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Won't let go

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Shang Hua’s post-transmigration second childhood had to have been crafted as divine punishment for daring to write a novel as terrible as Proud Immortal Demon Way. His mother died in childbirth, His drunkard father barely acknowledged him beyond half-hearted beatings, his bitter stepmother despised him for looking too much like his birth mother, his full siblings blamed him for her death, and his step siblings followed their mothers lead. It was ridiculous! Not to mention all of his cruel cannon fodder Aunts and Uncles whose c-tier drama plotlines made Shang Hua long for his first family whose worst sins were neglect and disdain rather than outright child abuse.


Luckily, being a literal adult in a child’s body meant he had the long-term planning skills it took to run away much more efficiently than any other kid his “age”. Of course, after months and months of hiding away pocket change, stealing maps, stockpiling food and other supplies, his plan was nearly foiled by his own bad luck.


Sure, he probably could have snuck out the front door, but his bedroom window was so much closer to the edge of the property. And yes, he probably should have triple checked that nothing was BELOW his window before he went to bed, but when he looked that morning the woodpile had been under his sister’s window; so why would it have been moved for him to stumble on in the dead of night?


Unfortunately, this meant that when his sleeve caught on the windowsill, he tumbled onto the woodpile, shattering the silence of the night and slicing his hand open in the process. His cool stealthy escape turned into a panicked dash as his brothers and father ran through the house trying to find the source of the ruckus.


The next morning, after having walked determinedly through the night, Shang Hua caught sight of his first stop. The village was relatively small, but he knew from the scant trips he’d made with his family that he could easily sell off a few of his hoarded baubles to the aunties and uncles in the market. The money he made would be enough to get him through the next leg of his planned journey, and if he was really lucky maybe he’d be able to find something good to eat.

The bright sun and the gentle breeze left Shang Hua feeling more confident than he had since falling out of his own window the night before. Even with his cut hand throbbing at his side, he entered the market with a bounce in his step. A round of fierce bartering and white lies later, Shang Hua’s pack was significantly lighter, but his purse bulged with coin. Satisfied with his success, he munched on the fresh Mantou he’d purchased and wandered down the main road. Surely there would be a shaded place for him to sit until the market closed and he could beg a ride from one of the many merchants that would leave town with empty carts. This was perfect, he could get on the road and forget he ever had a second family.


As he rounded a corner, he froze, a tidal wave of fear rising from his stomach and swamping his brain in moments. Shang Yunxi, his da-ge was storming through the crowds of other shoppers in the market, thick head swinging back and forth, obviously on the hunt.


Shang Hua turned tail and ran straight out of town. Forgoing all thoughts of relaxing in the sun and waiting to wheedle a ride out of a passing merchant in lieu of escaping the brutal beating his brother’s murderous expression promised. He really hadn’t expected his family to bother looking for him-- why search for the hated middle child of eight children? One less mouth to feed, right? They couldn’t have found out about the little knickknacks he’d squirreled away of the past few years to fund his escape? He never stole them from family members! He had been so careful to keep them from knowing his plans! Shang Hua felt the familiar unreasonable strains of panic constricting his chest. Even in his first life, anxiety had crushed him with its brutal fists again and again, so now, when he found himself gasping for breath unsure of how far or in which direction he ran, he didn’t feel too surprised.


Taking a moment to measure his breath, Shang Hua glanced around. Mid-morning light spills over a series of crumbling and overgrown buildings at the edge of a heavily forested wood. He's standing at the edge of an abandoned homestead, thankfully it’s somewhat familiar. He has vague memories of playing here with his siblings while his father sold wares in the market. It's possible to reach the next town by nightfall from here if he walks quickly, but the looming specter of his da-ge in the market makes him seek out a place to hide instead. He really didn’t feel like risking another run in with his family. If his memory serves him right, there is an old barn at the edge of the property that he should do just fine as a hideout for the remainder of the day. After some tentative exploration, he was relieved to find that the building still had enough of a roof to keep out of the rain and a convenient loft where he could tuck himself out of view should anyone come snooping.


It took a bit of effort but he managed to scramble up the remains of a ladder, cautiously sliding onto the planks to test their strength. Satisfied that he wouldn’t fall screaming down to the floor of the barn, Shang Hua laid back with a sigh. The last of the fear from the market slipped away and he allowed himself to relax in the mid morning heat. After a moment he rolled onto his side and rummaged through his pack, pulling out the half-squashed Mantou. He nibbled on it slowly as he sorted through his current supplies. Shang Hua planned to take the next month to travel to the Tian Gong mountain range and peek at the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect before wiggling his way into an apprenticeship with Chen Yao, a background NPC whose bookbinding business actually survived to the end of PIDW unscathed.


Shang Qinghua WHO? Shang Hua’s system hadn’t made a peep since he was “Bound to his Role” and if it wasn’t going to force him to become the An-Ding-Cannon-Fodder-Peak-Lord he sure wasn’t going to do it of his own accord. The current plan was to waive at his beloved creation, shed a tear for his initial drafts, and promptly fuck off to shelter in one of the only places he knew would survive his son’s heavenly wrath. (And well…. when he wasn’t a literal CHILD, he could orient himself in the timeline and maybe prevent his terrible crowd-pleasing pa-pa-plot from ever happening. Who knows, he needs to figure out some more pressing matters first. Like escaping his family and making sure his apprenticeship plan actually works out…)


A sudden ruckus outside the barn pulls Shang Hua from his planning. He freezes in place, pressing back against the low wall of the loft, holding his breath for fear of being discovered. A moment later, the clatter of wood and a small yelp makes him flinch.


The voice was young-- younger than any of his siblings at least. This fact alone makes Shang Hua scoot closer to the edge of the loft to peer down at the entrance to the barn. He watches as a small limping shadow slips through the rotting doors and flattens itself against the wall.


Shang Hua can make out a mop of dark hair falling out of a high horsetail and slim shoulders that shudder and shake. Squinting down at the hiding child, he begins to hear the distant shouting of men. At the noise, the child below lets out a soft keening whimper, endeavoring to shove themselves further into the shadows of the barn.


The indistinct murmur of voices clarify into vicious laughter, calls of “That beast!” “Flush him out!” “We’ll teach him a lesson he’ll never forget!” fill the farmstead and the child below chokes back a sob.


Shang Hua swings himself down out of the loft before his brain fully processes the situation. The child’s blue eyes widen with fear but Shang Hua holds a finger to his lips and waves for the kid to come closer


“Come on” he hisses, very aware of the rising voices of the men outside. ‘” I can boost you up to the loft and pull up the ladder.”


The child hesitates, looks from Shang Hua to the door of the barn and back again, before darting forward. Shang Hua scoops him up and scampers up the ladder in a swift movement that even a peak lord would be jealous of. He deposits the kid in the corner and hauls the ladder up, setting it down just in time for the barn door to slam open.

Shang Hua shifts slowly to sit beside the cowering child, hesitating for only a moment before wrapping an arm around the youths’ shoulder. He holds back a noise of surprise as the child buries their face in his side, and does his best impression of comfort, gently squeezing the child’s shoulder under his hand.


“Nothing here but rats and dust.” One of the men below gripes.


“I told you that demon ran towards the river!” another spits.


Shang Hua counts in his head, focusing on the scant bits of sunlight piercing through the rotted roof, anything to keep the building fear in his gut from bursting out as laughter or tears. The men don’t even bother looking up, let alone checking the loft, before they filter out to join their noisy companions. Shang Hua waits long minutes after the men leave to sit up, and gives it an extra minute before he lets the tension fall from his shoulders and turns to his new companion.


“I think they’re gone…are you alri-“ Shang Hua chokes on his words as he gets a good look at the child he saved for the first time. Pale almost blue skin, soft chubby cheeks, raven black hair mussed from their frantic escape, blue eyes, and a familiar blue seal upon their forehead.


Shang Hua doodled that seal again and again in the corners of his notebooks, on little post it notes, on the bits of fanart he managed to whip up for his own book. Mobei-Jun, or…. well…. the demon who will BECOME Mobei-Jun, his king, his master, his murderer, looks up at Shang Hua with soft fearful eyes, still puffy from bouts of tears.


Shang Hua goggles at the little demon. Cute. He’s so fucking Cute. He can’t form coherent thoughts over the teakettle sound his mind has decided to make; so instead he pats Future Mobei-Jun’s head and squeaks out “Hungry?”


There is a pregnant pause and future Mobei-Jun wipes his little, oh my god so little, nose on his sleeve before nodding hesitantly.


Shang Hua reaches out and pulls over his pack, shuffling once more through his supplies before bringing out some jerky and offering it to future Mobei-Jun. “I....uh….this one’s name is Shang Hua…..you are?”


Future-Mobei-Jun takes the jerky and gives it a cautious sniff before stuffing the entire piece into his mouth. The contrast between his chubby cheeks and the absolutely DEFINITELY jagged shark teeth shouldn’t be cute, but Shang Hua is quickly realizing that his weakness for Mobei-Jun is absolutely not something he lost in the transmigration process.


“Mo Bai…”


Shang Hua nearly jumps a the soft voice, it takes him a moment to even remember he asked a question and when he does he finds himself in another spiraling chain of thoughts because holy SHIT he did not name Mobei-Jun in PIDW because there was never a point where he WASN’T Mobei-Jun in cannon, but this is a living breathing world and Mo Bai EXISTS in it and Shang Hua is the worst human EVER for giving his king such a shitty backstory and fuck he doesn’t deserve-his spiraling thoughts are cut off by a small hand patting his arm.


“Shang…. Shang Hua?” Mo Bai looks up at him with his little serious face and his chubby cheeks and Shang Hua wants to die because FUCK how is he so cute. “Thank you for saving me…” little Mo Bai executes a slightly wobbly salute and Shang Hua forces himself to nod back.


“A-ah. No, no don’t thank me-- I mean yes you’re welcome” he hurriedly corrects as Mo Bai’s nose crinkles in displeasure “What I mean is, how could I let those guys hurt you? They were being so loud and terrible and you’re just a…a kid.”


Wait, was this, Shang Hua fought back hysterical laughter, was he interrupting Mo Bai’s tragic backstory? Was this the point where LinGuang-Jun abandoned him in the human world to be beaten and harassed by villagers till Mobei-Jun senior came and picked him up? Shang Hua looked down at Mo Bai who had settled back to eat the remainder of the jerky and cursed himself three-fold. This was surely too young! What kind of evil villain sends a child this little to be tortured? He might have felt a bit bad for the backstory he gave LinGuang-Jun before… but seriously fuck this guy! It’s not Mo Bai’s fault Mobei-Jun senior was a dick! (Actually, it was Shang Hua’s fault just like the REST of this horrible no good setting, but that's not the point!.)


Shang Hua was once again saved from his own thoughts by Mo Bai


“What do you want?” Those blue eyes stared at him, eerie even when red rimmed from tears.


“Huh?”


“Why did you save me? What do you want?” Mo Bai’s shoulders creep up around his pointed ears, making him somehow smaller and more vulnerable than ever.


“I don’t want anything?” Shang Hua waves his hands desperately, skin prickling with sweat at the thought of future Mobei-Jun’s ire. “I’m not-- I don’t-- I’m not going to extort you? I mean you’re a prince but you’re also a kid and that’s super fuc- I uh mean messed up?”


Mo Bai’s eyes widen “How do you know me?” his soft doeskin boots squeak on the floorboards as he scrabbles away from Shang Hua.


Shang Hua wants to throw himself off the roof of the barn, but he doesn’t think it's high enough to actually kill him. “I- uh- y-your mark!” He stammers, pulling bullshit out of his ass harder than he ever did while writing PIDW....well.... maybe not HARDER but certainly with more at stake “I-I’ve seen it before when reading! A-about powerful demons a-a-and the history of the North.... T-this one means no disrespect.”


The tension holds until Mo Bai relaxes, his slim shoulders slumping with exhaustion. “Ah.”


They sit silently for a long stretch of time; Shang Hua busies himself once again by sorting through his pack as Mo Bai slowly inches back across the loft to sit at Shang Hua's side.


Shang Hua runs quiet calculations, if they start traveling tomorrow, and they’re very lucky, they can make it past the Red Moon Bridge into Huan Hua Palace territory before they run low on food and funds. But then again, is moving forward into cultivator territory a smart move with Mo Bai in tow?


Shang Hua worries his bottom lip with his teeth and glances down at the little demon. Why should he bring Mo Bai along with him anyway? The kid is bound to be picked up by his father at some point in the next few weeks…but what if Shang Hua’s interference means that Mo Bai’s plotline is already off course? What if the villagers come back? What if he gets eaten by a vicious beast? What if LinGuang-Jun reappears?... Well, actually Shang Hua can’t do anything about LinGuang-Jun, but he can maybe make sure that the villagers don’t beat Mo Bai so brutally…


Shang Hua turns to Mo Bai but words die on his lips as he sees the younger boy has nodded off in the silence, his little hand clutching the hem of Shang Hua’s robe. Shang Hua’s chest tightens, but he does his best to ignore the pounding guilt as he pulls off his patched over-robe to tuck around Mo Bai. He’d always thought of himself as a coward, but maybe he could pretend to be a brave for a little while. Just long enough to spare his favorite creation a bit of pain.

Chapter Text

 

Shang Hua’s hands are always a little clammy, but Mo Bai can’t really bring himself to care. For every royal retainer that hovered respectfully distant and for every fearful servant that  dared not look him in the eye, Mo Bai placed another layer of ice between himself and those around him. Only one person had ever slipped past that barrier before-- but here was Shang Hua, scooping him up within moments of their meeting. Wrapping an arm around him as they hid from the villagers, offering him food, a hand, his own over-robe to sleep under. It was more affection than Mo Bai had ever been allowed in his short life.

He clutches Shang Hua’s clammy hand now as they pass through the human marketplace. He hardly let go of the older boy now that they had been travelling together for more than a week. That first day they had remained hidden in the decrepit barn for a full night before Shang Hua declared it safe to move on. They had stolen a new outer robe for Mo Bai, used a ribbon to cover his demon mark, and set off toward what Shang Hua promised was a friendlier set of towns where they could endeavor to disappear for a while.

The first time they entered a human town, Mo Bai had clutched at Shang Hua with all the strength in his little hands, only relenting at the sharp hiss of pain from the older boy.

“Careful there” Shang Hua murmured, “How is this one supposed to take care of you with crushed fingers, hm?”

Mo Bai tucked his chin against his chest, hoping that Shang Hua couldn’t see the flush of shame upon his cheeks, but loosened his grip obediently, unwilling to completely let go as they dodged past the other shoppers.

“It’ll be ok” Shang Hua promised “Your Shang-Gege won’t let go.” Mo Bai almost stumbled at the familiarity of those words, but Shang Hua simply tugged him further into the marketplace, soft voice chattering on, oblivious of the fire he’d lit in Mo Bai’s cold little heart.

It would be hard to convince his father to allow Shang Hua into the Northern Ice Palace as part of Mo Bai’s retinue. It would be harder still to defend Shang Hua from the other demons who already coveted the power inherent in Mo Bai’s inner circle. But how could he leave behind the warmth of Shang Hua’s hand now that it has been gifted to him? The thought of asking his Uncle for help crossed his mind before he remembered LinGuang-Jun’s recent betrayal, it struck his chest with enough pain that has to hold his breath to counter the burning at the corners of his eyes. His mother taught him how to keep control of his emotions, he couldn’t let himself cry in front of Shang Hua, especially not now that he had decided to keep the older boy. 

He peeks up at Shang Hua now, drinking in the easy smile and smattering of freckles across the sun kissed skin as he haggles viciously with a vendor over some unknown human vegetables. How Shang Hua has lasted so long without sharp teeth or claws, Mo Bai doesn't know. Humans are fragile, yet Shang Hua hasn’t hesitated to protect Mo Bai during their past week of travel. He hid him from bloodthirsty villagers, chased off a feral dog, and even shouted down a man who tried to hit Mo Bai in the last town they had entered.

Mo Bai runs his thumb over the delicate knuckles of Shang Hua’s hand, the older humans could have killed both of them if Shang Hua hadn’t been fast and smart. Shang Hua is risking so much by helping Mo Bai, yet he had no defenders of his own.  From what Mo Bai can gather, Shang Hua was alone in the world before they met. No parents who loved him, no helpers to guide him, no friends to confide in. Just a desire to travel and learn. Mo Bai was sure if he offered, Shang Hua would see the benefits of the Northern Demon realm. There were books to read, artifacts to study, hills to sled down, lakes to skate on. Mo Bai would even ensure that a set of rooms could be renovated to have a fireplace and warming talismans just to keep Shang Hua comfortable. Mo Bai could keep Shang Hua close by his side until Mo Bai became Mobei-Jun, then there would be nothing in the world that could threaten either of them.  

Unfortunately, that brought him back around to his initial problem. He was nowhere near old enough or powerful enough to protect Shang Hua in the demon realm. He couldn’t even defend himself against adult humans, how was he going to defy his father and keep Shang Hua by his side? When he became Mobei-Jun in truth, he would have no trouble keeping a soft human. The court would grovel at Shang Hua’s feet if Mobei-Jun demanded, but he was not Mobei-Jun. Not yet. A soft hand on his head startled him out of his planning, Shang Hua grinned down at him, bright as the sun.

“Mo Bai? I asked if you were hungry?”

Mo Bai felt the flush across his cheeks grow deeper as he gave a short nod “En.”

“Then I’ll get us something to eat. We have enough money for a room at a cheaper inn tonight, and I don’t know about you but this old man is tired of sleeping on the ground.” Shang-Hua chattered absentmindedly as he paid a street vendor for two sticks of roasted meat, handing one to Mo Bai as they continued to walk. “And honestly some protection from the wind and rain would be nice. It’s obviously going to pour, and I'd rather not get soaked.”

The inn was nothing close to what Mo Bai was used to in the Northern Palace, but the four walls, bed, and deep tub were more than enough to make Shang Hua smile in relief. He tossed his pack to the ground and let out a groan before flopping on the bed. “One day this old man will get to sleep in a bed every night and write stories every day.” He stretched and sat up with a contented sigh, Mo Bai hid a small smile at the way Shang Hua’s messy hair stuck out at wild angles.

“So. Dinner, a bath, and some sleep. We won’t have to share my over-robe tonight since we have a real blanket. How nice will that be?” Shang Hua’s warm voice soothed the sour note in Mo Bai’s heart at that. He likes Shang Hua’s over-robe. It smells like pine needles, fresh grass, and sweat. Sure, it was dirty enough at this point that a palace servant wouldn’t even consider using it as a rag, but it had covered him without fail every night since he met Shang-Hua.

His mood soured a little further as Shang Hua coerced him into surrendering the outer robe that was stolen on his behalf and handed it over to one of the inns servants for a wash. Later, after a surprisingly filling meal, a delightfully icy bath, and the return of his freshly laundered robe, Mo Bai snuggled stubbornly into Shang Hua’s side. Rain pounded overhead muffled beneath his companion’s snores, as his eyelids drooped Mo Bai couldn't keep the tiny smile from his lips.

-

Three Days later, Mo Bai forced himself not to tremble as his father laid waste to the cultivators that had chased him for the better part of a mile off the road and into the forest. Ice spears crystalized from the moisture in the air and drove through the remaining combatants, skewering them like morbid sculptures mid-leap. Mobei-Jun’s broad back hid the bodies from Mo Bai’s gaze for a moment as the older demon let out a snarling laugh, breath fogging in the chill of his own demonic aura. It should feel safe to be swept up into those familiar broad arms and wrapped in his father's’ warm cloak, but Mo Bai can’t help but ache for rough patched linen beneath his hands. His father says something and Mo Bai found himself nodding along before Demonic Qi engulfs them both, whisking them away to the Northern Palace and the icy cold.

It’s not until Mo Bai had been bathed, dressed, and laid to rest in his own bed by palace attendants that he allowed himself to curl up in his familiar blankets and cry. His room felt cavernous without familiar chatter. If he had just stayed put, this wouldn’t have happened. Shang Hua had warned him before they passed through the gates of the city that there were cultivators nearby. He had found them a room at an inn and told Mo Bai to stay put, that Shang-Ge would go out, find food, make a few coins in the market by selling some of his remaining trinkets, and be back before dark. But the sun had set and Shang Hua hadn’t returned.

Mo Bai felt his stomach roil as he paced back and forth across the room. Had he been abandoned? Had something happened to keep Shang Hua away? Did someone find out that the young boy had been protecting a demon and hurt him? That last thought set Mo Bai’s heart stuttering in a way that made his whole body tremble. His Qi was rioting under his fingers, stretching for something just out of his reach. If he concentrated, he could feel Shang Hua, a warm thrum of familiar Qi not far away. Mo Bai’s fingers twitched, he wanted to be with Shang Hua, he could be with Shang Hua, something in his blood whispered that there was a path… if he could just concentrate. In a moment frost bloomed under Mo Bai’s fingers and a dark blue light enveloped him with a crackle of demonic Qi.

Everything was  too bright, and too loud. People around him were screaming. A market stall fell with a clatter of broken ceramics and Mo Bai had to lock his knees to keep from collapsing as a wave of nausea overwhelmed him. The blurry shapes around him solidified and to his horror he saw that he currently stood in the middle of the night market in the center of town. Humans scattered in all different directions, screaming about a demon attack. Three people emerged from the crowd headed towards him, swords in hand, pale yellow robes marking them out as Huan Hua Palace cultivators.

 Mo Bai’s world narrowed down to his panicked heartbeat and the gleam of their weapons. He turned on his heel and ran.

One heartbeat. He saw a familiar flash of brown hair and freckled cheeks across the market, looking at him with astonishment. Two heartbeats. His demonic Qi was flaring up, the need to escape so high he couldn’t think. Three heartbeats. His world flashed blue and cold, suddenly there was a dirt road beneath his feet instead of stone tiles.

He didn’t stop running, not even when people around him screamed and he heard the distinct buzzing of flying cultivators behind him. It wasn’t until the familiar dark wave of his fathers Demonic Qi washed over him that he even looked back to see the number of pursuing cultivators had raised from two to ten. It was nothing for his father to kill them with a sweep of his hand, and less to pick up his weakling son and bundle him back to the demon realm where he belonged.

Now in the dark and quiet of his room, Mo Bai let himself cry the fear and desperation out of his system. He was alive, Shang Hua was alive, and if he could just work hard enough, he’d be able to bring him to the Northern Palace as soon as Mo Bai had enough power to protect him. It would be fine. It would all be fine.

Mo Bai woke the next morning to see his father sitting by his bedside, splattered in the deep red of human blood.

“I went back for the town that dared call those cultivators to you.” Mobei-Jun’s voice was slow and clear, but Mo Bai felt his ears begin to ring. The slow shiver of panic that rose in his chest was suffocating. “Not a building still stands, not a person still lives.” His father continued, reaching forward a red coated hand to stroke down Mo Bai’s cheek. “The Huan Hua Palace will know the price of preying upon the Mo Clan.”

Mo Bai remained silent as his father left the room. Turning to look out his window, his eyes remained unfocused as half frozen tears dripped down his cheeks. The wall of ice Shang Hua had melted around his heart closed with a bitter snap once again.

