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Violent's MoShang Week 2021

Chapter Text

He’d started doing it as an act of survival.

No, not in a “if I don’t have anything new to show my subscribers by the end of the day, I won’t make rent this month and I’ll be kicked out onto the cold, hard, unforgiving streets! Please, have mercy on a poor man!” kind of way.

(Why did people keep assuming that? Was it what Shen Yuan—that asshole—kept calling his “pathetic face syndrome?” He had a job. He didn’t make that much bussing tables, but he’d been doing just fine even before he had enough followers to make any money off his videos. No one had ever accused him of having expensive tastes. It was called being frugal, even if Shen Yuan insisted on calling it “living like a rat.”)

He meant it was literally life or death.

At this point in the explanation Shen Yuan would usually roll his eyes and say something along the lines of “You’d think someone who used to want to be an author–” and excuse him? Who said anything about used to? He still had time! “–would know the difference between literally and figuratively.”

Shen Yuan did not believe that his brother would actually murder Shang Qinghua, but the intended victim knew otherwise. Every time he came over to the twins’ massive apartment—paid for by their parents on the condition that they live together to keep an eye on each other—to hang out, that vicious man would get this look in his eyes like he was contemplating the best places to hide a body, all because Shang Qinghua had dared to corrupt his precious, innocent younger (by seven minutes) brother with whatever trash show they were nerding out over recently (What kind of forums do you think they met on, Jiu-ge? It’s way too late for that).

But through his long years of association with the twins, he’d discovered the thing that would save his life. The evil twin (“Stop calling him that!” “Bro, everyone knows that one twin is always the evil one, and it’s pretty obvious here which one it is,”) had a weakness, his very own kryptonite: Shen Jiu had a massive sweet tooth. And luckily, Shang Qinghua knew how to bake.

So he’d bring over homemade treats whenever he visited, like an offering to a particularly capricious god, and this was enough to buy him his life for another day. See, he could be useful! No need to do any smiting today!

At first, it was nerve-wracking trying to figure out what Shen Jiu would like best. But then it was kind of fun, trying out new cute and tasty things to eat, and expanding his repertoire. He found himself watching some recipes that went viral on the newest video sharing app in his search for inspiration, and decided to make his own account, because it seemed like an easy way to keep track of all his attempts in one place. And… it kind of took off?

So he was a small-time internet celebrity now, for what that was worth. And his biggest (self-proclaimed) rival on the app was some kid named Luo Binghe, username BingBingBing. Self-proclaimed because… this kid kept calling him out? And it honestly left him baffled.

They weren’t exactly catering to the same audience. Yeah, they were both making desserts, but so were thousands of other people! And Shang Qinghua’s account was mostly about easy recipes that still looked and tasted good. He’d gotten on the app looking for things he could actually make, and that’s the kind of content he wanted to produce. Shen Yuan described his appeal as “utterly unintimidating,” which he took as the compliment he hoped it was intended to be.

(He didn’t even own a full-sized range. Why would he need one when a toaster oven and a hotplate did the trick, and took up way less space for a fraction of the cost? But if he wanted to bake anything larger than a small cake or a few cookies at a time, he had to borrow the oven at work after hours, which was happening more and more... Maybe it was time to look for an apartment with a bigger kitchen?)

Luo Binghe, on the other hand, was strictly a food porn account, camera always tight on the plating with only his hands occasionally visible, and he didn’t only do sweets like Shang Qinghua did, either. Everything he made looked phenomenal and set Shang Qinghua instantly salivating, but an ordinary schlub like him couldn’t hope to make anything like it in a million years. The appeal was the same as browsing homes worth tens of million of yuan on real estate sites when you lived in a studio apartment.

Shang Qinghua had no idea why Luo Binghe had fixated on him, but it seemed weirdly personal.

But it was like water off a duck’s back to him. So what? He was actually getting more followers because people were curious about this guy that BingBingBing kept ranting like a crazy person over while he presented his perfect dishes.

Shang Qinghua didn’t have to participate in whatever this was. Until, well. He started getting these DMs. On his personal Twitter (which didn't use the same username or his real name or have any pictures of him!) from some dummy account named Elsa1212.

Someone who seemed just as invested in this one-sided beef between the two of them as Luo Binghe was, but Elsa was firmly on Shang Qinghua’s side.

__________

“Well?”

Mo Beitong looked up from his phone, hurriedly closing the app and opening the one he was supposed to be checking.

“He hasn’t posted anything since the strawberry and banana crepe yesterday,” he answered after a brief pause, despite already knowing the answer before he’d even checked.

“No! I’m not talking about that dumb hamster!” his best friend shouted, frustration making its way into his tone as he made a grab for the phone, despite his hands being covered in batter, but Mo Beitong merely lifted it out of his reach. “I meant Shizun! What did Shizun say?”

Mo Beitong restrained a sigh, before obligingly swiping over to the other account. His friend’s precious “shizun” was an older boy who’d briefly volunteered as a tutor at the public library where the then homeless Luo Binghe had spent his hours when he was out of school before his estranged father had come back on the scene.

Luo Binghe had been struck by Cupid’s arrow then and there, so grateful over how kind the utterly pretty boy had been to him, even when it had been clear that Luo Binghe had not been showering regularly and wore the same clothes everyday.

But one day he stopped showing up. The librarian, after giving Luo Binghe a dirty look that clearly stated her opinions on his obvious moral failings for having no access to bathing facilities, had informed him that the boy he was talking about hadn’t signed up for any additional hours and no, she didn’t know why. Volunteers were free to give as much or as little time as they wanted.

And then Luo Binghe was picked up by his father’s people, and he didn’t have time to wait all day around a library just in case his crush showed up again.

Luo Binghe would have sighed and given his “shizun” up as the one who got away, keeping a fond memory of him warm and alive in his heart. Except, years later, he’d found him again. Or rather, he found his account on a new video sharing app.

One look was enough to make him fall in love all over again, and Luo Binghe knew that Shen Yuan was the only one he could ever love. No, he wasn’t being dramatic, Mo Beitong. The ONLY. ONE.

Luo Binghe would have killed to see his shizun smiling, laughing, frowning, crying, sharing the intimate details of his life through the screen like just about everyone else on social media seemed to have no reservations about doing. But the account, ShenGeReviews, seemed to be devoted to exactly one thing: reaction videos to another account, AirplaneBro, which posted videos of some nebbish looking guy making baked goods.

That was it. Every single video was just his shizun eating pastries or shaved ice or candied fruits or sweet puddings and reluctantly reviewing them in response to teasing questions asked by whoever was behind the camera. And if it wasn’t bad enough that he was eating someone else’s recipes, it was clear that he wasn’t just making them for himself after watching that hack AirplaneBro’s videos. Because AirplaneBro was in some of the videos, delivering the food! He was in his shizun’s home. They knew each other!

This AirplaneBro, whoever he was—Luo Binghe could feel his knuckles go white as he imagined throttling his romantic rival—was stealing his shizun! Was trying to seduce him with mediocre food!

Everyone knows the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, and was not Luo Binghe the superior chef? So he’d take this AirplaneBro down, whoever he was. He’d show his precious shizun, his Shen-ge, that the only food he should be eating is Luo Binghe’s!

Mo Beitong’s voice broke through his reverie. “He said the flavor of the fruit was lovely but the crepe was a little soggy.”

Luo Binghe immediately bounced to attention. If he’d been a dog, his eyes would be pricked upright and tail been sent wagging. “Ha!” His eyes gleamed. “That hack can’t even make a perfectly crisp crepe? I’ll show Shizun what a real crepe should look like. Better yet, I’ll—”

Mo Beitong rolled his eyes, tuning his friend out. Angling his phone away, he opened Twitter again, switching to his side account, and quickly finished typing out a private message to the only account he was following.

A little warm feeling spread through his chest as he hit send. If this was how Luo Binghe felt about his “shizun,” maybe he could understand it after all. So did he feel bad about betraying his best friend to his “rival?” Not in the slightest.

Then he went to rewatch the video where AirplaneBro got chocolate on his fingers and sucked and licked them clean one by one again.

__________

“Brooooooo, another message from Elsa,” Shang Qinghua shouted, waving his phone.

“What does it say this time?” Shen Yuan asked curiously, leaning his head over the armrest of the couch and putting his comic down on his chest.

Shang Qinghua frowned. “She said Luo Binghe is putting up his own crepe video,” he rolled his eyes, “and...to make something with winter squash if I want something he won’t just replicate?”

“Why squash?” Shen Yuan sat up, comic sliding off him and falling to the floor with a sad flap of pages.

“I guess he’s allergic? Like, the break-out-in-hives-if-he-even-touches-it kind of allergic.”

“Weird.”

“I dunno,” Shang Qinghua said. “This is starting to feel a bit…much.”

Shen Yuan scoffed. “This BingBingBing guy is harassing you for no reason. Who cares how she found out? Just accept that sweet insider information for as long as she’s willing to give it.”

He then flopped back on the couch, stretching. “I dunno if Ge likes squash, though,” he added thoughtfully, stifling a yawn.

“It’s not like I’m throwing it on a plate, bro. Give me some credit. I’ll make it into bread or something,” Shang Qinghua murmured, tapping a fingernail in thought against the message on his screen, before clicking to bring up the profile.

Elsa1212 didn’t follow anyone but him. Never posted anything. No profile picture. But her location was listed, and she was in the same city as him. So far he’d never responded to any of her messages, since he thought she was some kind of troll at first. But she had warned him every time BingBingBing was putting up a new video, along with the dish he was making, way before he posted it, and she’d never been wrong. Even if he’d never done much with the information because he did. not. want. to participate.

But now this.

He quickly typed something out, hitting send and closing the app before he could second guess himself. “And if your scary brother doesn’t want to eat it, you can just do it, since you’re the one who wants me to make it so bad,” he added, tossing a look Shen Yuan’s way. “It’s not like anyone on the account you made for him would be able to tell the difference. You both have resting bitch face and look exactly the same when you scowl.”

He ducked and laughed as Shen Yuan sent a pillow from the couch sailing his way.

“Of course we look different! Ge is very elegant and cool, while I prefer a more casual and relaxed style.” Shang Qinghua snorted. Yeah, if ‘casual’ meant wearing the same clothes throughout the day that you wore to sleep the night before, ‘because I’m not planning on going out today,’ as he put it. Shen Yuan could make fun of Shang Qinghua’s cheap-ass everything all he wanted, it didn’t change the fact that while Shen Yuan was a prep in public, he was a total slob when at home.

Shang Qinghua shoved his friend over to the side and picked up the comic he’d knocked to the floor to flip through, trying not to think about the phone burning a hole in his pocket. He wanted to know why Luo Binghe hated him so much. He wanted to know why Elsa was so interested in helping him. It was all kind of funny at first, but lately it didn’t seem as funny. It seemed kind of serious.

And he didn’t want to get his answers from someone without a face and with an obviously fake name.

__________

Mo Beitong heard the little ping of a notification on his phone, and when he pulled it from his pocket to see the little bird icon flash up on his screen, he felt his heart stop dead in his chest before starting up again at three times its usual speed.

He read the message. He read it again. He read it a third time. AirplaneBro wanted to meet. In person.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Have you ever read those stories on the internet about the creepy things little kids say? Like there being a little boy with old-timey clothes and a bloody face who crawls out of their closet at night? Or how they used to be a mother with two children of their own before they died in a car crash on this very bridge?

For Shang Jian, it was a little like that. Not the horrible ghost part, thank goodness. But the past life part. It wasn’t like the isekai or transmigration novels he’d read; He hadn’t arrived in this world trapped in an infant’s body with the mind of an adult. But the fact that he even knew what those terms meant at all was proof enough that he remembered his previous life before its ignoble ending with a jolt of electricity.

And kids are blunt and guileless and usually self-absorbed. They say whatever floats through their minds without a care for how it might be taken, and thus don’t realize that adults might find some of those things distressing. For children, a past life and gruesome death are as normal a topic of discussion as the cool bird they saw that morning or reporting the extremely important news that grandpa farted so loud during his nap that he woke himself up.

Reincarnation is the widely accepted understanding of what happens after death, so realizing your child is a reincarnated soul with the memories to go with might be shocking, but it’s not necessarily cause for alarm. It might even be celebrated, if it was a cherished loved one returning. But when your child is matter-of-factly describing impossible things that could never exist in any mortal realm (cars and skyscrapers and the internet and Systems) and speaking in tongues (Chinglish)...well, children really are too naive to understand the consequences of that kind of talk in a society where possession by evil spirits is a very real possibility.

It was clear their Shang Jian had died at birth, or shortly thereafter, and something else had made its home in the vacant body (and maybe they were right. Isn't that what happened, after all?). They had to do what was necessary to protect their real children.

So that’s how a very young Shang Jian found himself being sold to slave traders on their way to the demon realm.

__________

The demon realm didn’t actually have much use for human slaves. Humans weren’t as strong as demons, typically, and were far more delicate: few and far between was the human slave that could stand up to hard labor in the extreme temperatures of the Northern Desert or the Southern Plains. For indoor work, they had plenty of low-level demons of their own to kick around for fun and to scrub their floors and empty the chamberpots; they didn’t need humanity’s dregs for that, when all it meant was another mouth to feed.

But humans could be very beautiful, and sometimes softness was of value. Failing that, the meat was good when you could get it.

A five year old wasn't much good for either use, but luckily for Shang Jian, the current Mobei-Jun had decided it might be nice for his young heir to have a companion. One that wouldn't pose any kind of threat to his only heir, and wouldn't be much trouble to replace if his son accidentally killed them. Which ruled out the children of the court (any self respecting demon would see the opportunity to encourage a son or daughter to put certain thoughts into his own still unfortunately impressionable son's head, and barring favorable results, arrange an "accident" during play).

He'd originally been considering a fanged snow field mouse, or maybe a pretty golden fish, but there was something to be said for a companion who could understand speech. A human would do nicely.

__________

It had taken Shang Jian a frankly embarrassingly long time to realize the little Mobei-Jun he played with and was ordered around by was his Mobei-Jun, the one he wrote. That this world was the one he’d made in that other life, and he hadn’t just been reborn in a different province of China, where people looked and acted different than the one he grew up in the first time. Maybe people had blue or green or purple skin, and horns or claws or tails in other places, how was he to know?

And it had taken far, far longer for him to put two and two together to realize that that made him Shang Qinghua. Although he wasn't sure how that'd be even possible now. How could he ever become Qinghua if he was living in the demon realm when he was supposed to be head disciple at An Ding in Cang Qiong by now?

