himself, turning in a slow circle, sizing up his surroundings. “There’s a statue of … someone. Someone in the Mobei clan, probably, going by the eyebrows, and claws. Some shrubbery around here.”

He squints and frowns. The snow is heavy enough that he can’t even make out his own footprints, tell what direction he came here from. “That tells me nothing about where I am.”

There’s a pop of air being displaced behind him. He whirls around to see Mobei Jun flexing his hands, which looks terrifying, but is just one of those things he does after he teleports. Shang Qinghua used to be so scared whenever he did that. He’s not sure when that changed. 

“My king! Uh. What brings you … here?”

Mobei Jun blinks at him, once. Shang Qinghua winces. 

“I don’t know where we are,” he admits. He looks around again and spots a set of tracks into the … it’s probably a garden, he decides, under all the ice and snow. “Or how I got here.”

Mobei Jun holds out a hand. “Come.”

“Uhhhhhhhh.”

He raises his eyebrows. “The cold will eat you.”

“It’s called frostbite, not — you know what, nevermind. Thank you my king.”

They teleport back into his office. Neutral ground, he assumes. The throne room is squarely Mobei Jun’s, and a bedroom would be a terrible idea right now, and probably have servants in them besides. The office is quiet, and while it’s technically Shang Qinghua’s by virtue of being his stronghold in this place, it’s a frequent stop for Mobei Jun when he needs advice or a ten minute break. 

“You were in the southwest gardens,” Mobei Jun tells him once he’s wrapped Shang Qinghua in his (expensive! luxurious! smells like Mobei Jun!) cloak. “They’re a very long walk from here.” He pulls Shang Qinghua’s hands toward himself and starts to briskly rub feeling back into them. 

When he looks up, Mobei Jun is staring fixedly at where their hands are touching, forehead scrunched into an unhappy frown.

“I panicked.”

“Why?”

Why? Why?? “Because it doesn’t make sense!”

“Why not?”

The worst part is, he sounds genuinely confused. And how dare he, is the thing! How dare he not know what’s between them and what isn’t. How dare he not understand that Shang Qinghua is too mousy, too fat, too loud and mouthy, eats too much and thinks too little and writes embarrassing things and doesn’t even consider the bad porn to be the embarrassing bits. Mobei Jun is absolutely nothing like him. “Don’t make me say it.”

“I need you to.”

Shang Qinghua startles, hands shrinking back from where Mobei Jun is still, impossibly, holding his hands. It’s too much. It’s all too much. “Close your eyes?” When he just gets a long look in return, he sighs. “I need you to close your eyes for me to say this.”

Mobei Jun acquiesces without further protest. And it is a little easier without his eyes on him. It feels safer. He turns his hands over so that he can twine their fingers together, rub his thumbs over Mobei Jun’s palms. It’s nice. They’re big and calloused and a little cold. Why haven’t they done this before?

“I don’t know how to be married.”

“And I do?”

“Stop that,” he chides, but a grin steals across his face anyway. “I had a partner once, and I don’t think he liked me much. I didn’t like him as much as I should’ve, either.”

“What?” Mobei Jun’s eyes fly open and his hands tighten around Shang Qinghua’s. 

Right, that’s weirder in this universe than in his original one. “Eyes closed,” he reminds him, and waits a beat until Mobei Jun does. He tries not to panic about ordering his king around, and that his king is going along with it. “It wasn’t a big deal. Where I’m from, it was normal to have partners before you got married. Not the point, really, my king!

“The point is that I was scared no one would ever love me, and he probably had a whole thing about that too, looking back.” He ignores the way Mobei Jun’s frown is becoming more pronounced and he’s pressing his lips together the way he does when he wants to interrupt. Almost there, my king! This needs to be said! Hold out for a bit longer!

“And then I came here and everyone here is … even hotter than where I’m from, and more competent, and stronger. And I can barely fly on a sword, and you know my ass does not fit on those tiny carriage seats, and I’ve cultivated to immortality and I still? Sweat somehow?? Which is stupid. And I’m the peak lord of a logistics peak, which is incredibly important but possibly the least sexy position in all of Cang Qiong. And you’re you! How am I supposed to not panic when you say you love me?”