Chapter Text

When Mo Bai appeared with a flash of blue light in the middle of the market, Shang Hua almost fainted out of sheer shock. The three Huan Hua palace cultivators who had cornered him over the “faint traces of demonic Qi” on his clothing stared slack jawed at the tiny boy, Shang Hua’s transgressions forgotten with the arrival of a real demon in their midst.

Everything happened in flashes as chaos engulfed the market. Villagers fled screaming, the cultivators drew their swords, and Shang Hua saw Mo Bai’s terrified face perfectly framed in the flash of steel. Then, with an icy blue crackle of Qi, Mo Bai disappeared once more.

Words stuck in Shang Hua’s throat as he desperately shoved his way through the crowd, Mo Bai couldn’t have gone far. He had to find him, had to bundle him up and away from the people who could hurt him most. A new set of screams sounded down the street to the east and Shang Hua took off without a second thought. He gave a cry of frustration as he saw the cultivators mount their swords and shoot over the nearby buildings, there was no way he could outpace them on foot.

Shang Hua couldn’t keep his eyes on the flying cultivators and on the people panicking around him, so when a careless elbow crashed into his face he was taken completely by surprise. He was sent sprawling to the ground where his skull met stone with a sickening crack.

 The world twisted into strips of color and shadow as pain exploded across the back of his head. He curled up there on the flagstones, fighting the urge to vomit with all his strength. Through the rolling waves of pain, he registered that someone was speaking to him. A hand touched his back and a wave of warm static flowed from that point of contact. As his vision cleared and the throbbing pain reduced to a simple headache, Shang Hua realized that someone must be healing him using spiritual energy. He looked up, half dazed and squinted at his rescuer.

A short man in dark robes with curly black hair swept into an elegant crown smiled down at him, radiating a peaceful calm. “Are you alright?”

Shang Hua jolted as another shout came from the surrounding crowd, twisting his head desperately to see if he could spot Mo Bai.

The cultivator tipped his head, “Young man?”

Shang Hua shot to his feet, surprising himself with how easily he slipped past the grasping hand of the man who had healed him.

“Wait! Your wounds!” The man shouted, but Shang Hua had already dipped into the crowd, sprinting towards the renewed noise. Sorry kind cultivator bro, Mo Bai was Shang Hua’s priority.

The town gate was swarming with villagers who scattered at the sight of a small bleeding boy who howled “MOVE!” as he ran past them like some kind of fierce ghost.

Shang Hua swiped the blood from his eyes, panting with exertion as he came to the village outskirts. He scanned the sky for flashes of gold and swore under his breath as he caught sight of the Huan Hua palace disciples circling like buzzards in the distance. If he could just find Mo Bai, they’d… do something-- there had to be something he could do. Plot after plot flitted through his brain, what could suppress Mo Bai’s demonic aura? What could he use to escape from cultivators? Even as his breath started to grow short, Shang Hua’s desperation kept him running.

Sweat dripped from his temples as he pushed himself further. He couldn’t think of anything that could save them, everything useful was either linked to his protagonist or far enough away that it wouldn’t matter. Shang Hua couldn’t stop though, the growing certainty that he would stand before Mo Bai with nothing but his empty fists in the face of this danger only made him more desperate in the chase.

By the time the last cultivator disappeared into the darkness of the horizon, the neat road had turned to a dirt path. He was surrounded on all sides by a dark forest that melted into the night sky without distinction. The scant moonlight that filtered through the trees was barely enough to see by as he ran. It wasn’t even a surprise when Shang Hua’s foot caught a tree root sending him tumbling off of the road and into a patch of thorny brush.

Shang Hua let out a wordless scream, half fear and half pain. In the moments after his voice cracked and failed, the woods echoed back his sniffling sobs. Mo Bai was going to die at the hands of cultivators and Shang Hua was too fucking weak to have saved him. He should have hardened his heart and let the villagers beat the young demon. He should have let the plot progress without getting involved. Now his favorite character- no, now a young scared boy was going to die alone and far from home just because Shang Hua was stupid enough to get caught in his own novel’s bullshit plots.

The sound of footsteps along the path made Shang Hua thrash in the bushes “H-help!” he begged.

“Well if you hadn’t run from my Shizun, you wouldn’t need help, now would you?”

A steady hand pulled Shang Hua up and out of the thicket, gently plucking away the bits of vine and thorn that clung to his clothes and skin. Shang Hua was carefully set down by a young woman with straight hair neatly bound back with a ribbon. She wore dark robes in the same style as the man who had saved him in the market, but she scowled down at him without the peace that had radiated so easily from the other man.

“What was all that about? My master told you to wait. But no, head split open on the stone pavement and you go running out of town like some kind of shrieking beast.” The young woman grumbled fiercely but her hands were light as she checked Shang Hua over for further injury.


Shang Hua grabbed the hem of her robe and threw himself into a bow “P-please, please you have to help him.” He ignored the noise of surprise the young woman made. Begging, even as his throat burned, “He hasn’t hurt anyone please- please help him.”

“Help who?”

Shang Hua’s answer was swallowed by a soundless boom of demonic Qi that erupted from the deeper parts of the forest like an engulfing wave. A bloom of blinding blue light shone brightly before dimming into a shifting aurora. Both Shang Hua and the cultivator before him gaped at each other for a silent moment before another wave passed, this one bringing a spiritual pressure down upon them so rapidly Shang Hua’s ears popped. The faint strains of an aurora borealis hung in the air, shifting slowly against the black night sky. A distant part of Shang Hua’s mind noted that it was beautiful even as he began to shake. This was not Mo Bai’s doing. There was only one demon who could cause a reaction like this.

When the young cultivator stepped forward, Shang Hua grabbed for her robe, unable to stop his cry. “No! Mobei-Jun will kill you!” The temperature dropped precipitously leaving Shang Hua’s short breaths to fog in the night air.

She turned to him eyes wide with fear and confusion, but her mouth set in a straight line. “I have to help them! Stay here!”

Shang Hua watched with dull fear as she mounted her blade, shooting towards the growing sounds of battle without once looking back. Exhausted as he was, there was nothing more he could do. If Mo Bai had survived this long, his father was taking care of him now. Shang Hua didn’t want to consider the alternative.

He forced himself to rise and then take shaky steps away from the forest path, perpendicular to the town and the battle. He needed to disappear. If the cultivator managed to survive, she would ask questions he didn’t want to answer. In a few days he’d find another village, he still had his map. He could still go to Chen Yao and apprentice. He could keep going. He just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

---

Shang Hua’s head felt heavy, like cotton or clouds had been stuffed into his sinuses weighing his whole face down. It took three tries to open his eyes, but when he did, the light made him groan. His tears were cold as they slid down his cheeks, the water blurring his vision as he tried to puzzle out what had happened.

Oh. Right. The forest, Mobei Jun, Mo Bai, the cultivators. He hadn’t gone to sleep, had he? Shang Hua forced himself to sit up slowly, frowning at the heavy blanket which slid into his lap with a gentle hiss of fabric. Shang Hua wiped his eyes and squinted at his surroundings.

Mid-morning light filtered through a large window illuminating a breathtaking mountain vista. Shang Hua stared in numb shock at the beautiful scenery, mind ticking over the idea that he was very, very far from where he last remembered being. The sight of a distant figure slicing through the sky on a blade made him blanch and turn away towards the room itself. It was relatively small, maybe the size of a college dorm in his first life. His bed sat tucked beneath the window. Across the room a small table had been set for a meal, but there were no plates or dishes to speak of. A second table at this bedside held a bowl of water and a clean towel.

Shang Hua inched forward to reach for the water and winced at the low thrum of pain that lanced through his leg. He pulled back the covers and suppressed a distressed squeak. His left leg was bound and splinted, little dots of red peeking through the linen bandages midway down his calf.

“You shouldn’t move too much, little one.”

Shang Hua jumped at that, jostling his leg painfully as he swung around to see who spoke. The two cultivators from the night before stood in the open doorway. The older man smiled peacefully while the younger woman scowled down at him over a tray filled with covered dishes. Shang Hua realized that the robes he thought were grey in the light of the moon, were actually a pale teal. He swallowed down his panic and gave as proper a sitting bow as he could manage.

“A-ah…esteemed cultivators…. what…um…. what happened? Where…where is this?”  Shang Hua kept his eyes on the blanket before him, trying to hide the way he shook under their scrutiny. He heard rather than saw them come into the room and settle at a small table. The smell of food from the tray made his mouth water. It had been a while since he’d managed to eat a full meal, choosing instead to make sure Mo Bai never went hungry as they traveled.

“These are the healing halls of Qian Cao peak, in the Tian Gong mountain range. We brought you here to recover from your injuries.” Shang Hua tried not to wince at this, but his hands clenched the blankets tightly without his permission. The man seemed not to notice as he continued on. “As for what happened, we were hoping that you could answer some questions to make things clear. First things first, what is your name?”

“Shang Hua.” He winced at his own stupidity, he should have lied, given a fake name to the two unreasonably interested cultivators. Told them he was WuMing from the borderlands and to let him go back home right now please. Dumb author, dumb god, dumb idiot millennial in a child’s body!

“Shang Hua, thank you. This one’s name is Su Zhanjin, and this is my disciple Wang Yue. Now, we have food and you have not eaten since the night before last. If you would allow, my disciple will help you sit with a tray and we can speak over a meal.”

Shang Hua risked a glance up and nodded, ducking his head as he met the man’s steady grey eyes. There was a layer of intent in that gaze that he couldn’t bear to face head on. Once he was settled with his food Shang Hua gripped the edge of the tray tightly to keep from fidgeting.

After a long moment Su Zhanjin began to speak again, “When you were struck in the chaos of the night market, this master had wanted to make sure you were alright; but you ran off into the woods after the Huan Hua Palace Cultivators without a word. When Wang Yue found you, she said you had collapsed exhausted off the side of the road, but even then, you did not keep still. When a nearby battle pulled Wang Yue away, you ran off again into the woods. It took much longer to find you this next time, but when we did you had fallen into a creek and broken your leg. We took you here to care for your injuries. You’ve been asleep for the better part of two days.”

Su Zhanjin took a sip of tea, letting silence fill the room. Shang Hua felt the weight of his gaze like an anchor around his neck. “Please, tell us. What was so important that you ran the soles of your feet bloody giving chase?”

Shang Hua kept his eyes glued to the tray before him as he bowed again, careful not to dip his hair into his food. “A-ah….this lowly one thanks the esteemed cultivators for their aid…” he trailed off, “But…But that night was, just-ah well, um…” the headache was making it harder to spin straight out lies and harder still to consider how to tiptoe around the truth. A sharp pang of loss curled through his gut at the memory of Mo Bai’s terrified face in the market. Shang Hua had to close his eyes and take a careful breath to keep from tearing up.

“How did you know the demon fighting in the woods was Mobei Jun?” Shang Hua tried not to flinch at Wang Yue’s sharp tone, stilling his hand as he distantly realized that the whole tray was shaking in his grip. He didn’t have an answer that wouldn’t leave him vulnerable. Instead of giving in though, Shang Hua took a breath and burst out into tears- letting the tray fall from his lap with a crash as he hunched forward and wailed with all the breath in his lungs.

“Wang Yue!”  Su Zhanjin’s voice was strained and sharp for the first time. Her disgruntled cry of protest was cut off as he shooed her from the room. “Mu-Shizhi told us not to startle him, now go stall before Mu-Shizhi hears and kicks us out.”

Shang Hua continued to sob into the blankets, pretending he didn’t hear the heated whispers being exchanged between Su Zhanjin and Wang Yue. Honestly, it felt nice to let out the sheer stress of the past week and a half. He tried not to react to the rustle of robes as Su Zhanjin crossed the room and sat next to him. A hand came up to slowly rub his back as he sobbed.

“Shhh…. It’s alright. This master is sorry that we pushed you too quickly. This has all surely been a shock.” Su Zhanjin kept his voice intentionally soothing, but Shang Hua was not about to give up his advantage so easily. He had a moment now to think-- there had to be a way to weave this story that would end up with Shang Hua escaping their suspicion.

As Shang Hua’s real tears began to settle, he forced himself to continue sniffling; letting out a soft whimper every few minutes as Su Zhanjin continued to rub his back.

 Something sad might work. Two lost children finding and defending each other. Kindness for kindness. Mo Bai had totally admitted his lineage and his fear of his father’s revenge willingly. Yes, that was it. Just enough information to see Shang Hua as an innocent bystander with a soft heart. He could do this. Shang Hua was a storyteller; this was his strength.

Shang Hua went to fake a tearful sigh, and was impressed by his own involuntary stutter.“A-about a week ago, I was traveling a-alone when I found a young boy hiding from a group of villagers-- they sounded like they wanted to hurt him. I-I helped him hide. I didn’t know he was…. a demon…. until a few days later…”

Chapter Text

In the end, Shang Hua hadn’t really been given a choice whether or not to join Cang Qiong Sect. Peak Lord Su had ostensibly taken responsibility for Shang Hua’s welfare after the whole Mobei-Jun Senior incident. But Shang Hua knew in the end that the Lord of An Ding Peak Su Zhanjin simply hadn’t bought Shang Hua’s tweaked version of events.

Sure, there was a little suspicion surrounding Shang Hua’s involvement with the Northern Demon Prince, but Su Zhanjin had in all honesty let that slide. He seemed more interested in the promise Shang Hua showed. Evidently, successfully hiding the identity of a demon child while traveling in the human world, slipping out of a Peak Lords grip, and managing to lie directly to that same Peak Lords face was a ringing endorsement of his future capabilities.

Shang Hua had tried to deflect when Su Zhanjin strongly suggested he take the sect entry exam. He wanted to be a book binder you see? It was definitely his truest dream to live out his days surrounded by paper and ink. Su Zhanjin had nodded at this claim before commenting offhandedly that he had finally located Shang Hua’s family farm and would simply have to return him to their care if he did not wish to take the examination. Caught between the smiling peak lord and the looming threat of his family, Shang Hua had bowed his head in defeat.

After digging a hole in the dirt for half a morning, Peak Lord Su’s shadow fell across Shang Hua with a dreadful finality. Once inducted into the sect, Su Zhanjin calmly reassured his new disciple: Shang Hua would make an excellent spy, Su Zhanjin was sure of it.

Of course, this didn’t mean Shang Hua settled calmly into life as a disciple. It took him three years to successfully sneak off of the peak without getting caught by Wang Yue. It took another two years to work out how to slip unseen into the village at the base of the mountain, disguising his trail with talismans and well-placed bribes. Five years after that he managed to escape the village at the base of the mountain, join a caravan, and live as “Qi Xuan” a wandering storyteller. It took Wang Yue three months to track him down on that particular occasion. When she finally dragged him back to the Peak Lord’s residence, Shang Hua couldn’t help but fume at the slight smug tilt to Su Zhanjin’s lips.

Over the years, he became an expert at changing his face, bribing townsfolk, forging documentation, and utilizing stealthy talismans. Every time he made to disappear, Wang Yue would track him down and drag him back to the peak where Su Zhanjin would merely nod and smile at his errant disciple. Even more infuriating was the fact that Su Zhanjin seemed to grow more and more pleased the better Shang Hua got at disappearing. New responsibilities within the sect kept piling on Shang Hua’s lap. There were codes and ciphers he was expected to learn, logistics puzzles he was meant to solve, information he was sent to gather; all the things Shang Hua needed to fulfill his role as the eventual Shang Qinghua. There were nights he stared at the ceiling of his leisure house and cursed his own rotten luck-who needed a system when the world itself conspired to force you into your destined role?

After ten years, Shang Hua had mostly resigned himself to ascending An Ding Peaks hierarchy. Peak Lord Su’s interest had only grown over time and whispers were beginning to circulate around who would be An Ding’s succeeding disciple. The rumor mill was fierce in a peak of logisticians and spies, so when his name began to come up more frequently in those discussions -Shang Hua volunteered for the first off-peak mission he could find.

Shang Hua immediately regretted not being a little more selective when he had asked for a task from Wang Yue. Disguising himself as a common farmer and driving an ox cart to deliver supplies was fine. He could handle that. However, not rolling his eyes directly out of his skull as the Huan Hua palace cultivators hired to guard the caravan gossiped around him was an exercise in true restraint. Sure, Shang Hua was supposed to be spying on them, but seriously, these idiots were just blatantly gossiping about sensitive Sect business in front of an outsider. What kind of low level villain nonsense was this?

Shang Hua listened to their gossip halfheartedly, filing away interesting tidbits in his memory as they came up. The chatter from the cultivators mixed with the creak of the carts and soft voices of the other merchants in a soothing lull of noise around Shang Hua. He let his gaze wander across the rolling countryside, the sun was dipping low in the autumn sky, giving everything a soft golden glow as they slowly rode down the dirt path. He may not have been the best writer, but whatever took his work and breathed life into the world didn’t skimp on the stunning views.

Shang Hua’s attention waned further, turning instead to his latest escape plan from An Ding peak. He was mildly tossing around the idea of faking his own death, but in the end, he knew he couldn’t go through with it. Was he just going to let Guo-Shidi take the succeeding disciple spot and run the peak into the ground? Shang Hua shook his head and sighed; it was so much harder to abandon the sect to its fate now that he actually knew his martial family as people instead of side characters in his protagonists shitty backstory.

A flicker of shadow caught his attention further up the road. He pulled on the reins of the ox, slowing the carts progress for a moment as he tried to make out the shape of the silhouette in the trees. There was a murmur of confusion from the other merchants as a cold shiver ran down Shang Hua’s spine. The Huan Hua Palace cultivators didn’t seem to notice, continuing to walk at a brisk pace closer to the spot where the shadow swayed. Shang Hua’s warning call died in his throat as one of the cultivators, Kang or Tang something- he wasn’t sure, pulled up short.

“You there!” Kang/Tang shouted, sword already flashing in his grip. “What are you doing lurking off the side of the road like that?”

Shang Hua fidgeted in his seat; something wasn’t right. He was close enough to see now that the figure was leaning heavily against the trunk of a tree, its shoulders heaving as though it was having trouble breathing. Shang Hua shivered, was it…getting colder?

Kang/Tang’s companions figured it out moments before Shang Hua, unsheathing their swords with a shout of “Demon!”

The figure’s head snapped up at that, finally stepping forward into the dying afternoon light before releasing a wave of horrifyingly familiar Qi.

For just a moment, Shang Hua was a child again, sitting on the forest floor with Wang Yue, staring at the blooming light of an Aurora Borealis. He shook himself out of the memory too late, the Huan Hua Palace Cultivators had charged forward the moment the demonic Qi was released, striking without hesitation. 

Kang/Tang’s sword never even made contact, the demon caught the cultivator’s wrist one handed and with a horrible snap. Kang/Tang’s sword fell to the ground, the clatter of metal drowned by his piercing shriek of pain.

“Kang Shixiong!” Screamed one of the other Huan Hua disciples as they dashed forward. The demon snarled and threw Kang bodily across the road into the one who had screamed, sending them both crashing up against a tree with another sickening crunch.

 Shang Hua’s heartbeat was thundering in his ears. The other merchants in the caravan were already fleeing but fear kept him rooted in his seat- too terrified to move.

To their credit, the three remaining Huan Hua cultivators didn’t hesitate. Two moved to flank the demon while the third ran to check on their fallen comrades.

The two cultivators circled the demon in unison, swords held in steady hands as they waited for an opening. The demon watched them intently, pressing one hand to its side. It hunched over, protecting whatever injury was causing its large frame to shudder and shake.

 As one, the cultivators leapt towards the demon. It ducked both strikes with a fluid grace before snapping a hand out. A spray of ice pinned one cultivator to the ground in a bloom of crimson blood.

The other managed to dodge the icy blades, but not the demon as it caught their neck with inhuman strength. For a moment the demon held the cultivator in the air with a single hand, unmoved by their kicking and squirming. With a wet snap, the cultivator fell still, and the demon let them drop to the ground in a boneless heap.

The final Huan Hua cultivator let out wordless cry of anger as they charged forward, sword in hand.

Shang Hua didn’t stay to watch- there was nothing a cultivator of his level could do in the face of a demon lord. He shook off the fear that had kept him frozen and leapt off of the ox cart sprinting in the opposite direction as soon as his feet hit the dirt. He resisted squeezing his eyes shut at the sounds of clashing metal and desperate screaming behind him. Shang Hua pulled his sword from its hidden sheath, but before he could mount the blade, a wave of frigid wind knocked him to the ground. He managed to tuck and roll instead of falling on his face, but wasn’t fast enough to avoid the clawed hand that gripped his thigh with a monstrous strength. Shang Hua shrieked in terror as he was dragged through the dirt and then flipped onto his back. He screwed his eyes shut, waiting for a finishing blow that never came. Instead trembling fingers tipped with sharp nails trailed down his cheek.

“Shang Hua…?”

Shang Hua’s eyes snapped open at the sound of his name being called by a deep and unfamiliar voice. The man above him was absolutely too young and too unbearably beautiful to be the elder Mobei-Jun. Inky black hair fell like a curtain around them, softening the young man’s sharp jawline. His deep blue eyes were unfocused as they gazed down at Shang Hua, their color matched by the demon mark set on the young man’s brow.

“Mo Bai…?” It was barely a whisper, but it took all of Shang Hua’s effort to push the words past his lips.

The young man’s eyes flickered with an emotion Shang Hua couldn’t name before sliding shut completely as he collapsed forward with a weak moan.

It took several minutes for Shang Hua to roll out from underneath Mo Bai’s heavy body. The slight boy had grown taller than Shang Hua by a full head and was well on his way to filling out as a wall of pure muscle. After sitting up, Shang Hua shuddered at the deep red that had smeared across his front. His stomach dropped with the realization that this was Mo Bai’s blood and not that of the Huan Hua Cultivators.

He hissed sympathetically as he found the Ling Hua dart imbedded in Mo Bai’s side-- some other Huan Hua cultivator had gotten lucky. They might have died in the effort, but if Shang Hua didn’t act, they would be responsible for the death of the future Mobei-Jun. Shang Hua probably should have paused, should have considered the consequences of saving his future murderer, again. But in the end, Mo Bai still held a soft place in Shang Hua’s weak heart.

Dismantling the Ling Hua dart turned out to be less difficult than hoisting Mo Bai’s unconscious form onto the back of the ox cart and then hauling him up the stairs of the closest inn Shang Hua could find. The extra silver he had left with the innkeeper would buy them the privacy required for two nights at least. After that it would get a bit harder to negotiate the necessary discretion.

-

Shang Hua sat by Mo Bai’s bedside utterly exhausted. The Demon Prince slept soundly with his wounds packed and bandaged, the twist of pain on his face had eased now that he was no longer being jostled and hauled around like a sack of flour.