His system was as silent and unhelpful as it had always been. Again, all those transmigration novels had steered him wrong. His system wasn’t anything he could converse with; it was quite literally just a “system,” and didn't seem capable of anything but pre-canned responses. Even Siri would be better than what he got. Prodding could only produce the same message, unchanged from the day he first saw it, that his current and only mission was still ongoing.

Mission: Fix the World of Proud Immortal Demon Way

Objectives:

  • Patch plot holes
  • Complete character arcs
  • Ensure a satisfying ending

He was in a sandbox world with no direction. This was fine when he assumed he could just live and eventually stumble onto ways to complete his extremely vague and arbitrary objectives when he got to them, hopefully years from now (the protagonist wouldn’t even be born for a while).

But that was before he realized he'd been assigned a character! The shitty system never provided any information without prompting, and there was apparently a very limited set of available accepted queries that he had to figure out through trial and error. And he’d never thought to ask this specific question before.

Which was better than it constantly throwing pop-ups at him, he supposed. This world may have been built from his book, but it was still his life now. He went for years at a time without remembering he had a system at all, and that was the way he preferred it!

But now that the system had confirmed he was assigned the "character role: Shang Qinghua," he thought he was going to lose his mind. What did “complete character arcs” mean? Was he losing already before he’d even realized they’d started?

__________

He hadn’t feared for his life from Mobei-Jun since their very first meeting. When the two had been introduced and left alone together, Shang Jian had trailed after the slightly older boy hesitantly, like a duckling that wasn’t sure it was following the right mother, until a pair of demons passing by in the hall had spotted him and casually began discussing what type of dish he’d taste best as. He’d promptly burst into tears, crying that he didn’t want to be eaten, and little Mobei-Jun had snapped, “I wasn’t going to, but I will if you don’t shut up!”

Little Shang Jian had clamped his mouth shut, valiantly gulping back his sobs and trying to blink away the tears still flowing. Mobei-Jun’s glare had only made it harder to hold in the whimpers, until he was forced to take a gasping breath and then hold his hands tight over his mouth to muffle the noises. Seeing this, Mobei-Jun had heaved a great put-upon sigh and, pulling one of Shang Jian’s hands free, took it in his own before dragging him down several halls until they arrived in front of a door.

Pushing it open revealed a garishly decorated receiving room, and what was clearly a bedroom visible through the crack beyond a thick brocade curtain hanging over another doorway.

Mobei-Jun dropped Shang Jian’s hand and went over to a table, dragging over a stool to climb on so he could reach a round silver tin placed on top.

“Is this your room?” Shang Jian had asked, looking around in confusion, wiping at his dripping nose with his now free arm.

Mobei-Jun scoffed. “Don’t be stupid. This is Lady Shu’s room. She’s my uncle’s favorite dancer.” Prying hard with both hands eventually caused the lid of the tin to come off with a loud pop, and Mobei-Jun made a triumphant sound of approval. “Uncle buys her fancy imported sweets, and she never even eats them.”

He removed two cookies from within, carefully tamped the lid back down, and jumped off the stool.

Walking over, he handed one of the cookies to Shang Jian, rather than keep both for himself as Shang Jian had expected him to. He realized that this entire little venture had been for this purpose, giving a scared little boy something to cheer him up and sharing a secret to make him feel like he belonged. And that’s the moment Shang Jian knew he wanted to stay by the side of this haughty but soft-hearted demon prince for the rest of his days.

But now, all these years later, that he knew he wasn’t just Shang Jian, the companion to the prince, but that he was supposed to be Shang Qinghua, a cultivator, servant, and spy meant to assist in opening the Endless Abyss before dying at his master’s hands when he no longer proved useful...well, he did a lot of screaming into a pillow.

__________

“Complete character arcs.”

What did it mean, what did it mean, what did it mean?!?!

Did he have to become a Peak Lord of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, where the protagonist would begin his blackening, or could he infiltrate any sect that would appear at the Immortal Alliance Conference when the Abyss was opened? Did he have to be a spy at all, or was it enough to be a human who “betrayed” humanity by siding with the demons?

Siding with one demon: Mobei-Jun, his Mobei-Jun. The current Mobei-Jun may be the definition of an uninvolved father, but Shang Jian would always owe him a debt for doing the one and only good thing he’d ever done for his son—bringing the two of them together. The rest of the demons could go hang. Fuck Linguang-Jun in particular!

And he didn’t mind betraying humanity one bit.

If Shang Jian had been aware enough of his situation at the time to think Mobei-Jun’s “abandoned in the human realm as a defenseless child for a cruel prank and also very likely murder attempt” backstory wouldn’t happen if he was around, considering the way the two of them were never apart, then nope! They just both got left behind on that particular field trip. But this time around, unlike in the novel, Shang Jian was there to protect Mobei-Jun.

He could appear human; he was human. So he could beg for food and bring it back to share. He could steal a cloak off of a clothes line to hide Mobei-Jun’s more demonic features under, and risk nothing more than a beating if he was spotted, rather than a pitchfork through his stomach. He could chase away Mobei-Jun’s bad thoughts and feelings with a reminder that Linguang-Jun was a mean, awful, bad uncle, and it wasn’t Mobei-Jun’s fault for getting tricked, because Shang Jian was tricked too, and wasn’t he the smartest person Mobei-Jun knew? Of course he was! And when they got back (not “if” they got back), Shang Jian would put bison poop in Linguang-Jun’s bed, and a whole lot worse than that as soon as he thought of something!

(What Mobei-Jun remembered most about what, but for Shang Jian, would have been the worst experience of his life, was when Shang Jian held Mobei-Jun’s face squeezed between his hands, making him look him in the eye even as the prince tried to turn away so the younger boy couldn’t see the tears forming, and said, “I love you. Always, always, always. You don’t need anyone but me, and I’ll never leave you.”)

Mobei-Jun protected him too: from the wild animals in the woods, from the pain of his sprained ankle with the press of a cold palm against the swelling, from his nightmares as they huddled together in the dark each night. They protected each other during that long, awful week.

(In another timeline, Mobei-Jun had never had anyone protect him before. This changed things. In another timeline, Mobei-Jun had nothing he wanted to protect. He had things he was obligated to defend, like the reputation of his name, or the borders of his kingdom from invading humans and demons alike. But these were duties. There was nothing and no one that stirred his heart, and made him want to place himself between them and the world. This difference changed a lot more than anyone could have anticipated.)

But back to the present. They were sitting in the courtyard of Mobei-Jun’s private rooms, with Mobei-Jun laying his head in Shang Jian’s lap as usual, eyes closed in lazy contentment. Shang Jian distractedly combed his fingers through his prince’s hair—what was the penalty for failing to “complete character arcs?” Could he just...not do it? Or would that result in the system deciding to deactivate his account for not following along, and make him drop dead for the second time? No, better to play it safe by sticking as close to the original plot as possible—while Mobei-Jun snacked on thinly sliced raw meats, cheeses, and winter fruits on a tray balanced on his stomach, occasionally reaching up to press one morsel or another through Shang Jian’s lips.

“My prince…” Shang Jian struggled to find the words to begin and his fingers slowed to a stop. Mobei-Jun just hummed in reply.

“My prince, I’ve been thinking about the ways I can serve you better.”

“Okay,” Mobei-Jun said, clearly only half-listening.

“I need to know for sure that your position is secure and your life safe from all attempts against it.”

At this Mobei-Jun squinted one eye open to glare at him suspiciously.

Seeing he wasn’t off to a great start, Shang Jian took a deep breath and let it all out at once. “And the best way for me to do that is to go back to the human realm and join a cultivation sect, so I’ll know what they know about the other demon clans, and what the cultivators are planning too, of course, because it’s been long enough that they’re starting to forget the blow your father dealt them at the last Immortal Alliance Conference. And it’s only a matter of time before they think it’s a good idea to move against the demon realm again, don’t you think? And maybe especially against the North. So I need to go and find out so I can report it back to you!”

He startled back as Mobei-Jun sat abruptly upright, sending the platter crashing to the ground with a ringing clatter.

Mobei-Jun’s eyes were wide open now, panicked. “You want to leave?” he asked incredulously, like Shang Jian had just said he was planning to go for a dip in the magma pools in the volcano outside the city.

Shang Jian reached forward hesitantly, before leaning fully in and wrapping his arms around his prince. “I don’t want to, but I have to. This is what’s best for both of us,” he whispered, pained, into Mobei-Jun’s shoulder.

Mobei-Jun let him hold him for a moment, breathing heavily like a frightened animal, before shoving him off and staring at him like he was a stranger.

“No. No!” he shouted. “You’re not leaving. I’m the one who decides what’s best for the both of us.” The next words came out in a whisper, as if reaffirming their truth to himself. “Father gave you to me. I decide.” Then he stormed out of the courtyard in a swirl of black, fur-trimmed cloak.

Shang Jian watched him go, alarm and hurt warring in his chest. He wanted to go after Mobei-Jun, comfort him, assure him that whatever he was thinking, he was wrong. But those parting words were ringing in his ears.

Father gave you to me.” Shang Jian gulped. He’d...forgotten. It had been so long since Mobei-Jun had last said anything like it, that he’d honestly forgotten. He may be the bosom companion to the prince, with all the social standing and privileges that position brought with it, but he wasn’t a free man. He was still a slave.

Well, he’d do what he had to. He may have been given to Mobei-Jun, but his contract belonged to the royal family. And he knew one royal in particular who would relish the chance to see him gone from the capital, even if the thought of explaining to Linguang-Jun why he should be sent to spy on the cultivators made bile rise in his throat.

But he could do it tomorrow. He wanted a little time to nurse his wounds.

__________

Shang Jian woke the next morning with a start as Mobei-Jun slammed the door to his bedroom open with a bang, grim satisfaction on his face.

“It’s settled,” he said, clearly pleased with himself. “You’re not leaving.”

“What are you talking about?” Shang Jian asked sourly, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, before remembering what had occurred the day before.

“I spoke with Father and made my intentions clear.” Mobei-Jun stalked forward and pulled one of Shang Jian’s hands free from the covers, and clasped it tightly in both of his own. “He was not pleased, but he would not dare to deny me when my strength grows daily while his own fades more and more with each passing season.”

“My prince!” Shang Jian said, wide awake now and clasping Mobei-Jun’s hands right back. “You threatened your father?! Why? What were you thinking?!”

Mobei-Jun leaned close and pressed his forehead to Shang Jian’s own, closing his eyes and inhaling the scent of the other’s sleep-warmed skin, before his eyes opened again and his lips curled up in a possessive smile. “We are betrothed, now. And you are not leaving.”

Shang Jian’s heart fluttered like a bird in flight at the same moment an icy rock dropped into his stomach and carried it down into his knees.

Chapter Text

Sometimes Shang Qinghua grew nostalgic for Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. He wouldn’t say that he’d been happy there, per say, but it had been his home from a young age; isn’t it natural to long to return to familiar places and simpler times?

But as the sages say, “you can never go home again.”

Their downfall had begun, ironically, with the meteoric rise of their young sect leader. Handsome, kind, and with martial arts skills second to none, all predicted Yue Qingyuan would be named the new leader of the martial arts world at the next Heroes Conference.

In anticipation of this honor, and in gratitude for a life debt, a poor and nameless swordsmith, who had been taken into the sect’s protection along with his family, gifted to Yue Qingyuan a remarkable sword. The swordsmith was said to have learned certain magics in his wanderings, and the sword he forged would make its user invincible.

This was quite a claim, so those sects and local officials with close ties and a good relationship with Cang Qiong asked Yue Qingyuan if he’d be willing to provide a private demonstration ahead of the conference. He obliged. But when those gathered saw the sword’s power, they became jealous.

Yue Qingyuan was already respected and powerful, they argued, and known for his feats driving the ghosts back into Ghost Valley with his Xuan Su sword. What did he need the Xin Mo sword for? If he wanted to begin his tenure as Leader of the Martial Arts World on a good foot, he would give the sword to another deserving martial artist or to a prince of the realm. The Xin Mo sword would only give the impression that Cang Qiong placed itself on a pedestal above all the other sects, or worse, the Emperor himself.

Yue Qingyuan acknowledged their worries, but gave a firm refusal. The sword had been a gift, and he wouldn’t dishonor the giver by allowing it to pass to hands for which it was not intended. At these words, a fight broke out, and Yue Qingyuan was killed by a nick from a poisoned blade that ate through his meridians like acid (although who had held the weapon that ended his life was a point of contention among those present). But when heads cleared at the stark realization of what they had done, the Xin Mo sword was gone, spirited away in the confusion.

Their sect might have survived this loss, albeit in a diminished state, but for what came after. Yue Qingyan’s second-in-command, Shen Qingqiu, was accused of the murder of the Qiu clan patriarch and his heirs.

(How convenient, for Shen Qingqiu was the most likely candidate to have taken the sword from the scene, and if he was convicted, all his worldly possessions would be forfeit to pay the blood price—although Shang Qinghua privately suspected Shen Qingqiu had given the sword to his disciple Luo Binghe with orders to flee far and not return until he received some kind of signal it was safe to do so.

The boy was an orphan, with no one in this world who knew him or would claim him aside from the mercurial Shen Qingqiu. Yet he was a disciple on a probationary basis only, and his name was not on the sect’s rolls. And though he was not present at the demonstration, he quietly disappeared on the same day Yue Qingyuan was killed without remark from Shen Qingqiu, and no search party was ever sent.)

Shen Qingqiu committed suicide in prison awaiting trial rather than accept the shame of a guilty verdict, and took the truth of the matter to the grave with him.

After this, Shang Qinghua had shamefully (in others’ words; he hadn't felt any shame at all) abandoned his sect. He didn’t need to drain the cup to see the future in the tea leaves. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect was doomed, and he refused to be another casualty.

He eventually wound up in the employ of Prince Lin Guang. It wasn’t glamorous, being a spy and an assassin. But it kept him out of the public eye. He wasn’t convinced the downfall of Cang Qiong was merely the hand of fate and not some more earthly design, especially as the years progressed and he learned of the unfortunate deaths of many of his former disciples and others who might have known the whereabouts of the Xin Mo sword. Even the swordsmith had been driven out of hiding and torn to pieces when he refused to forge another.

Maybe Shang Qinghua was far down the list of priority targets, but the list was winnowing faster than he felt comfortable with and there were still too many who knew where he had fled after it all went down, so he had rather publicly faked his death via drowning, and snuck away like a wet rat to spend the rest of his miserable days getting drunk in the gutter. The kind of carefree life with no obligations he’d always dreamed of!