“Say something please!”

“Am I allowed to now?”

“Yes!”

Mobei Jun opens his eyes. It’s easy to forget with their relatively young faces and the dumb things that happen to them all the time that both of them are well into their 90s by this point. But it’s so obvious in the solemn look Mobei Jun gives him now. Well, Mobei Jun is closer to 80, and technically Shang Qinghua is closer to 70 in this universe. Not the point! 

“I’ll build you a better carriage,” he says after a fraught silence. 

Once, Shang Qinghua had been trying to keep up with a friend of his — one of those terrible, stupid crushes on a straight guy that leads to bad decisions and tubs of ice cream — at the gym. He’d done the endless reps of lifts, the cardio, the circuit workouts. He’d been on the last set and realized, with absolute certainty, that he was going to pass out from how out of breath he was. 

This feels a lot like that. His whole body zings with electricity, his muscles untensing painfully, and he can’t suck in enough air. “My king?”

Mobei Jun closes his eyes again and squeezes Shang Qinghua’s gently, as if trying to comfort him. It even sorta works. 

“The first time we met, I thought you were the only stranger I would take a chance on trusting. You were so loud in that room you brought me to to keep me alive, tapping on the table, talking in your sleep. You insulted me a lot.” His lips twitch up when Shang Qinghua makes a protesting sound. “I was charmed by it. I wanted to hug you. You are … very huggable,” he settles on. 

Shang Qinghua doesn’t think he’s ever heard him say this much in one go. He wants to crawl under a rock. He wants to record this speech on a phone he doesn’t have and set it as his ringtone and all of his alarms.

“You do not lack anything, even a title. Even a demonic title, as you’ve made yourself one of my chief advisors as well. I … regret that you have been made to feel that you could not be appreciated for what you are.”

Shang Qinghua licks his lips and tries to think of something — anything — to say, but Mobei Jun just continues talking, like this is a normal day, like he says this much in a single week usually. Like this isn’t proving Shang Qinghua’s theory that he’s died again and popped up in the world’s most OOC fanfiction. 

“You help to run my kingdom. You saved my life twice. You are very handsome, and I have killed more than one demon for saying so. You —”

What the fuck? ” Shang Qinghua squeaks. He didn’t mean to interrupt, but what??? Killed who?? Handsome? Did you mishear? Please be specific my king! Provide details! Time stamps! Photographic evidence! “You’ve killed people over me?” he clarifies, because he wants Mobei Jun to explain , please!

Movie Jun sniffs delicately, looking suspiciously offended. “They said they would steal you. You were in the middle of negotiating the southern borders at the time. I didn’t bother you with it.”

Shang Qinghua stares at him, fish-eyed, flabbergasted. “Okay. I. That is a lot to process.”

“You have time,” Movie Jun says smugly. 

Well, Shang Qinghua isn’t getting kicked out of the north for being insolent or dumb or bad at accepting Mobei Jun’s proposal, so he guesses that’s true. 

“I’m going to … go sleep now?”

“Don’t be late to dinner. You have a reputation to keep up now.”

What Mobei Jun means is there’s a small banquet tonight with a bunch of arrogant demons and he doesn’t want to deal with them alone, because ripping them limb from limb in a petty show of disdain would be bad for relations , but Shang Qinghua decides to let him have this. “I’ll be a little late, and take a nap,” he says, so Mobei Jun can make excuses for him and also won’t give in to his impulses and start a war just for fun. 

| | |

“There is no date yet for the wedding.”

Shang Qinghua sweeps a nervous look over the now-empty throne room. The last of the petitioners for the day have long left, and the advisors had trickled out shortly after, ready to be done with boring politics and Shang Qinghua’s infuriating (to them, he’d like to point out! Very relieving to the common people!) even more boring advice. 

Now he’s kneeling just before the dais, heavy cloak tucked in close to ward off the natural chill of the room, while Mobei Jun continues to lounge on his throne, eyebrows raised in expectation.

Cocky bastard. 

“These things take time, my king. We have to find an auspicious day, it can’t be on Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe’s anniversary without causing an incident, or the anniversary where they started their thing with Liu Qingge that we all don’t mention, and —”

“What thing?”

