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A little known fact is that each and every citizen of the world is tied to at least one other... in a literal sense. The strings vary in color and texture, sometimes in placement (though they’re generally looped around fingers, but sometimes wrists, others on ankles), often in number. Some people have a rainbow of strings that stretch down the street, tangle in those of others, get caught in doorways and car windows without ever alerting the people that they belong to. There is only one person in the city- likely in China, maybe the world- who has none. Zero. Zilch.

 

And it’s the one damn person who can see the stupid things!

 

He wonders if it’s some form of divine punishment from a cruel and wrathful god. Believe it or not, life just isn’t as enjoyable when you know that you’re never going to have the same deep interpersonal relationships as everyone else around you. Strings don’t appear on their own; they’re there as soon as you’re old enough to even be aware of the love around you. So there’s no point in trying to grow closer to his parents, no point in joining clubs to make friends, no point in trying to pursue the cute girls or guys from class, and really no point in doing anything other than sit at home and make a living by writing stallion novels.

 

It’s actually kind of cathartic. His main character isn’t a self-insert, per se, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that he might bitterly project onto him a little too much. Luo Binghe has a slew of sexual encounters, a harem of women large enough to be a small army, but no lasting romantic attachment. Luo Binghe doesn’t have any family, at least none that should count, but that doesn’t stop him from making the world his. Luo Binghe is strong, successful, and super OP, strings or not.

 

And the answer is not. If he made them a thing in the world of his story, Luo Binghe would not have them. Not-a-one.

 

Well. That’s what he thought, at least, before a fun little thing called transmigration happened. Turns out that his conviction did not carry over into the universal laws of this version of Proud Immortal Demon Way. Because what was the first thing that he noticed upon waking in that godforsaken child body? The very thing he’d cursed for years now.

 

The red string was not on his hand, which confused him considerably at first. No, there was a green one there instead, which was just as surprising but only half as concerning. He could see a line of scarlet trailing out in front of him, but not where it met his skin, so he followed the line of it with one of his hands until they came to rest on his neck where, just as he had begun to fear, he could feel it tied like a collar.

 

Red, which meant romance. Around his neck which meant… something. He didn’t know and he didn’t want to think about it, honestly. Just the thought sent a shiver of fear down his spine. And there it stayed, year after year, as he played his part and followed the instructions of the system. At times the fact that he even had it slipped his mind, but others he was hyper-aware of its presence, lost in thought about the person on the other end. There was no romantic subplot for Shang Qinghua (of course not- that would take away a potential wife from the protag, and the fans would riot), so it didn’t make any sense that he would suddenly have a love interest, and since he had never had a string of his own, there was no way it was suddenly for him himself. Right?

 

… Best not to think about it.

 

Who would Shang Qinghua even hang out with enough to fall in love with? Sha Hualing? That was just about as likely as Luo Binghe suddenly falling for, like, Shen Qingqiu or something. Absolutely laughable. And he wouldn’t hold out hope for someone like Liu Mingyan.

 

Wondering never got him anywhere, so he learned to put it at the back of his mind, especially when he was finally accepted into a cultivation sect. Training (and being bullied *cough cough*) never left much time for silly distractions like that, so it had been compartmentalized for quite a while when he was suddenly smacked in the face by the realization of who he was tied to. It went something like…

 

As he was shoved in the direction of an icy(lol)-looking Mobei Jun, Shang Qinghua was too terrified to notice any sort of small, fleeting detail like one more string among many. Instead he was exerting his energy in the one way he knew how in order to survive: grovelling at the feet of a more powerful man. He refused to let go, to give up his lifeline- even as his fellow disciples fell around him, he couldn’t bring himself to care too much. He gave them life in the first place, and they repaid him by throwing him to the dogs, so really, they brought this upon themselves.

 

“I can be useful! I promise, I-” And then he saw it. The red string looped around Mobei Jun’s wrist, and the way that it led directly to himself, and the fact that the line between them had only enough slack to keep from being uncomfortable, almost like it had been pulled into one of those automatic leashes. It was like he suddenly broke, unable to take his eyes from it except to stare up at the demon he was squeezing and make sure that it was definitely Mobei Jun.

 

No doubt about it. This was Mobei Jun, and that was his string, and there was absolutely no way that this was real in any capacity.

 

Had he accidentally written a background romance between Mobei Jun and Shang Qinghua!?

 

Kind of a tragedy how things turned out then, huh…

 

With a wide-eyed glare, Mobei Jun attempted to extricate himself from Shang Qinghua’s grip to no avail, teeth audibly grinding. “What are… you…”

 

The demon lord fell to the ground without further ado, and the disciple clinging to his legs went down the rest of the way with him, letting out a squeal of surprise as they went.

 


 

If confronted, Shang Qinghua would insist that he had not been staring at Mobei Jun while he slept fitfully on the bed of their temporary room. He had not been sitting just beside him, concentrating very hard on the sharp features of his face. That would be creepy, and Shang Qinghua was not creepy, nor a stalker, nor some kind of obsessed fanboy. Psh.

 

But it really was unbelievable when it came right down to it. He’d written Mobei Jun entirely to his own tastes as opposed to the whims of the fans- lovingly considered each and every detail, gotten excited over getting to add him into important scenes, etc. etc. Being able to see him up close and personal would be a wonder in and of itself, but this was a different kind of situation entirely. That one of his newfound threads would lead to the character that he’d been most excited and most terrified to meet… was it a blessing or a curse?

 

One of his hands began to reach out of its own accord, hovering within inches of Mobei Jun’s sleeping face. There was a strand of hair caught in his eyelashes that bothered Shang Qinghua, who had almost brushed it away without thinking, and who nearly hit himself in the face as he jerked back as quickly as possible.

 

It occurred to him that maybe the original had done something like that. Had he liked Mobei Jun from the start? Man, when he’d complained before about his characters coming to life and doing things they weren’t supposed to on the page, he hadn’t meant it like this. Now the neo-Shang Qinghua is stuck with the consequences of his dead-end feelings.

 

Stuck tied to Mobei Jun. Stuck with someone else’s thread of fate, meaning that it might not go anywhere at all, considering he’s a different person now and all of that weird stuff. Instead, he’ll be stuck with the reminder of the fact that even the character who was supposed to have no connections to anyone- a double-crossing, backstabbing, evil bastard- was somehow more successful in making friends and getting laid than he was. And with his favorite character no less.

 

Really? What had he done in his past life to deserve such a thing!? Why was this level of retribution necessary!? If it was that bad, just reincarnate him into a housefly instead, not into this bullshit!

 

As soon as the wave of anger had passed, Shang Qinghua let out a sigh and slumped in his chair, eyes itchy with fatigue. It was a long day even before a demon appeared, killed his fellow disciples, and been revealed to be his predecessor’s future lover or something. Now he was nothing short of exhausted.

 

His eyes lingered longingly on the bed. Did he want to risk life and limb to sleep on it? What sounded more appealing, getting a few hours of comfortable sleep, or possibly being ripped to shreds by Mobei Jun upon waking?