Until he met Mo Bei, that was. Ever since Mo Bei’s...servant? Meimei? Well, ever since Sha Hualing woke him up one day by pouring a jug of water over his face and kicking him while shouting to stop blocking the street, and he’d opened his eyes to see those beautiful blue eyes, like a clear winter's day back on the mountain, crinkled in surprise and bemusement at him over Sha Hualing’s shoulder, his life had changed.

Mo Bei, who was young and strong and handsome and wealthy, and for some reason would not leave him alone. And did he mention really, extremely handsome?

That beautifully crafted face with its long eyelashes, that thick pillowy chest, those powerful thighs that seemed to be made precisely for Shang Qinghua to sit on...he knew at the first glance he couldn’t be around Mo Bei, or he would do something extremely stupid and embarrassing sooner rather than later. He’d get dehydrated just from how much he was drooling.

But when he tried to make his exit for the sake of his own sanity and dignity, saluting and stumbling away, Mo Bei had merely reeled him back to his side and told him they, which apparently included Shang Qinghua, were going to get a hot lunch, even as Sha Hualing had shouted and stomped her foot and pouted, saying if her Shifu wanted a pet so bad, then he couldn’t expect Ling-er to feed and walk and bathe it for him, while Mo Bei simply grunted an acknowledgement and curled his arm tighter around Shang Qinghua at his blush.

And each of the many times he tried to sneak away after, thinking it was better to make the decision to do so for himself, before he got too comfortable, and before Mo Bei came to his senses, Mo Bei would chase him down, without a scolding but with a hurt look on his face that Shang Qinghua would give his right kidney to wipe away.

Mo Bei and Sha Hualing weren’t part of the martial arts world. It was nice to pretend he wasn’t either when he was with them, even as he couldn’t quite ignore the gossip that followed them from town to town of how Ghost Valley was becoming increasingly bolder in its attacks.

It was the lazy existence he'd always wanted, but it turned out the tradeoff he thought was a given, was one he didn't have to make: he didn’t have to be lonely anymore. He could be happy, genuinely happy, as long as he didn’t question what it was Sha Hualing was doing whenever Mo Bei sent her off, instead taking Shang Qinghua to a new restaurant just to watch him eat and chatter away, with a small smile on his lips. Even if the spoiled brat had on more than one occasion shot Shang Qinghua a smirk that promised trouble just as the waiter arrived with the bill, only to turn a placid expression to the waiter and ask, "What's this?"

He would then unconcernedly explain he didn't carry a money purse and get to his feet to leave, as if that was that, forcing Shang Qinghua, practically glowing with embarrassment, to pay for the meal he'd been invited to. Rude! But Mo Bei never let Shang Qinghua go as far as bowing in apology to the waiter for Mo Bei's actions. He'd loop his arm through Shang Qinghua's, hauling him upright and holding him there, and sigh and say "pay if you must."

He would claim with a completely straight face, each and every time, when Shang Qinghua chided him for it, that he had never needed to pay before. That man–! Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Shang Qinghua was mostly sure he was joking, but Mo Bei was intimidating enough he also wouldn't be surprised if no restaurant owner was ever willing to confront him over it if this was what he and Sha Hualing had done for all their meals before Shang Qinghua joined them.

And he knew Mo Bei had money! No one who dressed and primped like that didn't, and he'd seen him giving some to Sha Hualing whenever she held out an expectant hand (don't let spoiled brats raise children; that's how you get more spoiled brats!). It was clear Mo Bei just found it funny to make Shang Qinghua pay.

But when the gossip had eventually caught up to Shang Qinghua that Luo Binghe had resurfaced at Huan Hua Palace Sect, now engaged to the little palace mistress, he knew something wasn’t right, and he couldn’t help but feel that nagging sense of obligation to all that remained of his sect.

He thought that would be the end of their travels together, as happy and brief as they had been. That this was where their paths diverged. But Mo Bei had followed him, had agreed to help protect Luo Binghe from the machinations of the sects and whatever dangers his stupidity (inherent to all teenage boys) placed him in (even as the young man stubbornly insisted he didn’t know where the Xin Mo sword was) for Qinghua’s sake. All because it's what Shang Qinghua had pledged himself to do.

Shang Qinghua had always been the clingy one before, the one to hug thighs when it got him what he needed. It was odd, but not bad, to be on the other side of it. And it warmed him to realize that for all Mo Bei loved to playact the part of a naive young master who had muscles where his brains should be, and needed Shang Qinghua to guide him through life, there was nothing he could provide that Mo Bei actually needed. The only conclusion he could draw, was that Mo Bei was clingy because...he wanted to be. He wanted to be near Shang Qinghua.

It was nice to be wanted. Cang Qiong had needed him in the sense it needed disciples if it wanted to remain strong and relevant in the martial arts world, but he never got the sense he was wanted in particular.

Prince Lin Guang had needed him only because he happened to fit the bill for someone willing to sink low enough to do whatever was asked, but cowardly enough to never dare betray him (Shang Qinghua wasn’t proud of all he’d done, but he wouldn’t apologize for surviving when the man who lives another day has another day in which to make up for his mistakes). But Shang Qinghua was starting to suspect the prince was behind a lot more atrocities than the ones Shang Qinghua had carried out for him. The prince desired the imperial throne for himself. And a sword that made its wielder unbeatable in a fight was certainly one way to achieve that goal.

But Mo Bei just wanted him. And when he was with Mo Bei, he felt complete. Wholly satisfied in his soul for the first time in his life. So he’d make sure that Mo Bei knew that feeling was returned. That anything he could give, he would.

Chapter Text

“When I get out,” he growled at the smirking man high above him. “I will personally ensure your punishment is long and slow.”

And slow, slow, slow,’ the echoes jeered back to him, carrying his threat up to the cavernous rafters of the cave system.

“That’s the beauty of it, nephew,” Linguang-Jun called back down. “You’ll never get out. This place was meant to imprison a god. What makes you think you have a chance?”

His uncle betraying him wasn’t the least bit surprising. But that so many of his personal guards and attendants, demons who had tossed in their loyalty with his father long ago when the brothers first fought for the throne, and those he’d hand-selected because he’d grown up beside them, learned to fight by hand and blade in the same lessons, that–! That was unexpected. That stung.

He attempted to draw himself up, but was only partially successful. His right side had hit the ground first, and his knee and elbow were shattered. His head ached where it had bounced off the stone, blood still dripping with a soft plink plink plink when it hit the ground.

A demon could survive a fall that a man could not, but he could not do so intact.

“No prison will hold this Mobei-Jun,” he bellowed, anger buoying the promise with more confidence than he felt.

His uncle’s eyes went dark with a violent rage. “But you’re not Mobei-Jun, not yet!” His fist smashed down against the rock of the cave mouth in frenetic punctuation as he spoke, his fury over the stolen throne still brewing, all these years later, like a vile poison in his gut. “And now you never will be.”

Mobei-Jun roared, and swiped his one functioning arm, claws raking the air to open a portal up to the surface again. Like an injured animal, he’d throw away his dignity and drag himself through to bite his uncle to death if that’s what it took to take his vengeance for this betrayal here and now.

But to his shock, nothing happened.

His pained confusion faded to irritation as his uncle’s barking laughter drifted down to him. “Why do you think these caves were chosen to imprison the Fomenter of Ruin?” The glee was evident in his voice as he rapped a knuckle playfully against the stone. “This rock has a unique property: no portaling in or out.”

Linguang-Jun turned away then, calling over his shoulder flippantly, “So long, nephew. I’m sure you can summon enough ice to satisfy your thirst for a few weeks, until the hunger finally does you in.”

More than 20 meters above him, the silhouette of his uncle vanished from view. The circle of light he’d previously been occupying began to shrink, like a full moon waning to a crescent in seconds before his eyes, accompanied by the grinding rasp of stone on stone. And then the last sliver of light was gone, and he was alone in the dark.

A far worse thought arose then.

Maybe he wasn’t alone after all.
__________

His own pained breaths echoed around him in the empty space like a chorus of tortured souls, and effectively covered the possibility of any approaching footsteps. There was no way of knowing who or what could be in this room with him at this very moment.

Mobei-Jun carefully and quickly grew a small ball of ice in his cupped palm, trying not to jostle his broken elbow. The ice glowed with its own eerie blue light, but showed that the cavern where he’d fallen—been thrown—was indeed empty, at least within the circle the light it cast illuminated.

But he had to move. He didn’t like how open this area was. He rolled the small sphere of ice a meter or so ahead of him in the direction of the wall, and crawled his way after it, as humiliating as it was to be reduced to this, dragging himself forward with his one good arm and pushing with the uninjured leg. When he reached the globe, he rolled it forward again and dragged himself a few paces more after it, continuing like this until he could lean against the wall, breathing raggedly. He placed the glowing ice in his lap and pressed a hand against his injured knee, calling up the cold to hopefully reduce the swelling more quickly.

If he could get to his feet, he could lean against the wall and limp along until he reached one of the passageways, and start looking for another way out.

If he was lucky, he’d stumble across nothing more than spiders and bats down those tunnels. But if some larger predator made its home in these depths…

He gritted his teeth. What on any other day would be nothing more than either an annoying diversion or an enjoyable hunt, depending on his mood, could pose problems for him right now.

But creatures, great or small, were all he anticipated encountering. The Fomenter of Ruin was a legend, nothing more.
__________

As his old nurse had told it, the Fomenter of Ruin was a god of chaos, one so old its true name had long since been forgotten. Some said purposefully so, in the hopes the god would die with its name.

It was a shapeshifter whose gifts were so powerful that it could disguise itself even from the eyes of other gods, allowing it to slip away and escape punishment whenever the people made desperate offerings to their patron deities, pleading for them to intervene in its games. It liked to play at being mortal, and could take both human and demon form, male or female—whatever would allow it to become close to its chosen targets.

With its wicked silver tongue and compelling features, it would seduce and beguile, ingratiating itself into a town or a sect or a court. And when it was right where it wanted to be, cozy as a spider in the center of its web, all it had to do was crook a finger and whisper its desires into the listener’s ear, and all those who’d fallen under its sway would fall on each other like rabid animals, tearing each other apart until not a soul was left alive in that place.

No sane person would build a shrine to a god of chaos. No righteous man would pay obeisance to such a god. So the Fomenter of Ruin went and arranged for its own sacrifices. Until it had finally, finally been recognized for what it was, captured and locked away by some long ago group of cultivators somewhere where it would never see the light of the sun again.

But the Fomenter was nothing but an old wives tale used by the superstitious to justify persecuting anyone they didn’t like. If someone was just a little too lovely, or a little too ambitious, or a little too odd, inevitably someone would jokingly whisper, “Watch out! They might be the Fomenter in disguise.”

And no one would believe it, of course, but everyone would start to think about the consequences of just letting someone get away with being lovely or ambitious or trying to do things differently than they’ve always been done, and it never ended well for the person being accused.

But knowing the Fomenter never existed except as a cautionary tale didn’t explain the footsteps he was now positive he heard approaching.

Cursing once under his breath, he released the globe of ice into a cloud of vapor, plunging the cavern once again into darkness. Then, stilling his breath, he waited.
__________

“Hello?”

That didn’t sound like an evil god. Whoever it was sounded...tired. Hoarse. Hopeful?

“Hello? ...Shixiong, is that you?”

He didn’t dare respond, but wanted to curse. He wanted to charge to his feet and kill this person, or kill his backstabbing uncle. He wanted to do both. What were cultivators doing down here?

“I thought I heard... No, don’t be stupid,” the voice reprimanded itself. “Of course there’s no one down here– Oh! There is someone here!”

Mobei-Jun stiffened. He was sure he hadn’t made a sound, how could this person possibly know he was here?!

The footsteps grew closer and stopped about two meters away. “Oh. Oh! You’re a demon?” The voice broke on the last word in fear, and by the sound of it, the person backed away a step.

Mobei-Jun growled, and prepared to fight. As he was now, there wasn’t much he could do to defend himself, but he refused to die like this. Not until he’d fed his uncle’s still breathing flesh to Frostnip for dinner. The cat liked her meals tartare.

But that distinctive metallic shing of a sword being drawn from its sheath never came. Instead, what came was fearful pleading and… was that the sound of the cultivator’s knees knocking together?

“Please don’t kill me! I can go, I can leave and you’ll never see me again, I promise. The caves are definitely big enough for two people to live without crossing paths, for three even! F-for ten, probably. So you d-don’t need to kill me for territory. I’ll just, uh, make a mental note. That this cavern is yours, so I’m going now, please don’t kill me, bye!”

The rustle of clothing indicated the cultivator had probably just bowed before taking off in what was barely not a run—so he was at least smart enough to know that running set off a predator’s instinct to chase. Good.

“Don’t you dare take another step,” Mobei-Jun quickly snarled.

The cultivator’s shoes practically squeaked on the cave floor as he skid to a halt, instinctively obeying the command.

Mobei-Jun was tempted to let the terrified human run away like it clearly wanted to, but he couldn’t. If there were other cultivators or even demons down here, he needed to know. If there was another way in or out, he needed to know.

Forming a new globe of glowing ice, he lifted it to get a better look at the newcomer.

The man yelped and ducked down, covering his face with his hands, each as pale as a mushroom, and turning his head away from the light. He was smaller than Mobei-Jun expected, and maybe in his late twenties or early thirties, but it was hard to tell with his face covered. Long, long brown hair, hanging limp and loose and tangled, trailed to his knees. His robes were worn thin and filthy, but probably once yellow.

“Stop doing that!” Mobei-Jun barked. “Show your face!”

The man reluctantly straightened, turning to face Mobei-Jun, but though he pulled his hands off his face, he kept his eyes closed, tears streaming from them.

“P-please, it’s...it’s too bright. It hurts. Please, put it out?”

Mobei-Jun frowned. He supposed if the human had been down here for some time, as his clothes and general appearance suggested, sudden bright light might be painful, but only until his eyes adjusted again. And he wasn’t stupid enough to put himself at a disadvantage. But he obligingly dimmed the internal glow of the ice until the cultivator was illuminated more in greyscale than a figure in full color.

The cultivator cracked one eye open a slit, rapidly blinking away tears. “Wh-what do you want from me,” he warbled. “Why are you here?”

Mobei-Jun scowled. “Answer the same, and maybe I’ll think about replying in kind.”