“— and, ” Shang Qinghua continues, undeterred, because that’s a mess he’s not getting into, he likes his head where it’s at, thank you, “I still want.” He presses his lips together, suddenly unsure, before he starts again, bowing his head lower. “This one would like the chance to spend more time with his king, before the announcement.”

“Dispense with ceremony,” Mobei Jun says, only a little exasperated. 

Well, he’d be pissy if anyone but Shang Qinghua was less than formal, and he’d only really allow it from Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu because he also likes his head where it’s at. But it’s an old defense mechanism, a way of stalling for time. Shang Qingqiu would prefer not to have this conversation at all, my king! We can’t get everything we want all the time!

Shang Qinghua nods while Mobei Jun slinks off the throne and across the throne room, off to a side door that can lead to a lot of places, but mostly they just use as a way to get to a small dining room where they can snack or grab a quick meal between boring duties. 

“Follow,” he commands, and Shang Qinghua really hopes they’re going to eat something. He’s starving and this would go easier if he could talk with his king over something warm and tasty and not somewhere he’ll feel cornered and exposed. 

Well, more exposed. More cornered. More seen. 

He keeps pace with Mobei Jun — which he can do now, because Mobei Jun walks slowly enough when they’re together to make sure he can, now, and when did that happen? — as they wind their way around the back hallways of the castle, ducking through two false doors before they’re deposited into the small, cozy dining room.

He tries not to sigh in relief and fails. “Foooooood.”

It makes Mobei Jun let out a snort of laughter, which feels like a minor victory. Mobei Jun dispatches a servant that had trailed them to get food and then keep clear of the room for the foreseeable future. Helpful, my king! Daunting, but helpful!

They wait in silence for the meal, and then for a few extra beats to make sure the area really is clear afterwards, before Shang Qinghua starts to dish up their food. Mobei Jun takes the time to stare at him closely.

“We have spent time together,” Mobei Jun finally says, when they’re both about to start eating. 

Rude, to catch him off-guard and busy like that. Stupidly endearing. Not every conversation requires strategy better fit for a war, my king! 

Shang Qinghua fiddles with his bowl, the lay of his cloak, his cup. “We have. I’d like to … I went to visit Peak Lord Qi the other day,” he finally says. 

“Mn.”

“She said a lot of dumb things.”

Mobei Jun raises an unimpressed eyebrow. He thinks most things people say are dumb.

Fair enough, my king. Fair enough. “But she made me think about the things I don’t tell you. And I don’t mean to keep them from you! But I didn’t think I could tell you, before!”

“And you can now?” Mobei Jun asks.

“I don’t know,” Shang Qinghua admits, sheepish. “But I think I’m ready for you to know, if you … want to know? Things about me? If you want to marry me?”

Mobei Jun takes a bite of the thing in front of him and chews on the statement and what Shang Qinghua hopes is nice, normal meat. Not that normal meat means much in the north, in a world Shang Qinghua created almost exclusively in the hours between midnight and false dawn. 

It takes a long time for him to chew. Shang Qinghua makes a mental note to avoid eating the meat and picks at some of the vegetables in his bowl.

“Is this an invitation to ask questions?”

He nods. He realizes, with a jolt, that he’s really always kind of … shut down questions about himself, before. Shen Qingqiu knows the most about him in this whole world, and they’re not even all that close. He’s closer to some of the servants here than he is to Cucumber Bro. “Full honesty, if I can,” he says with a nervous smile.

Mobei Jun takes another bite and stares at him thoughtfully. “What do you really think of Advisor Li?”

“His head is so far up his ass I assume all his opinions are about his colon, not whatever you’re asking about,” Shang Qinghua says without thinking. 

He’d primed himself for honesty! He wasn’t ready for a curveball! What has he done! It’s not his fault that Advisor Li is an old windbag, grandfathered into the court, always harping on about tradition and honor and bullshit! Shang Qinghua appreciates the delicate touch as much as the next man, but sometimes the fact is that Mobei Jun really should just kill a fool! Stop arguing so much!