 

No question. He was gonna risk it.

 


 

He was not allowed to sleep on the bed anymore. He also had a new collar of rope tied around his neck, which he had insisted upon tying himself but been shot down immediately, meaning that there was a highly uncomfortable moment during which Mobei Jun had leaned over him while brushing his neck with his too-cold fingers in the act of doing so.

 

So the placement meant, uh… that kind of relationship, huh?

 

Oh boy.

 


 

The discovery of his second fated person ended up being no less of a surprise than the first, if not for man himself- Shen Qingqiu of all people- then because of the fact that the string was apparently not quite attached to him yet?

 

It was very clearly visible around Shen Qingqiu’s pointer finger, but upon close inspection, one could see that it wasn’t actually touching his skin at all. It just floated there around it, like a minuscule glitch in the matrix. And the others- a blue string around his pinky and a red one around his ring finger- were exactly the same in this regard. The only one that seemed to be affixed properly was a yellow one around his middle finger.

 

Shang Qinghua had yet to figure out what that meant, even after becoming a Peak Lord and spending some amount of time together. They got along like cats and dogs as well- or more accurately, they got along like cats and mice, wherein Shen Qingqiu was the cruel and calculated cat, and Shang Qinghua was the mouse, who feared he was going to die of a heart attack before his king could do him in simply because being associated with the other cultivator in any way seemed to bring about an uncomfortable amount of scathing remarks and very detailed threats of violence.

 

Try as he might, Shang Qinghua couldn’t remember ever writing a friendship between the two of them. And, try as he might, he couldn’t make one happen in the present either.

 

Turns out the strings really weren’t for him, after all.

 


 

“What are you doing?”

 

After so much time, Shang Qinghua would have thought that he would be used to Mobei Jun randomly popping into his space by now, but he jumped in his seat just the same, almost as if it were the first time it had happened. “My- my king! Um. Nothing of interest to you, I’m sure. Peak Lord stuff.”

 

Ignoring the answer and placing a hand next to Shang Qinghua’s on the desk (making them much too close for comfort in his opinion), Mobei Jun looked over the scattered papers and brushes with a snort of derision. “Peak Lord duties include writing stories?”

 

“Ah, no.” Shang Qinghua turned his head to look at Mobei Jun while replying, only to find that they really were too close for it to be anything but inappropriate, and snapped his gaze back to the pile of drafts in front of him. “My king has caught me in a lie. This is a personal project. Still nothing of interest!”

 

Before anything could be done to stop it, Mobei Jun straightened back up and took the stack of paper as he did. As Shang Qinghua watched on in horror, the demon lord read through each page, expression growing darker and darker as he continued onwards. At times the corner of his mouth would twitch, and any person other than Shang Qinghua might have been able to see it as an effort not to smile, but he knew for a fact that it could be nothing but the beginnings of a sneer.

 

You never take a writer’s rough draft! Never! Well, sure, sometimes when he was tired he would just post chapters of his novel online without having edited them at all, but at the very least, that was personal choice!

 

“You write romances.”

 

Shang Qinghua’s heart sank at the monotone comment. Mobei Jun had finally schooled his features back into an expression on the annoyed side of neutrality, and he was staring expectantly. “Sort of, my king.”

 

“This was never mentioned before.”

 

“It’s only an infrequent hobby; I didn’t think my king would have any interest.”

 

“It’s not bad,” Mobei Jun replied, and his tone made it sound only halfway like a compliment. “Show me when it is finished.”

 

Eh?

 

Shang Qinghua laughed nervously as he carefully recovered his manuscript, Mobei Jun having held it out after his order. “Surely my king doesn’t-“

 

“And write faster.”

 

Evidently with nothing else to say, Mobei Jun left just as Shang Qinghua was beginning to process the entirety of the encounter.

 

Despite the string connecting them, Shang Qinghua had honestly decided that there was no way that he would ever be tempted into liking Mobei Jun. Sure, he was almost a god in the looks department, and he had a regal bearing, and a badass personality, and was super OP, but there was nothing but heartbreak waiting for Shang Qinghua at the end of the line if he let himself think about that too much. The threads that had appeared on his body upon transmigration were not for him. He wasn’t destined to have family, friends, or super hot demon boyfriends, but giving up the dream was hard, especially when confronted by quite possibly the easiest way into his heart.

 

Like, seriously. Compliment the things that he wrote just for himself, and Shang Qinghua would be more than a little tempted to ask for your hand in marriage.

 

“He has bad qualities too,” he muttered to himself as he picked up his brush once more. Taking a piece of paper that had only a few lines of bad prose hastily drowned in puddles of ink (a true waste of money, but worth avoiding the embarrassment of someone reading it), Shang Qinghua laughed without humor and began to list them all out for good measure. It was somewhere around writing “too violent,” “too controlling,” and “face is unfair” about halfway down the page that the exercise began to lose its luster, and he dropped the brush without caring if it left splatters.

 


 

The second time that he met Shen Qingqiu for the first time, Shang Qinghua was almost immediately aware that something was amiss. Yeah, everyone had been saying so, but seeing it with his own eyes drove the point home more than any gossip could.

 

The previously cold and unapproachable lord of Qing Jing Peak was now a refined and friendly young man! The haughty air had completely dissipated! He made small talk and said nice things about the rest of the sect!

 

Walking side by side as they headed in Liu Qingge’s direction, it felt like he was standing next to an entirely different person.

 

An entirely… different…

 

“Would Peak Lord Shen mind humoring me for a moment and hold up his right hand?”

 

Although he looked dubious about complying with such a strange and random request, Shen Qingqiu did as he was asked. Looking closely at the strings, which now fit snugly around those long and elegant fingers with the exception of the missing yellow one, Shang Qinghua was hit with a lightning bolt of shock, and nearly keeled over then and there out of delight. “Has Peak Lord Shen ever read the book Proud Immortal Demon Way?”

 

The question nearly made Shen Qingqiu trip and fall. Before that could happen, however, he managed to right himself and turn to face Shang Qinghua with an expression of pure bewilderment. “You transmigrated?”

 

“Holy shit,” Shang Qinghua laughed in reply. “Oh my god! I’m not alone!”

 

“How did you get here?” Shen Qingqiu asked, stepping forward enthusiastically. “How could you tell?”

 

“I dunno man, I think I fucking electrocuted myself.”

 

“Harsh.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“I died though, so I think I have you beat.”

 

“No shit?”

 

“Yeah, man. Seriously though, how could you tell I wasn’t the original goods?”

 

“That’s-“ Uhhhhhhhhhh. An educated guess based off of the fact that the invisible strings on your hand actually fit? Which means that we’re destined to be best bros? That a good enough answer for ya? “You-You’re too nice.”

 

Shen Qingqiu snorted in a way that did not match the rest of his demeanor. He also seemed to relax slightly, loosening his posture and unfolding a fan to wave at his face with unhurried flicks of the wrist. “Yeah, no shit Sherlock. How else am I supposed to survive this death trap? Be a dick to everyone?”