“I heard shouting. N-not the words, but voices. I th-thought I was imagining them. It h-happens, sometimes. But I didn’t have anything better to do, so I went to check, and f-found you.”

Plausible enough, but it didn’t actually the question.

“What are you doing here,” Mobei-Jun demanded, gesturing encompassingly with his arm and flinching when the pain abruptly reminded him of his shattered elbow.

“You’re hurt?” The cultivator sounded surprised, and immediately stepped toward him.

Mobei-Jun growled and instinctively brightened the watery blue glow of the ice orb to a brilliant white, enough to make him squint himself, but also enough to send the cultivator backing away with a shout, covering his eyes with his forearm and dashing out of the arc of cave the light touched.

“Answer the question!” he shouted after the retreating figure angrily.

The cultivator paused, his shape only distinguishable for being a shade lighter than the impenetrable black surrounding him. He shifted, clearly considered running away without answering, correctly guessing that if he fled into the maze of tunnels beyond the vast cavern they were in now, Mobei-Jun wouldn’t be able to chase after him. But for whatever reason, the man’s shoulders slumped and he stayed where he was.

“I’m a prisoner,” he replied straightforwardly, frustration and bitter hurt undisguised in his voice.

Mobei-Jun wasn’t expecting that. ‘So the cultivators really do use this place for a prison…’

“How many of you are down here?” he instead asked.

“Wha-”

“Do you dare to lie to me, and say the Fomenter is here as well?” he followed up, sarcastic and biting.

“The who? I d-don’t know who that is.” The cultivator started anxiously finger-combing his hair, stepping a little closer so he stood on the edge of the circle of light, but rocked on his heels like he was ready to run again at a moment’s notice. “I think I’m the only person here. At least, I’ve never run into anyone else. Aside f-from you, of course,” the cultivator added hastily.

Mobei-Jun found that suspicious. “What prisoner is free to roam as he pleases?”

“Well, there’s no way out, so…I suppose they thought it didn’t matter.”

“There’s always a way out,” Mobei-Jun murmured aloud, more to himself than the other man in the room.

“I mean…” the cultivator pre-emptively cringed, knowing Mobei-Jun wouldn’t like what he had to say. “I really don’t think there is...my lord?”

“King,” Mobei-Jun corrected icily. “You speak to a king.”

“Really?” the cultivator replied, clearly surprised, but without any hint of skepticism in his tone. “Then how did you wind up—eep! That is to say, yes, of course, my king! No need to glare like that! The thing is, I’ve explored the cave system from end to end, and I’ve never found a way out.” The longer he spoke, the more comfortable the poor, bedraggled prisoner seemed doing so. He must have truly longed for a conversation partner besides his own echo if he was actually down here alone.

“Besides up there,” he added, pointing to where Linguang-Jun had sealed off the cave in the rocky ceiling. “And unless you’re strong enough to lift the stone, which I don’t doubt, my king! But you’d also need to fly, and they took my sword…”

He trailed off, before looking up hopefully. “Can you fly, my king?”

Mobei-Jun gritted his teeth. “No.”

“Oh. Well, I thought as m-much. So it’s no disappointment. Ah, my king, I can’t help but notice—” he stepped forward into the circle of light, one arm outstretched as though he intended to touch him.

“Don’t,” Mobei-Jun growled, forming a slim but still deadly arrow of black ice in his good hand. Only one, and smaller than he’d usually be able to produce, but still enough to kill one meek and weakened human.

“Ah, okay,” the cultivator seemed to wilt. “It’s just. I– I can heal you!” he blurted out.

Mobei-Jun scoffed. “How?”

“Blind spirit grass! It grows in these caves. It’s pretty much the only thing that d-does,” the cultivator said, now wringing his hands anxiously.

“I won’t even have to put my hands on you, I promise. Just wait here and I’ll be right back!”

The cultivator had darted off into the dark before Mobei-Jun even had a chance to reply.

He frowned hard. It would be stupid to wait. The little creature may have simply taken any excuse to escape and he would never see him again. Or he could have lied about being the only prisoner down here, and had gone to fetch others for reinforcements before approaching again.

But somehow he doubted it. The man was so obviously afraid of him, and so clearly worn down, yet he had stayed and talked with him for some minutes. Why else would he do that, unless he was so starved for interaction he would take it even from a demon, someone as a cultivator he should have tried to kill on sight?

And though he was loath to admit it to himself, Mobei-Jun wasn’t going anywhere on this leg when he couldn’t put any weight on it. Sighing, he leaned his head against the wall and closed his eyes, replacing his icy palm back on the knee. He could wait a little while, at least.

__________

When he came to, it was to a soft voice whispering, “My king? My king, I’ve returned.”

Jolting awake, he unsuccessfully tried to hide a groan as his head jerked back and struck the wall again.

The cultivator crouched in front of him, for once well within the circle of light. Now that he could see him up close, he could finally see the other man’s eyes, which were a warm golden brown. His face was surprisingly cute, under the grime.

“Ah, look,” he spread out his cupped palms, revealing clumps of what looked like fine silvery fur, as if he had skinned a moon lantern mouse and shredded the tiny pelt into pieces.

“It’s c-called ‘blind spirit grass,’ but it’s actually a moss. It has the same properties as regular spirit grass, though! It’s g-great for cultivation, so you can eat it and quickly gain enough qi to heal very rapidly.”

Mobei-Jun looked between the cultivator’s encouraging smile and the moss skeptically.

“No, r-really! I eat it myself sometimes!” the cultivator said, pressing a piece into his own mouth as if guessing he was worried it might be poisonous (truly, Mobei-Jun did not suspect poison. He was mere suspect over the concept of moss being edible in any way. Not much vegetation grew in the cold north, and most ice demons, including his clan, had evolved to be obligate carnivores).

“Very well,” he replied dubiously. He reached out and plucked a lint-sized piece of moss from the smaller man’s hands before placing it in his own mouth.

It smelled like rot and tasted like dust and he couldn’t help the revulsion that crawled across his face.

“Heh, I know my king,” the cultivator smiled sympathetically. “You’ll have to power through and swallow, though, to get the benefits from it.”

He reluctantly did so, and the cultivator wiggled his hand, encouraging him to take the rest of the moss.

Better to get it over with all at once. He grabbed the cultivator’s hand and dragged it forward to his own mouth, tipping it against his lips like a cup so as not to drop any piece of the moss to the ground in the transfer, and quickly swallowed so he wouldn’t have to taste any of the disgusting silver mold as it passed through his mouth.

“Ah, my king, you–!” the cultivator yelped, pulling his hand back as if it had been burned.

“What,” he demanded flatly.

“N-nothing,” he murmured, pale face flushing just the slightest bit so he looked less like a corpse. “You should feel the affects very shortly, my king.”

Mobei-Jun grunted and sat back to wait.

The cultivator stayed crouched on his heels, seemingly content to stare at his face in fascination. Let him stare. Mobei-Jun knew he was more beautiful than cave walls.

Sure enough, it had been less than ten minutes before he felt a surge of cooling energy bloom in his chest and begin to spread out to his limbs. Demons did not cultivate in the way of humans, but they still understood how to use their internal energies, and now he had an excess. By concentrating, he could direct that surplus energy to a single purpose. In this case, speeding up the healing process of his torn muscles and fractured bones.

When he opened his eyes again, he guessed it had maybe been a few hours. His limbs were still fragile; they wouldn’t hold in a knock-down, drag-out fight, if it came to that. But he should be able to stand on his own two legs, and blessedly, the agonizing pain was gone. In its place was a weariness.

The cultivator was sitting crossed legged in front of him now. “My king?” he asked.

Mobei-Jun hummed noncommittally, but pushed himself to his feet and felt the uptick of his own lips when the leg took his weight.

The cultivator jumped to his own feet. “Oh, my king! No! You shouldn’t try to do too much too soon.”

“Don’t judge what this king can and cannot do,” he said, brushing aside the concern.

“It’s just…” the man looked nervous. “While you were meditating, I was—” he abruptly cut himself off, faintly blushing. “...Well, you remind me of…” He stopped again, but at the impatient look directed his way, rallied enough to ask, “Are you Mobei-Jun?”

He blurted it out in a rush, sounding sheepish.

Mobei-Jun raised an eyebrow. “Yes.”

“Oh!” A broad unselfconscious smile stretched across the cultivator’s face. “You’re even more handsome than I imagined! Then I absolutely can’t risk your health. You’re my favorite! I really thought I’d never get the chance to meet you, after everything that happened. And now that I have, I can’t let something as silly as tripping over a rock in a cave take you out!”

“Wha–” was as far as he managed to get out before the cultivator stepped forward and crouched down to bring himself to about knee height with Mobei-Jun, then grabbed him around the thigh with one arm and lifted, swinging him up and across the smaller man’s shoulders in a smooth motion while grabbing the demon’s arm with his free hand and pulling it down across his chest so he could grasp it with the hand of the arm currently curled around his thigh.

“There! Not too uncomfortable? Sorry, I need a hand free to carry your nifty little ice lantern.”

“What are doing?! Let me down at once!”

“Sorry, my king! Please don’t move around too much, I might drop you,” the cultivator said sunnily, before taking off down the passageway at a steady trot.

__________

Mobei-Jun thrashed to throw himself off the man’s shoulders, but when the human lurched backwards, Mobei-Jun abruptly realized how stupid falling on his barely healed side would be, and threw his weight forward again to keep the both of them from crashing to the ground.

“Woah! My king! Steady there, I promise it’s not too far.”

The demon resigned himself.

The light thrown by the ice sphere wasn’t thrown far, half tucked under the cultivator’s other arm as it was, but he didn’t appear to need it, navigating competently through the near pitch-blackness, occasionally jogging around strange outcroppings of stone that Mobei-Jun didn’t see until they were beside them, and calling “watch your head, my king!” before crouching down and duck walking under a low overhang.

Eventually, he stopped in an area where the passageway seemed a bit wider, but otherwise no different than any other part of the cave that they’d been in already.

“We’re here! Let me put you down, my king.” Once Mobei-Jun was back on his own feet, he pointedly glanced one way and then the other before raising an eyebrow, belatedly wondering if the human would even be able to see his face, as he’d placed the ice globe on the ground and not picked it up again yet.

“And where is here?”

“Oh, well, the ground is very smooth right here, my king,” the human said, starting to look a bit embarrassed. “I know it’s not much; I can’t offer you a bed. But you seem to have been through a lot today, and your body needs rest—real rest! Not just meditation—to recover. So if you’d like to lay down, it will be comfortable here, with no lumps to prod into your back and leave you aching when you wake.”

Mobei-Jun sketched his foot across the ground uncertainly, and it did seem fairly level. “Very well. Is this where you sleep?”

The man nodded frantically. “Yes, sometimes!”

Mobei-Jun eased himself to the ground and tentatively lay down, before raising himself partially to remove his coat and fold it into a pillow to support his head. Before he lay down again, he gave the human an expectant look.

“Yes? Did you need something else, my king?”

“Do you plan to stand over me while I sleep?”

“Yeeees? I mean—no, of course not, my king! I’ll leave right now.”

He turned on his heel, but couldn’t vanish before Mobei-Jun had snatched the ends of his hair and tugged hard, sending the human crashing to the ground beside him, whimpering.

“I don’t trust you to do what you please while I’m unconscious,” he said in way of explanation.

“But you’ve already—! Ah, okay,” the man seemed to wilt further, if that was possible. “Then, I’ll sleep too,” he added.

Mobei-Jun nodded. The human caught on fast. Or not, he thought, caught between bemusement and exasperation as the little man started to crawl to the other end of the passageway to put distance between them. He shot out a hand, quick as a snake, and reeled him back in, pressing the smaller man’s back to his chest and caging him in with an arm that pinned the human’s arms to his own sides. A small part in the back of his mind purred in satisfaction in tandem with the part of him that thought it only fair recompense, turning the tables on the person who’d done something similar to him by daring to throw a king over his shoulders like a peasant’s yoke.

“W-what are you doing?!” the human screeched, far too loudly in his opinion.

“I don’t trust you to do what you please while I’m unconscious,” he repeated.

“Right, right... I suppose it would be easy to simply pretend to fall sleep and then pull out a hidden dagger if I had my arms free,” the human mumbled, before going stiff at realizing what he’d said.

Mobei-Jun closed his eyes, unconcerned. “You don’t have a dagger,” he replied.

The human slowly went slack again, as if not trusting Mobei-Jun at his word. “That’s true, my king. But I wasn’t sure you’d believe it so easily. I’m glad.”

“Don't try anything,” Mobei-Jun warned, then tightened his arms and let the exhaustion take him.

When he woke, he panicked for a moment at not knowing where he was, but at the feeling of a body shifting in his arms, it all came rushing back.

The coup his traitorous uncle had launched when it was time to sit his ascension, being drugged and overwhelmed, then unceremoniously tossed into a yawning pit in the earth which had been sealed up after him. The cowardly little cultivator who’d latched onto him like a duckling imprinting on a wolfhound, whose long hair even now tickled against the skin of his wrist.

He grasped a piece and rubbed it between his fingertips in thought before it slipped free as the man it belonged to turned in his arms, breath puffing against his neck.

“My king, are you awake?” his voice whispered through the dark.

Mobei-Jun grunted in the affirmative before sitting up abruptly and sending the cultivator sprawling across his lap until the man managed to right himself and wriggle away like a fish.

Mobei-Jun summoned a new globe of luminescent ice and the human turned his head slightly, squinting into the light as he attempted to straighten his clothes and wrangle his abundant mounds of hair.

“Is it morning?” Mobei-Jun asked brusquely.

“Morning? Who can say, my king,” the human trailed off uncertainly. “There’s neither morning nor night down here.”

Mobei-Jun resisted the urge to scowl. “Then is there breakfast?”

The human’s eyes widened in surprise, as if Mobei-Jun had said something he hadn’t been expecting instead of a completely ordinary question, and he ended up mumbling his answer to the floor.

“Speak up!”

“I said, ‘no, my king,’” the human said louder, as if expecting to get a smack for delivering such an unsatisfying answer. Ridiculous.

“Then take me to where there is food.”

The human still looked too stricken and uncomfortable, and he felt his eyes narrowing in response as the man in front of him squirmed under this stare.

“My king, there isn’t anything!” he finally cried.

“What do you mean?” he demanded sharply. But his uncle had said something along those lines, hadn’t he. He didn’t dare commit nepoticide with his own hands, but instead had crowed about leaving him to starve in the caves.