He’s about to apologize when Mobei Jun lets out a laugh. An honest-to-goodness belly laugh, dropping his chopsticks and tilting his head back for a brief, beautiful second. 

“I’d always wondered,” he says, voice still wavering around a laugh, beautiful and rich.

“Well, now you know. It’s my head if it’s the wrong answer, I guess,” he jokes weakly. 

“It’s not.” Mobei Jun leans forward and meets his eyes. “If you’ll be honest, then there won’t be wrong answers here.”

“I — okay.”

“How do you know my name?”

“I don’t know how to answer that, or if I even can.” The system might wake up and start screeching at him, or eject him out of this world and into — what, his original, probably very dead or at least comatose body? A new world not of his making? There are only bad answers! He can’t do that! He won’t leave! 

Mobei Jun shrugs and seems to accept that for the moment.

“What’s something that you can answer, then? That you want to answer?”

When he’d imagined this conversation, Shang Qinghua had always imagined a full court press for the truth, whatever Mobei Jun decided that was. He imagined a tearful confession, mellowdrama, maybe a fight and a tasteful amount of blood.

Instead, he finds himself smiling. “I used to have a sister,” he hears himself say, and his voice isn’t even thick with tears. Mobei Jun is watching him intently. Openly. There’s something almost welcoming in his gaze. Comforting.

“She was a lot younger than me, and I started writing because she liked it so much when I told her bedtime stories growing up. She was sad when I left home, and she didn’t blame me for it even when I wanted her to.”

“Why did you leave then?”

A million reasons. Some of them are dumb — he was young, he wanted to be independent, they lived in a pretty rural area and he wanted city lights and a good job and more . Some of them are hard — he was ashamed, of his weight, of being, not gay, not that, but that he was gay and they didn’t want him to be, and he didn’t want to be something in their closet, something they were ashamed of. And some of it was practical — they were strapped for cash, they always liked his little sister more, the economy in their town was on a downturn. 

“It made sense to. I needed to leave to be better. I wasn’t a nice person, around my parents. They weren’t kind around me. We needed money, and I needed to like myself.”

Mobei Jun nods, like that’s enough for him. Maybe it is, in this new relationship they’re feeling out together. “I wish I could have left. For a while, at least,” Mobei Jun offers after a few heartbeats. “I would like to know what leaving is like.”

A big castle, with all its backstabbing family, gossipping servants, dependent subjects, policies to amend and allies to pacify. Shang Qinghua sympathizes. “I can tell you about it sometime, if you’d like that. It’s not the same, but …”

“I’d like that.”

More silence. It’s not as uncomfortable this time, though. And then Mobei Jun nudges Shang Qinghua’s bowl closer to him, a silent order to eat, and prompts, “You said you started writing?”

He obediently starts picking out a bite, using it as an excuse to look down at his bowl, and nods. “That’s, uh, how I knew Shen Qingqiu. Kind of. He read my writing. He doesn’t dislike it? But he can’t stop reading it either. Who knows what that’s about.”

When he finally takes his bite — with a bit of the meat, which is chewy but still delicious, how did the kitchens even manage that? — Mobei Jun is biting down a laugh at that.

“What?! What’s funny about that?”

“It explains a lot, is all,” Mobei Jun tells him. Explains why he puts up with Shen Qingqiu constantly berating him and hitting him with his fan and then nosing around when Shang Qinghua goes too long without talking to him, is what he means. 

“He’s socially underdeveloped,” Shang Qinghua tells him imperiously. “We have to make some allowances.”

“Mn.” 

He’s still laughing at him, the bastard. 

“Stop laughing at me! I haven’t seen you laugh this much in the last decade combined!”

“You don’t usually let yourself be this funny,” Mobei Jun tells him, unrepentant. 

Shang Qinghua steals a bite of his vegetables as recompense. 

| | |

Shen Qingqiu shoots him an unimpressed look from where he’s been reading over Shang Qinghua’s latest draft of his new novel. 

“It’s sappy.”