 

“Just saying it’s kind of OOC, not that it’s bad,” Shang Qinghua laughed. He might be able to ride this high forever, he thought. He’s not alone. There’s someone else here who understands, and- and that string, at least, is his.

 

“This is fucking fantastic, just so you know, and we’re most definitely going to take advantage of this, but I do really need to see Liu Qingge,” Shen Qingqiu said a few moments later, breaking through Shang Qinghua’s delighted thoughts. “You still up for tagging along?”

 


 

The blue string, as he was already aware, was attached to Liu Qingge, but now it made so much more sense. Of course there would never be that level of devotion between him and the original.

 

The red string was connected to Luo Fucking Binghe.

 


 

“Have you finished yet?”

 

“Work on the ending is still in progress, my king,” Shang Qinghua answered as he put away his writing implements for the night. The sun was on its way down, bathing An Ding Peak in orange light and marking the end of the time that could be used on anything that required, well, sight. Mobei Jun was laying on Shang Qinghua’s bed, head propped up on one hand and resembling very much a person who, in the real world, would probably quip ‘paint me like one of your French girls!’ Except angry. And scary. And impatient.

 

Who would have thought that he would be so obnoxious about getting the story done soon!? He was worse than the people in the comments section that constantly told him that his updates should be longer despite the fact that they were already massive- or the people who started telling him to update twice a day instead of once! Sure it was flattering, but now that Shang Qinghua really was just writing for fun as opposed to making money, he wanted to take his time and make his work as good as possible. He wanted to make his writing feel like it was actually his again.

 

“I told you to write faster,” Mobei Jun growled.

 

“It’s almost finished, my king. I promise.”

 

“Hmph.”

 

Shang Qinghua turned his chair before seating himself once more so that he could sit and look at the bed at the same time. The silence between them seemed to stretch on for too long, causing him to clear his throat. “Um, I am very grateful for my king’s support!”

 

“If you were grateful, it would be done by now.”

 

“Forgive this subject’s boldness, but it’s because I’m grateful that it isn’t done yet.” At the disbelieving glare that was shot his way, Shang Qinghua raised his hands as if to shield himself from it. “Really! I used to write very fast, but the quality suffered! My- my king deserves the best, y-yes?”

 

At this, Shang Qinghua had apparently piqued Mobei Jun’s interest, as he rose into a sitting position and leaned forward on the edge of the bed to use one hand to bat Shang Qinghua’s own away from his face. It caused that godforsaken red string to come into obvious view, and he had to take a moment to recover from that lovely reminder of his situation.

 

Even if the green string really did belong to him and Shen Qingqiu (whoever he may be in the real world) for some reason, there was no guarantee that the other wasn’t vestigial from the OG SQH, and this Shang Qinghua wasn’t keen on finding out through rejection. Besides, Mobei Jun was still kind of an asshole. He had no plans to actually pursue the guy who was so intent on beating him up all the time. Though… now that he thought about it, ever since that strange incident with his drafts, it hadn’t really happened, had it?

 

Still, no matter the situation, it wasn’t great to be reminded all the time of the fact that he couldn’t even consider it without risking his pride.

 

“Tell me something else then,” Mobei Jun commanded as he settled back comfortably on the bed.

 

“Hm?”

 

“If I can’t have that one yet,” he said, without the same sharpness this time, and crossed one leg over the other. “Then tell me something else.”

 

Shang Qinghua involuntarily cocked his head to the side in confusion, but didn’t dare leave the other man without a reply for long. “Like a bedtime story, my king?”

 

“Not a child,” Mobei Jun growled. “And not trying to fall asleep. Anything you want to tell will do.”

 

But, like, a bedtime story, right? This was definitely like asking for a bedtime story, right?

 

He thought for a moment about the kind of story Mobei Jun would like to hear. The demon lord seemed to really like his attempts at an actual sappy romance for some unfathomable reason, so something similar would probably be best. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, y’know?) Regardless, though, coming up with a good story on the spot wasn’t exactly an easy feat. Writing his novel without thinking too hard about it had been pretty easy, but that was only because of fan input and his own occasional self-projection.

 

...That was an idea.

 

“Okay, my king.” Shang Qinghua cracked his metaphorical knuckles and began to speak, wavering often in the beginning due to nervousness and inexperience. He’d never had to do anything like this before, and telling a story was much different than writing one. Pauses sounded unnatural and ruined the flow, which only made him more nervous and caused him to blank even more. Acting had also never been his forte, much as it was a necessity for his current double life, so he knew that he was coming across as either too stiff or too emotional depending on the scene. Not to mention the fact that he’d chosen a kind of personal topic to talk about.

 

For his part, Mobei Jun didn’t seem displeased by the performance, which was certainly very lacking. He laid back down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling, though every once in a while he would nod or make a noise of either approval or displeasure to show that he was still listening. At one point, when Shang Qinghua suddenly found himself at a loss for words again, Mo Beijun took the opportunity to cut in with a question.

 

“Why is it that he doesn’t have a string if everyone else does?”

 

“Ah- I don’t know, my king.”

 

Mobei Jun furrowed his brow. “How? You made it up.”

 

“I, uh, haven’t gotten that far.”

 

“Will you explain it?”

 

“If- If I can come up with a good enough reason.” Or if he could figure out why himself, but he’d been asking himself the same question for twenty-and-then-some years, so he wasn’t exactly confident in the odds. “It’s, uh, really just a plot device.”

 

With such a cop-out answer, it was obvious that Mobei Jun wasn’t satisfied, but he didn’t push the matter any further despite the scowl that tugged at his lips. “And he will always be alone?”

 

“Maybe not always, but uh… I don’t know that either.”

 

“This isn’t the kind of story I wanted,” Mobei Jun told him as his scowl deepened, and he flipped over so that his back was to Shang Qinghua, leaving the other gaping in confusion. “I’m going to sleep.”

 

It really was a bedtime story, then. Something about that was almost cute despite how stung Shang Qinghua felt at the abrupt end to his tale, unsure as to what exactly he had said to offend his king so much. Not the kind of story he wanted? But hadn’t he said that any story he wanted to tell would be fine? Did he expect Shang Qinghua to be some kind of mind reader? How was he supposed to know what would fly and what wouldn’t?

 

Sighing heavily, Shang Qinghua leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, resigned to yet another night of having his bed stolen by someone who really didn’t need it, when Mobei Jun’s voice once again rose from it. It was low and quiet, almost a whisper- but not quite, still just loud enough to hear its deep rumble- as it accompanied the sound of shifting fabric. “Go to sleep too. It’s late.”

 

Although there wasn’t much to see in the steadily darkening room, Shang Qinghua still blinked his eyes open in shock. “You mean… in the bed?”

 

“Mn,” he received in way of answer. “If you don’t touch me.”

 


 

“The clock’s kinda ticking, isn’t it?”