“There’s nothing to eat,” the human said, wringing his hands again in a gesture Mobei-Jun was quickly growing tired of. “Nothing grows here besides blind spirit grass. And nothing lives here either. I never thought I’d say I’d be happy to eat a spider or a worm, but I’ve reached that point, my king!”

Mobei-Jun frowned in thought. “How long have you been down here?” Some demons needed fresh meat near daily, while others could survive months on a single, large meal. But he believed humans generally would succumb after three weeks of starvation, give or take a week, depending on if they had access to water. He himself wouldn’t last much longer than that.

“I don’t know. Times passes strangely when you can’t track the days. But you shouldn’t use me as an indicator, my king. I can practice inedia. I don’t actually need to eat or drink regularly.”

Mobei-Jun raised an eyebrow in not quite disbelief but something approaching it. The human huffed.

“I was never the strongest cultivator among my peers, but that doesn’t mean I’m no better than a layperson! Plus, there’s almost nothing to do here but cultivate—some cultivators I know might kill for the chance to seclude themselves here for a few months, if they had the choice to leave after!...and the spirit grass gives my qi enough of a boost to keep me alive when I start to use it up,” the human admitted, before drumming his fingers against his thigh in consideration. “Hmm, maybe you could try eating that, my king?”

However, the human sounded dubious to the qualities of his own suggestion. “I don’t know if it has any nutritional value... It might even be negative calories. Ah, I mean, I don’t know if it would sustain you any better than not eating it would,” he clarified.

Mobei-Jun grunted. He didn’t want to eat any more of the disgusting silver mold than he had to, but he would not be so proud as to ignore an option that could ensure he made it out to return the favor to his beloved uncle.

“Very well, then,” he said, getting to his feet and tossing his coat back over his shoulders. “Lead on.”

The human scrambled up in a rush, “Ah, yes! Of course! It may take a little while to locate some. I brought you all the moss that I already knew of yesterday. Ah, does my king…?”

He made a hesitant lifting gesture with his arms, but Mobei-Jun firmly shut that idea down with a terse and immediate, “No.”

“Okay, good! I’m glad you’re feeling so much better, my king.” His smile was genuine, and animated his wan face, but Mobei-Jun couldn’t help but feel the man seemed paler than the day before, although it was difficult to tell in the light projecting from the ice, which made everything appear more washed out than it would be under the light of the sun or an oil lamp.

But, too, as they progressed it became clear the human was undeniably clumsier today than the day before as he navigated the passageway, as if his limbs were stiff and pained him.

“Were you lying about not needing to eat?” Mobei-Jun brusquely questioned after the man stumbled, even as he righted himself almost immediately.

“W-what? No!” The human seemed surprised, and almost offended at the question as he whipped around to stare at the demon trailing him.

“You’re weaker today than yesterday,” Mobei-Jun stated sternly, “and your limbs are trembling.”

The human stared down accusingly at his hand, which was indeed shaking, before he sighed, and turned back down the passage to continue walking. “T-that’s true, my king. But it has nothing to do with hunger. I’m just cold. It’s always cold down here, but I’m mostly used to it.”

His voice went a little lower and quieter, and Mobei-Jun got the impression that what he said next, he meant only to say to himself, not intending to be overheard. But being so out of practice with anyone who could overhear before now, he clearly failed to realize how quiet he actually needed to be.

“But it didn’t help being pressed to you all night. An icicle would be a better bed companion.”

Mobei-Jun had to hold in an unattractive snort. ‘An icicle, huh?’ His skin was naturally cold, it was true, but the human was wrong to dismiss Mobei-Jun out of hand. In other circumstances, he might not mind showing the little cultivator all the ways he could warm him up at night, but there was a simpler and quicker solution to that problem he could employ right now.

Stepping up close to the human, he grabbed his hand and gave it a light squeeze, sending a little burst of his qi through the pulse point on the human’s wrist with his thumb, hopefully allowing the man to share the imperviousness to the chill his icy nature gifted him.

The human instantly went limp and sagged back into his arms like a sack of rice. Alarmed, Mobei-Jun nearly dropped him, thinking he had inadvertently killed him with a simple dose of demonic qi into a fragile human system unequip to handle it. But then he saw the blissed out look and the dopey smile on the human’s face.

"Oh, my king, that feels so good."

He felt his own face warm unexpectedly as heat began to pool somewhere lower down.

The human grabbed at Mobei-Jun’s arms to pull himself up enough to stand on his own feet, before slumping against Mobei-Jun again, with his face pressed to his chest and nuzzling against him like a cat.

“How are you doing this?” he asked, stupored awe in his voice. “You have no idea how long it's been since I felt warm. I honestly forgot what it felt like. My king, promise you'll never let go!” he said, turning his face up to the demon’s eagerly, before seeming to realize what he’d said and going as flushed as Mobei-Jun had ever seen him.

"Ah, no, sorry, I didn't mean to—ignore me." He tried to pull away, but Mobei-Jun kept his hand caught firm in his own.

"Fine."

“Eh?!" the cultivator squeaked.

"This king will grant your request."

The human pushed his free hand against Mobei-Jun’s chest weakly, testingly, as if making sure Mobei-Jun really wasn’t going to let go, before a tiny, tiny smile appeared on his face. He gulped, blinking rapidly.

“Ah, thank you, my king. You’ve made me really, really happy.”

He rubbed at his eyes quickly, then gave a light tug to their joined hands, pulling but not pulling away, and led Mobei-Jun forward again.

__________

Eventually they—meaning his human—located more of the moss growing in fingernail sized patches behind a stalagmite. Even in small amounts, it was enough to give Mobei-Jun enough extra qi to ensure his limbs remained stable and he could continue to keep his human warm. However, it did nothing to abate the now roiling and twisting protests of his empty stomach.

His human frowned. “Well, there’s a pool,” he said after a moment’s thought. “Drinking water will help some. It’ll fill your stomach, at least. Maybe trick it into thinking you’re not hungry for a little while. But this pool is deep in the caves.

“I’ve said before it’s hard to tell how long a day or night lasts down here, but as long as you can walk without stopping to sleep, it’s a little further than that.”

Mobei-Jun thought. If there was a chance he could find an exit quickly, in the next day or two, any detour would only needlessly weaken him by extending the time he was down here when he could eat and drink as much as he liked on the outside. But if he was due to be trapped here for some time, then getting water first would strengthen him in the long-term.

“Where are likely exit points?” he asked. His human had explored the length of the cave system, he’d said. Even if he hadn’t been successful, he must have some idea.

His human looked frustrated, and sighed. “Well, it’s mostly a maze with lots of dead ends and loops. West of where we are now, maybe a two days walk, there’s a passageway leading up, but it also gets smaller as it rises. I don’t know how close to the surface it gets, but I can’t squeeze through it after a certain point, and my king, you’re much larger than I; there’s no way you could. Maybe if we had certain tools for chipping away at stone, we could enlarge the passageway, but it would take weeks or even months. And as it is, I can’t punch through solid rock, my king.”

To himself, he muttered sourly, “what I wouldn’t give for some dynamite,” again louder than he probably thought he was.

“Maybe a few hours from here to the south,” he continued, pointing, “there’s a passageway that leads sharply down that ends in a sudden open shaft. Air wafts up from the bottom, but I don’t know where it leads. I dropped a pebble down, and it was a very long time before I heard it hit the bottom. I didn’t want to risk dying in the fall to go further down when it’s no guarantee it means out.”

His human chewed on his lip, looking uncertain, before taking a deep breath and continuing. “I think your best bet is still the pool, my king. It’s not shallow; it’s deep. Very deep. It must be filled by an underground aquifer, which may open to a river or lake. But I could never hold my breath long enough to swim to the bottom, despite trying many, many times.”

Mobei-Jun understood his hesitation in mentioning it now. If Mobei-Jun could reach the bottom and found escape, it would mean leaving the human behind. He’d be alone again.

“Very well,” Mobei-Jun said, decided. “We’ll head to the pool.” He knew where the entrance to the cave was now. Once he made it out, he’d head back and roll away the stone. He’d come back for the human, and repay his debt then.

__________

The following hours were long, and difficult. Mobei-Jun had been on hunts before that lasted several days, trampling over uneven ground in all elements looking for the faintest signs of the prey’s passage. But whereas that could be exhilarating even when the conditions were less than comfortable, this was approaching unendurable.

The air was stale tasting and the dark smothering, swallowing everything like the Endless Abyss itself was opening around them (he had released the ice lamp to conserve his energy, which he would need in the coming days, trusting the human knew the way and wouldn’t abandon him in the dark. Why he was so quick to trust… he focused on his grip on the human’s hand—that was energy he was willing to spare—and didn’t return to that thought).

The quiet was worse. Aside from their footsteps and the sound of their breathing, there was nothing.

“How did you not go mad?” he breathed at one point, needing to hear his own voice to make sure he still had one at all, that he had a mouth that could produce sound and was not merely a disembodied consciousness floating in the dark. Only the point of contact made by their clasped hands grounded him.

His human laughed and it went on for a bit too long. “Maybe I did!” he exclaimed blithely. “But surely System would have told me if I had?”

“System? Who is that? Is there someone else down here?” Mobei-Jun asked, alarm reaching him before the anger did.

“Oh, sorry, my king,” his human said placatingly. “There’s truly no one. It’s just a little joke. Sometimes when I talk to myself... I give it a name.” He laughed again, but when Mobei-Jun squeezed his hand tighter he stopped before it could gain that slightly hysterical tinge it had before. Instead, he said, “I meditate a lot. There’s nothing like meditating to pass the time. Good for cultivation, good for the mind! ...Sometimes I sing.”

He started humming something happy and soothing then, softly singing a few words every now and then, not all of them in a language Mobei-Jun recognized. But he forced himself to listen, concentrating on that voice and the hand in his over the dark and the quiet outside the two of them.
________

The pool was no narrow well shaft as he’d been expecting, when he sculpted a new lamp of ice to view it better. It was a lake, trapped underground.

When he waded in, the water for the first meter or so was the temperature of the air—which was to say, chilly, but more miserably uncomfortable than dangerously so, per his human’s description. But that changed almost immediately past his waist, and he was warned it only became colder past that.

Mobei-Jun wasn’t concerned. It would take a great deal of cold to bother a purebred ice demon like himself.

After refreshing himself and gesturing for his human to do the same, Mobei-Jun examined the pool.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye?” the human asked, a plaintive note turning the question into something more traumatic.

Mobei-Jun made a noncommittal noise in response, but didn’t move.

They sat in silence for a moment, before the human gathered the courage to try again. “No time like the present?” he suggested, turning the encouraging statement into a question.

He then made a hesitant shooing gesture like Mobei-Jun was a dog that needed to be convinced to leave the barn in the morning.

Mobei-Jun shot him an annoyed look at that, but nonetheless shrugged off his clothing as the cultivator watched in fascination from behind his fingers, then dove in.

The water did grow progressively colder the deeper he went. After about four minutes of swimming, as far as he could go without needing to turn back to breathe, he formed a new sphere of ice and poured enough qi into it to cause it to glow like a beacon, illuminating the crystal clear water around him far off into the distance. The reveal was disheartening. It was a confined aquifer. They were too deep. He swam back up.

When he breached the surface, the cultivator couldn’t help but look relieved, illuminated in the light of the globe Mobei-Jun had left behind on the rocky bank.

“It’s okay, my king,” he said regardless, trying to be comforting. “You don’t have to stop looking just because the first plan didn’t work.”

Mobei-Jun hauled himself out of the water, and grunted. “You’ve stopped looking.”

“Yes...but it’s not so bad down here.”

Mobei-Jun gave him a deeply skeptical look, and he winced in response.

“Okay. It’s...pretty terrible, my king. But there’s so many worse places to be locked up. They could have thrown me in that evil water prison, or...or...in a den of hungry sabretooth tigers. They could have turned me into a human stick, or tossed me under Bailu Mountain like they’ll do to Tianlang-Jun! Well, I suppose the mountain prison is no different from here…”

Tianlang-Jun? “Will do” to Tianlang-Jun? What is he–?’ A wary suspicion formed in Mobei-Jun’s mind.

“What did you do to get thrown here?”

The cultivator made a show of gathering up his hair in his lap to waste some time before answering.

“Well, I may have lost my temper, a little bit.”

“Ah,” Mobei-Jun said understandingly. “You killed someone you shouldn’t have.”

“What? No! I said something I shouldn’t have. A lot of things, actually."

He sighed, sounding uncomfortable, but mostly tired.

“You may not understand this, my king, what it’s like, but I was someone who received very little respect, no matter what or how much I did. And no matter how much I tried to fix all the ways this world is broken, it all came to– to– to nothing!

“But they were still always asking more and more of me, never acknowledging my successes but publicly condemning my failures. I’d reached a point where,” he’d been growing increasingly frustrated as he went on, speaking faster and faster until he abruptly stopped, lowering his hands and unclenching his fists on his lap. “...I just didn’t care anymore.

“So at that particular cultivation conference, I let myself have more to drink than I normally would. And then someone made some snide remarks about me, in front of me, as if I couldn’t hear! But they knew I could hear, that’s why they said them. And I...I just snapped. Even a dog can only get kicked so many times before it bites its master!

“So I said something right back, something I shouldn’t have had any right to know, in front of...of everyone. So someone else accused me of lying to try to discredit this cultivator with a better reputation than me, but I knew things about that person too. And I was angry, and drunk, and not thinking of consequences, so I said those things as well.

“Seeing their shocked faces seemed funny at the time. I thought it was the most hilarious thing I’d ever seen, so I just...kept talking. I knew things about everyone. Things they would have never wanted known. Things that could destroy brotherhoods, tear apart sects. And at the moment, that’s what I wanted. If I couldn’t fix the world, I might as well watch it all burn down around me.”

He trailed off, suddenly looking sheepish. “Ah, look at me, being dramatic. Well, don’t ask me how I knew these things, my king, just trust that every word of it was true. And they all knew it. But they couldn’t openly acknowledge it, either.

“If I was telling the truth, then that meant Sect Leader X had been the one who killed the favorite disciple of Sect Leader Y. Naturally he’d want revenge. But I must be a liar, because otherwise that meant I was also telling the truth when I said Sect Leader Y had slept with the wife of Sect Leader Z, and was the true father of his son. And about all the rest.

“So the only way for all these cultivators to save face and preserve their polite fiction of a strong and harmonious alliance against the demons was to deny, deny, deny. I must be a wicked spirit who had come to sow discord in the cultivation world. I had to be locked away before I could spread any more lies.”

