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a cold bath is good for the heart

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Deep in the heart of the ice demon palace, in the deathly silence of the middle of the night, the weak flame of a burning lamp flickered on a swirl of displaced air.

 

The impenetrable shadows in the corners of the room shifted. For a moment the frozen air grew noticeably warmer before swiftly plummeting even colder than before, and a flare of demonic qi rippled out to fill the room like the force wave of an explosion.

 

The little flame quailed. It would have blown out entirely had a practiced hand not reached out in time to cup around it, protecting it from a premature demise.

 

Shang Qinghua did this without thinking, or even noticing that he'd done it. He did not even need to pause in his writing.

 

It wasn't unusual for Shang Qinghua's boss to come storming in without warning to his house on An Ding Peak, his quarters in the Demon Realm, or wherever else he had holed himself up – a storm of demonic energy radiating anger, frustration or fierce triumph, depending on where Mobei-jun had been and what he'd been doing. He'd been turning up this way for years, since they'd both been teenagers. Shang Qinghua had gotten used to it, mostly; these days it no longer made him jump out of his skin like it used to. This time he barely batted an eyelash. 

 

“My king,” he greeted absently, still bent over his scroll. “How fared the trip? You're back earlier than expected. Just let me finish this last note and I'll be right with you.”

 

His welcome was met with only ominous silence. The looming shadow of his king, which he could vaguely make out in the gloom at the edge of his peripheral vision, was motionless, eyes and demon mark an angry electric blue shining in the dark. The air had a vaguely metallic scent to it, as well as– what was that, sulphur? Had Mobei-jun taken a detour through the abyssal borders or something? Again?

 

A twinge of concern twisted in Shang Qinghua's gut. Years of surviving the unstable temperaments of demons had made him sensitive to unspoken shifts in the mood, and this vibe was starting to feel somewhat sullen. He scribbled the rest of his sentence and set down his brush, and looked up.

 

He leapt up from his seat with a yelp.

 

“My king! What happened?!”

 

From deep in Mobei-jun's chest came a low, menacing rumble.

 

Shang Qinghua fumbled behind him for the valiant lamp that had been keeping his hands and ink warm and lifted it higher.

 

The dull orange firelight flickered over his king's face. Usually a glimpse of Mobei-jun's visage under dramatic atmospheric lighting was enough to make a fanartist weep in envious joy; right now that same sight would inspire a different kind of weeping entirely. He looked like a victim from a gory horror film: covered head to toe in a thick, viscous layer of some dark, unidentifiable substance, disturbingly tar-like and gloopy. His fine clothes were drenched in it, utterly ruined, the fur of his mantle matted and his robes coated in an oily sheen. The length of Mobei-jun's gorgeous hair was slicked to his skull, dripping in sticky rivulets to the floor. And yes, even his poor, lovely face had fallen victim. Mobei-jun had obviously tried to swipe off the mess, but had only succeeded in smearing it around – his glower was only discernible because Shang Qinghua had studied the minutiae of his king's expressions and knew them by heart. 

 

Gingerly he stepped closer.

 

“Is – is that blood?” It was probably blood. Shang Qinghua hoped it was just blood. Mobei-jun's glowing eyes fixed on him, unmoving. “My king, you're not injured, are you?” 

 

Those eyes rolled. “What are you doing in here?” Mobei-jun growled, ignoring Shang Qinghua's question. He clawed at the clasp of his cloak, the normally shining metal caked in grossness, and rolled his muscular shoulders. The heavy garment dropped to the stone-tiled floor with an unsettling squelch.

 

'Here' being at Mobei-jun's desk, in Mobei-jun's office, in Mobei-jun's personal quarters in his palace. Anyone else Mobei-jun would have beaten to a pulp and tossed down a ravine for their presumption, but Shang Qinghua was his king's personal advisor, so it was fine for him to be here. Probably. Mobei-jun hadn't tossed him out yet, at least.

 

“I was just finishing some reports to give you, my king,” he explained. “While you were gone an envoy from the rock demon clan in the borderlands came with offerings to seek out your protection. I took the liberty of drafting an agreement for you to look over." Shang Qinghua had in fact finished his reports a while ago and was now working on a, let's say, story of personal interest – but Mobei-jun definitely wouldn't condone his servants using his private office to write questionable smut, so let's just skip over that-- “But surely that can wait! My king, what happened? Whose blood is that? It's not yours, is it?”