They’re sitting in Shang Qinghua’s cramped office. Shen Qingqiu is on a diplomatic visit, which means that Luo Binghe has been fucking him too enthusiastically and Shen Qingqiu has decided the grown-up way to deal with that is to cry crocodile tears about it to Shang Qinghua and then run right back home in two days, because he wants to complain without Luo Binghe overhearing and actually easing up, because Shen Qingqiu is a size queen and also a masochist, probably. (Shang Qinghua wrote Luo Binghe’s dick into existence. It’s a monstrosity that he didn’t really mean to subject anyone to. He deserves some of the bitching Shen Qingqiu subjects him to.)

Either that, or Liu Qingge has been too nice lately and Shen Qingqiu is allergic to having not just one but two people being sweet to him.

Shen Qingqiu’s life is something Shang Qinghua tries not to contemplate too hard, honestly. 

“So? It’s art! It can be sappy!”

“You’re getting old,” Shen Qingqiu snaps. 

“You have a husband and a boytoy, we can’t all be as sexually adventurous as you, Cucumber Bro.”

“You don’t — that’s not — !”

“Ow!” Shang Qinghua ducks behind his desk, trying to avoid Shen Qingqiu’s vicious fan attacks. 

Mean! This is how you treat one of your best friends? Your fellow transmigrator? Solidarity is dead. 

“Consort Shen,” Mobei Jun’s voice cuts through their bickering from the doorway. 

They turn as one, Shang Qinghua with his arms still raised defensively, to see Mobei Jun in full regalia, shoulders taking up almost the width of the door, arms crossed in a way that accentuates his (dreamy, bulky, lickable) biceps. He stares impassively at them when they keep staring blankly at him. 

Shang Qinghua drops into a sloppy bow. “Mobei Jun.”

Shen Qingqiu follows suit, infinitely more refined, voice subdued as he echoes a greeting.

“I heard a commotion.”

Shen Qingqiu snaps open his fan and hides his face behind it. Coward. “This one was going over Shang Qinghua’s latest manuscript,” he says carefully. “This one disagreed on certain edits.”

Mobei Jun tilts his head. “I liked it. Especially the confrontation scene between Ming Yi and the cyberwolves to reunite with her lover.”

Shen Qingqiu stiffens and starts fluttering his fan, shooting Shang Qinghua a sideways glance. “Oh, well, if Mobei Jun liked it …” He trails off and widens his eyes at Shang Qinghua.

Shang Qinghua kicks him. Stop getting ideas! He’s the only one allowed to have ideas in this room! This is a dumb idea-free zone!

He sends Mobei Jun a reassuring smile — nothing to see here! No reason to linger! Shen Qingqiu won’t be strangled to death the instant you walk away! — and dips into another half-bow. Shen Qingqiu, dumb as a brick about everything except etiquette, follows suit.

Mobei Jun sends him one last appraising look before nodding dismissively and stalking off. 

“Oh, so it’s like that?” Shen Qingqiu singsongs before Mobei Jun is out of earshot.

“Shut up!”

“You’ve got the king of the north reading sci-fi furry porn, I don’t think I can physically stop myself from making fun of you.”

“Cucumber Bro, c’mon, it’s not —”

“It’s not what? Did you write this for him? Is this his kink? Are you getting me to read your — mmph!” 

Shang Qinghua pulls his hand back, grimacing while he wipes it off on his robes. “Why would you lick my hand!”

“Why would you shove your hand in my mouth!”

“To shut you up!”

They glare at each other for a moment. Then Shen Qingqiu starts to laugh. Asshole. “So you're finally getting laid?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Oh?”

He sighs and goes to flop into his chair, motioning lazily for Shen Qingqiu to take the other seat. “We’re working on it.”

Shen Qingqiu nods sympathetically. “Because of the dick thing.”

Shang Qinghua’s so relieved that Cucumber Bro is being reasonable about this that he’s nodding before what he said registers. “What? No! What dick thing?”

“Uhhh, the fact that you apparently made every guy in this universe hung?”

Okay, point to Shen Qingqiu! But that’s a bridge Shang Qinghua’s going to cross when he gets to it! He has other fish to fry. “No! We haven’t — we’re not there yet!”