 

Watching as a gaggle of An Ding Peak disciples worried at a building that had been damaged in what was apparently some kind of heated altercation over liking the same girl, Shang Qinghua leaned over to mutter the question to Shen Qingqiu, whose expression was still a very special kind of murderous (one in which the intent came through more in the general feeling surrounding his features as opposed to a scowl or a glare). They were at Qing Jing Peak currently, and as entertaining as it was to realize that even the students under the tutelage of “Shen Qingqiu” could still cause trouble, thinking about the disciples under his friend tended to bring one in specific to mind.

 

Not long now until the moment of truth, when Luo Binghe would be pushed into the demon realm and blackened for good. It was time to make a plan to save their hides. At the same time, though…

 

Trying to be as subtle as he could, Shang Qinghua snuck a glance down at the other man’s hand. Since those strings obviously did belong to Cucumber Bro (what a delight when they shared their true identities honestly!), that meant that he and Luo Binghe really were destined to be, like, whatever it was that they were going to be. Couldn’t that be used to their advantage? Did Cucumber Bro have some kind of Get Out Of Jail Free Card? As long as that worked out how it was supposed to, could Shang Qinghua be granted immunity from any future possible attempts on his life too, just by association? How could he even begin to go about talking about that though?

 

A fan being smacked against his arm brought his thoughts back to the present. Shen Qingqiu appeared satisfied with this, and unfolded the offending object lazily. “Stop staring at my hands, it’s freaking me out.”

 

“Ehehe, sorry about that,” Shang Qinghua apologized and rubbed the back of his neck out of embarrassment. Guess he wasn’t as sly about it as he thought. “Now that I think about it though, Cucumber Bro has, like, really feminine fingers?”

 

“Don’t fucking say stuff like that dude.” He was met with a deadpan expression and a posture that looked suspiciously like Shen Qingqiu was considering giving him another good smack, but instead he sighed and looked back at the now bickering disciples. “But yeah. I’ve honestly been trying not to think too much about it.”

 

“No judgment.” He snuck another quick glance at the red string while his friend was distracted.

 

Seriously, it was too fucking weird!

 

“We do need a plan though,” Shen Qingqiu admitted. “Not looking forward to being turned into a human stick. You’re the author, though- so why haven’t you come up with anything yet, huh?”

 

“That’s- well, you know, I’ve just been kind of distracted?”

 

“Distracted.”

 

“What, you don’t want to think about it, but I have to?”

 

“You-! You created the whole goddamn universe, why should I have to come up with a solution for a problem you created!?”

 

As their whispered argument grew more heated, the subject of conversation drew near from his spot discussing the earlier fight with Ning Yingying and pushed between them, planting himself firmly in front of a very exasperated Shen Qingqiu while shooting a pointed look at Shang Qinghua. “Is Shizun being bothered by this person?”

 

This person outranks you! Shang Qinghua wanted to say, but did not, because he valued his life. It would take a very brave and foolish person to talk back to the protagonist as such, even if he was currently still in his white lotus stage- and while the author was indeed very foolish, he was not very brave, and had no compunctions against admitting to either. He gave a shaky smile instead. “We were simply, ah, discussing something of mild importance. Very sorry to bother!”

 

When the youth made no move to leave them to their conversation, Shen Qingqiu lightly bopped him over the head with his folding fan. What a sadist. “Stand down, Binghe.”

 

“Yes, Shizun,” Luo Binghe relented, though he continued to stare down Shang Qinghua as he backed away. “This disciple is going to prepare lunch while the repairs finish. Though I think we’re almost out of the needed ingredients.”

 

A meaningful silence stretched out for only a few minutes before Shen Qingqiu hurried his disciple off with a beleaguered expression. “Honestly. Kids these days.”

 

“I guess I’m not welcome to stay for lunch, then?”

 

“Some other time. He’ll be over it before long.”

 

“You really like poking the hornet’s nest with him.”

 

“Pfft.” Shen Qingqiu’s arms crossed over his chest. “More like poking a really over-enthusiastic puppy.”

 

Because he had no common sense and an abundance of curiosity, Shang Qinghua pushed further. “See, here’s the problem: sometimes you talk about that ‘puppy’ like he’s Cujo, and other times like he’s Hachiko.”

 

A passing disciple looked up at the pair curiously, brows furrowed at the odd names, and Shen Qingqiu shot him a glare to rival that of his protege before sweeping an arm in the direction of a more secluded patch of mountain territory. “Would you like to discuss these matters of mild importance elsewhere, Peak Lord Shang? Since it appears that one of us is incapable of keeping attention away from himself?”

 

Fair enough, fair enough.

 

Once they had moved a respectable distance away from the hustle and bustle, Shen Qingqiu immediately put away his fan and looked Shang Qinghua in the eyes with a solemn expression, shocking the latter into silence. The sunlight filtering through the oak leaves left the top half of his face deeply shadowed, only adding to the new and stiflingly serious atmosphere. “Listen. I know what he’s gonna be in the future just as well as you do, but right now he’s still my Binghe. The Binghe I raised is one bag of wool away from being a sheep, so I’m enjoying it while it lasts, and I don’t think he’s gonna hold it against me any more than pushing him into the demon realm, you feel?”

 

“Oh.” In spite of his better judgment, Shang Qinghua glanced back at the trio of strings on Shen Qingqiu’s fingers, on the red one in particular, on the way that his friend had curled those fingers into a white-knuckled fist. Even though it was weird to think of his story moving so off-track, he now found himself leaving behind his bewilderment and feeling an odd mix of happiness and pity for the main character he’d created. Look, Bing-ge! There’s someone who cares about you this much! It’s just too bad who he is…

 

Following Shang Qinghua’s gaze, Shen Qingqiu raised his hand in the air and shook it with an irritated frown. “Hey, Earth to Airplane! Mind explaining why it is that you can’t seem to keep your eyes off my strings, huh? Are they somehow more important than literally any given conversation we could be having?”

 

“Sorry, I just-” Shang Qinghua blinked. Not screaming loud enough to bring down the entire mountain was the hardest thing that he’d ever had to do. “Wait! Waitwaitwait. Back up. Cucumber Bro, could you repeat that just one time? Just once? Please?”

 

“That you suck at focusing?”

 

“No, the other thing!”

 

“That you staring at my strings freaks me out?”

 

“Yes, that one! That one! Again?”

 

“Dream on,” Shen Qingqiu snorted, though he appeared just as confused as Shang Qinghua felt, and he tilted his head downwards with raised brows as he watched the other man’s reaction, almost like he was afraid that the An Ding Peak Lord was about to lose his marbles for good. “Are you… okay? You seem like you need a moment.”

 

Tears were threatening to spill over Shang Qinghua’s eyes as he rubbed his already-running nose with one sleeve (causing his companion to take a cautious step backwards). “I thought I was the only one! But- wait. Did you have strings before you got here?”

 

“Before I transmigrated, you mean?” Shang Qinghua nodded in the affirmative, and Shen Qingqiu continued, “No? Did you?”