Shang Hua let his head rest on the edge of the bed. His eyelids flickered as he watched Mo Bai, a feeling of general contentment rising in his chest. It should be wrong to feel so at peace when Mo Bai had demonstrated such brutal violence that afternoon. Mo Bai was no longer a lost child- he was a Demon Prince grown into his power. Shang Hua should have taken the opportunity to capture him, to kill him, to do anything but gently treat his wounds and find him shelter. Shang Hua couldn’t bring himself to care though, there was something so right about being here beside his Prince. He watched Mo Bai’s chest rise and fall in a soothing rhythm. Shang Hua’s eyes fluttered once more before shutting completely, he could rest, just for a moment. He’d clean up the dirty bandages and blood-soaked outer-robes when he had more energy.

When Shang Hua woke next, the room was dark. A warm and heavy weight had been thrown across his waist, but he was too fuzzy with sleep to investigate its source. Something next to him shifted, a cool breeze spilled over his neck as a nose pressed just behind his ear.

“Go back to sleep, Gege…”

Shang Hua shivered at the deep voice that spoke from the darkness and let himself shift against the comforting bulk nestled behind him. It was so nice to be held for once, he didn’t bother resisting as sleep took him once more. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Shang Hua felt the gag in his mouth and the cord around his wrists before he was even fully conscious. Half awake, he twisted his arms- instinctively testing his range of movement before cold awareness flooded his senses. Only the repeated exercises from Wang Yue kept his breathing slow and and his eyes closed. Start from what you last remember, he thinks, echoing his shijie’s sharp voice.

The caravan, Mo Bai, the fight, the inn. Focus— was he in the same room as last night? The air was chill but no breeze washed over his skin, he had to be indoors.  His hands were bound above his head with some kind of cloth, his fingers twitched and brushed smooth wood; a piece of furniture maybe? It was certainly too heavy to be the privacy screen. Soft fabric beneath his back, the fresh scent of laundered cloth, was he…was he bound to a bed? Shang Hua fought down a flush and concentrated once more on his surroundings. Birdsong, footsteps, low voices, all muffled by walls. The faint sounds of conversation filtered up from below. Okay, he was probably still at the inn from last night- bound to the headboard of a bed, gagged but not blindfolded…but where was Mo Bai?

Shang Hua’s body remained relaxed even as panic spiraled up from his stomach to squeeze viciously around his heart. Again, he listened— the creak of floorboards in the hallway, the sound of a cart passing on the street outside, there, the clink of chopsticks against a bowl across the room. 

“You’re awake.”

Shang Hua flinched and opened his eyes to look over towards the deep voice that had called out to him. Mo Bai sat at the table in the center of the room eating breakfast- posture sloppy as he avoided putting strain on his injured side. Midnight black hair was pulled to the side in a low ponytail framing his handsome face while a headband hid his demon mark and pointed ears from view. The young demon pinned Shang Hua with a hard glare even as he continued to eat the last few bites of his meal. Shang Hua clenched the muscles of his calves, then thighs, then stomach, working his way up muscle by muscle to keep from shivering under the intense scrutiny.

 He glanced around the room, searching for clues as to what exactly had happened. The sight of his sword, qiankun pouch, over-robe, and even his hidden daggers laid out neatly on the floor next to where Mo Bai sat made him flinch. His cover as an ox cart driver was thoroughly blown, not that he had intended to hide from Mo Bai in the first place.  Shang Hua tripped over his own thoughts, wait, his over-robe? He glanced down at himself and let out an indignant squeak through the gag. No wonder he had been cold! With his protests muffled, Shang Hua immediately drew his knees up to his chest curling up as much as he could with his hands still bound.

At the noise, Mo Bai rose to his feet, stride hitching slightly as he stalked over to the bedside. He loomed over Shang Hua, hands reaching forward in an aborted movement before settling back at his sides, fists clenching and unclenching. Mo Bai seemed determined to glare a hole through Shang Hua’s skull, and for a moment it looked like he was about to speak; but instead, he pulled away from the bed leaving Shang Hua to blink at his retreating back.

Mo Bai paced back and forth across the far side of the room, limp becoming more pronounced with each step. Shang Hua had to push down the part of him that echoed with worry. The Ling Hua dart wasn’t something that could be easily shrugged off. There was no way the wound had healed enough for Mo Bai to be up and around like this. Shang Hua shifted, arching his back to relieve the pressure as he thought, craning his neck to keep Mo Bai in his line of sight.

 After a few minutes of silent brooding, Mo Bai once again approached the bed, his hands darting forward so swiftly Shang Hua couldn’t help but flinch away. Cold fingers caught his chin in a strangely gentle grip and forced Shang Hua to look up.

“This lord will remove your gag, then you will answer his questions- truthfully.” The threat inherent in Mo Bai’s voice made Shang Hua’s breath stutter before he gave a sharp nod of understanding. Anxiety twisted in his throat and he had to swallow it down as Mo Bai’s hands reached to remove the gag. His long cold fingers worked swiftly at the knot, carelessly catching some loose hair with a sharp tug that made Shang Hua squeak. Suddenly the gag was torn from his mouth in a sharp motion that scratched his lips and caught on his teeth.

Shang Hua clenched his jaw to keep from making any more pitiful noises, focusing instead on the fabric of his pants as it stretched over his bent knees. The tears that had threatened to spill receded and the low throb of his abused lips faded to a manageable sting as he recited the steps involved in the acquisition of the raw cloth for An Ding disciples uniforms. Finally, emotions successfully tamped down, he looked up at Mo Bai and was surprised to see a vaguely guilty look on the demon’s face accompanied by a low purple flush across his cheekbones.

Good, Shang Hua thought viciously. Mo Bai deserved to feel bad! Tying up his rescuer, leaving them roughed up, on the edge of tears, and dressed in only their underthings! It was shameful! Shang Hua wasn’t some bullied young mistress- he was the author-god of this world! Mo Bai <i>should</i> feel guilty for treating his Shang-ge this way.

"Who are you." Mo Bai's voice cut through Shang Hua’s wandering thoughts like a knife to his heart. Who was he? Oh fuck, oh shit…of course, that made everything fit— if Mo Bai didn’t remember him, why would he trust that Shang Hua had good intentions? It had been ten years since they last saw each other; why would Mo Bai remember some child he knew for two weeks?

Shang Hua’s spiraling panic snarled on the memory of Mo Bai’s soft voice calling his name before losing consciousness on the road. Did Mo Bai lose his memory somewhere in between the road and the inn, Shang Hua wondered hysterically. Was he that bad at first aid?  Shang Hua hadn’t dropped Mo Bai more than once on that whole journey! Was the soft gege against his neck last night just a dream? Shang Hua shook his head, trying to ignore the sense memory of being held by a body so much broader than his own and focused in on trying to relax the tension in the room.

"A-ah, well, um, this one’s name is Shang Hu-"

"No!” Mo Bai cut off Shang Hua with a snarl and smacked his clawed hand down against the bedframe. His voice was awash in cold fury, “Shang Hua died ten years ago by my own father's’ hand. Don't you dare pretend to be him!"

Shang Hua gaped up at the young prince, forgetting his fear favor of indignant disbelief.

“Excuse me?” Shang Hua sat up, struggling against his bonds. “Mo Bai, this Shang Hua rescued you ten years ago and we traveled together for two weeks! I only lost you because I wasn’t fast enough or strong enough to catch up before the Huan Hua cultivators got to you!”

 Mo Bai turned away with a growl as Shang Hua spoke, stalking across the room like a caged beast.

 “I didn’t know if you even survived! I-I know your father came back and destroyed the town after he found you.” Shang Hua continued.

“Stop.” Mo Bai snapped, but Shang Hua plowed on.

“But I didn’t stay in the town! I ran into the woods after you!”

“I said be SILENT!” Ice crystalized on the floor and the walls, spiraling away from Mo Bai as he roared. The drop in temperature punched the air from Shang Hua’s lungs, leaving him gasping. Mo Bai swept across the room pacing back and forth as he shot furious glares at Shang Hua where he shivered on the bed.

Shang Hua huffed out a breath that fogged in the frigid air. What kind of bullshit reunion plotline was this? He wasn’t some childhood sweetheart tragically separated from his destined lover. Shang Qinghua and Mobei Jun didn’t have this kind of dynamic in PIDW so what kind of low budget drama was even happening here?

Mo Bai walked back to the bed and leaned over Shang Hua; his muscles flexed but he did not move to touch the captive cultivator. An expression of open pain flashed across his face before it settled into a cold sneer once again.

“No matter what my Uncle may have told you, I am not so easily fooled. You may wear his face, but I searched for Shang Hua when I came of age.  If he did survive, all traces of him have been wiped away— how would a runaway human child hide himself so thoroughly no location spells could find him? Not even his little mortal family knew what had happened to Shang Hua. Did he disappear for years on end only to reappear so conveniently in my path?”

Shang Hua couldn’t even bring himself to appreciate how handsome Mo Bai looked with his flushed cheeks and dark hair spilling over his shoulder to brush against Shang Hua’s chest. There was only a cold feeling of dread that built with each word. He wet his lips and forced himself to speak past the lump in his throat. “That doesn’t make sense, use a location spell on me now! It’ll show you exactly where I am.”

Mo Bai glared down at him and bared his teeth “You know very well that my Uncle destroyed my last remaining item of Shang Hua’s not a fortnight ago. Convenient that he removed the necessary pieces to confirm your identity just before you appeared.”

“O-okay so for one, I-I’m definitely not working with LinGuang-Jun!” Shang Hua stuttered, desperate to at least clear that hurdle.

Mo Bai cocked his head, “Then how does a young human cultivator know his name?”

Shang Hua flinched, and wailed internally, how the FUCK could he slip up now of all times. He’d been so damn careful not to spill things he shouldn’t know in this second life. Sure, Mo Bai might have been fooled as a child by claims of books about the Demonic North, but that probably wasn’t going to fly this time around.

The headboard creaked as Mo Bai released his hold on the wood and forced himself to back away from the side of the bed. “My Uncle’s continued attempts at sabotage are pitiful.” There was an edge of pain and fury to Mo Bai’s tone, but Shang Hua was too frustrated to feel sympathy. He glared as Mo Bai moved to sit at the table once more, resting his perfect chin in one hand. “But that is no matter. If you want to live, you will tell me his plans.”

Shang Hua’s fear and frustration were threatening to overwhelm his reason. How could he of all people get roped into a plotline like this? There had to be an easy way to resolve the issue. PIDW was filled with mistaken identity plots, he just needed to figure out what plot device would prove his identity to Mo Bai. It had to be something that was widely known, relatively accessible (to a demon prince at least), and most importantly, that Mo Bai would believe if Shang Hua offered to use it. He scrambled through lists in his memory considering and discarding plots at lightning speed. The Jade Pendant of the Dying King only worked on demons, the juice of the Grey Dawn Vine was deadly to human males, the Circlet of True Unity involved dual cultivation with four participants- Ah, there was one that could work. Native to the Demonic North, defended by mid-level spiritual beasts, and offered as a direct solution by the Mo-Clan in wife plot 429 as a fool proof truth serum.  

“This humble one would be willing to consume the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower to prove his identity to you My Prince.” The words tumbled out of Shang Hua’s mouth in a panicked rush, desperate to cut off whatever interrogation Mo Bai had planned.

“You…would be willing to risk death to prove yourself?” The words were slow and cautious as Mo Bai raised his eyebrows.

Shang Hua felt his stomach drop out, stupid author, any person who ate the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower would have to consciously tell the truth for a full day or die a painful death. Great for the resolution of a wife plot, awful for transmigrators trying to avoid the wrath of their demon prince captor.

Tension simmered heavily in the room before being interrupted by a knock at the door. To Shang Hua’s surprise, Mo Bai rose to his feet and checked his headband before grabbing the privacy screen and setting it before the bed, effectively blocking the view of the bed from the door. He leaned in and gave Shang Hua a measured glare before growling- “Stay silent.”

Shang Hua nodded and waited until Mo Bai had crossed the room and opened the door to slip his wrists out of his loosened bindings. Mo Bai was going to have to get much more vicious with his knots if he was going to show up Wang-shijie. Shang Hua focused. His Qi was steady, the window looked unlocked, and Mo Bai was mid conversation with what sounded like a servant from the inn. It was now or never. Time to abandon Mo Bai again. Shang Hua shook away his intrusive thoughts. Sorry Mo Bai, things are super tense, and it would be a wild adventure to go hunt down a truth telling flower with you, but you’re an OP demon prince and this Shang Hua has had enough OOC plot action for a lifetime.

Shang Hua lunged for the window and shoved it open. The morning breeze was brisk against his skin and golden light illuminated the wide alley behind the inn. In a single practiced move, he threw himself out into the open air. He called to his sword with a burst of Qi, trusting in his own training as it flashed into his hand. Shang Hua flipped his blade beneath his feet before he hit the ground and shot off into the clear blue sky with a victorious whoop.

Sure, he could be embarrassed that he was about to fly back to An Ding Peak in his underwear without any of his paperwork, but there were worse things! Things like the howl of Demonic Qi and the sudden burn of ice against his ankle that dragged him off his sword as he shrieked in pain.

There was a moment of freefall before he was caught by solid arms. He wheezed at the change in velocity and attempted to twist himself free only to be crushed against a broad chest. Shang Hua looked up into Mo Bai’s furious gaze and groaned. Fuck! Did Mo Bai really JUMP out of the window to snatch him out of the goddamn sky?

Mo Bai growled down at him, chest rumbling against Shang Hua's back. “When did this lord give you permission to leave?”

Shang Hua braced for the impact of their landing, but instead of a sharp jolt there was a deep hum and then roar of sound as they passed through a wave of blue tinged darkness. The energy crackled against his skin, something like static penetrated through muscle to dance along his bones. Shang Hua didn’t bother holding back his scream as the dark wave closed over their heads.

A broad hand clamped over his mouth as the world reasserted itself around them. It was Cold- cold, cold, COLD! So cold he couldn’t even think, let alone breathe! Tears crystalized instantly on his cheeks. Who cared if Mo Bai wanted to kill him, he was going to freeze to death before that ever happened! Shang Hua pressed his face into the demon’s neck with a pitiful wail, fingers digging into the cloth of Mo Bai’s robe as he shivered. Instantly, a wave of Qi swept through his veins leaving Shang Hua gasping for air all over again. Any will to fight was snuffed out by the assault of delicious warmth.

Shang Hua blinked up at Mo Bai who looked away sharply, cheeks once again flushed bright purple even as he frowned. His dark hair was laced with frost like delicate gems, somehow the sight made Shang Hua’s chest tight. He began to wiggle around half heartedly looking to get down, but Mo Bai only held him tighter as he walked. Shang Hua huffed and resigned himself to remain cradled in the Demon Princes arms like some kind of discount romance novel protagonist. They obviously weren’t still at the inn, so there wasn’t really any point to trying another daring escape attempt so soon. Instead, Shang Hua took the opportunity to peer at their new surroundings.

 Mo Bai quickly swept down a short hallway with walls of carved grey stone lit only by the blue light emanating from wall mounted brasiers. With their glow Shang Hua was able to steal a quick glimpse of a broad black door inlaid with scenes of windblown pines and hulking beasts before Mo Bai flicked a finger and the door itself burst open revealing a large brightly lit space. The new room was filled with heavy furniture made of white lacquered wood, against the far wall sat a large bed with heavy black curtains. Every surface in the room was strewn with maps, books, weapons, plant clippings and other small trinkets- reminding Shang Hua startlingly of his own Leisure House on An Ding Peak. Thick blue tapestries bearing the Mo Clan’s mark covered three walls- but what caught and held his attention was the large window dominating the fourth wall. Through the frosted glass Shang Hua could see a sprawling stone fortress tucked against tall cliffs surrounded by the unmistakable snow-covered landscape of the Northern Demonic Realm.

Shang Hua felt nauseous at the confirmation that they were within the Mo Clan’s Northern Fortress, the stronghold of Mobei Jun for generations. Shang Hua knew there was no easy way to escape this ancestral seat of power. He, of course, had written it that way on purpose.

Mo Bai strode towards a low couch and dumped Shang Hua into a pile of dark furs. “If you leave this room, the servants who find you will suck the marrow from your bones while you scream.” Mo Bai’s voice seemed to drip with pleasure at the prospect.

“D-Did you just kidnap me!?” Shang Hua demanded even as he fought the urge to cower beneath Mo Bai’s cruel gaze. Mo Bai didn’t move to strike him or even snarl, he only gave an amused smirk before waving a hand. Ice shot up from the floor and Shang Hua stared in disbelief as it encased the couch in a dome. He pounded his fist on the walls of his sudden prison and shouted at the distorted silhouette of Mo Bai on the other side of the ice. “What the fuck!!!”

Mo Bai’s voice was muffled but still understandable as he spoke “You offered to prove yourself to me, and I intend to give you the opportunity to choke on your words little spy.”

Shang Hua let out a wordless shout of frustration as Mo Bai turned on his heel and stalked back towards the door and out of view. He looked around, no sword, no talismans, no hidden daggers or little tricks— nothing but his clothes and his boots. Still grumbling, Shang Hua pulled one of the heavy furs around his shoulders and shifted to sit more comfortably. If he was going to be a captive in the Northern Fortress, he might as well be warm as he plotted his unlikely escape.

Chapter Text

Mo Bai shut the door to his rooms and sagged against the dark wood. Any healing he’d managed overnight had been torn asunder by his leap out the window. His breath tasted of iron against his tongue, but he didn’t have time to rest. He pressed a trembling hand to his side and directed an icy stream of Qi into his own flesh, it crackled and soothed the shredded skin under his soaked bandages.

 Mo Bai ignored the traitorous voice in his heart that howled for him to go back and tear the truth straight from the throat of the little spy and pushed himself upright once more. After a stabilizing breath, Mo Bai waved a hand towards the door to his chambers. Ice crackled across its surface at his slightest call, forming a quick layer of frost then thickening as he brought his will to bear. It took a careful minute to seal the door with a sheet of ice that only his Father would dare break. Luckily the old bastard was sure to be hunting in the south right now, too far away to dig out Mo Bai’s newest secret.

Shaking away vaguely vicious thoughts of his father, Mo Bai stepped forward through his own crackling blue energy and back to the room he had left at the human inn. His unexpected guests looked up from where were seated- Mo Bai bowed deeply to Tianlang-Jun, and then again to Zhuzhi-Lang, waiting until the Demon Emperor gave a casual wave to seat himself across the table. The imposters quiankun pouch had been emptied and the two older demons seemed to have sifted through some of the scrolls and paperwork while Mo Bai had been…preoccupied.

Tianlang-Jun grinned down at him and laughed. “Little cousin! When Su Xiyan mentioned there was a beast who tore apart a caravan with ice, this lord knew we would find A-Bai at the end of the trail. I apologize, was our magnificent presence too much for the sweet little cultivator you were chasing?” He propped his elbows on the table, ignoring the crinkle of paper as he leaned forward. “My nephew took the liberty of retrieving his sword—” Mo Bai nodded in thanks as Zhushi Lang handed the blade over with an elegant flick of his wrist. “—While I took the liberty of peeking at his papers. You made quite a mess in your eagerness to follow him out the window. What kind of business are you caught up in A-Bai?”

Mo Bai kept his face carefully blank, used to Tianlang-Jun’s enthusiastic prying. “This Mo Bai apologizes for his rudeness. He did not expect his…guest…to run once his back was turned.”

In fact, it had only been the look of sudden surprise on Zhuzhi-Lang’s face that had alerted Mo Bai to the spy’s escape attempt at all. When he had turned to see the boy making a break for the window, there had only been a white-hot desperation to not let him disappear. It was frustrating. If he had just forced himself to tie the boy down properly this wouldn’t have been a problem. It was ridiculous that his heart’s softness for that freckled face prevailed …Mo Bai shook his head, there was no use. He was always going to be weak for the echoes of his lost Shang gege. He picked up the tea that had been set out for him and sipped just to have something to do with his hands.

Zhuzhi-Lang cocked his head, forked tongue flickering past his lips for an instant. “You are injured cousin. Are you in need of assistance?” His voice was soft and polite but Mo Bai shook his head, always wary of displaying any weakness before the Emperor and his nephew.

“Thank you, cousin. This Mo Bai will recover.” Mo Bai still felt himself trip over calling Zhuzhi-Lang cousin, but when Tianlang-Jun had insisted, he couldn’t refuse. It was lucky he supposed, this chance relationship would serve him well as the Northern King once they all decided to stop spending quite so much time in the human realm.

“A-Bai,” Tianlang-Jun cut in, his voice playfully dangerous “Are you trying to avoid answering this Lord’s questions? You still haven’t told us who your human guest was. Have you found your little A-Hua at last?” He teased.

Mo Bai had trained for years under his father’s brutal hands- he was deadly, dexterous, utterly unflappable. At Tianlang-Jun’s words he fumbled his teacup so spectacularly that it crashed onto the table and splattered hot tea everywhere. He lunged forward without thinking snatching the scrolls and assorted papers out of the way even as the wound at his side flared with sharp hot pain.

There was a beat of silence as Mo Bai scrambled to wipe up the tea before Tianlang-Jun snatched the papers from Mo Bai’s hand and leaned over the table forcing the younger demon to look up at him.

“A-Bai! How could you bury the lead like this! A-Bai has let his venerable cousins sit here and think his tragic love story hasn’t had a major upheaval!” Tianlang Jun’s eyes were alight with pure unadulterated glee. Even Zhuzhi-lang raised a single perfect eyebrow at Mo Bai from his place at Tianlang Juns elbow.

Mo Bai forced himself to keep from cringing at the pressure of Tianlang-Jun’s undivided attention. He leveled Tianlang-Jun with an unimpressed glare and finished clearing off the table, even as the power of the other demon sparked along the edges of his wound like tiny knives.

“This Mo Bai has….” He paused, frustrated at his inability to voice the exact nature of his discovery, “Potentially fallen into a trap laid by his uncle. A trap in the shape of Shang Hua.” He can’t help but frown harder at this, mind running back to the way he let his judgement be clouded by the spy’s offer of the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower. 

Tianlang-Jun hummed at this, a small smile flickering over his lips. “Ah, a shape changing demon? That’s a bit low, even for your Uncle, but not entirely surprising.”

Mo Bai couldn’t help but snarl, “Nothing is too low for Linguang-Jun. But, no, not a demon. A cultivator. He found this Mo Bai after the scuffle with Huan Hua Palace Sect and cared for my wounds. This one thought…” Mo Bai shook his head “This morning, I woke up and thought I had found what I had been looking for after all of these years apart…but then I saw the qiankun pouch.” Mo Bai waved a hand at the pile of wet papers he had set to the side. “What farm hand driving an ox cart has enough money to purchase a well-made quiankun pouch? So I searched further and found many concerning things, a hidden sword, daggers laced with poison, accurate maps of the surrounding area, scrolls entirely in code.”

Zhuzhi Lang leaned forward, drawing one elegant hand across the damp papers before looking up at Mo Bai “All of this together speaks of a cultivator spy, not Linguang-Jun.”

Mo Bai pulled a small leatherbound journal from his sleeve and placed it onto the table, “There is also...this.”  