“Okayyyyy,” Shen Qingqiu says, like this is a real big puzzle. Like it’s some kind of rare phenomenon that you’d see in a nature documentary. “So to recap. You’ve known Mobei Jun for at least …” He squints, clearly struggling to do some mental math. “At least 30 years. And you’re just now getting together.”

He winces. Technically, it’s a lot closer to 40, but he’s not about to admit to that unless he’s forced to. But this is his office! Kind of sort of his kingdom! He doesn’t have to admit to shit! He doesn’t have to take this, either!

“Not everyone can transmigrate into an adult and immediately turn their student gay and fuck them and one of their coworkers,” he says, deadpan.

“It wasn’t immediate! It was —”

“You fucked a kid you taught, I’m not going to take criticism on this!”

“He wasn’t — Liu Qingge, too! We don’t —!”

“No! End of discussion! I’ll get Mobei Jun to kick you out if you keep bullying me!”

Shen Qingqiu rolls his eyes and hits him, once, with his fan. “Fine. So you’re getting your shit together. And making him read your poorly-written erotica. Happy for you, or whatever.”

Shang Qinghua frowns, though. “You don’t think I made him. You know. Into me? With my …” He wiggles his fingers. 

“With your dumb god powers? No. We’re pretty firmly off-book,” Shen Qingqiu says. “Mobei Jun just genuinely has bad taste in men.” He cracks up when Shang Qinghua shoves him. “No, really! Even I knew that, like, a decade ago.”

“Qi Qingqi said something similar,” Shang Qinghua grumbles. 

“Yeah, because she has, like, all of the brain cells in Cang Qiong.”

He gives in and laughs too, closing his eyes and letting his guard drop all the way for the first time in months. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t have been his first choice of a friend in either life — he can tell that even in his first life, Shen Qingqiu was handsome, if a complete dweeb, and rich, too. They’re not really all that similar. But they have too much in common now not to be friends. 

“Hey,” he says after a few more minutes of dumb jokes. “When should we hold the wedding?”

It’s been nagging at him more than he wants to admit. Every date seems too ambitious, too soon or too far away, too simple. Too daunting. 

“Oh, you guys are really going all in, huh?” Shen Qingqiu purses his lips and tips his head to one side. “The coldest day of the year, right? Mobei Jun can probably make sure it’ll be the coldest day any day, but if you can get close enough, that might be, like, symbolic.”

“Huh. That’s not bad advice.”

Shen Qingqiu makes a condescending noise. “I’m married to two saps. It’s self-defense to make romantic gestures. They cry all over me when I miss an anniversary or date night or fuckin … flowers on a Monday just because.”

“You’re so lucky you’re hot,” Shang Qinghua tells him frankly. “They’d leave you for each other in a heartbeat if you weren’t.”

“Yeah, probably,” Shen Qingqiu says, but he’s smiling fondly, like maybe he’s sappier than he wants to admit, too. 

| | | 

He trails Mobei Jun back to his rooms after an exhausting day at court and a dinner spent in absolute silence, both of them too talked out from the three ( three! ) separate spats that broke out among delegates from their tributary states. One argument Shang Qinghua had been able to talk them down from. Mobei Jun had to step in to end the second one, and gave up and smacked their heads together the third time it happened.

Literally smacked their heads together.

Shang Qinghua’s sides still hurt from how hard he had to work not to laugh out loud when it happened.

So it’s been a long, cold day, at the start of a long, cold, busy season. They’re elbow deep in wedding preparations and running on fumes from the series of tournaments Luo Binghe held in celebration of Liu Qingge officially joining his and Shen Qingqiu’s marriage. He really just wants to crawl into bed and make his fiance spoon him and he’s pretty sure Mobei Jun is going to let him, even if that’s a new step for them. 

Most things these days feel like new steps for them, but it’s so comfortable that Shang Qinghua forgets that it’s all new sometimes. 

Mobei Jun steps into his chambers, glances at Shang Qinghua who’s still firmly at his side, and dismisses the servants early for the night. “You’re more than capable of taking my crown out of my hair,” he says by way of acknowledgement. 

Shang Qinghua grins. “I am, my king!”

It’s enough to settle the matter. 

He helps Mobei Jun get ready for bed, and accepts Mobei Jun’s offer to help him with his hair, too.