 

“No!” Gods, this was just like opening present after present! Each consecutive answer made Shang Qinghua feel lighter and lighter, less alone, more excited! When he tried to read Shen Qingqiu’s expression, though, he didn’t seem nearly as ecstatic about the discovery. More than anything, he continued to look concerned. “Didn’t you feel lonely?”

 

“Not really. Are you sure you don’t need to, like, sit or something?”

 

“You weren’t lonely at all? You’re either heartless or lying, bro.”

 

“Not more than anyone else. I just never thought that seeing them was that big a deal; I mean, they don’t even really mean anything.”

 

Something heavy settled on Shang Qinghua’s chest. “They mean everything, though?”

 

Ever since the first time he saw the threads connecting the people around him, he’d been convinced of what they were, what they meant. It just made sense. His parents never had a string between them, though his father and stepmother had a red one, and the same was true of his mother and his stepfather. The ones tying his younger siblings to his parents were pink. The best friends who did everything together in his very first class were connected by green. Each color had represented some form of emotional attachment, and each placement the dynamic between the connected. He’d learned them all by heart just by watching, just by observing, just by that need, that desire, that jealousy over the fact that everyone else had something that he never would, that they had each other and he had no one. Those strings, and his lack of them, had been in control of his entire life from the start. How was that not a big deal? How did that not mean anything? How did he not care?

 

Shen Qingqiu shrugged in response. “Not really. I tried to find a meaning behind them for a long time, but the more you look at people, the more you realize that it’s more complicated than just putting feelings into boxes. Red strings don’t always end in happy romances, green friendships end, stuff like that. Sometimes perfectly happy couples aren’t connected by a string at all.”

 

“Then what about Luo Binghe?”

 

“What about him?”

 

“You don’t think that, uh…” Given the current trajectory of the conversation, Shang Qinghua realized a few words too late that he should perhaps tread carefully over such fragile ground. He could practically feel the fan being shoved into his eye socket already. “That you and he… and like…”

 

There was a tenseness around Shen Qingqiu’s shoulders that Shang Qinghua was very afraid of. “You’re gonna want to pick your next words carefully, man.”

 

“... What exactly do you think it means, then?”

 

No need to elaborate on what ‘it’ was; it was obviously something that weighed heavily on Shen Qingqiu’s mind as well, if the reaction immediately previous were counted as evidence against him. Crisis avoided by way of softened words, he only sighed and brought a hand to his head, running his fingers through the front of his hair as if untangling it would untangle his thoughts too. “Like I said, I don’t think it means anything. My first thought was that the original was even more of a douchebag than I thought.”

 

“Nah, that string isn’t his,” Shang Qinghua replied automatically. Met by a quizzical look, he went on, “Those are all yours. They didn’t even fit right on the original.”

 

“Then I don’t know. I’m not gonna bed my student, bro, that’s messed up no matter what a magic piece of yarn says.”

 

Which made sense. That was objectively the right thing to say, and of course Shang Qinghua didn’t want a young Luo Binghe to be taken advantage of, but he wanted a reason to hold on to the things that he had believed his entire life, and that stupid red string had been his lifeline for all of thirty seconds. “Then you didn’t care about not having any, either?”

 

The question came out hoarser than intended, and he knew that Shen Qingqiu could tell, as he grew more careful in his answers, voice slow, steady, and unsure. “At first I did. It’s just that, over time, I learned not to. You can grow close to people without them.”

 

You can grow close to people without them.

 

So he’d isolated himself his whole life for nothing? His loneliness was his own fault? All he’d had to do was stop wallowing in self pity?

 

They didn’t mean anything?

 


 

Shang Qinghua had expected to finish the story that he’d been writing several days previous, but after his revelation on Qing Jing Peak, he hadn’t had the heart to continue. Sitting himself down at his desk did nothing, as staring at the blank sheet of paper only caused his mind to wander back to things that he didn’t want to think about. He couldn’t write outside- he didn’t want to see anyone at the moment, and he’d claimed that he was sick anyway (just enough to where he needed the time to recover, he reassured the occasional visitor; it wasn’t anywhere near bad enough to require medical attention). At night, when he would usually plan out plot points as he drifted off to sleep, he now thought instead about how pathetic it was to be writing about romance instead of trying to experience it. Which he would never do. And then it kept him up the whole night.

 

Shang Qinghua grabbed at the crimson string around his neck and held it up in the morning light that flooded in through the window. It was just an ordinary string. It was pretty, but thin, insubstantial. He could barely feel it against his skin.

 

So this meant nothing too, huh?

 

Even if the string did turn out to be his instead of the original Shang Qinghua’s, that didn’t mean anything. He didn’t have some fairytale romance lined up with his boss. It would still be possible that nothing would come of it, or that he would trap himself in something he should never have agreed to, or that he would be blissfully happy for all of five minutes before everything went up in flames, and he’d be worse off for finally knowing what it was like to really care for someone when it was taken away.

 

“What are you looking at?”

 

Pathetic as it was, Shang Qinghua was too tired to even be afraid of the sudden question. He dropped his hand and the string along with it, turning his head as far as he could without breaking his neck to see that Mobei Jun was standing directly behind him, almost as close as the first time he read the unfinished draft. “Hello, my king. Just… thinking. Not looking at anything.”

 

“Thinking about… what?”

 

“Mmm…” Shang Qinghua hummed as he moved his head back to its original position and stared down at that empty page once more. He must have done so too fast, though, as the room felt like it was spinning around him, and the various objects scattered around his workspace seemed to be moving of their own accord. The lack of sleep probably played a role as well. He felt slightly delirious at the moment. “Does my king ever wish he had done things differently?”

 

There was no reply for several moments, and Shang Qinghua almost began to wonder if he had hallucinated Mobei Jun’s presence there at all. “What do you mean?”

 

“Being alone sucks. Do you ever wish you tried harder to not worry? Even if you got hurt?”

 

“...”

 

“...Ahahaha, ignore me, my king! I haven’t- I haven’t been sleeping well, and-!”

 

“Are you making fun of me?”

 

Many close calls had occured since being thrown into his own story, but Shang Qinghua was finally sure, in that moment, that he was going to die. It was like the world slammed to a halt for half a second, just long enough to truly understand how badly he’d messed up. Then, as it sprung back to life, the chair was flipped around hard and fast enough to cause the legs to screech against the floor, bringing him face to face with a murderous Mobei Jun.

 

Somehow, Shang Qinghua managed to answer despite the fact that his voice only came out as a wheeze the first few times he tried. “No no no! I promise! I would never! Please don’t hit me!”

 

Although his hands were gripping the arms of the chair on either side of Shang Qinghua with enough force that the wood cracked, as soon as he took in his exhausted and unwashed appearance, Mobei Jun’s violent expression devolved into one of vexation. He let go of the chair and straightened up once again. “You look terrible.”

 

Ouch. “I’ve been… sick?”

 

“No you haven’t.”

 

“No, I haven’t.”