 

Mobei-jun scoffed, narrowing his eyes at Shang Qinghua in an expression full of disparagement. Who do you think I am? the expression sneered.

 

“A beast,” he deigned to say. “Disemboweled.” He looked Shang Qinghua up and down. “Since you're here, you might as well make yourself useful. Come.” He tilted his chin for Shang Qinghua to follow, boots peeling stickily from the floor as he headed for the door to his inner chambers.

 

Shang Qinghua grabbed the lamp and the scraps of his dignity and trailed behind. He tip-toed through the dark, frozen silence of Mobei-jun's bedroom into the most sacred of spaces where this humble and most long-suffering of servants had never dared tread: the king's private bathing room.

 

With a lazy wave of one hand Mobei-jun lit the night pearls embedded in the walls and ceiling, illuminating the room like a scattering of stars. He kicked off his boots and padded to the centre of the room, where a large, stone-lined pool was embedded into the floor. The pool itself was filled with water clear as glass, sourced from the natural cold springs that lay beneath the palace; it was bracketed in the corners by four carved ice pillars that spiralled to the vaulted ceiling, glittering faintly in the light. The shifting reflections of the night pearls and Mobei-jun's demon mark bounced off the surface of the water, lighting him from below in a soft, diffused glow. 

 

Shang Qinghua rubbed at his chest.

 

Mobei-jun was a skilled swordsman and martial fighter, though in battle he was more inclined to rely on his vast wells of spiritual power. His kills, while often brutal, were swift and efficient, an awesome display of violent grace. Which was very cool! This also meant it was rare for him to get dirtied anywhere other than his hands and claws. Maybe a stain or two on his robes, the odd bloody wound of his own that quickly closed. An artful patter of arterial spray across a sculpted cheek.

 

But even like this, with all the muck covering his face, his king was still so...

 

Mobei-jun reached up and ripped off his robes.

 

All coherency was kicked ruthlessly aside. Shang Qinghua gulped. He stayed hovering by the door where it was safer, clinging to his lamp.

 

When the occasion called for it Mobei-jun donned the elaborate robes suitable for such a powerful king, but day-to-day he preferred to wear simpler outfits with fewer layers. Each of those few layers was now ruined. He tore them all off with a couple of impatient tugs and tossed them one after another into the corner.

 

Shang Qinghua dared a quick peek at those abs he had spent so many nights longing for before averting his gaze.

 

He gestured at the pile of fabric. “Sh-shall I deal with this, my king?” None of it was likely to be salvageable, but any excuse to escape was a good one. Each one of Mobei-jun's lost layers felt like a blow to his sanity. 

 

Mobei-jun grunted. Clad only in his thin trousers he crouched and lowered his hands into the water. He rubbed them together, sloughing off the dirt, and when his palms were clean he cupped them and brought the sparkling water to splash his face. Taking a washcloth from a basket near the side of the bath, he wrung it in the water and lifted it to his neck, drawing the wet cloth in long sweeps down his shoulders and arms. The cloth came away brown; Mobei-jun rinsed it off again and tipped his hair forward over his shoulder to scrub the back of his neck.

 

The dense muscles in his shoulders flexed as Mobei-jun arched his neck, hard biceps bulging. Rivulets of water trailed down his spine to vanish beneath the waistband of his trousers.

 

Near the centre of his back was a faint white line, the old scar from a flower dart.

 

Every one of Shang Qinghua's organs lurched. 

 

Flushed hot enough to start steaming under his collars, he busied himself with the pile of Mobei-jun's clothing. The mess of fabric was still oozing, and starting to smell weirdly sour. Nose wrinkled he gathered them up, juggling the pile with his lamp and trying his best not to gag at the stench or the squish under his hands, bare skin prickling at the slimy sensation.

 

Even these disgusting things couldn't dislodge the awareness of Mobei-jun so close by, so close to completely naked, from his mind.

 

“Leave it all outside,” Mobei-jun ordered. He rose to his feet. His hands plucked at the ties of his trousers. “Then return.”

 

The last piece of clothing dropped.

 

Shang Qinghua fled.

 

His constitution stat was too low to withstand such a devastating attack!!

 

Too accustomed to the servants' plight – and too afraid of what might await him on his return – Shang Qinghua didn't just dump the mess in the corridor; he took his time carrying it all down to the laundry rooms himself. The poor demon who answered his knock didn't seem impressed at being disturbed in the middle of the night, but they didn't complain, save to give Shang Qinghua a nasty look.