When they’re both tucked into bed, Mobei Jun gamely agreeing to an extra blanket and a small fire in the room, Shang Qinghua burrows into the bedding and wriggles until he’s tucked into Mobei Jun’s side.

“Feels nice, being beside you. Being smaller than you.”

Mobei Jun makes a pleased noise. “You are very small,” he agrees.

“Uh, not exactly?”

“You don’t even reach my shoulder. I’ve seen children not even past their thirteenth winter that are taller than you.” It’s said heatedly, but not meanly. Like Mobei Jun wants to pull his pigtails, a little.

Cute, he thinks, despite himself.

“Fine, fine, you’re right. But I’m still …”

“Still?”

“Fat,” Shang Qinghua whispers, like a dirty word, like a confession. Like he’s managed to hide it from Mobei Jun this whole time. 

“... Yes?”

“And that’s not a … dealbreaker, to you? That’s not. You still …. Do you want me? Like this?” He can live with a sexless marriage, probably. He’s already living in a sexless relationship. It’s fine. It’s not a big deal. Plenty of people are fine without sex, he should be fine, too! Mobei Jun loves him, he doesn’t need more! 

“Of course.”

Even in the dim light, Shang Qinghua can see Mobei Jun’s lips turning down as he realizes this is a conversation they’re having, not a weird, late-night tangent. Mobei Jun tugs Shang Qinghua in tighter to his side. “I had assumed that it is good for you to have extra fat here. It’s colder than most humans can handle. You are safer with it.”

Oh. Is that … is that just … what he thinks? Is that just the whole of his thoughts on Shang Qinghua’s weight?

It feels like he might actually be in that PIDW AU he was worried about all those months ago. Something about this discovery isn’t clicking in his brain. His thoughts are jumping over it like he’s playing mental hopscotch. 

“I. What?”

“You’re less likely to be eaten by the winter like this.”

Frostbite, ” he corrects automatically, smiling fondly. 

“I know. But it makes you laugh.”

Oh . “So you want to have sex with me?”

Mobei Jun lets out a shocked laugh. “ Yes. ” 

“Then why haven’t we yet?!” He slaps Mobei Jun on the shoulder when he just keeps laughing. “Stop that, I was worried you wouldn’t — I know I’m not the most attractive, with the weight, and the … face, but! We could have been fucking for ages! Then what? Do you want to wait until we’re married? We can do that, if you want.”

That shuts Mobei Jun up. “No.”

“No to waiting? No to not waiting? Help me out here, you’ve already melted my brain once tonight, we’re too tired to play guessing games here.”

“You are very attractive.” A pause. “Honestly?”

Shang Qinghua takes a deep breath and moves so he can lay his head on Mobei Jun’s chest. Sometimes, over dinners or breakfasts or walks in the gardens, they’ll play that game again. The one where they can ask any question, and it’ll be safe to answer.

Maybe other people can do that all the time. Other people aren’t a king and a transmigrator who made the whole world, king included. Honesty feels like a cliff to throw themselves off of, sometimes. 

“Honestly,” he whispers. 

“If we’re married, you can’t leave me because I’m less experienced than you. If I perform … unsatisfactorily.”

Shang Qinghua snorts. “You’re overestimating my experience, my king, really!” he tries to reassure him. “And I wouldn’t leave you for that. Learning is half the fun.”

“... Really?” Mobei Jun asks, dubious. 

“Ehh, sorta? It depends on who it’s with. It’ll be fun with you.”

“Fun,” Mobei Jun repeats.

“Really. I — When I tried this before. Tried a relationship before. It wasn’t very fun. But it should’ve been. I wish I’d let myself have more fun. I want to have fun with you. I want you to have fun, too.”

“The word ‘fun’ is starting to lose meaning.”

Shang Qinghua laughs. “See? This is already fun, and we aren’t even taking off our clothes yet.”

“I have never been described as fun before.”

“And I’ve never been told I was attractive before. It’s already a night of firsts. If we go to sleep now, we’ll have slept together for the first time, too. Another thing off the list.”

Mobei Jun gives him a playful squeeze. “Silly.”

“You said you loved that about me.”

“I do.