Tianlang Jun plucked the book from his hand and leaned back to leaf through the pages. Mo Bai watched the Emperor’s expression slip from amused to impressed, then settle into a flat intensity. For long minutes there was only the sound of slow turning pages as Tianlang Jun read. Mo Bai sympathized, when he had bent over the little book in the pale hours of dawn, he had also found himself swinging rapidly between fascination and fear. The first few pages were completely innocent, small snippets of writing were interspersed between surprisingly detailed drawings of animals, plants, and humans. But further into the little book he found images of demons. Well-known demons. A recognizable sketch of the young hellion from the south, Sha HuaLing. A passable sketch of the horned master of the moonlit palace Wei Chengxin. Careful maps of the Maigu Mountains. A lovingly rendered landscape of the Northern Ice Fortress in the deepest winter. Things no human cultivator could have seen or known without demonic assistance. Most unsettling of all though, interspersed across the pages were sketches of his own demon mark, notes on his capabilities, careful drawings of his favored earrings, notes that could only have been made by someone who had been watching him carefully for years. Mo Bai could only think of one person who was close enough to facilitate such an in-depth study of his own person.

“You always have had strange adventures, A-Bai.” Tianlang Jun closed the journal but did not slide it back across the table. “Your little cultivator is certainly a mystery. But this Lord cannot…necessarily make a connection to your uncle. Are you sure your Shang Hua didn’t become fixated on the little demon he saved? Maybe he joined a sect and built his power to find A-Bai just as A-Bai scoured the human realms for his lost A-Hua?”

Mo Bai stared down at the table, hands digging into his thighs. “Wouldn’t we have found him over the past few years with your lordships help? If Shang Hua is a cultivator powerful enough to wander the Demon realm, he would have had to train with one of the known sects.” Mo Bai hated the desperation that leaked into his voice, shamed by his own desire for confirmation of his worst fears.

Zhuzhi Lang hummed softly at this “If Shang Hua is part of a powerful sect, they may have specifically protected him from outside interests. Maybe at his own request after such an…explosive encounter with your father in his youth.”

Mo Bai stared miserably down at the table, for a few blissful hours he had everything he wanted, now the memories of the previous night tasted of ash in his mouth. “Some of this information could only have come from my uncle. I intend to have the little spy consume the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower in order to hear the truth from his own mouth.” The wound at his side pounded with his heartbeat, making any more words stick in his throat, leaving him silent before his companions.

With a sigh Tianlang-Jun took pity on Mo Bai, “Just be gentle with him until you get the flower. If he consumes it and it turns out he’s not Shang Hua you can let yourself be vicious. Either way, when you find the truth bring him to me. I have questions for your little cultivator.” He reached out with the hand that was not closed around the little journal and clapped Mo Bai gently on the shoulder. “Don’t write yourself a needless tragedy A-Bai. Rest, recover, and then go find your truth. This Lord will be patient.”

-

Later, when Mo Bai limped through a flickering portal back into his room, he glanced over at the small ice prison he’d made for the spy and ignored the warmth that bloomed in his chest at the little shape curled up under the heavy furs. The wound at his side pulsed with each step. He was warm, desperately and unpleasantly so. Sweat crystalized and melted repeatedly leaving him shivering as it tracked down his neck in fits and starts.

He dumped the imposters sword and pouches on a side table, blearily aware that he should lock them up, but everything felt so far away.  Outer layers were shucked and left where they fell as he stumbled towards his bed. He collapsed with a groan, tossing away every blanket that dared touch his burning skin. He just needed sleep. When he was clearer, he could research the flower. Soon he would have the answers that he craved.

Chapter Text

Mo Bai dreams of dry heat, a hot sun that scorches his skin and saps away any energy he could have used to open his eyes. He has swallowed the sun somehow. It has buried itself down his throat through his stomach to sit at his side where it smolders.

A whimper rises in his throat but the pitiful impulse is forced down before it is released. If he isn’t quiet, someone will find him.  Someone will take advantage of his weakness-- they will kill him for daring to show his soft underbelly. Mobei Jun will hear his son’s pain and finally understand that his heir is weak, flawed, unworthy.

Mo Bai forces his eyes open at that thought and is greeted by soft sunlight illuminating his bed’s canopy. There is noise, but it is very far away. Muffled pounding and shouting from a voice he can’t quite place. The weave of the fabric above him seems to flicker and sway as his vision fuzzes back into darkness.

Something is tearing into him, images flash before his closed eyes shapes twisting and changing as he writhes. It’s the sword of a grinning cultivator, it’s the fangs of a great dragon, it’s his Uncle’s hands coated in ice and buried into the meat of his side. The half-imagined form of LinGuang Jun leans down and smiles, “Nephew.” He croons. “A-Bai I wish you had been mine. If only you hadn’t been my brother’s son, I would have kept you safe forever. I would have loved you forever.” The shadow’s hands twist and Mo Bai can’t hold back his howl of grief and pain. Claws are digging into his intestines, reaching for the frozen core of Mo Bai’s power. Echoes of his Uncle’s voice continue to murmur and hiss in sympathy and sadistic pleasure as Mo Bai chokes on the pain. Mo Bai can’t keep still now- his limbs are so heavy but he thrashes and screams and begs for mercy like a weakling.

Far away something shatters and a voice he hadn’t noticed behind his uncle’s sweet words becomes much louder.

“-o Bai? Mo Bai what’s wrong?! Oh shit, oh my god that’s a lot of blood.”

Something soft and cool brushes his cheek and Mo Bai leans into it, a point of comfort in the maelstrom of pain that is consuming him.

“Fuck, you’re warm, you’re not supposed to be warm. Shit, shit, shit.”

As the cool touch pulls away, he forces his eyes open ready to beg for its return. A small shadow leans over him and pulls at his robe, baring fevered skin to the cool Northern air. The soft sweep of cold hands against his chest is enough to make Mo Bai groan in relief even as it skates the edges of the burning wound on his side.

“Infected. How did it get this bad? You moron why did you jump out of the window? Why couldn’t you just let me get away….” The hands pull away only to return a moment later colder than before, in fact, Mo Bai could swear they’re trailing frost as they gently pull away fabric that sticks unpleasantly to his skin. “Ok. Ok, I have more bandages…there’s got to be something around here we can use to disinfect you.... Just- um just hold on.” The voice is tight with worry that Mo Bai doesn’t understand. As the shadow slips away, Mo Bai tries to reach out and grab those cool hands and pull them back. An irrational part of him wants to beg for them to keep away the shade of his Uncle - but his fingers close on nothing as he loses consciousness once more.

Seconds or hours later sharp scraping agony shocks Mo Bai from his slumber with a silent scream. He snaps a hand out and connects with something far softer than expected. A wail of pain makes his brows furrow, something within him flares in response. He should care about that voice. The thought drains from him like sand in a sieve as the pain of his movement catches up to him. The adrenaline-fueled tension slips away and Mo Bai collapses back into his bed trembling with the effort it took to strike.

The canopy above tilts and swirls as he shivers. He might be dying. The thought makes him frown, but he can’t muster more than a passing displeasure. He doesn’t want to die, he has something he needs to do still, doesn’t he? The half-formed image of a freckled face slips away, buried by the throbbing sunburst of pain at his side. Above the sound of his own heartbeat, he can hear a voice whimpering. Mo Bai distantly wonders if he’s the one making the sound.

The next time Mo Bai opens his eyes, the light from the window has faded into the cool silvers of moonlight on snow. He forces himself to look over at the figure sitting on the bed next to him and blinks, surprised to see Shang Hua. The young man is saying something-it sounds soft and comforting but Mo Bai can’t string the sounds into comprehensible sentences. Each word is emphasized by quick gestures of Shang Hua’s hands, like he can’t bear to keep his energy contained. Mo Bai likes Shang-gege’s hands. Thin dexterous fingers with callouses and faded scars, hands that know work, hand’s that understand effort- he wants to kiss every knuckle and promise that Shang-gege will never have to do any work he doesn’t want to again. He watches with mild interest as those hands reach out to touch his chest. He should be embarrassed that Shang-gege is seeing him shirtless, but he feels so distant right now.

“-Bai? Mo Bai, please look at me.”

The words take a moment to sink in, but Mo Bai lolls his head to look up at Shang-gege. He frowns, there’s a great black-green bruise across Shang-gege’s cheek. Who dared touch him? Mo Bai’s confusion is pushed aside as the young man leans forward.

“Mo Bai, I’m going to heal you. Okay? I’m not going to hurt you. I swear. Please trust me.”

Mo Bai nods slowly, of course he trusts Shang-gege. He watches the way the moonlight highlights the young man’s sharp jaw and spills down his neck. Mo Bai likes these dreams where his Shang-gege appears grown up. If he could sleep forever in a place where Shang-gege lived to grow at Mo Bai’s side, he would. 

A wave of cold washes over him, extinguishing the bonfire that had taken root in his flesh, leaving him gasping at the sharp relief. The hand pressed against his skin pulsates with spiritual energy, it rumbles like soft thunder down his meridians and eases him towards sleep once more.

This time when Mo Bai comes to consciousness, he feels a little more centered and less like he’s being cooked from the inside out. A soft voice chatters above him as gentle hands spread something thick and pleasantly chilled against his ribs.

“Honestly, I’m surprised that you just as messy as I am my Prince. I mean really there’s a bit of everything scattered around here. Plants, bones, dice, a treatise on the cultivation of orchids…I’m not complaining, really. There’s just so many random things? I’m sure the Ice vein Orchid petals you had on your desk were important, but I hope you’ll forgive me for taking them….They did save your life. I think.” The voice and the hand pause, and Mo Bai hears his savior draw a shaky breath before resuming, “I mean, we’re not out of the woods yet, and I’m kind of terrified that at any moment someone is going to burst through those doors and I’ll die because I’m sitting in the Crown Prince’s bed slathering him with handmade medicine that I half remember how to make…. But… I-I’m more scared you’re not going to wake up.” The voice is getting quieter, or maybe Mo Bai is just slipping away into the darkness once more. He barely makes out the next soft whisper. “ Mo Bai you have to wake up.”

A drop of wetness strikes Mo Bai’s cheek, pulling him from a hazy dream. As the shadows of half remembered faces fade, he finds his head pillowed against something pleasantly firm. A hand cards through his hair with a gentle touch, soothing him back into the realm of sleep. Another drop of wetness makes him wrinkle his nose, he doesn’t want to move, even with the rain, this is the most comfortable he’s been in days.

“Mo Bai.” A soft ragged voice whispers above him, “Mo Bai please wake up. I don’t know what to do, I don’t have any more medicine.” The hand continues to stroke his hair as the voice stutters over a sob, “Why hasn’t anyone come to check on you my prince? I tried the door but it’s jammed shut. I tried calling out, screaming for someone to come. I even tried to break the window, but I can’t get us out of this room. It’s been days…”

Mo Bai peels open his eyes, sparing a moment to feel disgusted by the crust on his eyelashes before squinting up at the person holding him. His head is pillowed carefully in Shang Hua’s lap. The man himself looks utterly exhausted- eyes rimmed with red, gaunt cheeks streaked with tears. Shang-gege doesn’t look down at him though, instead he continues to stare with unseeing eyes out the window to the side of the bed. “Mo Bai please, I don’t want you to die. You- you’re my favorite, please don’t leave me here alone.”

Mo Bai wants to stroke Shang Hua’s cheek, but his arm won’t cooperate, it lies there dead and heavy and useless at his side. There’s something not quite right, but he’s still too hazy with sleep and fever to unpick the knot he feels in his chest. The hoarse whisper that he manages to force out makes Shang Hua startle.

"Are you here to protect me again Gege?”

Shang Hua looks at him with pleased surprise before letting out an undignified huff of laughter "Yeah, yeah your Shang-gege is here to protect you.” He leans down and presses his forehead to Mo Bai’s before sitting up, cheeks flushed red. “God I was so scared….” Shang Hua’s hiccupping sobs echo above him and more tears pepper Mo Bai’s cheeks .

“Gege, don’t cry.” Mo Bai whispers, his voice is weak, barely a breath on his lips. He tries to keep watching Shang Hua, wanting to gather the ghost against his chest and offer what warmth he can-- but his eyelids slip closed once more. As he fades, he half imagines lips pressing against his forehead whispering soft words of comfort.

-

Morning light slants across Mo Bai’s face making him groan. There are times he regrets banning servants from his quarters, surely one of them would have pulled the hangings closed around his bed instead of letting him be woken in this way. He goes to roll over, but a sharp pain in his side makes him hiss with displeasure. Things begin to slowly slot back into place. The Huan Hua Palace dart must have done more damage than he realized. The past few days are a blur of sound and color and pain that he can't quite piece together. Only the feeling of cool hands and the sound a gentle voice filter through the jumbled memories. 

He sits up with slow careful motions and looks around. There is a hint of irritation as he realizes most things in his room have been shifted. One of his wide desks has been pulled beneath the window; upon it sit neat piles of cups, knives, spoons, dried herbs, horns, bones and several small magical artifacts.  Surrounding the desk are piles of notes, scrolls, and heavy fur blankets. More importantly kneeling behind the desk with his sword unsheathed and resting across his lap, sits the spy. Their hair is pulled back in a messy bun and one of the fur blankets has been set across their shoulders. They watch Mo Bai with an air of extreme caution, exhaustion evident in the deep shadows set beneath their eyes. Guilt curdles in Mo Bai’s stomach at the fading bruise on the spy’s cheek before he stifles it ruthlessly.

“Good Morning.” The spy’s voice is steady even as his body shivers from the cold. The North is a harsh environment to endure, even for high level cultivators. Mo Bai wonders if it will even the playing field when this tension breaks and they inevitably fight. The wound and fever have left him weak enough to doubt his chances of victory. “This is the second time I’ve saved your life in the past week. I hope you don’t intend to make me regret that choice.”

Mo Bai shifts to sit on the edge of his bed, never taking his eyes off of the spy. “LinGuang Jun will not let this Lord die until he can consume his power as a part of the rights of succession. Even if you had been able to escape this room, this Lord’s death would have resulted in your death as well.”

The spy’s face crumples for a moment into a frustrated snarl before smoothing out once more.  “Listen. I’m SORRY I tried to run away, b-but you stripped me! And tied me to a bed! T-then you accused me of being some kind of informant, w-with no proof!” Satisfaction unfurls in Mo Bai’s chest at the rapid break in the spy’s calm façade. While the spy’s sword remains steady in one hand, the other gestures wildly as he tries to reason with Mo Bai, “What was I supposed to do? Sit there and wait for you to torture me for information I don’t have?”

“This Lord had reason to be suspicious of your motives.”

The spy’s eyebrows furrow as they feign confusion. Mo Bai catches himself eying the spy’s lower lip as it’s caught and worried between their teeth, he wonders if it feels as soft as it looks.


“W-what proof?” The spy’s stutter brings Mo Bai to his senses, and he berates himself for his momentary distraction.

“If you had wanted to remain undetected, you should have hidden your quiankun pouch better.” He growls, satisfied by the sharp scent of fear that flows from the little spy. “I found your coded communications, your poisoned daggers, and your field notes.” Mo Bai lets out a low rumbling growl “You were extensive in your observation of this Lord. How long have you been watching, waiting for your opportunity to slip into my good graces?”

“What are you even talking about? My notes were about…uh…not you? I mean, uh, I…” The spy pauses and runs a hand through his already tousled hair “Okay. Okay. I’m a spy. I’m literally genuinely a spy, but NOT for you uncle? And I-I’m not spying on you? I’m a disciple of An Ding Peak in the Cang Qiong Mountain Sect and I was spying on Huan Hua Palace. That’s literally what I was doing when we ran into you on the road.”

“This Lord would be interested to know which Huan Hua Palace disciple resembles him so closely he even bears his demon mark. Please, if there is an unknown brother of mine hiding in that despicable pit of serpents, this Lord would feel obligated to rescue him.”

The spy’s mouth snaps shut and the color drains from their face. They sit for a minute, obviously unable to craft a reasonable excuse for their actions.

Mo Bai presses his advantage and looms over the smaller man, aware that the bandages across his chest detract from the imposing image he hopes to project. “Sloppy work for a spy. My Uncle should choose his servants more carefully.”

The color comes back to the spy’s face in a rush, leaving their cheeks and nose flushed in a way that makes Mo Bai’s stomach give a humiliating flop.

“It still doesn’t change the fact that I saved your life twice. I know exactly how injured you are.”

Mo Bai takes another step forward “And because of that I will not kill you immediately, but that is--”

The spy flicks out a hand in the middle of Mo Bai’s threat and his spiritual power ignites the room in a flash of green grey light. Mo Bai goes to rear back but finds himself unable to move, a pressure rising around his legs and locking him in place with a heavy thrum of power.

He snarls openly at the spy and the temperature of the room drops. The other man flinches but fixes Mo Bai with a determined glare and takes a steadying breath. “I know you won’t believe me until I tell you these things under the influence of the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower, so I had to make alternative plans.”

A burst of qi summons a wind that blows away the paperwork spread around the desk, revealing a carefully arranged array that Mo Bai had walked into like a fool.

“Are you familiar with this array? Probably not, it was created by An Ding Peak specifically to fire pottery for sect use. It was never quite p-practical, a cultivator must feed the array spiritual power for an extended amount of time, and once they stop it uses the stored power to ignite with a fire hot enough to burn b-both of us to ash in moments.”

Sweat drips down the spy’s forehead and Mo Bai’s stomach sinks as he realizes that the tremors come not from the cold but from exhaustion.

“Now that I have your attention, l-let me be clear. I do not want to hurt you. I also do not want to die here. So, let’s make a deal. I will not attempt to escape; I will eat the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower and I will immediately answer five of your questions as thoroughly as possible upon its consumption. If I can answer those questions to your s-satisfaction, you return me to the inn you kidnapped me from and we go our separate ways. Until that point, you don’t hurt me, you don’t use ice-magic on me, and you don’t lay a hand on me.”

Mo Bai takes a slow breath, sinking into his own power and feeling out the array beneath his feet. It sears at the edges of his consciousness, the threat of flame tickling an ancient inherited fear of his people. “And in return you don’t burn the both of us to death?”

There is something breathtakingly honest in the way the spy’s voice cracks on a harsh laugh “I didn’t have any better ideas.”

“Ten questions.” Mo Bai presses.

“Are you trying to bargain with me?” the spy demands, disbelief clear in the way he squeaks.

“Ten questions and I will agree to your terms with a blood contract.”

The spy visibly startles at this, considering his options for a moment before shaking his head. “Seven and the contract.”

“Eight.”

Tension stretches for a long moment between the two men and Mo Bai finds himself begrudgingly impressed by the iron will hiding behind the man’s stutter.

The spy nods his head “Eight questions, the blood contract, and you call me by my name.”

Mo Bai feels anger sweep up his spine like a frozen wave, but he holds his temper if only to ensure the Northern Kingdom does not fall into his Uncle's hands with his untimely death.

“Agreed.” He forces out between clenched teeth.

The spy nods and sketches a talisman in the air which flashes brightly, erasing the array beneath their feet and the bindings around Mo Bai’s limbs allowing him free movement once more.

They stand for a moment watching each other with unspoken caution. The spy moves first, bringing his blade up and sliding a finger along its sharp edge. The tang of his blood makes Mo Bai’s nose itch, and he follows suit if only to keep from watching the way it beads along those slim fingers. Together they sketch out the shape of the talisman in blood, spelling out the terms of their contract as agreed before joining hands at its center. Light spills from between their palms, painting their faces with a red glow as the blood is consumed for their oath.  

“Upon pain of death this Shang Hua will not leave the side of Mo Bai until he has consumed the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower. Upon eating the flower this Shang Hua will answer eight questions of Mo Bai’s choice.” The spy’s voice shakes but his hand is steady under Mo Bai’s touch.

Mo Bai feels the compulsion of the spell rise in his throat and responds in kind “Until the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower is consumed and his questions are answered, this Mo Bai will not lay a hand on or otherwise cause harm to…to Shang Hua. If these questions are answered in a satisfying manner, this Mo Bai will immediately return Shang Hua to the human realm from which he was taken.”  

The light fades and Mo Bai’s hand is forced gently back from the spy’s palm. The contract taking literal and immediate effect. An awkward silence descends as they both look away from each other, unsure how to address their sudden fragile truce.

Exhaustion settles back onto Mo Bai’s shoulders like an unwieldy cloak, and suddenly all he wants to do is soak in a bath and find something to fill his growling stomach. He turns without a word and strides- well, limps across the room. He dodges moved tables and tossed papers with quiet frustration. It serves him right for bothering with this whole ordeal instead of killing the spy immediately after discovering his strange journal. Trying to ignore the pressure of a building headache and the imagined scolding of Tianlang Jun, Mo Bai waives a hand and the ice shielding his washroom melts from view with a soft hiss.

“This Lord is going to bathe. Put my quarters back the way you found them.”

He doesn’t wait to hear the spy’s answer before stepping forward and raising the ice partition once again. Maybe he will feel more in control once he washes the days of sweat and blood from his aching body, but somehow, he doubts it.

Chapter Text

Shang Hua gazes out the crystalline window at the Northern Ice Fortress far below. Spires of grey and white stone coated with swirls of deep blue frost were laid out exactly as he had imagined in another lifetime. The Northern Kingdom was truly his most beloved place in PIDW. Every time he needed to recenter himself in the mad dash to write his way towards rent money, he would return to its severe halls. He still remembers the effort it took to design Mobei Jun’s fortress. It was before PIDW had really taken off in popularity and he still had a little bit of free time to waste worldbuilding instead of writing shitty porn. Even from this sharp angle he can still recognize the layout of the twisting halls and pavilions. Far towards the eastern gate he can see the courtyards he had filled with delicate Frozen Flake Willows and the sweeping rooftops of the banquet hall where so many of Luo Binghe’s dramatic battles would take place.

If he were in any position to relax, he could spend the whole day drawing from this vantage point without even looking beyond the fortress walls to the surrounding tundra. A piece of him pines for his old sketchbooks and the one set of professional watercolors he had kept after dropping out of art school. They had been a parting gift from a roommate he’d never kept in contact with.

So much of this world had been borne from his shitty writing, but in his heart, he was glad to see that its beauty wasn’t tainted by his desperate rush to post the next chapter. He sighs and the heat of his breath fogs the glass. What he wouldn’t give to see this world without having to take an active role in its story. He catches himself midway through tracing out Mo Bai’s demon mark in the condensation and flushes as he swipes it away with his sleeve. His tendency to doodle was what got him into this mess, he shouldn’t exacerbate things by continuing the habit.

Shang Hua turns back to the room as the soft scrape of ice heralds Mo Bai’s return. He watches the younger man’s serious blue gaze sweep across the cleaned space. It honestly hadn’t taken Shang Hua that much time to drag the furniture back where he found it. Collecting the papers and books he had scattered was almost more trouble than it was worth. In the end though he stacked everything neatly on the desk and collapsed utterly exhausted into his current seat beside the window. Now, Mo Bai limps easily through the space, stopping at a large set of drawers and digging through their contents without acknowledging Shang Hua in the slightest.

As more time passes without Mo Bai saying so much as a word the atmosphere grows notably uncomfortable. Shang Hua opens his mouth to call out to Mo Bai, but pauses, stuck momentarily on how to address the young noble now that their pact is in place. Surely using his given name is too familiar for their odd situation, and the young demon doesn’t hold the title of Mobei Jun yet, so…maybe ‘My Prince’ will have to do?