 

Sweeping his gaze over the rest of the room, Mobei Jun seemed to realize for the first time just how serious the situation was. The space was almost unlivable due to the amount of garbage, half-eaten food, and out of place objects on the floor- an impressive feat of messiness considering the abysmally small amount of possessions belonging to Shang Qinghua (who winced at the growing disgust on his boss’s face). He hadn’t been able to work up the motivation to do anything but lay in bed and stare at the ceiling or move to the desk and stare at its surface. Cleaning was a dream as far away as becoming emperor.

 

“Get up.” Shang Qinghua didn’t move immediately, causing Mobei Jun to reach over and pull him out of the chair by the wrist. “This place is disgusting.”

 

“I haven’t had the time to clean…”

 

“They’ve been working you too hard?”

 

“No, I’ve had the past few days off…”

 

“Stop talking like that.” Mobei Jun was looking at him with the beginnings of a frown. “Start picking up.”

 

It was so unfair that Shang Qinghua almost felt like he was going to cry. He couldn’t even have a depressive episode without being pushed around? He couldn’t just wallow for a few days? He doesn’t even have control of his own stupid, tiny house? But Mobei Jun was unrelenting, and Shang Qinghua quickly resigned himself to his fate. Taking a deep breath, he turned away and bent down to start collecting the plates and bowls of food that he’d left on the floor, wishing that these, at least, he would have gotten rid of properly in the first place. Maybe being forced to clean that part wasn’t such a bad thing.

 

That taken care of, Shang Qinghua turned around to begin working on whatever lay in the other half of the room (he’d honestly forgotten at this point), but lost the ability to move at all when he saw that Mobei Jun was nearly done with it already. The demon lord was raising from the floor and readjusting his robes when he appeared to realize that he was noticed and looked away. “Better.”

 

“Ah… yeah. Um, thank you, my king.”

 

“Hm.” That was probably as close to a ‘you’re welcome’ as he was ever going to get, and made Shang Qinghua smile slightly. “Now go sleep.”

 

Shang Qinghua deflated. “I appreciate my king’s kindness, but I don’t think I can.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Unable to explain the thoughts that raced through his head every time that he closed his eyes, Shang Qinghua could only shrug his shoulders. “I, um, think too much. That’s all.”

 

“Go to sleep,” Mobei Jun repeated with more force, and Shang Qinghua couldn’t find the bravery nor the energy to refuse again. He climbed into bed and lay on his back without bothering to undress, looking up at the ceiling just as he had been every night since his conversation with Shen Qingqiu. It was just as useless as usual.

 

Once he was settled, the sound of a chair being pushed across the floor for the second time caused Shang Qinghua to look over and see that Mobei Jun had seated himself right next to the bed, even closer than Shang Qinghua had been when he had told him the bedtime story a few weeks back. “My king, may I ask what-”

 

“You need a distraction,” Mobei Jun replied. “So you don’t think too much.”

 

That didn’t answer anything.

 

“A distraction?”

 

“Just shut up and close your eyes!”

 

“Yes, my king.”

 

After a beat of silence, Mobei Jun finally began to speak again, though he sounded far less confident in his words than a person of his power and station generally should. Shang Qinghua wanted to take a peak at his face, only for a moment, just to see what the expression that went with the tone looked like, but he knew that he had already barely escaped with his life today, so he decided not to take any chances. “I’m not… a storyteller.”

 

Hm. Shang Qinghua wasn’t sure where this entire thing had been going, but that certainly wasn’t even remotely on his radar. “That’s alright, my king.”

 

“Shut up. Go to sleep.”

 

“Yes, my king.”

 

Another beat of silence.

 

“The man who didn’t have strings like everyone else,” Mobei Jun said at last, quietly, “he did at first. But they didn’t help him like they helped the others. They lied to him, so he cut them off as a child. He didn’t care at first. Then he did. It wasn’t fair. Everyone else had someone, but he couldn’t trust anyone. He wouldn’t have anyone ever again.”

 

Shang Qinghua’s first thought had been how funny it was that Mobei Jun had apparently just invented fanfiction, but as he continued speaking, he realized all too quickly what it was that his king was talking about, and it lost the novelty all at once. So when he’d been telling the story about himself, the reason that Mobei Jun had been so upset was that…

 

For some reason, it made Shang Qinghua feel guilty. He knew that Mobei Jun wouldn’t say any of this if he was aware that his audience knew that the story was about him.

 

“He didn’t want to be alone. But he didn’t want to trust anyone. There wasn’t ever a person he thought he could trust.”

 

“It’s an awful feeling.”

 

If he didn’t know any better, Shang Qinghua would have thought that he could hear a short, faint laugh, but Mobei Jun’s voice sounded just the same as he continued with the story. “He did feel awful. I told you to sleep.”

 

“I- I am asleep. I’m sleeptalking, my king.”

 

“Then I’m leaving.”

 

Afraid that he would follow through with the threat, Shang Qinghua rolled over onto his side and opened his eyes, looking up at the very nonplussed Mobei Jun. “It appears that I’ve awakened. Please continue.”

 

Once Shang Qinghua’s eyes were firmly shut again, Mobei Jun simply said, “When he finally did find someone, he couldn’t do anything. His strings were gone. He got rid of them. So he’ll always be alone.”

 

The words carried a feeling of finality that both resonated with Shang Qinghua and ripped out his heart. “You can grow close without them.” There was no response, but his mind was growing too muddled and hazy to think too much about it. Surprisingly, Mobei Jun’s method had been effective, and Shang Qinghua could feel himself beginning to slip away into sleep. Still, he felt it imperative to get his point across at least a little bit, and he reached out one hand until it came into contact with one of Mobei Jun’s, which had been resting on his lap. “I learned… that it really doesn’t… matter much…”

 

“You-”

 

“I’m scared too, you know… I never thought… I’d have… anybody…”

 

One more deep breath, and Shang Qinghua was entirely asleep. He didn’t notice the feeling of a cold hand resting gently on his face.

 


 

When Shang Qinghua woke later in the afternoon, Mobei Jun was already gone.

 


 

Having cleaned up his living space and spoken with someone about the feelings that had been weighing on his mind, however indirectly, Shang Qinghua found that he wasn’t nearly as down as he had been the past few days, and he decided to take up Shen Qingqiu’s offer of coming by for lunch another day. Luo Binghe didn’t seem all too pleased by his presence, but given the fact that Shen Qingqiu didn’t seem to mind, his attitude was not nearly as sour as before. As soon as the food was served, the teen excused himself, and the two were alone.

 

“You’re gonna miss him, huh?” Shang Qinghua asked, and he looked at the red string that led out the door, growing more and more slack by the moment as it elongated with the distance growing between them and Luo Binghe. This time it really was just because the sight was distracting as opposed to being for any special reason, and he realized this with a grin.

 

“Yeah, he’s grown on me.” Shen Qingqiu was also smiling, fondly, but he cut to the chase soon after, expression concerned again. “And you’re sure you’re cool? You seemed pretty freaked out when we talked last time.”

 

“I’m good,” he answered, and it was the truth. “You just made me realize some things, and it took me a little while to get used to ‘em. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about these stupid strings anymore.”