They sat in silence while Mobei-Jun processed.

A question bubbled up on Mobei-Jun’s lips before he realized he’d spoken aloud.

“What is your name?”

The cultivator jolted upright, shocked. “...I never introduced myself, did I?” He laughed shakily, running a hand over his head. “I need to dust off my manners, I guess. So they really hushed it up, then? Although I suppose demons don’t actually care that much about the gossip of humans.”

He stood and gave a salute. “This one is called Shang Qinghua, An Ding Peak Lord of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Although I suppose they may have replaced me by now,” he concluded self consciously.

Mobei-Jun ran rapid calculations in his head.

“The Qing generation stepped down over 400 years ago. The Song generation rules now.”

“Oh,” the now-revealed-to-be Shang Qinghua said. “Oh,” he said again, abruptly sitting down at the floor in more of a controlled fall than anything else, prompting Mobei-Jun to reach out a hand.

“I didn’t realize it’d been that long,” he murmured.

Mobei-Jun didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing.

“I thought… I mean, I thought at least–” to Mobei-Jun’s horror, the other man’s voice sounded wet, like he was about to begin crying.

“The other sects demanded it, baying for blood. It was frightening. And Cang Qiong– I didn’t expect them to protect me, not if it meant fighting the entire cultivation world. But I hoped...” His voice broke, and Mobei-Jun sat quietly, pretending he didn’t hear the sobs, and stared at his hands uselessly.

Eventually they wound down and Shang Qinghua wiped at his nose with the back of his hand.

“Yue Qingyuan said they’d come back for me, that they’d get me out once things calmed down. ‘Let cooler heads prevail.’” He gave a small, broken laugh.

“How stupid was I, for believing that? Letting myself get tossed in here without protest, like a lamb to slaughter.”

Mobei-Jun shifted. He’d never been in the position of having to comfort someone else before.

He tried to remember what his nurse had done for him when he’d returned from the awful week he spent in the human realm, hiding from humans armed with pitchforks and shovels and sharp hooks for hanging carcasses in their smokehouses.

So he moved to sit beside the cultivator, cautiously rubbing his back, and tried not to go stiff when the human turned and buried his head in his chest, and simply let him breathe.

“Qinghua,” he said, thinking slowly.

“What,” his human said, muffled in his robe.

“You have managed to cultivate to true immortality, a feat no cultivator has achieved in time measured far beyond either of our years.”

“That’s true,” Shang Qinghua sniffed, lifting his head to reveal a watery smile.

‘Immortal’ nowadays was nothing more than a respectful title for a cultivator who’d advanced to a certain level. Cultivation improved the health and strength of the body, helped cultivators withstand extreme temperatures and deprivation a weaker man would succumb to, and it was true cultivators could live longer. A highly skilled cultivator may look only 40 when his years were truly over 60. But no one any longer believed cultivation could help put humans on equal footing with gods and other immortal beings.

“Me! Immortal,” Shang Qinghua giggled. “I’d like to see the look on Shen Qingqiu’s face if he knew!”

The smile fell as a dark thought occurred to him. “But what good does that do? All it means is I am trapped in here for a literal eternity. And if you don’t manage to find a way out in weeks when I never did in more than 400 years, I’ll be alone again soon enough.”

“Qinghua,” he said again, clasping the human’s face in his cold hands. “You have done nothing but cultivate for over 400 years. You are more powerful than any other cultivator alive.”

“...So?”

“Take us to the path that leads up. It’s time to revisit punching your way through stone.”

__________

They did not escape immediately. There was a very real risk that Shang Qinghua could blow out his meridians or break his own bones by trying to channel his qi in ways he never had before.

All that power, and no idea how to use it...He was like a baby tiger that didn’t know the strength of its own bite.

But Mobei-Jun was a patient teacher when their collective survival was on the line. And whenever Mobei-Jun grew dizzy with thirst or hunger, Shang Qinghua in his worry was all too ready to share his energy, passed along by tongue or shared release.

Mobei-Jun might have feigned dizziness more often than he felt it. But then, Shang Qinghua was quick to offer, remarking unprompted that Mobei-Jun ‘looked a bit pale,’ and they couldn’t risk going further without taking care of him first.

But when he got that first glimpse of sunlight, bright enough to send Shang Qinghua burying his face in his chest again, even if he’d grown accustomed to the glow of the ice lamp, he felt nothing but grim satisfaction.

Maybe the world had been right to fear the Fomenter of Ruin. Maybe they hadn’t been. But Mobei-Jun would give them all a reason to.

Chapter Text

Whenever he was alone with nothing to distract him, he wondered if it had even happened at all. More often than not, he thought it most likely hadn’t.

If he’d woken up from a years long coma in the hospital, that would almost make it seem more believable—his consciousness fleeing to another world, leaving his old body behind, breathing but empty; how many books and TV shows had he seen with that exact plot?

But when he woke up on the floor of his old apartment, disoriented and aching, it had been...minutes. He really wasn’t sure. Upon pulling himself to his feet and stumbling against his desk, his fumbling hand landed on his cell phone.

Fuck. He... was really here, then.

He stared at it for long moments, realizing he didn’t remember his password to unlock it. Swiping a thumb clumsily against the screen until it brought up the emergency dial pad, he typed in 120 with trembling fingers. And when the operator picked up, he said, voice slightly slurred, “I think I’ve been electrocuted.”

That was over a month ago. He’d spent a few days hospitalized for observation, and the resulting medical bill had single-handedly guaranteed he’d be in debt for the rest of his probably now much shorter life. He was tired and dizzy and sad all the time. He got frequent headaches and lost his concentration easily and had trouble remembering things. The doctor assured him these side effects were normal. Minor brain damage wasn’t uncommon after electrical shock. Wasn’t that reassuring.

He felt like he was living in a dream. But weren’t dreams supposed to always seem normal, until you woke up? Only then would you realize how strange they’d been. Fantastic beasts and flying on magic swords and beautiful demon men, that had been the dream; a vivid hallucination cooked up by a panicking, flash-fried brain. It had felt real when he’d been in it. The beauty of that world, but also the pain, and the terror, even the boredom of long, slow days doing paperwork on An Ding Peak, lazing in the beams of warm sunlight coming through the open window.

This felt more like how dreams felt on waking. Thoughts appeared and then slipped away again before he had time to grasp them, like little minnows flickering silver in the shallows of a river. And now he was stuck wading knee-deep through this hazy existence that he’d almost forgotten how to live, all while knowing there was no waking up from it, because he already had. This was all there was, and all there would ever be anymore.

The thought dismayed him, and made him wonder, if it had been real, and if he had the chance to make the choice over again, would he still decide as he had?

It had made sense at the time. The plot was over. It had been “fixed,” though he had no part in that. Shen Yuan had managed to accomplish what he never had.

But he’d gotten his king on the throne, his own self-imposed mission accomplished. And with the realms united under Binghe’s benevolently neglectful rule, Mobei-Jun didn’t need a spy anymore, if he’d even let Shang Qinghua step into a room with him again without killing him for having dared to pinch his cheeks.

His Cucumber-bro didn’t need him, if he ever had. He had an overly clingy husband to play any companionship role Airplane might have fulfilled. He’d left enough capable disciples on An Ding that Cang Qiong would get by just fine. And he’d never had a relationship with his birth family in that world. There…simply wasn’t anything or anyone keeping him there.

And if he stayed, he’d only be a third wheel. Someone that Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe and Mobei-Jun and all his martial family put up with because it would be uncomfortable to turn him away, considering the various favors rendered over the years, but whom they would probably prefer not be there. They didn’t need to say so; he knew how to read a room. So, when given the options to “Continue?” or “Return,” he had taken the second option with only a short hesitation after the System prompted, “Are you sure? This selection cannot be taken back.”

And why not? He’d like having the internet again, at least. Instant ramen. Air conditioning. Indoor plumbing. Hadn’t he been missing these things?

__________

What did it say about him, that that was what his dying mind conjured up? Other people got a light at the end of the tunnel, or spoke with deceased loved ones who told them that it wasn’t their time, to turn back, but they’d find love and warmth and happiness waiting for them when they did finally make the journey.

Even in his deepest, innermost, most desperate neuron, he apparently couldn’t imagine a happy afterlife where he was welcomed. Instead, he got kicked around and also-ran in a world he created. So might as well turn around and stick out his mediocre life on earth where at least he didn’t have to eat dog food for every meal.

When he laid his head down on the pillow each night to sleep, he wondered if he would find himself back on the steps outside the ritual hall in the Northern Desert at the moment he left, like it was a show on some streaming platform he’d paused before exiting the room. But he never dreamed.

His parents, upon being called up, had reluctantly agreed to lend him some money, likely out of guilt for having failed to notice he'd been hospitalized at all. Which meant he could postpone debt collectors banging down his door about his medical bills for a while, at least. PIDW was finished, the last chapter having been posted immediately before his unfortunate accident, and he really didn’t have it in him to start a new project just yet. Plus, his new problems with concentration made writing sessions hard.

So he got an easy job packaging up cut fruit and sandwiches and other “ready to eat” items at the supermarket. Life was boring, but simple. He started rewatching one of his old favorite dramas, and found a new gacha game with cute characters to play. He treated himself to his favorite noodles a few too many times.

He toyed with editing PIDW; not a full rewrite, mind. The mess that it was, there were still things about it he liked. So he didn’t intend to take it down and turn it into the danmei it ended up as in that “life flashing before his eyes” death vision he’d had. Imagine the outcry from his fans! And his original outline, his plans for a deep and angsty gen-fic drama, were still lost, even if he remembered the broad strokes of it. But maybe he could patch some of the more glaring plotholes, quietly rework a few of the most cringe-worthy sex scenes into something still sexy but a little more....feasible?

But scrolling past the millions of words he’d written on Zhongdian gave him such a massive headache he gave up before he could finish looking for a good place to start.

Things probably would have continued in this dull but adequate, every-day-the-same way—going to work, coming home, throwing some freezer meal in the microwave, and idly scrolling through social media on his phone with his face pressed against the armrest of the couch, TV playing softly in the background—if the man hadn’t come to a stop in front of him while he loitered in the parking lot on his smoke break.

(He had smoked in his teens in some misguided attempt to seem cool. He’d dropped the habit by his twenties simply because he couldn’t afford it any longer, and had never indulged in his dream world if only for a failure to write tobacco into his novel. But he picked it up again in the days since leaving the hospital in the hopes it would help with the stress, and the migraine symptoms he still suffered. It didn’t.)

“Tell me, why are you going by ‘Luo Binghe?’”

The man was tall and finely dressed. His suit was tailored, his attractive coat falling to mid-thigh, and his hands clad in supple, expensive-looking leather gloves despite the weather. It was only early autumn, and while there was a distinct chill in the air, when the sun was shining it was still warm enough for Airplane to turn his face up to enjoy the rays on his skin.

He did not look like someone who would be enticed by the offer of “buy two bottles of banana milk, get the third half-off” advertised in the window.

Airplane glanced down at his name tag and up again. “Because it’s my name?” he answered hesitantly.

Unlike the man’s stylish appearance, his face was gaunt and pinched, and betrayed his advanced age. At Airplane’s answer, the unmasked distaste and irritation on his face twisted into incredulity. “Do not lie to me.”

Airplane sighed. “I don’t know what to tell you, sir. It’s on my birth certificate.”

“Have you been so addled as to think yourself the son of Su Xiyan and Tianglang-Jun?”

“Son of Su Xi—wait, are you talking about from my book?” he replied unthinkingly, before cringing at the words that had left his own mouth.

“Ah, I mean…” he rubbed the back of his neck self-consciously. “Heh, you found me, I guess.”

The man’s expression didn’t change.

“I wrote Proud Immortal Demon Way,” Airplane said in clarification, touching his hand to his chest with the fingers not occupied with the cigarette. “You’re...a fan?”

He knew his tone betrayed how dubious he found that proposition to be, but wasn’t sure why else someone would come up to him talking about characters from his web novel, which, as with most things on the internet, had already vanished into obscurity as it dropped from its number one spot on Zhongdian to be replaced by the next novel to offer fresh new papapa in regular updates.

The man didn’t respond, but now his expression shifted to something contemplative, his gaze piercing deep into Airplane, like he was seeing more than just a man with unwashed hair and a green kitchen smock emblazoned with a grocery store’s logo who could no longer claim to be in his “early” twenties.

Airplane didn’t like the feeling, especially when he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand at attention with the sudden realization that Luo Binghe’s parents, the fictional Luo Binghe, had never been named in the book. Huan Hua Palace’s head disciple and the heavenly demon who’d impregnated her had been known only by the role they served in creating Binghe in the published version, their arcs lost and then abandoned with his original outline.

He laughed nervously as he pinched the cigarette out with his fingers and slipped it back into his pocket for later. “Well, uh, I gotta head back in now, break’s over,” he said, gesturing redundantly back at the store. “But uh, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t spread it around? It’s a little embarrassing, to have people know I named the main character after myself.”

‘And a little fucking creepy of you to come search me out,’ he added privately.

“I’d say narcissistic,” the man responded matter-of-factly, and Airplane caught the edge of the man’s lips turning up in a small knowing smile, even as he turned and purposefully speed walked away from the guy.

‘Asshole,’ he thought, trying to generate some good old-fashioned ire to take the place of the anxiety that was welling up in him at the strange encounter, but it wasn’t quite working.

“It took longer than I expected to find you, because of the particular facet of identity you’ve chosen to mask yourself behind,” the man called after him. “Although I at least knew to search for the other one, thanks to your friend.”

‘Just ignore him. And maybe start looking for a new job if he shows up again tomorrow,’ Luo Binghe told himself, refusing to acknowledge him.

“At first, I thought you were harboring secret feelings, and when you needed to hide, your subconscious dumped you in the same drawer, metaphysically speaking. That outcome might have been interesting, and certainly humiliating for my client,” his voice creaked with unspoken laughter. “But I see that’s not the case.”

Luo Binghe speed up his steps until he was inside the store again, but the man followed him inside. While Luo Binghe’s steps were hurried and frantic, the other’s were slow and even and measured, but he still managed to keep pace.

But this was fine. It was fine. They were in full view of other people now. If he tried something, Luo Binghe was fully prepared to cause a scene, even if it made him look pathetic, or got him fired.

“Do you have something in your pocket?”