Shang Hua nods to himself and looks up only to yelp as he sees Mo Bai looming over him. Shang Hua’s heart pounds in his ears— for such a large man, Mo Bai is nearly silent on his feet.

“M-m-my Prince?” he stammers, hating the way his face flushes at the pale skin exposed by Mo Bai’s loosely tied robes. Stupid! He’s been up close and personal with that chest all week! What is there to blush about now that it was half covered? Shang Hua tears his eyes away from the dusting of dark hair across Mo Bai’s unfairly sculpted pecs and looks up at the younger man who is still scowling down at him.

Mo Bai wrinkles his nose. “You smell terrible.”

“Excuse me?” Shang Hua’s voice squeaks as he shoots to his feet, attraction forgotten in the sharp heat of his exasperation. “I- This servant cared for you for three days while trapped in this room with no way to bathe. Please excuse his unpleasant smell as it is not his fault.” Shang Hua returns Mo Bai’s scowl before a pile of neatly folded grey cloth is stuffed into his hands by the other man.

“Wash. Then return. There are supplies to clean yourself already set out.” At that Mo Bai turns on his heel and limps towards the desk, his dismissal clear. 

Shang Hua goggles down at the robes he has been given, Mo Bai’s unwelcome attitude momentarily forgotten. The fine material is distractingly soft against his hands and his An Ding Peak sensibilities unhelpfully speculate at exactly how much they must be worth.

“Uh…”

Mo Bai gives Shang Hua a cool glare over his shoulder. “What?”

Shang Hua shakes his head at a loss for exactly how to phrase ‘You are the rudest, weirdest, hottest person I’ve ever met- and I think I want to beat you over the head.’ So, he changes the subject. “This…servant…doesn’t mean to be rude, but shouldn’t we simply set out to find the flower?”

Mo Bai turns towards Shang Hua and leans back against the desk, arms crossed over his broad chest. “And where does this humble servant think we will find the flower?”

It takes all the self-preservation instincts Shang Hua has not to roll his eyes at Mo Bai’s mocking tone.  “The Thousand Truths Pained Beauty Flower is common on the southern border of your kingdom, is it not?”

Mo Bai scoffs “It’s common for a magical flower, but that doesn’t mean it can be found scattered like any mundane bloom. The border stretches for hundreds of thousands of Li, it would be foolish to travel south and wander aimlessly. We will need a starting point so that this is not a year-long search for a single blossom. Now go wash. This Lord will be unable to concentrate as long as you continue to smell this terrible.”

Shang Hua swallows down his frustrated embarrassment and beats a hasty retreat into the washroom. Of course, this has to be difficult— just because Luo Binghe could stumble on a plot-relevant flower without trouble doesn’t mean anyone else would have the same kind of luck. There are times where Shang Hua forgets just how goddamn huge the world he created is. Distances that could be condensed into a single sentence in a novel were broad enough to take his breath away in real life.

All frustrated muttering dies on his lips as he takes in the undeniably impressive washroom. The mixed panels of teal ice and grey stone give way to walls of pure white quartz. Balls of blue flame trapped in crystalline cages hover near the ceiling, reflecting small rainbows across the white tile flooring. But what truly dominates the room, sunk into the floor and carved of pure moonstone is a pool Shang Hua could swim laps in. Hazy clouds of shimmering fog hover over the surface of the crystal-clear water. He shivers as he approaches, the temperature dropping sharply with each step forward

Shang Hua leans in over the side of the pool and reaches down to test the water. It takes a moment for the biting cold to burn, but when the pain crackles up his arm, he snatches his hand back with a stifled curse. Tears prickle in the corner of his eye as he clutches his stinging fingertips to his chest. How the fuck was he supposed to wash off in something like this? He doesn’t have enough spiritual energy left to do more than keep himself from freezing as it is. He is not going to be able to put a single toe into this pool, not after the amount of energy he used maintaining the kiln array earlier.

He looks around for the promised bathing materials, hoping to at least find a washcloth to wipe his face, and is surprised to see a sturdy wooden tub just big enough for one person set to the far side of the pool. Alongside the tub sits a stool, a large bucket, and a pile of fresh towels all arranged neatly behind a privacy screen. Shang Hua peeks into the tub and finds a set of soaps, a comb, and a cloth to scrub himself with. As he pulls each of item out and places them aside, he catches sight of a small stack of fine paper that had been weighted down by the soaps. Shang Hua stares at the pre-prepared warming talismans, unsure what to make of this small gesture of kindness.  Only the inground An Ding Peak sensibility keeps him moving, his Shijie’s voice ringing in his ears, ‘A gift is wasted if it is not used. Take what you can get Shang-shidi.”

He places the talismans on the stool and begins filling the tub with water from the moonstone pool, careful not to spill the frigid liquid as he works. Once there is enough water to bathe in, he attaches the talismans to the edges of the tub and activates them with a small pulse of his spiritual power. After a minute the water begins to steam and Shang Hua hurries to pull off his robes. He immediately begins to shiver as his bare skin is exposed to the frigid air. Shang Hua considers folding his robes neatly, before simply discarding them to the side to step in the tub as quickly as possible. The robes would probably have to be written off as a loss since they were so thoroughly stained with blood and grime anyway. Mo Bai was right about him needing a bath.  He grimaces, the mere thought of his kidnapper makes Shang Hua sink further into the water, his frustrated groan transformed into soundless bubbles as the water closes over his head.

Who would have thought changing Mo Bai’s backstory would result in such a frustrating split from canon? Mobei Jun was supposed to be an uncompromising demon king who ruled the North with cold efficiency. First and best bro to Luo Binghe. Spymaster, assassin, and all around cruel-hearted bastard. Why did Shang Hua have to run into this moody teen version of Mo Bai who stalks the human realm and suspects treachery at every turn? Shang Hua nibbles on his lower lip as he sits up and plucks the soap from beside the tub, beginning to wash himself with brisk efficiency. He had written the Northern Court as a place of constant intrigue, and LinGuang Jun was definitely still out there creating problems…The thought of LinGuang Jun makes Shang Hua’s stomach cramp and he carefully sets it aside in favor of washing his hair before the warming talismans run out of power.

-

When he climbs out of the tub and pulls on the borrowed robes, Shang Hua wonders if it’s possible for cultivators of his level to die from embarrassment- because if it’s possible he might just do so now. He is not a small man by regular measure. The physical effort of cultivation and hauling supplies across all twelve peaks has given him muscles he couldn’t have dreamed of in his first life! He can see clear over the heads of his martial siblings! He is not tiny in any way! So why does this borrowed robe absolutely swamp him? He has to hike up the skirts so the hem doesn’t drag on the floor! He has to roll the sleeves five times to even see his hands! It’s ridiculous! Sure, seeing Mo Bai loom over him was one thing, but putting on his robe really hammers the difference home. Stupid demon blood, it’s absolutely unfair that Mo Bai is built like a mountain. Was he even done growing? Shang Hua stops at that thought, Mo Bai is already a head taller than him and built like a refrigerator, if he gets any larger Shang Hua would look practically delicate in comparison. Would his hands fit all the way around Shang Hua’s waist? Shang Hua slaps down the thought as soon as he thinks it. Not the time. He straightens the oversized robes as best he can, throws his hair into a loose horsetail, and stalks out of the bathroom.

Mo Bai sits at his desk surrounded by scrolls and small booklets, strands of his hair have slipped from his braid and hang loose around his face, softening his harsh expression. He looks up and opens his mouth but seems to lose his train of thought upon seeing Shang Hua reenter the room. Shang Hua feels his face heat up as Mo Bai stares, surely noting how ridiculous Shang Hua looks in the oversized robes. An awkward moment passes before Mo Bai clears his throat and speaks in a strangely strangled voice.

“Come. Sit and eat.” He motions to a gently steaming bowl set on the opposite side of the desk. A second bowl sits untouched at Mo Bai’s elbow and Shang Hua realizes he must have been waiting for him to return before eating. All of this makes him hesitate, unsure in the face of this new dynamic.

“This lord gave you an instruction. Eat now or don’t eat at all.” Mo Bai snaps when Shang Hua waits for just a little too long.

Shang Hua startles and hurries forward, stumbling a little on the hem of the long robe. Mo Bai reaches out for him, but pulls back before making contact, a purple flush riding high along his cheeks. Suddenly Shang Hua is thankful for the oath protecting him from Mo Bai’s obvious annoyance. Eager to prevent Mo Bai’s temper from flaring any higher, Shang Hua sits at the desk where the bowl has been placed and gives a small bow.

“Thank you for…for your consideration.”

Mo Bai grunts and nods towards the food, placing the scroll he was reading to the side before digging in without another word. Shang Hua follows suit and is pleasantly surprised to find the rice, meat, and vegetables are simple but well cooked. Did Mo Bai contact a servant while Shang Hua was bathing? If they were in the eastern tower of the fortress, as Shang Hua expected, wouldn’t the kitchens be ridiculously far away? Unless of course Mo Bai teleported to the kitchens to pick up his own food…that’s probably the case. But should he be teleporting with his wound as it was?

“What are you mumbling?” Mo Bai glares down at Shang Hua, pinning him like a moth to a card.

There is a flash of the younger Mo Bai in Shang Hua’s mind, chubby cheeks smeared with dirt and dust as they sat in the barn loft. It dazes him for a second before he shakes his head “A-ah, this servant apologizes. He was thinking of the flower and, um, what we will need to accomplish in order to find it.”

Mo Bai frowns and lets the obvious lie go, turning back to his own food. “Well? Enlighten this Lord.”

Shan Hua places his chopsticks down and wipes his mouth neatly, taking a moment to organize his thoughts. “Well, the best way to find the flower is to identify locations where it has been seen before. If we don’t have exact locations we would have to look into stories and legends that involve the flower and see if we can identify common elements within the stories that could give us clues to the kinds of environment where the flower grows. Once we identify likely locations or narrow down the type of environment where the flower grows, we can compare them to known locations on the southern border and narrow down our options from there.” Shang Hua taps his chin, running through the times he utilized the flower in PIDW. Aside from the one wife plot where it was introduced, it only popped up in three or four other storylines. Two of which were in the garden of a demonic botanist who was probably still a child at this point in the plot.

Mo Bai gives a small hum, “That is a…sound plan. This Lord has already gathered his books on magical flowers and botanist’s field journals that might have pertinent information. We will start there. “

“If the field notes are separated by location, we can rule out any that aren’t along the southern border to save some time.” Shang Hua fiddles with his sleeve as he speaks, eyes half focused as he glances over the gathered documents. “We should compile our notes in one place as we research. I can draft up a chart to make comparisons easier.”

“Mn.” Mo Bai stands and takes his empty bowl in hand. “Finish eating. We have work to do.”

Shang Hua scrambles to chew his few remaining bites without looking like a fool. When he finishes Mo Bai takes the bowl and stands, waiving a hand to open another door in the ice. Shang Hua watches him leave with a small amount of confusion and is just about to follow when Mo Bai returns and sits back down. He selects several scrolls and a small stack of bound notebooks from the neat piles on the desk and deposits them in front of Shang Hua, taking another sizeable pile for himself. “If you find a mention of the flower, take notes and place it here. Anything without a mention of the flower can be put aside.”

Shang Hua nods and plucks a book from his stack, thankfully on An Ding Peak research was just as highly prized as lockpicking. It doesn’t take him long to sink into old habits, his quiet request for ink and paper is met with a grunt of ascent and soon he has a full sheet of notes, small charts, drawings, and names that he should double check on.

There’s something satisfyingly absurd about reading field notes concerning magical flora he created on the fly, sometimes exhausted at 2am after slamming questionable energy drinks. Rare flowers that caused Qi deviation, vines that could be juiced to create unbreaking glue, grasses that when braided and soaked in alcohol could allow you to change shape. All pieces he’d created to fill story needs set loose in a world that could use or abuse them at any time. An Ding Peak actually kept a small, dedicated greenhouse filled with several of the most useful types of these plants. Unfortunately, being native to the harsh environment of the Northern Demon realm meant The Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower was only really researched and noted by those who dared traverse it’s harsh southern hills and forests.

Many of the field Journals Shang Hua reads over the next several hours are riveting tales of survival in the face of dangerous beasts and heavy snow. The most useful ones actually took the time to write details about the flora they encounter, but even then, the locations of the sightings have not been noted with any real specificity. Shang Hua sighs and puts down the journal he had just completed and stretches before reaching for the next in his stack.

The soft sounds of pages turning and shuffling paper fill the room and bit by bit Shang Hua finds himself relaxing in Mo Bai’s presence. When he is studying, the harsh lines fade from Mo Bai’s face, he leans over his books and scrolls, with a calm intensity that makes Shang Hua’s heart stutter. He keeps having to force himself to look back down at his own reading instead of watching Mo Bai work. The way light spills across his jawline is practically indecent. Shang Hua wonders if you could cut yourself by touching his cheekbones. All of the sketches he’d done have been insulting shadows, if only he had his sketchbook. Maybe some fine quality ink….it would take a lot of practice to get the sweep of his hair right, but Shang Hua could take the time. It would be worth it to capture something so perfect. Shang Hua sneaks another peek at Mo Bai’s soft hair and jumps when he meets Mo Bai’s sharp gaze.

“Have you found anything interesting?” The younger man questions, voice soft as it breaks their extended silence.

Shang Hua shakes his head, embarrassed to have been caught staring. “Uh, well, is there a reason everything but the locations of these plants are mentioned? It feels intentional, but this servant doesn’t understand why the secrecy is necessary.”

Mo Bai pauses his own reading “Most of these accounts are written by travelers who are not pledged to the throne but to their own separate Northern Clans. If they give away the secret locations of these plants, they could place their clan in direct danger. Writing down the descriptions of the plant’s capabilities is important, but all locations are maintained as oral tradition. If your books fall into the hands of your enemies, you don’t place your own people at risk.” He taps one long sharp nail on the cover of Shang Hua’s book “Their fears were not unfounded; their books did eventually come to be a part of this Lords library. In any case, any truly useful plants are kept in the palace gardens so we would not usually have to go on a long search to find them. “’

Shang Hua buries his face in his hands, this is his fault. This kind of bullshit has to be his fault, right? He probably wrote a single sentence in this vein to justify some kind of wife plot and now it’s biting him in the ass. If he could go back in time and wring his own neck he would.  “That’s ridiculous.” He whines.

Mo Bai huffs a derisive laugh “You’re not wrong. But that doesn’t change the way the different clans operate.” Shang Hua looks up with surprise to see Mo Bai glaring down at the scrolls. “So much information is needlessly hidden to maintain advantages over each other. It could all be solidified and put to better use!” he smacks a hand down on the table making Shang Hua jump. “What’s the point of hiding everything when we could be so much stronger if we didn’t insist on fighting each other. When I take the throne—” Mo Bai stops short and clenches his jaw, turning away from Shang Hua to glare out the window. There is an old fury that simmers beneath the young prince’s skin. Shang Hua wants to press and ask more questions, but as he opens his mouth Mo Bai turns back to his scroll, a “Keep reading. I want to finish this before we die of old age.” He snaps, but Shang Hua doesn’t flinch this time.

 “Ah, actually, do you have a map of the southern border? We might not find direct references to locations but having a map might still help us find likely matches for the landscapes described.” He gestures to his notes, careful to keep his borrowed sleeve from dragging in the wet ink. “Several accounts mention hot springs or other geothermal activity, we can start by indicating places with that kind of setting and narrow down our search from there.”

Mo Bai stands without a word, wincing slightly as he straightens his back. Shang Hua watches as he heads for the bookcases along the far wall with mixed curiosity and irritation. If only he’d written Mo Bai to be more talkative; icy was cool on paper but a bit annoying when he had to deal with it directly. Mo Bai pulls a long scroll down and shuffles through a large stack of papers before returning to the desk.

“Clear the table.” He grunts and Shang Hua scrambles to preserve his sorted piles of ‘interesting’ ‘useless’ and ‘relevant’ material as he makes room for Mo Bai’s new acquisitions. As soon as the books have been removed, Mo Bai sets down the scroll and unrolls it with a careful hand. Shang Hua gasps at the utterly beautiful map that is revealed. Here is the entirety of the Northern Demon Realm, rendered by a steady and dedicated hand. Shang Hua leans forward, eyes wide as he studies the details laid out before him. Frozen lakes and forests along the southern border sweep up into foothills and then to the severe mountain range that curls around the roof of the world. The broad frozen desert of the west peters out into the central plains where cities he built and named with his own two hands dot the habitable taiga. In the center of the map is the Northern Ice fortress, marked in deep blue with the symbol of the Mo Clan. Shang Hua scrunches his robe between his fingers to keep himself from touching, but he wants to trace his fingers over the winding roads and mountain passes so badly he can hardly breathe.

“It’s beautiful.” He whispers.

“It is.” Mo Bai replies. And when Shang Hua looks up at the Prince of the North, he sees a soft hooked smile that makes his heart pound in his throat. Mo Bai surveys his kingdom with the kind of adoration most people reserve for a lover. The urge to paint him rises so abruptly Shang Hua’s chest aches with it.

Mo Bai kneels on the opposite side of the desk and places weights on all four corners of the map, brushing his fingers gently along the paper as he straightens. “This Lord brought over the most recent land surveys of the Southern Border, they should note the location of any hot springs or anything similar. Thankfully, since this lord requested the survey, the locations are clearly indicated. “

Mo Bai lifts half of the stack he brought over to the table and holds it out to Shang Hua who takes the booklets from Mo Bai with a small frown.

“These…. these surveys will have sensitive information for your kingdom my Prince…”

Mo Bai nods “They do.”

“Why…I mean, my Prince… you don’t exactly trust me?”

“You’re my uncles spy. LinGuang Jun has access to these reports just as any other member of my father’s council does. There is no risk.”

“And if this servant does not serve LinGuang Jun?” Shang Hua presses, slightly incredulous at Mo Bai’s lax attitude.

“No other demon has the kind of information or access you would have needed for your personal notes.” Mo Bai shrugs, “And if this Prince is wrong then there are much more pressing issues than a spy reading through basic land surveys.”

Frustration bubbles in Shang Hua’s chest, but he passes it off with a sharp sigh. He knows he’s scowling as he picks up the survey and begins to read.

The first book details the lands surrounding the central trade road as it passes through the borderlands. Surprisingly, he gets lost in the minutia within minutes and when he finishes reading, he scrambles for the next booklet without looking. He wants to take notes about his own world, he wants to find the surveyors and kiss them on the mouth, he wants to abandon his peak and his responsibilities to travel the demon realm because this is the least boring survey that has ever been written. It’s a miracle he manages to note down the hot springs, strange lava flows, and steam vents that are described as he continues to read about the environments that crawl along the western half of the southern border. His worldbuilding heart is singing with joy at the flowing descriptions of places he dreamed up in another life. He looks up when Mo Bai calls his name and flushes when he realizes that it was not the first time it had been called.

“A-ah, this servant apologizes. Um. What did you say?” Shang Hua could probably cook an egg on his face with how hot his cheeks flush from embarrassment.

“Give me your notes. I have markers to indicate relevant locations.” Mo Bai holds out a hand and Shang Hua rushes to blow on his ink before handing the sheets over.

“There’s a spring here, here, and here.” He points out, careful not to touch the map. “I was surprised to see that there’s a location to the south of this village that has been overtaken by Abyssal Moth-Bears. Why wouldn’t that be cleared out given how close the trade road is?”

Mo Bai places small glass beads down on the points Shang Hua indicated “The village elders insist that the silk cocoons harvested from the Moth-Bears are worth the loss of a few travelers lives each year.”

Shang Hua shakes his head “But Moth-Bear silk isn’t nearly as useful as Moth-Yak hair, why bother with Moth-Bears when there’s an alternative?”

“Moth-Yak’s would work if the village were at a lower elevation, that high up in the pass they would freeze a day after they were sheared. If there were ways to keep the herd warm for the weeks it takes to grow back their coats, it wouldn’t be a problem, but they’re snow bound for most of the year.” Mo Bai replies, glancing up at Shang Hua as he continues placing beads.

Shang Hua taps a finger on his lips, staring at the map. “What about using Dawn Stones inlaid into the walls of the caves that the Moth-Bears are currently using? They’re close enough to town to work as pens and there are steam vents at the bottom of the caves that can help with the heating.”

Mo Bai takes the book Shang Hua was referencing and furrows his brow as he reads into the survey notes. “Dawn Stones are too costly for the village to afford alone…and there aren’t any courtiers who would be willing to sponsor that kind of expense for a rural village.” There is a vein of frustration in Mo Bai’s tone, but Shang Hua somehow knows it’s not meant for him.

Shang Hua grins “They wouldn’t need support from the court. Sure, Dawn Stones are expensive in the North, but they’re abundant in the Southern plains. The village would need the right connections, but if they could work out an exchange, say, comparatively rare Moth-Bear silk for Dawn-Stones- their problem would be solved. An Ding peak works with a broker to make these kinds of trades all the time.”

Mo Bai taps a long nail on the table, eyes far away as he stares down at the little dot marking the village on the map. “What array would you propose using with the Dawn Stones in the caves?”

Shang Hua gives Mo Bai a wide grin as he pulls out a fresh piece of paper, mind already racing over the variations that would be useful for the new Moth-Yak farmers. Mo Bai’s questions come faster and faster as they discuss the basic theory behind the initial talismans and break off into potential improvements and adjustments that might better suit demonic cultivation in the frozen North. Sketches flow quickly from his brush and soon he and Mo Bai are bending over the same sheet of paper debating the ways to shape and improve the array. Much later, they have shifted to sit side by side easily sharing a space as they pour over an entirely new array for the maintenance of cliffsides against sudden avalanches.

“It will work.” Mo Bai insists for the third time.

Shang Hua shakes his head, “My Prince this servant is telling you, we tried to use an array like this on An Ding to support a tunnel but it took too much power, the rocks would collapse before help arrived.”

“Maybe your martial siblings are just too weak.” Mo Bai offers with a raised eyebrow.

Shang Hua splutters at this, sure he wasn’t the strongest cultivator in the world, but there was no reason to doubt his sect!

“Northern Demons are at a different level than human cultivators, there’s no shame in that.” Mo Bai grins down at Shang Hua, the same little hooked thing that makes Shang Hua lose his train of thought. “Besides, this Lord intends to change this radical.” Mo Bai reaches out at the same time as Shang Hua, their hands nearly colliding over the paper before Mo Bai is repelled by the oath. In a breath, the friendly atmosphere becomes stilted.

Shang Hua realizes with a twist in his gut that they’ve been talking casually for over an hour. Just him and his kidnapper, debating ways to improve the lives of demon villagers. He’s left staring at empty space as Mo Bai shifts quickly back to his side of the table.

“We should…we should keep researching. This lord will finish the surveys. You can go back to the Botanist’s field notes” If Shang Hua didn’t know better, he would think Mo Bai was embarrassed from the way the younger man buries his face into a new booklet without another word. For his own part, Shang Hua takes up a scroll and bows his head to read, ignoring the pang of sadness at losing the open pleasure Mo Bai had shown while speaking about his kingdom.  