 

“The king's orders,” Shang Qinghua reminded them, and the little demon complied.

 

Alone again, Shang Qinghua blew out a breath. He counted backwards from ten, scratched his arm, girded his heart and garnered his strength, and turned sharply on his heel.

 

Mobei-jun wasn't still parading around in the nude, thank the gods. He had finished wiping himself down – a pile of used dirty washcloths tossed aside where his clothes had been – and settled into the bath, lounging on the stone ledge that ran around the inner wall of the pool: the perfect place to sit for a freezing soak. One leg was propped up nonchalantly on the ledge in front of him, his knee raised from the water, and his elbows were resting on the edge behind him, putting his enviable chest on full display.

 

The water was exceedingly clear. It didn't hide a thing. 

 

Shang Qinghua looked away. He set down his lamp and pushed up his sleeves, scratched again at his arms.

 

Suspicion nibbled at the edges of his author's memory. “Um. What was it you said you fought, my king?”

 

Mobei-jun glanced up at him. “Giant acid-spitting mountain spider.”

 

At these words the itch that had been vaguely prickling suddenly heightened to a savage burn. Shang Qinghua squawked. “Acid-spitting--! This is its blood??” His scratches became vicious, but weren't helping a bit. “My king! Couldn't you have said so sooner? Like, before I touched it?! You know this stuff is corrosive to humans, ah?!”

 

“Hmm.” Mobei-jun raised an eyebrow. “Then you'd better clean it off.”

 

You don't say!

 

Cursing under his breath, Shang Qinghua peeled off his stained outer robes – he should have removed them sooner; these were his warmest An Ding peak robes, he'd never get the stains out now – and dropped to his knees at the side of the pool, leaving plenty of respectful space between him and Mobei-jun.

 

He shoved up the sleeves of his under-robes and dunked his arms in the pool, hissing at the icy bite of the water. The searing cold was painful, but at least it numbed the burn. Shang Qinghua scrubbed off the remnants of blood and sighed in relief as the sting faded.

 

The water sloshed. Shang Qinghua peeked sideways from under a lock of loose hair.

 

Mobei-jun had bent forward. The sound was him dipping his head under the water; Shang Qinghua watched in a daze as he sat back up, stretching upright and tall. Black-tinted water cascaded down his sculpted body, sluicing off dirt and grime in dark whirls and eddies that dissipated into the clarity of the pool.

 

Water collected in the hollows of his clavicle, droplets caressing the sharp line of his jaw. His nipples were hard as diamonds.

 

Mobei-jun scraped back his hair with one hand and gathered the mass of it into his other fist, scrunching it all together into a coil that resembled a length of fraying rope dunked in crude oil. With the same irritated frown that creased his brow every time he was confronted with a problem that required more tact than brute force, Mobei-jun dragged his claws roughly through the sodden length, yanking at the knots and tangles. His noble brow twitched with a tiny flinch at a particularly hard tug.

 

Shang Qinghua winced. Such lovely hair, and this was how Mobei-jun treated it? Like he was doing battle? Worse than that, because Mobei-jun rarely had this much trouble in fights. This stubborn, impatient man. Sometimes he really lamented writing him this way... even if it was kind of cute.

 

Mobei-jun pulled the length of his hair taut in front of him and glared at it in annoyance.

 

That frozen glare flicked up to Shang Qinghua. “Well?” he snapped.

 

Well what?! How are you expecting me, a hopeless gay, to cope in this kind of situation?! I only wrote millions of words of terrible papapa, I never actually experienced this kind of cliché setup, my king! What do you expect me to do!!

 

Shang Qinghua swallowed, his mouth dry. He licked his lips. “Does my king want...”

 

“Deal with this,” Mobei-jun griped. He dropped the tangle of his hair back into the water with a plop.

 

Heart pounding, Shang Qinghua pushed to his feet and pattered round to the other end of the pool. He pulled off his boots and socks – the frozen stone stabbed at his bare feet, but he didn't want to get them wet – and knelt again behind Mobei-jun's head.

 

It wasn't like Shang Qinghua had never attended to his king before. The very first time they met, after Shang Qinghua had dragged Mobei-jun to the inn and healed his wound, he had helped him bathe – or cowered in the corner until Mobei-jun had thrown his clothes at him. As a young master demon of royal blood Mobei-jun could have snapped his fingers any moment and had any number of attendants to wash him, clean and style his hair, dress him, pamper his every whim. Not that he made much use of this privilege; he used to dismiss most of the personal servants his father sent his way, to say nothing of the ones sent by his uncle. Probably because it was easier to demand Shang Qinghua do everything he wanted instead.