The complete non-sequitur threw Airplane for a loop, knocking him out of the anxiety-spiral he was close to falling into. He frowned. ‘What is this guy playing at? Does he mean my cig?’ But despite himself, his fingers dipped into his jeans pocket, and he felt the dull edges of a folded up square of paper.

“What the…” he murmured under his breath.

The weirdo stopped, casually establishing the same physical distance between them as before, and politely waited as Airplane pulled the paper from his pocket, then flipped it over once, then twice, looking for writing. But whatever was printed on it must be on the interior side.

As he unfolded it, he had to juggle to catch the small item that tumbled out: a tiny, star-shaped blue-white flower that had been protectively tucked inside. Although he hadn’t remembered it until this moment, he recognized it immediately.

It had been a gift from Mobei-Jun. A Dew-from-the-Starry-Heavens flower. It was a cure-all Mobei-Jun had shoved at him when he’d been suffering from a chest cold and coughing for days on end. The rare medicinal blossom was hard to find, and complete overkill for his minor ailment, but the sound of his coughing had echoed throughout the halls of the Crystal Ice Palace and he’d assumed his king had grown so annoyed at it he’d gone to get the flower.

But Shang Qinghua had been touched at the gesture nonetheless, so he kept one, and pressed it between the pages of a book to preserve it. He’d later carefully folded the floret in a little paper sleeve for protection, so he could keep it on him always without fear the delicate petals would tear while tossed around in his pocket.

But this flower wasn’t dried. It was in full bloom, petals soft and starting to bruise indigo as he pet at them in confused wonder.

But… it wasn’t supposed to be real. If that world wasn’t real, how could this flower exist? And why had it come back to life?

The man nodded in satisfaction as Airplane looked up at him, confused. “What does your totem tell you?”

“My… what? What?” He looked from left to right, wondering if this was some kind of prank. “I don’t understand what’s happening. How can–? Who are you?”

The strange man stepped closer. The air seemed to sharpen around him while the bustling grocery store grew fuzzier, out of focus. The chatter of the customers and the buzzing of announcements over the store’s intercom faded under a ringing like tinnitus.

“You’re more interesting than I knew, Luo Binghe. Do you prefer Airplane?” the man asked in genuine curiosity.

“I… Sure…” Airplane trailed off uncertainly.

“Or have you grown used to Shang Qinghua?”

Airplane startled like a rabbit at the baying of the hound.

“This,” he said, ignoring the question, and shaking the flower in his hand in the old man’s direction. “Can’t exist. Not… not here. Not outside the world of Proud Immortal Demon Way. Not in this world.”

“So what does that tell you?” the man asked patiently, like some goddamn high school teacher.

And Shang Qinghua felt the answer tumbling out, helpless.

“I’m… not really here.” His fist squeezed shut around the flower, before unclenching. He guiltily tried to straighten the tiny, now wilting petals out again with the edge of a fingertip.

“Did my king— Did Mobei-Jun really give this to me?”

The man shrugged. “Whatever you’ve got, I’ve never seen it before. I don’t know and I don’t especially care. Only you know. That’s the point of a totem.”

“Then that means… I’m dreaming.” Shang Qinghua—no, Luo Binghe. Or Airplane?...whoever he was, he didn’t need to look around at the slowly dissolving grocery store to recognize the words as truth, but the dream demon confirmed it for him anyway with a single word.

“Yes.”

“That means nothing!” the author retorted sharply. “It doesn’t mean m-my—that world is real, it just means where I’m standing right now isn’t. If I wake up,” to his horror, the author could feel tears welling in the corners of his eyes, “I could still just be in my bed in my shitty apartment, and my king and Luo Binghe– the other one, the one I wrote to be everything I’m not, they could still just be—”

“I see,” the dream demon said thoughtfully, interrupting. “He’s the yang to your yin. You’re not another of his starry-eyed infatuants. You’re his shadow.”

The original glowered. “I’m real,” he hissed. “Unlike you, Meng Mo. You’re just a plot device.”

“There’s no need to be rude. I didn’t say you weren’t real,” Meng Mo said, indignant yet a little amused. “A shadow is real. It’s true that it can’t be touched, but it interacts with the world and the world interacts with it, each in their own way. Does a shadow not dance with the light of the lamp? If you stand in a shadow, do you not feel the cool of its shade?”

“Then I’m a shadow,” the soul that was both a version of Luo Binghe and also of Shang Qinghua agreed; Darkly, bitterly, tears flowing steadily now, though his voice was steady and there was no hitch in his breath. “Always present, yet always apart. That’s me exactly. And it’s why I had to leave.”

“But you want to be touched,” Meng Mo said thoughtfully, stalking toward the shadow like a predator triumphant on seeing its prey give in to the inevitable. “You don’t want to be in the world but not a part of it. I see now.”

The demon stood behind the shadow, placing his hands on its shoulders and gripping tight, holding it in place so it couldn’t dissolve and slip away.

“Then it’s a good thing there’s a little yang in all yin,” he said, sounding satisfied.

“And you didn’t leave, you idiotic creature. Maybe you decided to, but you hadn’t done it. Yet. That’s not what this is.

“You’ve been cursed into a dream by a silly little malevolent piece of jewelry, and then filled that dream up with all this. Even now, Shang Qinghua’s body lies in a bed in the Crystal Ice Palace while the great king of the Northern Desert clutches its hands in his own, pathetic and despondent. He was desperate enough to beg me to attempt to retrieve you.

“But here, in the immaterial world, there’s no doing at all. Only deciding. A thought is a deed. And your decision is what’s keeping you from waking, despite the many efforts of your precious king, and your fellow peak lords and even the other Luo Binghe.”

The shadow shivered.

“But remember, Shang Qinghua. Here and only here, a thought is a deed. Out there, a deed once done cannot be undone. But there as here, you can always have another thought that was different from the one before. So, what will you decide to do now?”

Chapter Text

It’s not easy being a small-time god in this modern world! Ever since some monk stumbled on this thing they’re calling “cultivation” and taught his disciples, who went on to teach disciples of their own, humans think that just because they can learn something that they might have once called magic (flying on swords—honestly, how do they come up with these things?), or can approach something like immortality with enough dedication (and so long as they don’t do anything that encourages another human to shove a sword through them, which, granted, not many of them can figure out) that this makes them gods themselves. And if they are their own gods, what do they need the old gods for? Are those creatures and spirits their grandparents ignorantly worshipped even gods at all?

Having seen far too many small gods like himself reclassified as “demonic beasts” or “evil spirits,” and hunted down and “exorcised” (what a placid way to describe having your very essence pulled apart molecule by molecule, and forcibly dispersed back into the aether!), Shang Qinghua decided that wasn’t the fate for him, no sir. Others say it is better to die holding firm to what you are, but Shang Qinghua says better not to die at all! So he took the coward’s way out: donned a human form, abandoned his river (didn’t the humans abandon it first when they ceased leaving offerings?), and went to live in hiding among the humans.

Unfortunately, it’s a little harder to actually pass as human than to just look the part. Humans are prey animals, for all they prefer to tell themselves that they’re at the top of the food chain. And that makes them hypersensitive to all those little things that scream “unnatural, dangerous, wrong!”, even if they can’t pinpoint exactly why that something or someone unnerves them.

But the very doom threatening him and every other god of spring and meadow and forest turned out to be his salvation, in this at least: because ordinary people view cultivators as something akin to gods, his oddities were explained away as him simply being a cultivator. What an irony!

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that Shang Qinghua is not quite sure how he ended up as Peak Lord of An Ding Peak in the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, but he’s here now! And if he can occasionally, innocuously, steer his martial family away from “saving” the common people by ridding them of one more innocent (or not so innocent; what does Shang Qinghua care?) spirit who is closer kin to him than they’ll ever be—deliberately losing the missives for help from villagers, giving Lui-shidi the wrong directions on night hunts, blaming divine actions, fair and foul and inbetween, on something else entirely (“Our investigation suggests noxious vapors from a vent in the earth nearby. Frankly, they’re lucky they only tripped balls and didn’t fall over dead,” or “Are we ignoring the fact that the [thefts, murders, whatever, insert crime or weird thing they're complaining about here] were clearly committed by that vagrant they let into town?”) or distracting them with some other problem all together, as a treat (“Really, Shidi! You’ve been storing the sect’s liquor how? No wonder the whole storehouse blew up!” or “Sorry, Shen-shixiong, I don’t know how that Sect Leader found out what you said, but he’s very upset and demanding an apology from no less than Yue-shixiong himself!”) then all the better!

But there was only so much meddling he could do without raising suspicions, and he didn’t last this long in disguise by not keeping his head down, so he supposed the price of his cowardice was front row tickets to watching the age of gods crawl to a whimpering close.

But so long as he lived, there was one god yet! A minor river deity, true, and he’d sacrificed a great deal of power by leaving his domain behind, but he could still work a little magic if he chose. He could break a fever or cure a blood poison with a touch. He could bless a favored human so their fingers always found the nuggets of gold hidden among the river stones, or so the carp they pulled in with their nets would burp up freshwater pearls. He could hypnotize with the singing of moving water. He could drown a strong swimmer without laying a hand on them (and do so when they were out of water with the laying of a hand), poison a water supply and the fish drawn from it. It had been a while, but he could probably still burst some riverbanks and wash away a village if he rolled up his sleeves and was annoyed enough.

And if Yue-shixiong hadn’t approved his vacation, he just might have! But thankfully he must have looked pathetic enough that Yue-shixiong let him go with only minor chiding to make sure everything was delegated properly while he was away.

He’d made sure to chose a remote, uninhabited mountain, whose peak was eternally shrouded in clouds, and where the air was so thin even cultivators would struggle to draw breath. And more importantly, where he’d heard there was a pristine spring of water so clear it was nearly indistinguishable from air!

A still mountain spring was no waltzing river, churning with life sampled from every li of land it passed through, but it sure sounded refreshing all the same! He could use some tranquility, and uninterrupted “me time” was just what the doctor ordered.

And upon arrival, it appeared everything was as advertised.

He grinned, and for the first time in a long time, let his human guise fall away. A bit unusually, his natural shape was nearly of a size with his human form: Smaller when standing on his hind legs, but slightly larger when counting his tail.

Velvety chocolate-brown fur covered him from crown to tail, uniform but for the splashes of creamy white like a rorschach blot against his chest and throat. Dropping to all fours and giving a delicious full body stretch, he slid soundlessly into the water with nary a ripple.

And it felt amazing! He couldn’t help but release a happy series of cackles and whistles in delight. All water had its own texture, and this felt like rolling around on freshly laundered sheets, like the sensation of the chime of glassware.

He lost himself for a bit, rolling and diving and popping up again, before finally floating contentedly mostly submerged like a caiman.

Until a harsh shout jerked him out of his reverie and shattered the illusion he was alone.

“Otter!”

He jerked upright in fright, popping up high out of the water like a periscope to observe who or what had invaded what was supposed to be somewhere he’d be safe from the prying eyes of the rest of world (oooh, see what letting his guard down for even a moment got him!).

A cat sat on the bank of the spring, looking distinctly annoyed. It was hardly larger than a barn cat, but by its oddly patterned fur, enormously poofy tail, and wide face with a nose so black it looked like it had been drawn on with ink, it was obviously something else.

Shang Qinghua bobbed up and down a bit. “Me?” he asked unthinkingly, pointing one webbed claw at his chest, still too shocked at having his pleasant vacation interrupted to realize how silly he sounded, when it was only the two of them present—who else could it have meant?

The cat squared its front paws, obviously trying to look threatening. “You’ve intruded on my spring,” it hissed. “Leave now, and I will forgive your extreme impudence.”

Shang Qinghua eyed the cat curiously. “Are you a local god, then? No one owns this spring; I’d be able to tell now that I’ve swam in it. But if you like to swim here too, surely you don’t mind sharing for a day?”

He eyed the cat a little skeptically as he said this. While his own fur was sleek and close to the skin, and all waterproof, the cat’s fur was thick and insulating like a heavy winter coat. It looked like it weighed a lot; it would probably sink like a stone in the water. Its fur was pretty, though: silvery grey, with fat black rings standing out on its tail and legs, and copper colored rosettes on its back and flank.

The cat gave a low growl. “I own the mountain. Everything on this mountain is mine.” Its eyes narrowed. “I own the spring.”

Shang Qinghua rolled his eyes dismissively at this supposedly rock-solid logic. Obviously this little cat god had never had to share his mountain, and didn’t realize how this worked.

Back in the good old days, Shang Qinghua had to begrudgingly accept the existence of the god of the lake his river fed into, the patron deities of the many villages he ran through or beside, some weeping willow that barely counted as a god if you asked him, and only because it was so damn old, and that awful higher pantheon god of commerce who trampsed through every so often without warning, like his river was an inn! But no single god could embody every aspect of nature or life, so he had no choice but to accept it.

It was awfully presumptuous, he thought, for this teeny little cat that he could probably chomp through in one bite to say that just because he was somehow god of the mountain, no one else had any right to step through or any claim to neither pebble nor branch on it.

“I don’t think you can even swim,” he retorted aloud, a little brattily, dipping back down in the water so only his head was visible above the surface. “There’s no aspect of water in you at all; you’re cold air and windswept stone through and through. What right do you have to claim this spring?”

The cat narrowed its eyes at him, and crouched down as if it seriously thought it could pounce on him from that far (and as if it would even venture into the water at all. Shang Qinghua was calling its bluff!), but in response Shang Qinghua slipped under the water entirely. Being as clear as it was, the water hide him not at all, but he was so swift it made no difference; the cat still startled and went rigid when he popped up again on the bank and slithered up close enough to touch his nose to its.

“Maybe I’ll lay claim to it,” he said, smiling to bare all his big jagged teeth, enjoying the chance to be the bigger and stronger one for a change. His martial siblings were so mean to him, all the time! He just wanted to boss someone around, get a little fear or respect out of it! He certainly wasn’t getting either from any of his disciples.

“River Jaguar,” the cat hissed warningly. “Be careful what you say and do from this point forward.”

Shang Qinghua paused in surprise, then surged up on his hind legs, towering over the prideful little cat. Then, quick as a blink, he shifted back to human form and nearly collapsed over the cat, caging him in with his arms and legs before sweeping him up in his arms, cradled like a baby, and standing straight again.

The cat yowled in indignation, flailing its limbs in hopes of catching Shang Qinghua with its claws, then began to squirm like a fish in an attempt to roll over and right itself.