-

Three books later Shang Hua sits up as he finds a whole chapter labeled ’Pained Beauty Thousand Truths: origins, uses, and tragedy’. He skims the first few paragraphs and breaks out into a wide grin. “My Prince, this servant may have found something useful.” He looks towards Mo Bai and is startled to see he is no longer sitting across the desk. Shang Hua blinks, the light in the room has faded to the soft glow of dusk. He stands with a wince, muscles protesting every new movement.

“Uh, my Prince?” he calls, stepping cautiously away from the desk. There is no response, but he hears a soft clatter from the room where Mo Bai took their bowls after breakfast. He peeks through the doorway and stops short. Mo Bai stands in the middle of a compact kitchen, staring down at a pot of simmering liquid. He gives it a slow stir then turns and plucks a basket from a shelf to his left and dumps its contents into the concoction. It sizzles and bubbles momentarily before subsiding into a low simmer. He stirs the pot again before nodding, evidently pleased by the addition.

Shang Hua, who has lost all control of his brain-to-mouth filter, speaks without thinking.  “Aren’t you the Crown Prince?”

Mo Bai doesn’t even look up at the question, still stirring the pot at a steady pace. “I am.”

“Then…why are you cooking for yourself?” The image before him clashes so directly with all the ideas Shang Hua had about Mo Bai as a character that he cannot stop himself from pressing the matter.

Mo Bai’s hand stills and his face hardens. “Being regularly poisoned is a good motivator for learning how to cook. Puking blood becomes tiring after a while.”

Everything slots into place in a single horrifying moment. Would it have killed Shang Hua to write a story that wasn’t awful for everyone involved? No, he had to create a world where Mo Bai was barely out of his teens and knew from experience that he could trust no one but himself. It’s clear now that Mo Bai has carved out his own jealously guarded sanctuary— separate from a court that would kill him with half a chance. Who was Shang Hua to laugh and talk with Mo Bai as though they could be friends? The ocean of guilt he viciously suppresses every time he is faced with the brutality of his own world rises around him now. Shang Hua can’t help but feel less like a prisoner and more like an unwilling voyeur and every sound from that small kitchen just pushes another pound of guilt down onto his shaking shoulders.

No servants came to check on the dying Prince because servants weren’t allowed in Mo Bai’s private quarters. No cleaning, no cooking, no opportunities for a knife in his back. No wonder he clung to the warm memories of his ‘Shang-gege’ after all this time.

Shang Hua steps away without another word, if he remained in that doorway for even a second longer Mo Bai was sure to notice his guilty tears. So instead, he nearly sprints back to the desk and grabs the first scroll he lays his hands on, desperate to gain even a sliver of control before Mo Bai returns.

Chapter Text

According to ’Pained Beauty Thousand Truths: Origins, Uses, and Tragedy.’  the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower emerged from the ashes of an ill-fated love story.

The Lord of a small northern demon clan had been struck by a slow acting curse. The spell was a nasty piece of work, something that would slowly burn him from the inside out. Treatment after treatment was attempted, but in the end the Lords only hope was to consume the cold heart of a fallen star.

On his deathbed, as time was running short, he spied streak of light falling from the heavens in the dark of night. Desperate to stave off his untimely end, the Lord gathered what strength he had and ventured out into the wilderness to find his cure.

He ran, then walked, and finally limped through the white hills and austere pines of his lands. Just as the Lord’s strength finally failed, he stumbled upon his quarry. Lying at the center of a deep crater, bloody and broken, was the star.

They looked up at the Lord with their bright white hair and blazing eyes full of a vicious will to live.  In that still moment of connection, the two figures understood each other’s hearts completely and were struck by love.

The Demon Lord bowed and limped his way to the star, reaching down with a gentle hand to help them sit up. ‘I came here to eat your heart, but seeing you, I cannot bring myself to act.’

The Star laughed with a voice of bells and brittle unending cold before taking the Lords hand in theirs. Their voice was weak as they spoke but it made the Demon Lord’s heart sing and his desperation wane. ‘I fell from the heavens, through heat and flame and I will be extinguished with the sunrise. I am scared of what is coming. Will you sit with me and keep me company? Will you tell me of this world I will never know?’

The Demon Lord, with one final show of the strength, lifted the Star into his arms and began to walk. ‘I will show you what I can of this world and tell you every truth you wish to hear- until the sun rises and takes us both.’

All through the night the Lord carried the Star and showed them what he could of the lands he loved -taking time to tell them of the things they could not see. Eventually his strength ran thin and at the edge of a spring he sat with the Star in his arms. They continued to speak in whispers until the sun broke over the horizon. By the time its gentle rays fell over the spring nothing remained of the two but a bright white flower.

When Shang Hua finished reading, he had to hide his prickling tears. Even though it was in the title, he hadn’t really been expecting a tragedy. Thankfully, it gave them a framework to compare to the other stories of the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower, so his sniffling was at least worthwhile.

With an additional day’s worth of research, they concluded that they needed to search specifically for hot springs that had been touched by powerful celestial and demonic energies. When they started narrowing down their options Mo Bai hadn’t even had to look up as he spouted off notable battles with celestial entities that had taken place along the southern border of his lands. Most of their second day of research was spent trying to locate any springs in or close to those battlefields. On the third day they dug through surveys, herbal anthologies, compendiums on magical flora, and four incredibly dry records of celestial incursions into the Northern Demon Realm. All together, they narrowed down their options from over two hundred springs to seventy-five potential candidates. Honestly, past-Shang Hua could have done with less hot spring papapa in PIDW— sure it was a staple for ice demon wife plots but it did make for an unbearably crowded map.

Now, on the fourth day, Shang Hua sits shoulder to shoulder with Mo Bai and frowns down at the glass beads marking out the springs on the map.

“We need to look into more than just records of celestial incursions into the Northern Demon Realm, my Prince. The flower was formed from a bond of love. That’s more than just important, it’s integral to its existence!  Sure, each of these springs might have been exposed to celestial and demonic magic, but we need more information on the confrontations themselves. Did they end in marriages? Murders? Trysts? Vows of eternal enmity? I know those details are going to make a difference, my Prince.” reasons Shang Hua. Mo Bai hums noncommittally, not even bothering to look up from his book. Shang Hua waits a beat, then roll his eyes.

“My Prince I understand your reluctance but we at can at least look up the specifics on some of these battles.” He presses. “Even a little more detail would help us narrow down our options.” There is a long silence, but Shang Hua sees the way Mo Bai pauses in his reading and knows he’s at least considering the argument.

Mo Bai snaps his book shut and leans over Shang Hua to glance down at the notes spread on the desk. “It will truly make a difference?”

“Y-yes.” Shang Hua manages to squeeze out as the heavy fabric of Mo Bai’s sleeve brushes his arm.  “Yes. Even if we’re only able to eliminate springs where battle ended in slaughter it will be a worthwhile r-reduction in um…” He trails off, the soft puff of Mo Bai’s breath against his ear makes it hard to focus. Are his lips cold too? Shang Hua wrenches his attention back to the map, leaning desperately forward to escape the looming presence of Mo Bai. “It would mean we have less springs to investigate. That’s what we want, right my Prince? The faster we find the flower the sooner you’ll be rid of me and we can both get back to our lives. I-If we don’t find the flower at the springs that were witness to positive interactions, we would still be able to investigate the other locations but ,u-uh, finding a w-way to prioritize would be prudent.”

Shang Hua knows he’s babbling at this point but is unable to stop his own nervous chatter. “And really if we have to check through all seventy-five springs it will take an unreasonably long time, my Prince. We’d have to search a-almost all of the southern borderlands.”

Thankfully Mo Bai finally relents, standing and allowing Shang Hua’s thundering pulse to slow. He takes a slow breath, unclenching his shoulders before turning to look up at Mo Bai. “Is there…a reason that we cannot at least check, my lord?” he asks.

Mo Bai grumbles at this before crossing his arms. Shang Hua puts on his most bland polite smile to hide the little itch of impatience that tickles at the back of his throat. Over the past few days, he’s found that Mo Bai needs time to put his words together. In most cases, he’ll respond as long as he isn’t pressed.

Finally, Mo Bai speaks. “This Lord…this Lord will have to go down to the main palace library to find more extensive records.” Mo Bai frowns, turning from the desk to pace across the room. His gait is long and steady, no trace of limp left after several days without vigorous kidnapping activity. “You will remain here.”

Shang Hua pouts at Mo Bai’s back before thinking better of it. He really wants to see rest of the fortress that he so lovingly created— but having the Crown Prince tote a human around would bring a slew of unwanted attention their way. He might be good enough at disguising himself to fool human cultivators into thinking he’s a demon but fooling an actual demon’s sense of smell was impossible with the meagre tools he had in his quiankun pouch.

After a moment he realizes Mo Bai is still glaring down at him, awaiting a response.

“O-oh, well, um, of course. That makes sense.” Shang Hua says hoping to placate the frowning Prince.

“You will remain here.” Mo Bai repeats, the emphasis somehow different, more intense as he continues to glare.

“My Prince,” Shang Hua entreats, hoping to soothe whatever is rolling around Mo Bai’s mind “blood oath aside, this servant was unable to leave this room while you were ill. If you lock the door in the same way, there is nowhere this servant can go.”

Mo Bai holds his gaze for a heated moment before turning on his heel without a word. Shang Hua hides a smile behind his oversized sleeve. He’d always written Mo Bai as a man who hated unnecessary deliberations. There’s something strangely familiar seeing him taking immediate action once he makes a decision. It’s silly, but his chest is warm as he watches Mo Bai grab clothing from his wardrobe and disappear behind a privacy screen.

Shang Hua turns back to his notes with a triumphant grin. He knows he’s right about the flower’s requirements. This world runs on Stallion Novel logic— therefore, flowers created by the doomed love of background characters were not just going to pop up for any celestial and demonic energy that mixed on the edge of a hot spring. For all the downsides of being the author of this messed up story, his obsessive worldbuilding usually helped him sniff out weird plot requirements for magical items before they become too much of a problem.

If only he was better at sniffing out his own bullshit plot twists instead. Shang Hua does a decent impression of Mo Bai as the thought makes him scowl down at his notes. Maybe he’d have been a senior bookbinder at this point, slowly plugging away at his life without Mo Bai or Ciang Qiong to worry about as he weathers Luo Binghe’s rise to power. He could have been lucky enough to meet a cute boy with blue eyes and solid arms to marry. Someone smart enough to keep up with his tangents, strong enough to pick him up, someone with a hooked grin that made his stomach flip. Shang Hua sits up straight and banishes the half-formed image of Mo Bai from his thoughts with a shake of his head.

The sooner they find the blossom, the sooner he can hide away from the confusing mixture of guilt and delight Mo Bai pulls from him in turns. It’s not fair. No matter how much he tries to clamp his chattering mouth shut and hide behind the papers and scrolls, he and Mo Bai continue to drift closer together. Every few hours he finds himself midway through a new discussion with the surprisingly opinionated northern Prince. Winter crop rotations, livestock auctions in subzero temperatures, talismans to prevent the theft of essence by demonic plants— subjects vary but inevitably he finds himself sitting side by side with Mo Bai bent over the map or a new scroll. The hunt for the flower set aside in their eagerness to pick apart problems facing the southern borderlands.

Every time it happens, Shang Hua berates himself for these lapses in self-control. He knows he doesn’t deserve to have these soft moments with Mo Bai, but he can’t help falling into the easy cadence of conversation when they stumble on new and interesting topics. Unfortunately, it’s obvious to Shang Hua that these lapses in propriety make the Prince uncomfortable. Every time the two of them look up and realize how close they have drifted together, the younger man will flush with annoyance and jump up, shifting quickly to end the conversation by walking away or diving into another book.

The ever-changing tone of their interactions leaves Shang Hua utterly conflicted. Honestly, Wang-Shijie would beat him around the head if she could see his messy thoughts. Mo Bai might be his favorite, but that doesn’t mean Mo Bai feels any obligation to Shang Hus safety or comfort. Just because the quiet Prince hides warming talismans where Shang Hua will find them, pulls out books on topics Shang Hua mentions throughout the day, and sometimes his eyes will fill with eager delight as they curl together over the beautiful map of the Northern Demon Realm… none of that actually means he will be merciful at the end of this ordeal.

He can’t stop himself from imagining all of the worst-case scenarios. Scene after scene of misery is spun out by his overactive imagination. What if he’s forced to reveal his hand in the creation of this world? Would Mo Bai assume the flower had been a trick all along and lash out? Or worse, would he believe Shang Hua’s admission of guilt and punish him for creating such a miserable existence?

Shang Hua’s spiraling fears evaporate the instant Mo Bai steps out from behind the privacy screen dressed fully as the Crown Prince of the Northern Demon Realm. The blood drains from his head in a rush and there is a giddy moment where he wonders if he’s really going to pass out just from seeing his Prince in formal clothes.

Mo Bai runs a hand over his chest, smoothing out a wrinkle in his long sweeping robes, careful not to snag the intricate embroidery with his sharp nails. Delicate scenes of snowy mountains under heavy clouds dance across the fine silk, each layer just the slightest shade deeper than the last until the final layer matches the true black of a moonless night. Shang Hua digs his nails into his palms as he watches Mo Bai adjust the high collar of his innermost robe with a small frown of distaste. The pale blue silk kisses the lower edge of Mo Bai’s jaw giving him an icy noble air that makes Shang Hua want to shiver. A fortune of silk and brocade wraps around those powerful shoulders, framing him in wealth and power.

There’s no way Shang Hua can handle looking up at Mo Bai’s handsome face so instead he watches helplessly as the Prince shrugs on a final layer. The grey sleeveless robe is so thin, it’s practically sheer. Mo Bai leaves it unbelted. As he moves to another dresser it flares out behind him letting the patterns of embroidered frost sparkle along its hemline.

There is a soft tinkling sound as Mo Bai begins rifling through a lacquered box filled with jewelry; slowly adding rings, necklaces, and dangling earrings to his already imposing silhouette. Shang Hua blushes as Mo Bai runs his fingers though through midnight black hair and has to turn abruptly away, forcing himself to stop imagining how soft it must feel to touch.

Once again desperate for a distraction, Shang Hua reaches out for the papers scattered across the desk. He shuffles through his notes and sorts them into useless piles just to keep his hands busy. It really isn’t fair, why couldn’t he have managed to transmigrate into someone a little more attractive? He sighs, tugging self-consciously on the large robe Mo Bai had tossed his way that morning. As a cannon fodder background character Shang Qinghua was always going to be average—but in a world filled with incomparable beauties, shouldn’t that mean he gets to at least be decent looking? No. He’s somehow managed to keep his old body’s messy brown hair, abundance of freckles, and goofy grin.

In his first life he’d never kept anyone’s attention for more than a single date. He hadn’t managed to improve on that record in this second life. You would think on a mountain peak full of restless teens, he’d have a chance at a second kiss. Shang Hua rests a hand on his chin, trying not to pout too hard. Mo Bai probably had no problem getting people to kiss him. Those perfect lips, that sharp jawline, those deep blue eyes. There was probably a line of people out the front door of the Ice Fortress waiting for the chance to lock lips with the frosty Northern Prince.

Shang Hua sneaks a longing glance towards Mo Bai only to choke on a laugh, his pining dispersed in an instant. A lock of hair had snagged on one of Mo Bai’s intricate bracers, tugging his elegant crown of wrought silver to the side and making an absolute mess of his finely combed locks.

“My Prince…” Shang Hua fights hard but can’t keep the mirth out of his voice.

Mo Bai grumbles and tugs harder on his hair, pointedly ignoring Shang Hua’s call.

This time Shang Hua manages to smooth the laughter from his voice as he speaks. “This servant only wanted to offer his assistance. Getting to the library as quickly as possible will help us complete our task.”  Shang Hua waits and watches Mo Bai struggle with his rapidly tangling hair for a long moment before the Prince gives a frustrated growl.

“Well? Are you just going to sit there?” Mo Bai’s tone is brusque but Shang Hua has to bite his lip to keep from smiling at the hint of petulance that manages to leak through.  He jumps to his feet, trying not to seem too eager and promptly stumbles over long hem of his robes. Mo Bai’s snort of laughter eases some of the tension in the room and Shang Hua gives his own embarrassed smile to the waiting Prince. He hikes his robes up just enough to walk safely and makes his way over to where Mo Bai sits at the vanity.

“Here, let me.” He murmurs before reaching out to catch Mo Bai’s wrist and gently detangling his hair from the bracer. A beat passes before Shang Hua realizes what just happened.  “O-oh! Um.” he drops Mo Bai’s arm like a hot poker and laughs nervously. “That…ah…how?”

Mo Bai raises an eyebrow. “This Lord swore not to touch you. You did not swear to not touch this Lord. Blood oaths are…particular.”

“W-well, I suppose that means this servant can still assist with your hair.” Shang Hua notes weakly, still reeling from the cool brush of Mo Bai’s wrist against his fingertips after four days of forced separation. He knows he’s being ridiculous, but that doesn’t stop his cheeks from flushing.

Mo Bai stares at him for a long moment then abruptly turns away. Shang Hua catches sight of the telltale purple tint along the tips of his pointed ears. Of course, it must be humiliating for someone so self-sufficient to need this kind of assistance. Shang Hua silently swears to not make this weirder for Mo Bai than it already is.

He knows he’s going to fail as soon as he pulls the pin from Mo Bai’s crown. As the hairpiece comes loose Mo Bai’s hair comes tumbling down like a flood of black ink across his neck. It’s soft. It’s so fucking soft. It’s hard to resist burying his hands in that beautiful curtain of midnight black hair. Shang Hua forces himself to place the crown carefully to the side before taking up the comb Mo Bai offers. When he takes the hair in hand it’s thick and wavy and everything Shang Hua has ever wanted to touch.

With a deep breath he begins brushing it out, starting cautiously at the bottom and slowly working his way up to Mo Bai’s head, moving as efficiently as possible while taking care to never cause discomfort. It takes true concentrated effort to not spend the rest of the day rhythmically running the comb through that mass of dark hair. When he finally convinces himself to place the comb to the side, Mo Bai gives a full body shudder. Shang Hua mentally pats himself on the back for restraining his worst impulses. It must have been difficult for Mo Bai to submit to this indignity, luckily his limited patience didn’t run out before Shang Hua was done.  With this in mind he carefully sweeps Mo Bai’s hair into a neat knot before pinning the crown back in place.

“There. Do you, um do you need anything else my Prince?” he asks as Mo Bai turns to face him. A single stray strand of hair hangs in the prince’s face and Shang Hua tucks it behind Mo Bai’s ear without thinking. “S-sorry.” He stutters, cursing his inability to control himself. He’d done so well up to this point! Seeing Mo Bai this way, with his fine robes and his hair pulled back into the ornate crown—it completely overrode all common sense! No sensible person could blame him for his failure!

Mo Bai blinks up at him a few times before giving a small cough. Silence reigns for an awkward moment before Mo Bai practically jumps to his feet. He turns and walks almost mechanically away from Shang Hua, stopping only as he comes to the door.

 “This Lord will return shortly.” Mo Bai sounds slightly hoarse, but before Shang Hua can voice his concern the Prince yanks open the door and disappears into the hall.

With a start Shang Hua realizes he’s alone, really alone, for the first time in over a week. The room yawns around him, suddenly empty without the ever-present pressure of Mo Bai’s silent company. After standing, Shang Hua wrings his hands a bit, trying to forget the soft glide of Mo Bai’s hair against his skin. There’s no time for fantasies right now. He needs to take this opportunity to prepare some security measures. Every time he’s stumbled upon silently offered warming talismans, he’s managed to palm one or two off of the stack. His baths had been colder and his blankets less snug than they could be at night, but he must take advantages where they’re offered. There is always a chance that things will go badly after he eats the flower and while he doesn’t slack off on his cultivation, that won’t matter in the face of the Northern Prince’s fury. Trickery and subtlety are undeniably his strengths. If Mo Bai expects a fair fight, he won’t get one. Not that Shang Hua actually wants to fight Mo Bai… it just pays to be prepared.

He sinks back down at the table and flicks out his wrist in a practiced motion, summoning the small stack of talismans to hand. After fishing a stick of cinnabar from his quiankun pouch, he leans over the desk and begins the slow and arduous process of altering the talismans.

-

 

The growing realization that something is wrong starts as an ache in his lower back. The feeling grows until he is forced to stand with a groan, stretching to relieve the pressure. Unwilling to lose time on an odd cramp, Shang Hua scoops up the remaining papers and continues editing his talismans against the wall of the bedroom.

Three talismans later his hands are trembling hard enough to smear the cinnabar and render his current work useless. Shang Hua shakes his head at the scribbled mess. He’d better stop. No use wasting his limited resources. He crumples the talisman in his hands and sets it aflame with a burst of spiritual energy. As the flame leaves his fingertip Shang Hua is forced to double over with a stilted gasp. Pain lances from his stomach out to his arms and legs, throbbing with the beat of his heart. Nonsensically, thoughts of Mo Bai begin to pour through his mind. Why isn’t he by Mo Bai’s side? Why didn’t he force Mo Bai to take him along? He should go to him!

Shang Hua blinks at where his hand is pressed against the frame of the door to the hall. He’d moved across the room without thinking, storing the finished talismans in his sleeve. Ice left by Mo Bai’s hand seals the door shut, but he can’t help but push against it.

Sweat trickles down his forehead, the room is starting to blur and buzz, and oh—OH fuck, it’s the oath. Didn’t Mo Bai say that the wording of the oath was important?! He swore to stay at Mo Bai’s side like a moron. Shang Hua’s hands are clammy as he presses them to his face, his breath is loud and harsh in the empty room. He needs to concentrate; there are ways to handle the slow corrosion of a violated oath.

Shang Hua forces himself to step away from the door and walk to the window. He only has to last until Mo Bai comes back from the library, it won’t be long. The cool glass is heavenly against his flushed forehead. Snow swirls though the air outside obscuring a majority of the fortress below.

Mo Bai must have made it down to the library by now. The young Prince didn’t seem keen on leaving Shang Hua, so he likely won’t linger. As long as Mo Bai doesn’t go any further, he should be able to handle this through meditation. With a sigh, he sinks into his own power. The gentle thrum of his golden core eases the pain as he begins to focus on circulating his spiritual energy. 

-

Sweat pours down Shang Hua’s back as he stumbles into the washroom. Meditation it had held off the worst of the pain for almost half a shichen, but as time wore on, he was growing less and less able to hold back the burning heat building within his core. The icy air pours over his body like a balm as he approaches the moonstone pool. He shivers as it slips beneath the collar of his robes, but he still manages to pull a bucket of icy water from the pool without spilling a drop.

A sloppy application of spiritual energy brings the temperature of the water up enough that he can dunk his head into the bucket without fear of losing his ears or nose to frostbite. The fog in his brain clears as he sits back up with a gasp. Water runs down his neck and under his collar but he doesn’t bother wiping it away. Instead, it prompts him to shrug out of the sleeves of his robes, not bothering to untie his belt before plunging his head back into the bucket.