 

“That’s good. This is gonna sound super stupid, but I’m glad you still wanna hang out and stuff.”

 

“Why wouldn’t I?”

 

Raising his hand so that the green string between them made a taut line above the table, Shen Qingqiu plucked it like a zither string. “Again, dumb, but I ended up a little worried that you were only spending time with me because of this.”

 

“Nope!” Shang Qinghua chirped. “I spend time with you because I like you! Even if you’re mean to me.”

 

“You deserve it,” Shen Qingqiu snorted. “And you like it. Because you’re a masochist.”

 

“Rude, and also wrong.” Being able to go back and forth like this was fun, he thought. Back in the real world, he never would have even considered that he might be able to have such a fun and relaxed time with someone, to have a friend. Yet here he was! “You know, it does make me wonder, though. Having a string to you here but not there is weird, even if they don’t mean much. I mean, we interacted online and everything.”

 

Instead of shooting it down, Shen Qingqiu nodded at the comment and splayed out his fingers in front of him as if examining a ring. “Beats me. Do you think we would have ever actually talked back then? About anything other than the novel?”

 

“Eh, maybe not.”

 

“So it might be a circumstantial thing.”

 

“That your best guess?”

 

“Screw you.”

 

Shang Qinghua laughed. “Being here has sucked in a lot of ways, but I’m actually really glad to have met you like this.”

 

Even though he rolled his eyes, Shen Qingqiu nodded and refilled Shang Qinghua’s cup. “I’m glad, too. Don’t make it weird.”

 

He was just about to make a retort when Luo Binghe entered the room again, bowing apologetically. “This disciple is very sorry to disturb Shizun’s time with his friend, but you are being called for by Sect Master Yue.”

 

“The timing is inconvenient, but I’ll go to meet him immediately.” On his feet, Shen Qingqiu turned to Shang Qinghua apologetically. “I’m not sure how long this is going to take. Would you prefer to wait for me or continue our conversation another time?”

 

“I’ll wait for now. If it seems that Peak Lord Shen will be gone a long time, I will see myself out.”

 

Shen Qingqiu nodded his permission and began to take his leave, only to hesitate in the door and turn back for a moment. “Binghe, please keep Peak Lord Shang company while I am busy. Hopefully I won’t be long.”

 

“Yes, Shizun!” Luo Binghe answered as the two were left in the room together. Though the intentions behind giving Shang Qinghua another person to speak to were probably not bad, it seemed that Shen Qingqiu had forgotten that his lack of fear of the young man did not extend to his friend. He tried very hard to look as if he was lost in his interest in a deep whorl in the wood of the table, but all the same, Luo Binghe continued to stand in place and stare at him. His only self-preservation tactics being to either beg for his life or play dead, Shang Qinghua had no method of responding when silence was finally broken. “Forgive this disciple’s impertinence, but what are Peak Lord Shang’s intentions in coming today?”

 

Intentions…? Why- why was he making it sound like Shang Qinghua was some sort of unsavory character? “I- uh, I’m sorry? I’m afraid I don’t- I don’t understand what you mean.”

 

“Peak Lord Shang has been spending much time alone with Shizun, and it has not escaped this disciple’s attention.”

 

Shang Qinghua’s blood froze. This was not a position that he wanted to be in; even if Shen Qingqiu had no such feelings for Luo Binghe, and even if he was oblivious to the feelings of the kid himself, they were still very much there. And the Luo Binghe Shang Qinghua had written, at least, was not someone you wanted to be jealous of you. The malignant aura in the room was already enough to kill small animals. Eyes wide, he shot out of his seat with his hands already in the air. “That’s not- I’m not- you really don’t have to worry about-”

 

“This disciple is also aware that you can see these.” Luo Binghe cut him off and lifted the hand that held his singular string. He left no time for Shang Qinghua to reply or appropriately freak out before continuing, “So you should, perhaps, already know that it is useless to hope to pursue him.”

 

Truly he was the protagonist! There wasn’t a single damn power that this child didn’t have!

 

“No, really, you have it all wrong,” Shang Qinghua insisted, almost on the verge of tears again. All of his work to survive so long in this hostile world, and he was going to lose all of it because of a misunderstanding. He couldn’t even properly marvel at the fact that he’d met yet another person like him. “We’re just friends! I promise!”

 

Luo Binghe looked dubious. “Then you are always staring at our string for what reason other than jealousy? The two of you have one of your own.”

 

“It was just unexpected! Really!” Then, because Luo Binghe seemed just as adamant about the meanings of the strings as he had been up until a few days ago, Shang Qinghua pointed emphatically to his neck. “See, I have my own! I’m not pursuing; there is absolutely no pursuing happening.”

 

Placated slightly (but still appearing to be cautious), Luo Binghe took a moment to examine his one-sided rival’s expression before bowing. “In that case, please forgive this disciple’s outburst. It was only made out of concern.”

 

“Um, it’s alright. Please don’t trouble yourself about it.” Nearly fainting from relief, Shang Qinghua distracted himself by taking another sip of tea while looking at the empty seat across from him. It felt odd to be the only one sitting now, and for the one standing to be the protagonist of the novel. Glancing at him out of the corner of his eye, Shang Qinghua held a shaky hand out toward the other chair. “Would you… like to sit?”

 

With yet another bow, Luo Binghe slid into the seat and looked glumly down at Shen Qingqiu’s half-filled bowl. “Shizun wasn’t able to finish eating. It’ll be cold by the time he gets back.”

 

“Um, he- I mean, he likes your cooking so much anyway, I’m sure he would be happy to eat it no matter what.”

 

Although a pleased blush appeared on his face, Luo Binghe shook his head and pushed the bowl away slightly. “I’ll make another batch before he returns.”

 

Neither had anything much to say after that, so Shang Qinghua filled the silence by finishing his own meal. He assumed that his seating companion had eaten elsewhere while he spent time with Shen Qingqiu, but the teen also seemed torn between taking a bite from the unfinished meal in front of him or not. Shang Qinghua pretended not to notice, keeping his eyes locked firmly on his own food or the table until spoken to.

 

“What is it like to be his friend?”

 

The question made Shang Qinghua nearly choke. “What is it like?”

 

“Our relationship is close, but still formal. I want to know what it’s like to be his friend. Not his disciple.”

 

He struggled to think of an answer that wouldn’t cause trouble for Shen Qingqiu. What was he like when they were alone? He was honestly a different person. “He’s… funny?”

 

Luo Binghe blinked twice. “Funny?”

 

“He makes a lot of jokes.”

 

Another blink. “Jokes.”

 

“Good jokes. And… he, uh… I mean, he’s really concerned about you, for one thing.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Reddening another shade, Luo Binghe’s face was truly something to behold. Shang Qinghua never would have thought him able to make an expression like that while writing him. He was always supposed to be disconnected from things like that, from bashfulness and crushes, even from friendship. He was supposed to be untouchable. Shang Qinghua was actually really happy to see that that wasn’t the case anymore. “You don’t have to answer, but does he know you can see it?”