 

Luckily Shang Qinghua spent most of his time on his Peak and wasn't always convenient, or Mobei-jun would probably have pestered him far more often. As it was, Mobei-jun preferred to clothe and bathe himself, and only acquiesced to assistance putting on his complicated ceremonial garments and jewellery. So really he only made Shang Qinghua help with these things, and to comb his hair sometimes when they were alone.

 

They'd never done anything like this! This was on a whole different level!

 

Shang Qinghua's arms felt weak, and immensely heavy. In this position he was looking right over Mobei-jun's shoulder; if he glanced down, he had an uninterrupted view of Mobei-jun's chest, straight down his torso to his--

 

Ah. 

 

Didn't matter how many bowls of noodles he made, Mobei-jun would definitely murder him if he caught him gawking at his ****!!

 

Shang Qinghua cleared his throat. “You still haven't told me what happened,” he said, reaching out for Mobei-jun's hair.

 

Mobei-jun's broad, bare shoulders lifted and fell in a sigh. “The beasts attacked at the end of negotiations. Between Lord Luo and myself they were easily dealt with.”

 

“Looks more like messily dealt with.”

 

Mobei-jun snorted. “The gall bladders. They explode after death.”

 

“Oh, right. Ew.” Shang Qinghua grimaced. “I forgot about that… But my king, what were those monsters even doing there? How did they get into the Underground Palace?”

 

“Some imbecile let them in,” Mobei-jun said slowly, as if it were obvious. Which, yeah, okay, maybe it was.

 

“Yes, but why? For what purpose?”

 

One shoulder lifted in a half shrug. “To cause chaos? Be annoying? Whoever it was, if they aimed for any other outcome than merely interrupting the talks, they did not achieve it.” Mobei-jun glanced back at Shang Qinghua. “I should have brought you. You might have noticed something.”

 

Shang Qinghua shifted on his knees. “Surely this servant would not have been much help-”

 

“Next time, you will come.”

 

“...Right. Yes. Of course, my king.” Internally Shang Qinghua wept. He had enough to do without getting dragged to Bing-ge's 'diplomacy' meetings to get talked down to and sneered at by other demons and attacked by exploding acid beasts! My king, you really want this servant killed, ah?!

 

Outwardly he just shook his head. “My king, can you turn this way a bit? I can't quite reach...”

 

He rummaged in the basket and found the jar of 'shampoo' – a mix of rice water and various herbs Shang Qinghua used for his own hair, that Mobei-jun had taken a fancy to for some reason. He poured the concoction over Mobei-jun's hair and worked it in with his fingers, squeezing out the blood and dirt, then scooped up clean water and rinsed it off, holding his free hand above Mobei-jun's brow to shield his eyes. Without the congealing blood matting the hair together it was much easier to manage. Shang Qinghua loosened the hair and separated it into sections, then repeated the process with each one.

 

Despite his cultivation Shang Qinghua was too ingrained in the habits of a millennial who spent all their time hunched at a computer; his posture was terrible, so much so that Mu Qingfang used to regularly scold him for it before he gave his shixiong up as a lost cause. Soon Shang Qinghua's knees began to hurt from kneeling on the hard floor, back aching from bending over and reaching forwards at an awkward angle. It was especially tricky trying not to brush too much against Mobei-jun's bare skin. He didn't want his king to think he was copping a feel!

 

The third time he asked his king to adjust position Mobei-jun let out a withering sigh. He reached back, hooked a claw in Shang Qinghua's robe and tugged.

 

“Just get in,” he grumbled.

 

Shang Qinghua froze.

 

Get in? Get in the bath? With Mobei-jun? Naked? Share the bath with a naked Mobei-jun??

 

“My king,” he croaked, “the water's far too cold for this humble servant, I'd be hypothermic in seconds-”

 

An annoyed sound hissed from between Mobei-jun's lips. His fist slid from Shang Qinghua's robe and took hold of his ankle; immediately a stream of energy flowed into Shang Qinghua, dulling the bitter chill in the air. When Mobei-jun pulled Shang Qinghua's leg into the water it was only pleasantly cool instead of dangerously cold. Refreshing, in a meditative kind of way.

 

Mobei-jun shifted off the stone ledge, sinking lower into the bath until the water was lapping at his collarbone. Shang Qinghua slid into the pool behind him and sat down on the ledge in the spot he'd vacated. The solid heft of Mobei-jun's body seemed even larger than usual in the open vee of his legs.