Shang Qinghua just pressed the cat closer against his chest to restrict its movement and began aggressively nuzzling his nose against the top of its head.

“You’re so cute!” he cried happily, while the cat roared. “I can’t be mean to that face. I really can’t, you’re just too adorable! How old are you? Have you been up here alone all this time? Have you ever even seen a human before? Have you ever met another god before? Don’t worry, little one! Gege is here to explain everything for you!”

“You dare?!” the little god howled as Shang Qinghua gave him a scritch under the chin.

“What don’t I dare when it comes to you?” Shang Qinghua laughed, bopping him on the nose now.

The cat twisted its head and bit down hard on Shang Qinghua’s hand. The sharp teeth were more uncomfortable than painful, but—

“Yeowch!”

Shang Qinghua dropped the cat to the ground as his free hand went to grab at the injured one, which was already turning purple with frostbite around the bleeding little punctures in his flesh.

“Son of a–” he cursed, spinning to the cat, almost expecting it to have fled.

“I’ll punt you straight off this mountain, you spoiled brat!” he shouted. “How do you like the sound of that?”

The cat glared at him, then abruptly went a little hard to look at, like Shang Qinghua did whenever he was taking on another shape. Before he could finish the thought, ‘Oh shit, I didn’t know he could do that,’ a 7' behemoth towered over his own perfectly respectable 5'6".

Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure what his face was doing right now, but he was absolutely positive it wasn’t what he wanted it to be doing. The mountain god, for all that he’d mastered the human transformation, did not apparently understand the how or why behind clothes.

“I gave you two warnings,” the mountain god growled in a voice so unlike the previous one, this one deep, and straight out of Shang Qinghua’s wet dreams, as he crowded the river god a step back, and then another, and then another, until he stumbled and collapsed on his ass in the shallows. The mountain god followed him down, deliberately placing his hands on either side of Shang Qinghua’s head and his knees on either side on Shang Qinghua’s own in a mocking reenactment of his “catch the cat” strategy.

“Do you need a third?” he whispered, face hovering mere inches from the river god's, who went near cross-eyed to keep the other man in focus.

“Um,” Shang Qinghua licked his lips. “That depends.”

“On what,” the man rumbled, sending a shiver up Shang Qinghua’s spine. “Little god.”

Shang Qinghua let out a low whine and immediately went red. “On...uh, well.” He offered a small, quivering smile. “On what comes after the warning?”

The mountain god quirked an eyebrow and sat back on Shang Qinghua’s lap.

“I don’t know,” he chuckled darkly. “Tell me, Gege, what would you do in this situation?”

Shang Qinghua gulped.

Chapter Text

October

Shen Yuan was woken up by incessant banging on his apartment door. Groaning, he rolled over and folded his pillow over his ears, but it didn’t do nearly enough to block out the sound. He waited in the vain hope that whoever it was would give up and go away, but his luck was never that good. So with a sigh, he sat up and slid out of bed, shivering as his feet hit the cold floor.

He groggily made his way to the front door and peered through the spyhole to see who had the gall to disturb his much needed beauty sleep in the fucking middle of the night.

Of freaking course.

He yanked the door open a crack until it halted on the end of the security chain, and glared at the person on the other side through the small opening.

“What do you want?” he bit out tersely.

His friend looked miserable, eyes red and cheeks blotchy from crying. “Can I please stay with you tonight?”

“No, I don’t allow animals on the couch,” he said, and went to close the door, but Shang Qinghua was too quick and managed to get the toe of his shoe in first.

“But you have a spare room!” he pleaded, fingers gripping the doorframe. “I’ll be quiet! Please, I can’t go back home tonight. He kicked me out, he doesn’t want me anymore. It’s– it’s over.” He sniffled quite pitifully. “For good, this time. But I don’t have anywhere else to go!”

Shen Yuan would have accused his friend of putting on this huge pathetic display for sympathy (the brat knew how weak Shen Yuan was to tears), but he also knew that every. single. time this happened, Shang Qinghua genuinely believed he was going to die unloved and alone, and no amount of coddling would convince him otherwise.

So he simply huffed. “I don’t know how you can call it a spare room when I have a roommate. Where exactly do you expect him to sleep if I give you his room?”

Shang Qinghua looked at him angrily, and wiped at his nose. “I’m not an imbecile. I know he already sleeps in your room, although why you think you need to hide it from me when you know I’m gay too–”

Shen Yuan slammed the door. Shang Qinghua immediately began banging on it again and shouting, but stopped when he heard the sound of the chain sliding in the lock.

Shen Yuan open the door quickly, offered a sheepish smile to his next door neighbor, who was poking her head around her own apartment door with a glare, then yanked his friend inside.

“Just for tonight, okay?” he hissed as he dragged Shang Qinghua down the hall and shoved him into the spare bedroom. “So you can’t keep saying I never do anything for you. And don’t use my toothbrush!”

With that, he closed the door in Shang Qinghua’s face and angrily stormed back to his bedroom.

“What was it?” Luo Binghe asked sleepily, turning to face him before yawning. Shen Yuan rolled his eyes.

“Who knows,” he said as he slid into bed. “But Shang Qinghua and Mo Beitong are on the outs again.”

It was not just one night, but they all knew it wouldn’t be. And Shang Qinghua kept to his word and was quiet as a mouse. Shen Yuan only knew he was still there because the leftovers from the way too large dinners Binghe made every night, and which Shen Yuan inevitably crammed in the fridge, were always gone by morning, with the tupperware containers left sitting in the sink, full of soapy water.

But six days later, Shen Yuan came home to find a post-it note stuck to the fridge reading, “Went out for lunch with MB” with a little smiley face drawn next to it, and he knew the infamous “on-again, off-again” couple were officially "on" again.

Honestly, being friends with the two of them was exhausting.

__________

December

Binghe slid onto the barstool next to Mo Beitong, who was miserably slouched over the bar, swirling the dregs of his drink around the bottom of the glass while a bottle of baijiu already three-quarters empty sat at his elbow.

“So what happened this time?” he asked, a little resigned and a little curious, as he signaled the bartender over, and pointed at a bottle of whiskey on the top shelf.

Mo Beitong merely sighed like someone who’d just been told the sun would never rise again as the bartender set two shots down in front of them with a little clink.

Just then, Mo Beitong’s phone pinged with a little notification. And not just any notification: the custom ringtone (a pixelated version of the Hamtaro theme song) he’d assigned to Shang Qinghua. Binghe had only heard it approximately 50 trillion times before, any time the two went out without their significant others.

Mo Beitong perked up, and pulled the phone free from his pocket and keyed in the passcode with an urgency like he was disarming a bomb and had only seconds left on the timer. And by the way his eyes went wide and his ears went red, and how he cupped a possessive, protective hand over the screen when Luo Binghe tried to peek over, gave him a pretty good guess at that little idiot had just sent.

Mo Beitong stood up abruptly, pushing the stool away from the bar with a screech of chair legs against the floor. He slammed back the shot Luo Binghe had ordered, dumped what looked like the entire contents of his wallet on the bar counter without bothering to count it, and took off.

Luo Binghe turned on his stool to watch him go, incredulous.

“Are you kidding me?!” he shouted after the retreating figure. “Do you know how long it took me to get here?”

But the only reply was Mo Beitong’s long black coat swishing out the door with a blast of cold winter air.

__________

February

“I said no.” Luo Binghe had his hair in a bun, sleeves rolled up, and apron tied around his waist as he prepared another excessively elaborate meal for his boyfriend.

“I’m busy cooking for shizun right now, I don’t have time to hold your hand.”

Mo Beitong glared down at the items scattered across the table, reaching out to pick up a piece of dough before Binghe slapped his hand away.

“I’ve...failed Qinghua,” he said. “In so many ways. Without this, how will he understand the depth of my love for him? The sincerity of my commitment?”

Luo Binghe rolled his eyes. “He won’t leave you just because your noodles aren’t restaurant quality.”

Shen Yuan, who was idly scrolling through his phone while sitting at the kitchen island, chimed in with a casual, “yeah, he might just leave you over that.”

Luo Binghe gave his boyfriend a pained expression, trying to communicate with only his eyes, ‘I love you more than anything in this world, and would forgive you any sin or transgression, but your input right now is extremely unhelpful, it is actually the exact opposite of helpful, and can you please go wait in the other room until the food is ready?’

Unfortunately, Shen Yuan wasn't looking at him and didn’t catch any of that.

“I’m sure it was very romantic the first time,” he went on blithely without looking up. “But he told me that if he has to keep eating such shitty noodles he’s going to have permanent indigestion. Oh, look! It says the author of Proud Immortal Demon Way is going to be at comic-con this year! We should go, Binghe. I have a few things I want to discuss with him about these more recent story arcs and the merchandise he’s putting out.”

Luo Binghe sighed. He’d been looking forward to the sword fighting demonstration, but if Shen Yuan’s favorite (for all he’d deny it) author was going to be making a rare public appearance there, he knew they’d be at that booth all day.

He turned back to Mo Beitong, and immediately caved to that look that was simultaneously an ‘I told you so,’ and like he’d been stabbed through the heart with a spear. “Look,” he said, scooting over to make room for his friend on his side of the table. “Why don’t you show me what you’ve been doing, and I’ll tell you what you’re doing wrong.”

__________

April

“Shizun?” Binghe’s voice has a note of unease he wasn’t used to hearing in it.

Shen Yuan looked up from his game, hitting pause as he did so. “What is it, Binghe?”

His boyfriend appeared in the doorway. “Do we need to do something about this?”

He walked over, already holding out his phone to Shen Yuan. There was some kind of video playing on it, and it took him a few moments to understand what he was looking at.

Shang Qinghua and Mo Beitong had gone to the Mo family’s ancestral tomb for the Qingming Festival that morning, and apparently, Mo Beitong’s estranged uncle had unexpectedly made an appearance as well.

Whatever had started it (and Shen Yuan suspected it was some kind of comment about Shang Qinghua—Mo Beitong’s awful family could usually at least pretend to be civil to each other whenever they were forced to breathe the same air), someone had caught the ensuing fight on video, with Shang Qinghua and a mob of onlookers visible and screaming in the background.

As he watched, Mo Linguang got a lucky hit on Mo Beitong, knocking him back. Mo Beitong cracked his head against a grave marker with a shockingly loud bang, and fell like a bridge collapsing. He didn't get up again, appearing to be unconscious.

Shang Qinghua freaked out at the sight of this, and started picking up rocks off the ground to lob at Mo Linguang’s head while screaming at him to “get away from him!” Shen Yuan could only continue to watch in horror as Mo Linguang stalked towards Shang Qinghua with his arms held protectively in front of his face, the stones Shang Qinghua was throwing bouncing off his forearms. And the man was apparently livid enough to think that trying to full on choke Shang Qinghua out in front of a crowd of witnesses was a smart move.

Some onlookers finally stepped in, trying to haul Mo Linguang off Shang Qinghua while a woman knelt by Mo Beitong and attempted to rouse him. But as soon as Mo Beitong opened his eyes, he was up again and charging at Mo Linguang like a freight train, taking down him, Shang Qinghua, and both the strangers trying to restrain Mo Linguang in a dog pile.

Mo Linguang managed to recover his wits from the collision quickest, scrambling out from underneath the others, and shouting something indecipherable over the crowd noise and wind, but which was distinctly threatening. Then he took off in a stumbling run, even as people starting shouting to stop him, or call the police.

The viewpoint dropped down to the camera owner's feet then abruptly ended.

“How long ago was this taken?” Shen Yuan asked, face white and voice tight with anxiety.

“It was posted about an hour ago,” Luo Binghe replied gravely.

Shen Yuan kneaded his forehead. His family lived on the other side of the country, and told him he didn’t need to make the trip this year if he didn’t feel like it. Luo Binghe, meanwhile, didn’t have any family. This was supposed to be a nice, laidback weekend for just the two of them. But sometimes it just couldn’t be helped.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll check the hospital. You check the police station. They’ll be at one or the other.”

__________

June

“Do we have to invite Liu Qingge and Yue Qingyuan?” Luo Binghe asked with a whine.

“Yes,” Shen Yuan said, with a tone that invited no argument. “I know you don’t like them, but they’re my coworkers and also my friends. And they’d be very hurt if they found out we were throwing this party and they weren’t invited. And believe me, they would find out.”

Luo Binghe sighed and grumbled a bit. “Well, if there’s going to be so many of your friends here, then I should get to have Mo Beitong instead of you having Shang Qinghua.”

Shen Yuan frowned. “You say that like you don’t have any friends coming already. Sha Hualing will be here. And why ‘instead of?’ They’re both invited. Obviously.”

It was Luo Binghe’s turn to frown. “But I thought they were ‘off’ right now.”

Shen Yuan rolled his eyes. “So? They’ll probably be back together again before the day of the party rolls around. And if they’re not, I guarantee we’ll find them making out in the bathroom before the dessert comes out. I’m sick and tired of planning my guest list around their see-sawing love life! So I’m just not doing it anymore.”

__________

August

“Hey,” Liu Mingyan sent over the company instant messaging system.

Shen Yuan watched the three dots that indicated typing hover in the chat box until they were replaced by the sentence, “Did you see Shang Qinghua’s most recent post on Weibo?”

He ground his teeth. “No,” he typed back. “I’m sure reading whatever he’s posted will just make me dumber in the process.”

“K, don’t say I didn’t warn you, ” she sent back.

He held out for about three minutes before pulling out his phone and checking the app.

“Goddamnit, Qinghua!”

__________

October, Again

Shen Yuan was woken up by incessant banging on his apartment door. Groaning, he rolled over and folded his pillow over his ears, but it didn’t do nearly enough to block out the sound. Luo Binghe slept like a rock, as usual.

He waited in the vain hope that whoever it was would give up and go away, but his luck was never that good. So with a sigh, he sat up and slid out of bed, shivering as his feet hit the cold floor.

He groggily made his way to the front door and peered through the spyhole to see who had the gall to disturb his much needed beauty sleep in the fucking middle of the night.

Of freaking course.

He yanked the door open a crack until it halted on the end of the security chain, and glared at the people on the other side through the small opening.

“What do you two want?” he bit out tersely.

His friend looked ecstatically excited, practically glowing with happiness. And drunk. He looked very, very drunk. In fact, the only thing keeping him on his feet was Mo Beitong’s arm looped around his shoulders.

In response, Airplane simply held up his left hand, knuckle side out, and wiggled his fingers in Shen Yuan’s face as if he’d have any difficulty seeing the ring.

“We’re getting married!”