This time water slops across the floor with a splatter. It soaks into his clothing leaving his legs aching with the slow building chill of the washroom. Mess already made, he picks up the bucket and dumps the remaining water over his head. Immediate relief from the cool water leaves him sagging against the rim of the moonstone pool. His breath fogs in front of his lips but the slow roll of his spiritual energy keeps him from shaking to pieces.

All too soon the burn in his abdomen returns, sliding out from his stomach and up his throat until it feels like there are coals sitting on the back of his tongue. The handle rattles in his hands as he dips the bucket into the pool again and hisses as the frigid water splashes his hand.

Mo Bai should have been a fire demon, he thinks. Maybe then his palace would be more hospitable. Shang Hua snorts at the image of a palette-swapped Mo Bai wrapped in red silks like Sha Hualing. Still chuckling, he raises the bucket out of the water and promptly slips on the wet rim of the bath.

The shock of ice against his skin as he falls into the pool makes him gasp, which of course means he immediately inhales the coldest water he’s ever touched. Cramps rocket along his twitching limbs seconds before he loses feeling in them completely. Shang Hua thrashes as he feels his power spark and start along his veins before failing completely. No human’s spiritual energy could keep up with this onslaught.

Even his thoughts are far away as air slips past of his lips in a quick stream of bubbles. I can’t believe I’m going to fucking die like this.

Something plunges into the water next to him; dark robes and blurred hands reach out but slip away from his bare shoulders. The waves from their entry send him tumbling helplessly to the side. Pain explodes in his stomach as he is unceremoniously yanked by the belt out of the pool. Colors blur together and for a moment Shang Hua still can’t breathe. A sudden violent shake forces him to cough. In a moment water pours from his mouth, burning as he chokes it out with each grateful wheeze.

The world around him resolves into focus and Shang Hua cranes his head to see Mo Bai, soaking wet, holding him up like a kitten by the belt. There is a wild look in Mo Bai’s blue eyes that softens as Shang Hua lets out a pitiful whimper. Shivers wrack his body so viciously he wonders, slightly hysterically, if Mo Bai will lose his grip and drop him right back into the frigid pool.

The soft shock of dry fur on his wet skin makes him startle, he hadn’t even realized he’d closed his eyes. A black canopy stretches above him, is this Mo Bai’s bed? The thought doesn’t hold, slipping away with every full body shiver that passes from his head to his toes. A tug at his waist makes him look down to see strong hands beginning to unfasten his belts, sliding them out from under him with a hiss of fabric.

“H-hey.” He protests weakly “ ‘M cold, d’n wanna s-strip. J’Jus let me s-sleep”

“Shang Hua, Shang Hua look at me.” The forceful tone makes Shang Hua struggle to obey. He blinks slowly up at the blurred figure of Mo Bai above him. The Prince is soaked to the bone, his dark hair plastered to his face which is looking down at him with a surprisingly open expression of fear.

“Y-y-y’s my p-pr’nce?” he slurs though chattering teeth.

“You can’t remain in these wet clothes. I- this- just- stay awake.” Mo Bai commands.

Shang Hua nods. He can do that. Whatever his Prince says. As long as it means he can keep laying on the warm furs.

“Lift your hips.” Mo Bai instructs.

Shang Hua complies and shivers as his soaked robes are pulled out from underneath him.  The cold press of his pants is frustrating now that he’s shed his other layers. Thought barely processed, he grabs his waistband and begins to shuffle the offending garments down his hips. There is a strangled noise from far above him and his world goes dark as another warm blanket engulfs him. A thin face isn’t useful when he’s busy shaking himself to pieces, if Mo Bai can’t handle a bit of skin, that’s not his problem. Shang Hua doesn’t stop until the soaked pants are discarded and he’s finally fully surrounded by warmth. 

He curls up on his side, winding the warm furs tightly around his shoulders. Slowly the adrenaline that had kept him pushing forward fades from his shaking limbs. With the release of tension, he can’t hold back the tears that begin to roll down his cheeks. Breath comes in bursts and spurts but he can’t unwind the knot of fear that had wound itself into his chest in those moments where he was drowning. It’s not often you face death head-on, and Shang Hua has had to do so more in the past week than he’s had to do in the past year. So sure, he deserves to freak out a little. Maybe Mo Bai will be polite enough to ignore his gulping sobs.

Pressure on his back makes Shang Hua jump. Through the layers of fur, he feels a large hand gently rub circles along his spine. He hiccups and closes his eyes. The hand doesn’t pause and the slow up and down rhythm of the touch becomes a measure to breathe by. Up and in, down and out. Shang Hua focuses on his golden core, following that gentle tempo as he sends his pulsing energy out along his limbs to warm his skin from the inside out.

Slowly, Shang Hua comes back to himself. Sobs reduce to sniffles and his tears slow to a steady drip. All the while the hand continues to stroke his back with deliberate ease. He enjoys the silent comfort, allowing himself to relax into the soft furs. After a long minute, he thickens his face and wiggles a bit, poking out from underneath the furs to peek up at Mo Bai.

“I’m not touching you.” Mo Bai murmurs, looking pointedly away from where Shang Hua is cocooned. “I’m touching the blankets.”

Shang Hua cracks a small smile at Mo Bai who is still sitting in his soaked robes “O-of course my Prince.”

“What happened?” he questions, voice soft.

Shang Hua shifts on the bed. “The blood oath. I promised to stay by your side. And as we’ve seen, the oath is… particular. When you got far enough away, I started to feel ill. Like I was burning up. “

“So you decided to dive into the coldest pool you could find?” there is a teasing tilt to Mo Bai’s question, but it doesn’t cover the slight strain underlying his words.

Shang Hua flushes at that. “Um, no. I…. I fell. I was just trying to cool off.”

Mo Bai simply looks away at this, lips pulled into a thin line. Shang Hua watches as the Prince opens his mouth to speak before closing it without saying a word. This repeats several times before Mo Bai clears his throat and looks at Shang Hua directly. “I am glad you are okay.”

Shang Hua tries valiantly not to gape at Mo Bai. The younger man’s serious gaze makes his stomach clench uncomfortably so he shuffles a bit more on the bed, sitting up and clutching at the furs before attempting to change the subject. “Did you bring back the books?

 “No.” wheezes Mo Bai as he practically flies off the bed, turning his back to Shang Hua immediately.

“No?”

“No.”

Shang Hua stares at Mo Bai’s soaked back. “Then you found the information?”

“No.” Mo Bai growls.

“Then—"

Mo Bai cuts him off, voice strained as he begins hastily stripping off his jewelry. “No. This Lord will have to return later. You will accompany him.”

 “Me?!” Shang Hua nearly jumps off the bed to protest. Unfortunately, his face is not thick enough to chase after Mo Bai while clad only in blankets.  “How am I supposed to follow you down to the library? If you haven’t noticed my Prince, I’m human?”

“This lord is aware.” Mo Bai snarls over his shoulder as he stalks off behind his privacy screen. Each layer of his fancy robes makes an unpleasant wet plop as they are thrown to over the screen to dry. A flicker of guilt flares in Shang Hua’s chest. So much for the beautiful clothes.

The tension eases as Mo Bai rounds the screen, looking much more comfortable in his usual dark blue robes, loosely belted to show off his toned chest. Shang Hua has to look away hurriedly as Mo Bai stretches his arms over his head, bringing those muscles into startling definition.

 Mo Bai crosses the room and sits on the bed next to Shang Hua, offering another of his dark robes to the blushing cultivator. “This Lord has items that will assist in disguising you. But not now. Rest first.”

Shang Hua nods his thanks and takes the robe in hand. “U-um, do you mind, uh.” Mo Bai tilts his head then with a start, jumps off the bed and faces away from Shang Hua without a word.

Shang Hua for his part shrugs into the robe as quickly as possible, wishing desperately that he’d been given a pair of pants to go with it.

“O-okay. I’m uh, good.”

Mo Bai turns back to the bed and frowns immediately as he sees Shang Hua shakily getting to his feet.

“No. Stay.” He commands.

“W-what?” Shang Hua barely gets the word out before Mo Bai takes a blanket and uses it to push Shang Hua back down on the bed.

“Rest. We will go to the library after you recover.”

Instead of arguing Shang Hua gives a weak nod and watches, utterly baffled, as Mo Bai steps back with a look of satisfaction. The prince only turns away when Shang Hua lies back and tugs one of the furs up and over his chest. He watches through slitted eyes as Mo Bai walks to their shared desk and takes a seat.

This is what he gets for wanting to see the Northern Fortress. Shang Hua sighs. One day his luck won’t be so terrible. He just has to survive until then.    

Chapter Text

“Is it true? You’re our young Lords new attendant?”

Shang Hua startles at the young clerks eager question, nearly fumbling the pile of scrolls she had just dumped into his arms. After shuffling the scrolls to a more secure position, he offers the veiled demoness a weak smile.

 “A-ah, well, yes. Just um, just started today.” He focuses a spot just above her left ear as he speaks. “I-I was asked to assist with his research, so um, here I am.”

The clerk raises her eyebrows and gives Shang Hua a good look over. “Oh, this is bound to cause a stir in the servant’s hall tonight. If you come and find me when you get off duty, my sisters and I can keep you from being overwhelmed with everyone’s questions. That is, if you promise to tell us what it’s like serving the Prince of course.” The icy jewels threaded through her blue hair chime as she leans forward conspiratorially.

“I uh, won’t be off duty until the Prince completes his research; but I promise to come find you when he does.” Lies Shang Hua, dipping forward into a polite bow as he takes a step back. “Surely you understand.”

The demoness gives a tinkling laugh that raises the hair on Shang Hua’s neck. “Of course, of course. If the Prince dismisses you as quickly as his last attendants though, don’t worry- come find us for dinner tonight anyway.” She returns his bow before slithering down the hall with a graceful sweep of her long tail. Shang Hua tries to ignore the swirling wake she leaves in the low fog that drifts across the library floor. Body Horror was his least favorite part of scary movies in his first life, seeing the odd anatomy of the Northern Fortresses many demonic servants was truly testing his poker face. If only he could go back and tell himself just how unsettling snake girls were in person, maybe he’d have written less of them into the world. With a sigh he shakes his head and turns back towards the alcove where he and Mo Bai have settled for the afternoon.

As he walks, Shang Hua can’t help but mumble to himself, making sure to keep careful track of his progress through the library. Pass two shelves, make a right turn. Keep walking until you see the massive tapestry depicting Mo Bai’s great grandmothers bloody wedding hunt. Turn left at the tapestry and walk until you see the crystal staircase. Take the stairs slowly- make sure to count each of the 18 steps as you do, the mist across the floor makes it hard to tell when you’ve reached the bottom.

When he was writing, the concept of a library where reflective ice shelves spiraled out from the entrance in a swirling fractal pattern had sounded pretty cool. Now that he was navigating what was essentially a very cold, very nerve-wracking, funhouse mirror maze, he regretted his past self’s dedication to theme. Sure, the way the midmorning light hit the ice and threw faint rainbows in all directions took his breath away at first sight- but after spending a good amount of time wandering between identical towering shelves, the charm had worn off.

Shang Hua’s muttering turns into a startled squeak as he rounds a corner and is confronted with a dark figure wrapped in pine green robes. He fumbles the scrolls in his arms, dropping them to the mist covered floor before realizing with a groan that the unknown figure is just his own distorted reflection in the ice. He takes a deep breath and puts one hand over his thundering heart, ignoring the flush of embarrassment that rises on his cheeks.

His own mirrored form mocks him as he ducks to pick up the scattered scrolls. It’s not really his fault that he was so startled, anyone would jump if their reflection was as different as Shang Hua’s is now. Steel grey hair, pale eyes, and small fangs all work together to portray a relatively nondescript frost demon. The only compliant Shang Hua had was that his pale blue skin remained dotted with his characteristic freckles. Mo Bai had chuckled at Shang Hua’s failed attempts to get them to fade before just telling him to keep them.

What elevated his disguise beyond his own skill though was the Eternal Twilight Shielding pendant that hummed with power from where it was tucked against his chest. When Mo Bai had looped the pendant over Shang Hua’s head, he’d had to bite his tongue to keep from bursting out in hysterical laughter. Their shared backstory had already changed so much, why shouldn’t Mo Bai have gotten his hands on one of Binghe’s end game treasures. It lived up to its PIDW reputation too, concealing his own Qi while simultaneously projecting a low-level demonic aura. Luo Binghe had used it many times to impersonate servants in demonic households during late chapter spy plots. Shang Hua wondered if his protagonist son would miss the three wives he’d picked up in the original quest for the pendant now that he could just ask the future Mobei-Jun to borrow it for a day.  

At least the pendant and his disguise worked well enough for Shang Hua to pass unnoticed at Mo Bai’s side. He’d even been given some robes that actually fit to complete the picture. He was surprised at how much he liked them, the pine greens and smoky browns make him feel like an evergreen forest on a misty morning. Shang Hua huffs a short laugh remembering the way Mo Bai had grumbled when Shan Hua pointed out he couldn’t keep wearing Mo Bai’s robes if they were to go out into the Fortress halls. Things had become much less tense after the whole ice-bath debacle, and Shang Hua found himself hoping for more opportunities to see beyond Mo Bai’s stoic mask. The thought makes him smile goofily as he strains to reach for a scroll that rolled beneath a shelf. As he sits back up, he jumps as a figure blocks out the soft afternoon light.

“Are you alright?” A tall, tall, humanoid demon looks down at him with an easy smile. White hair falls loose around broad shoulders wrapped in grey fur. His otherwise handsome face is split lengthwise by a thin spidering scar. “This Lord heard a commotion and came to see what happened.” He offers a hand, his large palm practically engulfing Shang Hua’s as he helps him to his feet.

Hoping to stave off any offence, Shang Hua bows low, fingers brushing one of the talismans hidden in his sleeve.  “This servant apologizes for the disturbance.” He says, praying that this mystery demon’s smile isn’t hiding anything hostile.

Surprisingly, the demon’s laugh is deep and friendly as he gently pulls Shang Hua up out of his bow. “It’s no trouble. Especially when it leads me to a new face in the Fortress.” He winks a light purple eye at Shang Hua, seeming to revel in the way it makes the smaller man fumble. “You are new to the Northern Fortress, right? You’ll have to forgive me if this Lord has somehow managed to forget such a sweet face.”

The shock of being flirted with leaves Shang Hua’s face hot, but it’s not enough to make him stutter. “Yes.” He lies, “Completely new. I just arrived this morning.” Most of the other demons who had asked the same question had taken this false admission as an opportunity to offer advice, condolences, or just to establish their superiority in the Fortress’ hierarchy. The white-haired Lord though, just gives him an odd look, another smile tugging at his lips.

“This Lord thought so.” He practically purrs. With a shiver Shang Hua recognizes hunger when it flickers to life in the taller demons’ eyes.

“T-this servant thanks my Lord for his assistance. He must return to the Crown Prince’s side before he is scolded, please excuse his rudeness.” Shang Hua hides his relief as the white-haired Lord pulls back in surprise, caught off guard by Mo Bai’s title. He takes the opening to give another quick bow and sets off at a barely polite trot. He feels that purple gaze on his back until he turns down another aisle and breaks line of sight.

---

“You took a while.” Mo Bai comments as Shang Hua finally takes a seat next to him at the table.

“Yeah, well, if your library wasn’t a mirror maze my Prince, that wouldn’t be a problem.” Shang Hua grumbles.

“What was that?” The raised eyebrow Mo Bai shoots his way makes Shang Hua duck his head.

“A-Ah never mind my Prince, please don’t take this servant’s frustration to heart.” He offers a weak smile and leans over the table to peek at Mo Bai’s notes.  “Did you have any luck opening the Record of Endless Wandering Petals?” He asks, hoping to change the subject.

Mo Bai snorts and rolls his eyes, “No. The locking seal is too strong. We will need to find the password in order to open the book.” He gives the leather-bound tome a small scowl as Shang Hua sighs. Of course, the manuscript with the most relevant information would be magically sealed. It’s not like anything can be easy for a poor transmigrator. Still, there are other ways to find their answers.   

“I’ve brought the scrolls you requested,” Shang Hua says as he sorts through his pile of texts, placing them into their relevant piles. “Chen Yao’s treatise on ascension in the demonic realms, The marriage records of the Northern Demonic courtiers, the past years astronomical records from the Waning Moon sect, and the personal journal of the third young master of the Blackened Manor.”

“What about the Winters Celestial Attenuation scroll?” asks Mo Bai as he takes two of the marriage records from Shang Hua and begins to flip through their pages.

“Ah-yes. Hang on” Shang Hua shuffles through his pile of scrolls, coming up empty handed before going back and sorting through them again. “Shit.”

Mo Bai looks up from the marriage records with a questioning hum.

“I must have dropped it.” groans Shang Hua.

“Dropped it?”

“I…tripped...close to the main staircase, in the aisle where we found your third cousins star charts.” He pushes himself to his feet with a huff. “Someone I didn’t know came to help and I left in a rush. I must not have picked it up. It’s really my fault my Prince. I’ll go get it.”

Mo Bai shakes his head. “You’ll only get lost again.” He points out with a hint of humor before pushing a sheet of notes towards Shang Hua. Their fingers nearly brush but neither one of them flinches away. “Check these notes against the marriage records, I’ll be back soon.”

Shang Hua doesn’t mind the warmth that spreads in his chest as he smiles up at Mo Bai, “Of course my Prince.”

---

Shang Hua realizes that half a sichen has passed when he looks up and sees the way the light has shifted as it filters through the surrounding ice. He laces his fingers together and brings them over his head, sighing with relief as his back gives a satisfying crack. Mo Bai still hadn’t returned, but Shang Hua wasn’t worried yet. The oath had yet to stir, so he figures it’s fine.

The Record of Endless Wandering Petals catches his eye as he resettles himself behind the low desk. Bound in dark green leather, the thick book is held closed by a length of embroidered silk that thrums with spiritual power. A relic won by Mo Bai’s great aunt in a duel, the botanical journal of the famous immortal Xue Lingjiao was bound to have information on the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower. Shang Hua had recognized the book as one Luo Binghe had used in several of his own quests for rare flowers. Finally, he’d thought, a lucky break! Unfortunately, the damn thing was sealed shut with one of his old absurd plot points. Now, he hauls the massive text into his lap now and squints at the silk bonds. Words embroidered with impossibly small stitches set out a riddle he had written a lifetime ago that he no longer remembered the exact answer to.

Broken with a word, held without touch, ten thousand men rely on me but none have seen my form.

Vague! This kind of riddle could be so many things at once. What late night writing session had resulted in this gem? Shang Hua grumbles to himself as he pulls a fresh sheet of paper out and begins jotting down potential answers. At least he can strike them out as he tries them.

“A Promise?” No.

“A Heart?” Nothing.

“Your word?” Nope.

Thirty minutes later Shang Hua tosses the heavy book back onto the desk and scowls down at his filled paper. It figures he’d be defeated by his own vague bullshit.

“Broken with a word, held without touch, ten thousand men rely on me but have never seen my form.” He mutters, tapping his chin with slow frustration. It should be simple enough; he definitely hadn’t put too much thought into it while he was writing. It was probably something so simple it bordered on stupid.

“A heart?” Comes a warm voice over his shoulder.

“No, I already tried that” Shang Hua replies without thinking. Recognition strikes a moment later and he sits up straight, whirling around to face the speaker.

The white-haired demon from before smiles down at him “My apologies, this Lord should have anticipated you wouldn’t be stuck if the riddle had such an obvious answer.”

Shang Hua does his best to stay calm as his brain shuffles though all of the potential reasons this Sephiroth look-alike has reappeared. He hopes, really hopes that it’s not because he’s decided that offending the crown prince is worth punishing Shang Hua for his earlier rudeness. Those thoughts must play across his face because the Demon raises an elegant hand in a soothing gesture.

“You forgot something.” The Lord’s explains in a low and sweet voice as he pulls a scroll from his sleeve. “This Lord spotted it on the floor after you walked away and figured it wouldn’t hurt to make a quick delivery.” 

Shang Hua takes the scroll with a twinge of guilt, both for inconveniencing the demon before him and for sending Mo Bai on an unintentional wild goose chase. “This humble servant thanks you for your kindness my Lord.” He says, flashing his best customer service smile.

“It wasn’t a kindness,” the Lord asserts suddenly, making Shang Hua freeze. “In fact, it was utterly selfish. This lord realized as you slipped away that he had not gotten your name.”

There is an expectant pause before Shang Hua catches on. “Ming Fan.” He lies, clasping his hands together to keep from nervous fiddling. You’d think he’d remember writing this kind of character, handsome and strong with a distinct scar- but nothing is coming to mind. “And the name of this Lord?” He asks, vaguely hopeful that a name will help place why his skin is prickling with uneasy pressure.

“How rude of me, of course. This Lord is Mo Xiaohan.” The demon answers with another toothy grin.

Ah, see? He doesn’t even remember the name! At least this isn’t some big player in the North taking undue interest in Shang Hua. Definitely just a cannon fodder cousin or something like that.

“Well Ming Fan, would you mind if this Lord took another shot at your riddle?”

The low hum of power emanating from Mo Xiaohan makes a little primal voice in the back of Shang Hua’s head chant “run run run”- but predators love a chase and he’s doing his level best to avoid becoming prey. So he merely nods his head in acquiescence, as he murmurs “Of course.”

Shang Hua tucks his hands into his sleeves, brushing his talismans as Mo Xiaohan takes the seat beside him with an elegant sweep of his robes. Once settled he looks down at Shang Hua expectantly.

“Would Ming Fan mind repeating the verse for this Lord?”

Shang Hua nods and sits up a little straighter “Broken with a word, held without touch, ten thousand men rely on me but have never seen my form.”

Mo Xiaohan takes a long moment to think, tilting his head as he gazes unseeing at the table of notes. Suddenly he leans forward and Shang Hua bites his tongue to keep from yelping as the distance between them is sharply closed.

Trust.” He practically breathes in Shang Hua’s ear, a gust of cold air chilling the metal of his earring with a sharp sting. Below them on the desk, there is a soft hiss as the silk bonds around the book loosen and fall away.

 “Oh!” Shang Hua turns to the book, discomfort forgotten in his excitement. “Thank you!”

Mo Xiaohan leans forward with raised eyebrows “The book was spelled shut with a riddle?”

“Yes! A very vague one at that! This servant really could just kick my- I mean, whoever used something so ridiculous to hide botanical notes.” Shang Hua turns to the back of the book, praying that of all the reference materials he’d been forced to slog through over the past few days this was the one that had an index. The sight of neatly organized notes with page numbers clearly indicated, almost makes him weep.

“Well, this Lord is glad to be of service.” Mo Xiaohan says with a small chuckle.

Shang Hua looks up at Mo Xiaohan with a start and ducks his head. “Thank you again. Really. You have no idea how much help this is going to be.”

Mo Xiaohan glances once more over the scattered notes and texts across the desk. “From what this Lord can see, you’ve been working hard with the Prince on this project. Any assistance I can offer is, of course, my pleasure.” The way his deep voice rumbles over the word pleasure sends goosebumps rippling up Shang Hua’s arms, but before he can react Mo Xiaohan is already on his feet and stepping away from the table.