 

Mobei-jun's head was practically in his lap. He tried not to think about it too hard.

 

The room fell hushed, still but for the splash of water and the slick muted sound of Shang Qinghua's hands lathering soap through the hair. Fragments of gunk and viscera remained dried in Mobei-jun's hairline, stuck behind his pointed ears. Shang Qinghua scratched at them gently, working the dirt free with his blunt nails. Mobei-jun tilted his head into Shang Qinghua's hand.

 

When he was satisfied he'd expunged all the blood, Shang Qinghua patted down on Mobei-jun's shoulders. “Dip your head again, my king?”

 

Mobei-jun slipped under the surface without hesitation. His hair fanned out, a dark halo floating around the two of them like a bloom of spilled ink. Shang Qinghua skimmed his fingers through the waving fronds, washing out the last traces of soap, and patted Mobei-jun again to signal he was finished. Mobei-jun blew out a trail of bubbles and resurfaced.

 

Shang Qinghua resectioned the hair and reached for a comb and oil. Working from tip to root, he gently combed a small amount of oil through each section, teasing out the knots and tangles until the fine strands were restored to their usual sleek, silken state.

 

The last sour hints of beast-blood stench disappeared under the calming scents of cedarwood and pine.

 

The thick volume of Mobei-jun's mane had grown heavy, soaked through and weighed down with water. Shang Qinghua loosely twisted the hair and wrapped it over Mobei-jun's shoulder to take off the pressure of the weight on his head, then sank his fingers into it, relishing the feel, cool and soft around his hands. He spread his fingers wide across the span of Mobei-jun's head, dug his thumbs into the tense spots where Mobei-jun's neck met his skull, either side of his spine, and pressed down firm.

 

Mobei-jun grunted, stiffening for a moment as if surprised. Then he hummed, a long note of pleasure so low it was almost a moan, pulled from deep inside his chest. Quiet, as if he too was aware of the peace of the moment and felt reluctant to disturb it. Or maybe he was just tired. He pushed up into the circles Shang Qinghua was massaging into his scalp, gradually leaning more and more of his weight into Shang Qinghua's body until the full line of his strong, pale back was fitted snug right between Shang Qinghua's legs. So close Shang Qinghua could feel the vibration of the hum against the insides of his thighs.

 

The back of his head bumped against Shang Qinghua's stomach.

 

Shang Qinghua leaned forward to peek at his face. Mobei-jun's eyes were closed.

 

Shang Qinghua's hands strayed.

 

He massaged small, slow circles into Mobei-jun's temples, traced over the bold contour of his brow, his sharp cheekbones. Rubbed into the tight hinge of his jaw until the tension drained away and fell loose, Mobei-jun's lips parting slightly. He stroked Mobei-jun's chin and under his jaw, petted over Mobei-jun's ears, passed back into his hair. Lost time in the rhythm, the slow, sweeping motion, the solid, comforting weight of his king pressed into him, completely at ease. 

 

His lips were thin but finely shaped. A bead of water slid over the curve of his lower lip; Mobei-jun lapped it away, a lazy, reflexive flick with the very tip of his tongue, allowing a quick glimpse of the soft wet inside of his mouth.

 

Abruptly it occurred to Shang Qinghua how precarious a position he was in. He could fuck this up so easily. One wrong move now and he could lose his life... though, to be honest, that wasn't the reason this felt so dangerous.

 

His legs rubbed along Mobei-jun's sides, his knees spread to accommodate the breadth of Mobei-jun's shoulders, heels tucked close to Mobei-jun's strong thighs. All that bare skin. Those very, very naked thighs.

 

It felt like he was taking enormous liberties. Like a thief laying treacherous hands on something sacred, a fraud pulling off a con – but Mobei-jun didn't complain. Didn't glare or snap or push Shang Qinghua away. His chest rose and fell in the water, each inhale, exhale slow and steady, and through it all his eyes stayed closed, not even moving beneath the delicate, blue-veined veil of his eyelids.

 

His eyelashes were very dark and very long. Tiny flecks of frost glimmered against his skin.

 

The great and fearsome Mobei-jun was fast asleep.

 

Shang Qinghua shivered, and not from the cold.