 

It was more than a bit surprising when Luo Binghe shook his head. “Shizun hasn’t made any indication that he can seen them, and most people can’t, so there’s no point in trying to explain. It might be better this way. Shizun should like me because he likes me, not because he thinks he has to.”

 

That moment felt like the equivalent of a story-changing dialogue option in a dating sim. Would it be better to tell the truth, or to go along with Luo Binghe’s wrong assumption? If he told, it might just make things worse for Shen Qingqiu, but if he lied, it would make things harder for himself after The Blackening. When there was no response, Luo Binghe seemed to grow suspicious again, and Shang Qinghua made up his mind not to involve himself in business that wasn’t his, much as it made him want to throw up a little bit while thinking about the future consequences to himself. “P-Please forgive the rude question, but what if he doesn’t feel the same way?”

 

“He will.” Luo Binghe looked confident in his answer, refusing to break eye contact. “One day. That’s what it means to be connected like this.”

 

“It’s only that- I used to have a friend, like us, and he- he told me that… they don’t guarantee anything. And it’s true. They… don’t.”

 

“They don’t guarantee anything,” Luo Binghe agreed, one eyebrow raised as if this was the most obvious thing in the world. “I do. They’re possibilities. Either people make them happen, or they don’t. I’m willing to do the work to make ours a reality.”

 

They’re possibilities.

 

Just like that, everything made sense.

 


 

It took him all night, but he finished it. He finished a book, one that he liked, one that he was proud of, one that had an audience of one person- but that one person liked it too. It was a different feeling from typing up a monster-sized novel for millions of internet-viewers. This was written in his very limited free time, completely unpaid and completely his. He wrote the characters exactly how he wanted to, made the storyline follow what made sense in his head, ended it when it felt finished. In short: Shang Qinghua was immensely, unspeakably proud of it.

 

The very next day, he’d carried the manuscript on his person no matter where he went or what he was doing. Very few people asked about it (most just gave him odd looks or assumed it was something work-related), and he gave vague answers. Mostly he was just comforted by the feeling of it in his arms, of the proof that he had made it himself, that he had something to give Mobei Jun whenever he arrived next.

 

When he was finally able to retire to his own space for the evening, he first sat on the chair with the papers on his lap as the sun set through the window. There was still no sign of the demon lord, and the interior of the building was getting dark, and a feeling of dread began to creep up into his stomach. Was it his pitiful state the night before last? Had Mobei Jun grown so annoyed by being forced to baby his servant that he wouldn’t be coming by the way that he had been anymore? The thought caused his stomach to turn even more, and Shang Qinghua found himself pacing the floor, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

 

Was it something he said? He couldn’t remember any of their conversation from right before he fell asleep…

 

Had he taken too long in writing the book, and now Mobei Jun didn’t care about it anymore?

 

No, that was all silly; it wasn’t like Mobei Jun visited every night in the first place, really, he was worrying too much. He just needed to be patient.

 

The sun disappeared, and the room was dark, and Shang Qinghua slowed to a stop in the middle of it. He didn’t know what else to do, so he just stood there, in place, clutching the manuscript a little bit too tightly.

 

Maybe he figured out that Shang Qinghua knew the story was about him somehow.

 

Eventually, he simply decided to sit on the bed and wait, but sitting soon turned to laying, and laying soon turned to sleeping, and he was already dreaming fitfully by the time that the feeling of the manuscript being slipped from his arms roused him from his slumber. Blinking awake, he could just make out the shape of someone sitting beside him on the bed and reading through the pages.

 

Having noticed that Shang Qinghua was awake, Mobei Jun put down the finished draft and looked at him without saying a word, so the former rubbed his eyes and yawned. “My king has arrived very late.”

 

“I was… thinking,” Mobei Jun said.

 

“May I ask what my king was thinking about that brought him here?”

 

“Strings.”

 

“...I’m sorry, I don’t follow.”

 

Mobei Jun carefully placed the manuscript down on the floor beside the bed before laying down beside Shang Qinghua. “It doesn’t matter. Go back to sleep.”

 

“Actually-” Shang Qinghua tried to fight off another yawn and failed miserably. “I… I was thinking too, my king.” He took the silence that followed as permission to say what was on his mind, and Mobei Jun turned on his side to look at him. “Kind of about strings. And kind of about trying things. And working for things. And wanting things. And about you? And stuff. And I have no idea what I’m trying to say right now, so I know for a fact that this isn’t making any sense, so please feel free to tell me to shut up. You know what, I’m just going to shut up anyways. Just ignore all of that.”

 

Mobei Jun’s mouth hung open slightly, brows furrowed intensely and breath quickening. Still nothing was said, and Shang Qinghua opened his own mouth to try and defuse whatever was happening until the other curled a hand in his hair. “Shut up.”

 

“Will do,” Shang Qinghua squeaked just before their lips met.

 

Mobei Jun seemed to know what he was doing just about as much as Shang Qinghua did, but he was also more than enthusiastic to try, it seemed. He pushed himself up and on top of Shang Qinghua with his free hand, never breaking the kiss, and made a noise somewhere between a moan and a sigh, which did make both of them pause. Unable to stop it, Shang Qinghua began to laugh, then couldn’t stop laughing, and had to turn his face away from a very annoyed Mobei Jun in order to let it take its course.

 

“Hey,” the demon said sharply, and what was before more like a barrage of giggles turned into raucous laughter. “Someone will hear.”

 

“Imagine that sight, huh?” Shang Qinghua wheezed. “Why don’t- why don’t you shut me up?”

 

Finally, the ghost of a smile tugged at the corners of Mobei Jun’s lips as well. “Like this?”

 

Given the ungodly voice that he said it in, Shang Qinghua expected something equally as dirty, but instead Mobei Jun placed both hands on either side of his face and kissed him again, slowly this time, like he was trying to savor it. When he pulled away to breathe the first time, Shang Qinghua gave him only a second before using both hands to pull him back down by the neck. The second time he didn’t, because he was now afraid that his lips had frostbite.

 

“Kissing you is very cold.”

 

“Kissing you is very warm.” Mobei Jun replied with that tiny smirk still in place, and Shang Qinghua’s heart skipped a beat. “I can stop.”

 

“I literally did not say that, don’t you dare.”

 

“You shouldn’t talk to your king like that.”

 

“Oh, I’m definitely going to have an attack over it tomorrow, but I’m kind of excited right now so I don’t care.”

 

“... A what?”

 

The look of confusion on Mobei Jun’s face was ridiculous and beautiful all at once, and they had just been kissing, and they were right here together, and he’d been thinking of strings and Shang Qinghua, and it made the latter so damn happy that he could cry, so he did, which only caused the former’s confused expression to grow even more confused. Mobei Jun tried to wipe away one of the tears, which caused it to freeze, and then Shang Qinghua was laughing again too.

 

“What’s going on?” Mobei Jun asked, sounding more worried than angry, and Shang Qinghua buried his face in his shoulder.

 

“I’m just… really glad that this is a possibility.”