 

Here was the thing: Shang Qinghua had been dealing with his attraction to this man for a long time. He and Mobei-jun had met as teenagers; since then there'd never been a gap longer than half a year or so where their paths hadn't crossed. Even as a teen Mobei-jun had been handsome and formidable, and he'd only grown more so as he had aged and matured. Mobei-jun was Shang Qinghua's favourite right from the start, but even if he hadn't been, even if the attraction had grown on him later, Shang Qinghua would never have been given a chance to get over it. Honestly, having your storyline entwined with that of your ideal man was both a blessing and a curse.

 

A curse because there was zero chance of them engaging in the more fun kinds of 'entwining', no matter what wistful, horny things Shang Qinghua might dream in his more pathetically lonely moments.

 

But, like so many things about his king – the moods, the appearing out of nowhere, the bossing around – Shang Qinghua had grown used to it. This pull, always tugging at him beneath his skin. Like all the other grievances he suffered daily he was able to shove it down, out of sight, out of mind, and ignore it. Over time the pull of attraction had mixed in with other emotions, affecting the colour of all of them: caution, admiration, wariness, envy; irritation and confusion and bright sparks of amusement. Fondness. The odd stirring of guilt or pity, when he looked at this aloof, solitary, untrusting demon – who was this way because of words Shang Qinghua had casually written – and wondered if he really had made this world too harsh.

 

This fierce, independent king, who by choice was close to no one, spoke to few, never let down his guard. Sleeping naked and defenseless in his cowardly human's lap.

 

Shang Qinghua's hands drifted down. For a moment, a held breath, he hesitated – and wrapped them around Mobei-jun's throat.

 

The skin was cold and smooth. The demon's pulse thrummed; for all his strength and power, he was as vulnerable in this way as anybody else. The bump of his adam's apple bobbed under Shang Qinghua's fingers as he swallowed. His pale, blue-flushed lips pursed and moved a little, but his breath did not change. He gave no sign of waking.

 

Shang Qinghua's own pulse was thundering. He closed his fingers, once, just tight enough to feel the corded muscle of Mobei-jun's neck resist the pressure, then quickly let go.

 

He smoothed his palms back up Mobei-jun's jaw and over his ears, brushing back loose strands of his hair, then sat upright, and shook out his hands to stop them trembling.

 

He felt lightheaded.

 

He covered his own face with both palms.

 

This was like the inheritance fiasco all over again. When he'd been hiding in the ceiling rafters, watching Linguang-jun shamelessly taunt his nephew, and realised that Mobei-jun had brought him, Shang Qinghua, to this most important and significant of events – as if Shang Qinghua was his staunchest ally, his most trusted confidant...

 

As if...

 

As if!!

 

A harsh breath burst from Shang Qinghua's lungs, the closest he could come to expressing the scream in his heart. He scrubbed his hands through his own hair and dropped them to glare down at Mobei-jun.

 

He wanted to shake him. To yell.

 

What was Mobei-jun thinking?! Did Shang Qinghua seem like the kind of person who knew how to deal with – with – with closeness? With being trusted?

 

My king, you...

 

you...

 

 

 

 

Mobei-jun's large hand was still curled loosely around Shang Qinghua's ankle. A claw tickled the arch of his sole.

 

Gently, Shang Qinghua pressed his fingertips to his king's cheeks again, admiring the cool, beautiful planes of this face he knew so well. The emotion taking hold of him – he didn't know how he would put it into words. If he'd had thousands of readers throwing money at him and yelling, he still would not have known how. It was intense enough to leave him feeling a little ill. Not unlike the grip of terror that had him leaping off Maigu Ridge after Mobei-jun, who could not fly. All the rushing rage of an avalanche, except playing in slow motion, and someone had turned the volume way down low. Like a glacier that had been bearing down on him slowly, silently, for so long, that he hadn't noticed it until he was standing in its shadow, and now it was ready to crash down and consume him whole. 

 

Washing Mobei-jun's hair was fine. He could look after his king in this small way, no problem.

 

He didn't know if he was capable of carrying any other kind of burden.

 

His lungs felt tender. Tight. He let out a shuddering breath, a warm, damp puff in the frigid air. His legs were going numb, and he couldn't tell if it was from keeping one position too long or if he was losing them to the cold.

 

He should go.

 

Mobei-jun couldn't sleep here, and Shang Qinghua--

 

He really ought to leave.

 

But he couldn't seem to make his legs move, or to lift his hands from where they were cradling his Mobei-jun close.

 

He – he would just stay sitting here like this, then, just for a while. And then...

 

Then, he didn't know.