“Next time you have a riddle Ming Fan, come find this Lord.” He offers with a breezy wave before disappearing back into the stacks.

Shang Hua stares after him and blinks a few times before lifting a hand to rub at his still cold earring. What on earth was that about?

The odd emotional whiplash brought on by Mo Xiaohan is forgotten immediately as he hears Mo Bai’s now-familiar voice calling his name.

He turns with a wide grin, “My Prince! You won’t believe the answer to the Record of Endless Wandering Petals riddle.”

---

Between the Record of Endless Wandering Petals, the Winters Celestial Attenuation scroll and a surprisingly informative dissertation on tropes of Celestial Romance in Demonic Literature, their newly shortened list of springs to investigate comes together in short order.

“Five springs.” Shang Hua says with a happy sigh. “Now that is a manageable number.”

Mo Bai hums in agreement as he makes a neat pile of texts to return to the main desk.

“Should we…um…well should we head out today my Prince?” Shang Hua prods delicately, even as a sliver of reluctance attempts to worm its way into his words.

Mo Bai’s hands still for a moment before he shakes his head. “It’s late in the day. We will go in the morning.”

Shang Hua glances out towards the large windows where golden mid-afternoon light still filters through to refract across the icy décor, but he doesn’t press the issue. It’s not like he’d really mind another night spent with Mo Bai, especially now that their research is done. He pauses at that thought and immediately decides to ignore its implications. Nope, no time for self-reflection here. He has books to return.

---

Shang Hua glares at the top shelf with as much venom as he can muster. He is not short! He’s regular sized! The fact that he can’t actually put his final scroll back into its proper place is absolutely the result of giant genes in the Demonic North. He debates jumping and tossing the scroll into the right location, but images of icy shelves falling like dominoes makes him hesitate. This wouldn’t be a problem if he could just take out his sword and use it for a little extra height, but using his spiritual power in the middle of the Northern Demon Fortress would defeat the purpose of his disguise… so he just ends up getting on his tippy toes and reaching as high as he can, hoping to catch the edge of the shelf and ease the scroll into place with the tips of his fingers.

A sudden chill from the top of his head all the way down his back makes Shang Hua huff and drop his arm. “My Prince, do you think you can reach this shelf?” He’s about to turn when a cool hand catches his wrist before the scroll is plucked from his grasp and placed on the shelf.

Mo Xiaohan’s soft laugh nearly makes Shang Hua wrench his hand away, but he reigns in his terror, choosing instead to twist around and face the taller demon with a placid smile.

“ Lord Mo, your continued a-assistance is most appreciated.” The small stutter only makes Mo Xiaohan’s grin split a little wider.

“This Lord continues to find Ming Fan in need of assistance- he’s starting to think it’s intentional.”

Shang Hua could call for Mo Bai, the Prince is only an aisle away, but something about Mo Xiaohan makes the words stick in his throat. He feels the shelf digging into his back as he tries to subtly put a bit more room between himself and the looming demon before him.

Is it intentional?” Mo Xiaohan questions, “This Lord is sure you must be having a hard time serving the Crown Prince with his temper the way it is.”

Shang Hua’s smile falters at the condescension that drips from Mo Xiaohan’s words. He glares up at Mo Xiaohan, any semblance of politeness forgotten in the wave of offence he feels on Mo Bai’s behalf. “This servant has no complaints at all. In fact, he couldn’t think of anything better than serving his Royal Highness forever.” 

Surprisingly Mo Xiaohan only shakes his head and gives a soft tut “Ming Fan, you misunderstand me. This Lord knows how unpleasant his nephew can be, and seeing someone as obviously gentle as you at his side is worrying.” Shang Hua’s breath stutters as Mo Xiaohan- no, as LinGuang-Jun pats his arm. “Please know that if you ever need protection, or if you would want to change your assignment within the Fortress, This Lord will do his best to assist you.”

Shang Hua jerks away only to yelp as long carefully manicured nails dig into his shoulder.

 “Ming Fan should be more careful.” LinGuang-Jun says with false concern, as though he wasn’t the one currently crushing Shang Hua’s shoulder in his grip. “The Northern Court is full of treachery, and my nephew is not here often enough to protect you from it.” He releases Shang Hua’s shoulder and brushes off a mote of imaginary dust before stepping back. "Be sure to remember that as you move forward."

“This humble servant thanks Lord Mo for this lesson,” Shang Hua replies with a voice of pure ice. “But his Royal Highness is all the protection he needs.” Shang Hua is sure he’s gone too far as a snarl twists LinGuang-Jun’s handsome face into a vicious mask, but the moment passes and LinGuang-Jun’s pleasant smile returns.

“If Ming Fan is sure, this Lord won’t prevent him from learning from experience. Until next time.”

 Shang Hua watches LinGuang-Jun glide out of sight down the aisle before crouching down to take a few sharp breaths to calm his nerves. ‘Cannon Fodder cousin my ass’ he thinks to himself. Of course Mo Xiaohan was LinGuang-Jun. His own laziness in not officially giving titled characters proper names in PIDW was going to be a curse that screwed him over and over again throughout this second lifetime, wasn’t it?

By the time he pushes himself to his feet and finds Mo Bai, the majority of his tremors have faded. The rest he blames on the cold when Mo Bai makes an inquiring noise. It’s fine. It’ll all be fine. It’s not like he’s actually Mo Bai’s faithful servant, so he’s never going to have to deal with LinGuang-Jun again. Even though he wants to. With a sword. And a bunch of fire talismans.

---

Shang Hua shakes himself out of his ill-conceived revenge plots once he and Mo Bai have returned to Mo Bai’s quarters and the Prince has shuffled off his formal robes in favor of his loosely belted casual wear. Warmth once again floods Shang Hua’s chest at the sight of Mo Bai stretching like a cat after changing. There’s something so right about the way Mo Bai’s whole demeanor relaxes once he’s freed from the material trappings of his station.’ Who needs them anyway’ Shang Hua muses, ‘My Prince is regal enough to be recognized as royalty even without a crown.’

“What are you thinking about?” Mo Bai asks as he walks up to their shared desk, now clear of all of the books and notes that had covered it for the past few days.

Shang Hua feels his face burning as he gives an awkward laugh and flaps his hand. “N-nothing my Prince. Just um, well, thinking about our search tomorrow. I’m excited to see the southern borderlands.”

Mo Bai nods, but does not sit down at the desk, instead he shifts his weight from foot to foot for a moment before speaking. “Eat with me.”

“Um,” Shang Hua tilts his head up at Mo Bai. “Of course?”

“Not here.” Mo Bai explains, which clarifies absolutely nothing.

After a moment Shang Hua gets to his feet and walks to Mo Bai’s side. “Then where would you like to go my Prince?”

When Mo Bai offers his hand, palm up, Shang Hua doesn’t hesitate to take it, letting himself be gently pulled through a shimmering portal that Mo Bai calls into existence. This time, the wave of static that washes over him as they pass through the blue-tinged darkness is less terrifying and more exhilarating as the world narrows down to just Mo Bai’s hand in his own.

When they reemerge into the physical world Shang Hua can’t help but yelp and clutch at Mo Bai’s arm. They stand together high up in the cliffs behind the Northern Fortress and Shang Hua can see for hundreds of Li in every direction. The entirety of the Fortress is laid out before them like a toy castle far below, and beyond its stone walls occasional clusters of pine trees carve swaths of green across the endless snowy taiga. The full moon is cresting the horizon, washing the landscape with kind of silver light you only see in movies. Just as he’s about to turn to Mo Bai, a flicker of purple catches his attention. He turns to look up and feels all of the air leave his lungs as ribbons of multicolored light stream across the black sky in undulating waves. The silver washed landscape becomes flooded with purples blues and greens brighter than he ever imagined.

Shang Hua’s breath fogs as he lets out a longing sigh. “I could paint this for hours.” He whispers, half aware of Mo Bai at his side. “Maybe even for days.”

“Would you like to?” Asks Mo Bai with uncharacteristic hesitance.

“I-.” Shang Hua realizes that he’s still clutching at Mo Bai’s arm and lets go with a nervous laugh. “U-um. Well. It’s not that I wouldn’t but It would take a while and we have to go u-um go for the flower tomorrow -.”

“I meant…I meant after…after tomorrow.” Mo Bai is staring pointedly away from Shang Hua out across the moonlit snow as he stumbles over his words.

“After tomorrow?” Shang Hua repeats, not fully understanding.

“You could come back here. With me. If you want.”

Shang Hua stares up at Mo Bai, taking in the way his ink black hair melds with the darkness making his pale skin practically glow. He could come back here. He could paint the fortress, the taiga, maybe even Mo Bai. They could talk without the blood oath, come to an understanding…become friends. He’s surprised at how much the idea appeals to him.

“I-I think…I’d like that my Prince.”

Mo Bai turns away, but Shang Hua swears he can see the hint of a smile on his Prince’s lips. He doesn’t bother hiding his own grin as he follows after him to sit under an outcropping of stone and share the food Mo Bai pulls from a carefully packed qiankun pouch.

Later, when they step back through a portal into the fortress, Shang Hua buries his face into the heavy cloak Mo Bai had wrapped around his shoulders when he’d started to shiver in the night air. The sharp winter scent of his Prince surrounds him even as he curls beneath the borrowed blankets. For the first time since he was kidnapped, Shang Hua is warm all the way through the night.

Chapter Text

The air outside of the Northern Fortress had always felt clearer, cleaner, easier to breathe. From the moment they stepped through Mo Bai’s portal into the wild southern borderlands, the ever-present tension of that accompanied his ancestral home had eased from Mo Bai’s spine.

The clear blue morning had been spent investigating the series of trickling pools that made up the Spring of Gentle Laughter. Steam drifted from the heated water, creating low curls of white clouds that drifted silently through the pale trunks of snow-covered birch trees.  This close to the border the perennial snow of the Norther Demon Realm was more of a frost, lightly coating the valiant grasses that dared to grow in this harsh environment.

As they walked, Mo Bai kept his eyes on the figure ahead of him, watching as they flitted in and out of the weak beams of sunlight that filtered through the trees. The chestnut glow of his hair caught and held Mo Bai’s attention, the urge to touch a continual itch he was forbidden from scratching.

It was hard not to ruminate on how ridiculous it was to trust this little cultivator. Why should a few days spent in each other’s company overtake years of caution? Yet again and again he made the same mistakes. He knew this spy couldn’t be his Shang Hua, but his heart refused to listen to reason. With each small smile offered by that sweet face his resolve crumbled just a little more.

Mo Bai found himself hoping for a reasonable answer to his endless questions. A voice deep in his heart whispered that once they had the flower Shang Hua would explain the baffling drawings in his journal. Maybe- the voice murmured as he tracked the frantic movement of slim hands that gestured wildly, emphasizing some point the spy was making- maybe he’s been as desperate to find your ghost as you have been to find his.

“Here’s the next one, My Prince!” The spy looked back over his shoulder, strands of loose hair twisted out of his bun by the wind stuck in the corner of his mouth. Mo Bai wanted to take them and tuck them behind his ears, cup that round face in his hands and hold on until answers to his questions were pulled free.  

Instead, he stepped forward to join the spy at the edge of the small spring.

“Five white petals in a star shape with light blue leaves. At least it should be easy to pick out against the stone and grass, my Prince.” The spy’s idle chatter had been a constant companion since they left the confines of the fortress.

“I can’t believe how clear the water is, my Prince, When I wro- I mean, when I first read about the springs, I didn’t think it would be so—” the spy sighed and gazed out across the bubbling water, “beautiful?” That sweet smile pinched his freckled cheeks again.

“Not many humans find the demon realm beautiful.” Mo Bai couldn’t help but point out.

“And you have a lot of humans who can give their opinion on that?” There was a teasing edge to the spy’s words as he began to poke around in the brush, careful to avoid the steaming water as he searched.

Mo Bai walked around the opposite side of the spring, finally looking away from the spy to resume his own search for the flower. “More than you’d think. I’ve only managed to have conversations with a few of them though.” He felt the spy’s curious gaze on the back of his head but didn’t look up, instead taking the opportunity to duck into the heavy bushes that peppered the edge of the water.

Few, if any humans who entered the demon realm did so with good intentions. Out of that group, less than a handful would encounter the Demon Prince of the North and engage in conversation rather than immediate battle. Even then, those conversations invariably ended in bloodshed. Mo Bai had no desire to discuss his failed attempts at diplomacy, so when the little spy let the conversation drop he was grateful.

After a few minutes of quiet searching, they came together once again— empty handed. The spy sighed, a small pout pushing at his flushed lips.

 “Well, the network of springs continues on for another four and a half Li. Plenty of room for a flower to grow.” He sounded a little disappointed, but Mo Bai didn’t exactly expect to get lucky on the first day. A little part of him was actually pleased that their time outside of the fortress would not be cut short so easily. He resisted voicing pleasure, instead humming his agreement before falling into step beside the spy once more.

“So, what were we talking about before? Oh! Right, you wanted to know more about An Ding Peak?”

“Mn.”

The spy looked up at Mo Bai with an expectant expression, but Mo Bai simply continued to walk. Over the past few days, the spy had needed little incentive to expound at length upon interesting topics, Mo Bai’s input unneeded.  After a moment there came a small sigh and the spy began to speak.

“Well, I can’t tell you secret things, that would be, well, you know, u-um, not really appropriate. But you already know I’m a spy so that’s all I’ll say on that. Honestly that’s only about maybe half of what I do.” The spy jumped lightly over a small creek that branched off from the main spring to trickle out into the trees, feet sure on the slippery stones even as they continued to speak. “An Ding is the heart of Cang Qiong— not that most of the other peaks would acknowledge it. When most people talk about Cang Qiong they talk about Qing Jing’s scholars and Bai Zhan’s warriors. But without An Ding’s artisans and logistical teams they wouldn’t have the clothes on their backs, let alone their swords or fancy books! There’s so much more to making sure that twelve separate peaks actually function than people assume. How do we feed all of our disciples who can’t practice inedia? It sure isn’t with Qing Jing’s poetry, that’s for sure.”

“Your peak handles agriculture?” Mo Bai interjected between the spy’s quick breaths.

“We don’t handle most of the medicinal, magical, or poisonous plants

After a beat Mo Bai looks down at the spy, genuinely curious. “Why serve if you go unacknowledged? What debt do you owe?” He asked.

The spy paused at that, turning to meet Mo Bai’s gaze before answering. “It’s a home. It’s a purpose. It’s a—” He let out an oddly strained laugh, “I guess I’ve always felt it was my destiny? But now I’m not so sure.”

Silence hangs in the air as they look each other in the eye, ignoring the unspoken question that hovers between them.

The spy looks away first, rubbing the back of his neck with an awkward shrug. “Anyway, it’s not like everyone is terrible to us. Qiong Ding, Wan Jian, and Qian Qiao tend to understand the importance of our role in the sect.”

Mo Bai doesn’t press his point, choosing instead to listen quietly as the spy launched into a breakdown of the artisans that work on An Ding and how they interact with their sister peaks. The spy’s voice is a comforting presence as they continue to walk side by side through the misty forest, pausing every ten minutes or so to investigate a new pool for signs of the Thousand Truths Pained Beauty Flower. By the time they reach the end of the series of springs, the sun is directly overhead, bathing the rocky shores in its pale light, offering just the slightest bit of warmth to the otherwise frigid landscape.

“Next up is the Spring of Refracted Joy,” the spy noted as he consulted the final list of springs they had put together in the library. “We’ve got to be careful there, my Prince. The spring itself is home the Twin Tailed Crystal Serpent.”

Instead of replying, Mo Bai lifted his arm for the spy to tuck under as he summoned another portal. The way he slotted neatly into this offered space sent a rumble of content through Mo Bai’s chest. This is right, the animal part of his soul growled. His gege, his Shang Hua. This is what he’s wanted for so long. Needed for so long. He needs to keep him, keep him, keep him. Mo Bai shoved the snarling instincts aside and stepped forward into the swirling blue of his own power.

Later, Mo Bai promised himself. After the flower is consumed and a thousand apologies are given. Then he can face these urges that beg to be indulged.

 Ignorant of the turmoil hiding under Mo Bai’s placid face, the spy was swept into the portal, taking two hurried steps for each one of Mo Bai’s long strides.

They emerged from the portal onto a low ridge a full Li away from the Spring of Refracted Joy. Far enough to keep from alerting the Serpent, but close enough to see the top of the waterfall that poured into the pool peeking out above the tree line.

“Remember,” the spy rambled, voice already dripping with quiet nerves, “our first option is stealth. If we’re unlucky and the serpent wakes up— our next option is to hide until it returns to its lair. If it still attacks us then the jewel at the base of its throat is a vulnerable point. Strike the gem and we’ll have enough time to retreat. Shatter the gem it and the serpent will die.”

“We should kill it first. Then search for the flower.” Mo Bai points out.

“N-no!” the spy stutters, “No. If we have a prolonged fight it could crush the flower, and my Prince, the flower is rare enough! We can’t just take that risk. Stealth is u-uh, the best option we have here.”

M Bai frowned. He was surely powerful enough to take on this beast no matter the size. But he lost nothing complying with the spy’s requests. If they were insufficiently stealthy, they’d have a worthy fight on their hands. If the serpent never roused, he’d have more time to spend searching for the flower, talking with the spy, and enjoying the free air of the forests and hills. Maybe once they finished with this spring, he could convince the spy that they had searched enough for the day. They could set up camp and he could prod them into talking more about their work, or the human world, or anything really.

The sudden silence from his companion caught Mo Bai’s attention. He looked down at the spy and saw that he was looking back up at him with an expectant expression.

After a moment he cocked his head and raised a teasing eyebrow. “Do you need me to repeat any of that, my Prince?”

“Of course not.” Mo Bai grunted, hoping he wasn’t blushing at being caught daydreaming.

“A-ah, my Prince, I was just making sure— don’t be mad.” The spy reassured, hands coming up in a soothing motion; voice pointedly hushed as they continued to approach the spring. “As long as you keep those things in mind, everything will be fine.”

Mo Bai almost admitted that he had not in fact heard what the spy had said, but the words stuck in his throat as the spy turned with another bright grin.

“Okay, I’m off first. I’ll explore the rocks around the waterfall from the air. You take your time along the banks of the pool. Remember, five white petals, shaped like a star, light blue leaves.” With a flick of his wrist the spy pulled his slim sword from its hidden sheath. The green tassel tied to the pommel swayed as the spy took a careful step up onto the blade. “I’ll see you soon.” In a practiced motion that made Mo Bai’s stomach clench he leaned forward and glided silently up over the treetops towards the soft roar of the nearby waterfall.

Left standing alone, Mo Bai wracked his brain for the text they had found on the Spring of Refracted Joy and the Two Tailed Crystal Serpent. The spy had read the entire chapter out loud to him after one of their shared dinners. The light of the braziers had cast his skin with a slight blue tone and Mo Bai had maybe been paying more attention to the way his large robe had slipped to show the spy’s collarbone than to the description of the spring’s monstrous guardian.

He was sure he remembered most of the important information. A gargantuan serpent with scales of pure crystal, the Two Tailed Crystal Serpent slept curled at the bottom of the Spring of Refracted Joy guarding the spiritually charged waters from all intruders. It ate…rocks? No, that was the one tailed Crystal Serpent. Mo Bai shook his head as he crept closer to the spring, careful to make no sounds as he slipped over gravel and snow alike.

The Two Tailed Crystal Serpent ate meat, that was it— it hunted in the forests surrounding its home from dawn till midday when it would fall into a heavy slumber beneath the bubbling waters of the spring. Which is why they had made a point to explore the Spring of Gentle Laughter that morning instead of coming here directly. There was something else that Mo Bai was forgetting, but as he cleared the final set of trees and bushes to come to the spring, his concentration was broken by the sight before him.

It wasn’t often that scenery in his own realm made him pause. On the opposite bank of a wide pool rose a dark stone cliff dotted with clear crystals that reflected sparkling rainbows of light across the turquoise water. A gushing waterfall poured out from the top of the cliff, glowing blue with its own internal light, strong enough to be seen even under the noon sun. Through the sprays of water and the rising mist, he watched as the green clad figure of his little spy soared over the rocks, scouring the cliff face for their elusive quarry.

When he had shuffled through his own secret collection of robes made for someone of a slighter build than his own, Mo Bai had resisted the temptation to wrap the spy in his own colors. At the time, he had felt that would have been giving in to his heart too early, letting his gnawing horrid desperation to accept the spy’s word as the truth overpower his own caution. Now though, as he watched the elegant angle of the spy’s blade in the air— he wished he had allowed himself the indulgence.

Still imagining the look of that muscled back draped in his own colors, he took a step forward and winced at the splash of water over his boots. He looked down with a scowl and retreated from the edge of the spring, turning towards the brush along the banks to search for their flower. Thankfully the spy was too far away to have noticed his humiliating level of distraction.

Tough grasses, the occasional creeping vine, thick mushrooms in a variety of dark colors; nothing even remotely close to the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower. In fact, the most interesting thing Mo Bai found as he scoured the rocky shore of the spring was a small piece of glowing blue moss caught between two stones. He resisted picking it up, not stupid enough to risk exposing himself to any of the various dangerous plant life of the region, but wondered at its strong luminescence. Maybe this moss was what gave the waterfall such a radiant glow?

He turned to glance at the waterfall, half considering going to check when he froze in sudden dread. Not for himself, but for the spy who stood on a narrow ledge, facing the enormous crystalline snake that had risen silently from the depths of the waters to peer at its surroundings. Three demons could stand round the serpent in a circle with their arms spread wide and still not be able to touch each other’s fingers together. The serpent wove from side to side, tongue flickering past its crystalline fangs that glint with the same rainbow light as the cliff face.

Fear brought Mo Bai’s senses into sharp focus. As the beast swung its head towards the spy his heart remained steady, his breathing did not pick up. He moved on instinct alone and stepped through magic and shadow. In a moment he was next to the spy on the ledge, grabbing the back of his tunic as he dove forward into another hastily sketched portal.

The spy’s sudden yelp of fear morphed into a warning cry, “Mo Bai, no wait!”

A shaft of unbearably bright light struck the portal from the direction of the snake and dissolved the magic with a sizzle. They fell together onto the sharp rocks and Mo Bai did his best to shield the spy from their tumble. As soon as they skidded to a stop Mo Bai leapt to his feet.

His field of vision was immediately overtaken by the shining head of the beast as it struck out towards them with unbearable speed. With no clear escape, Mo Bai let out an inhuman growl and caught the serpent by its massive jaw, one hand on each cold lip as it bore down on the pair of them. The squeak of terror drew Mo Bai’s attention and he threw a smirk over his shoulder towards where the spy was sprawled out on the narrow ledge behind him. He could see terror, shock, and satisfyingly— appreciation in those wide brown eyes stare up at him.

Mo Bai looked back at the serpent sharply as the pressure behind its bite let up, and was caught back footed when a spray of hot liquid shot from its throat and splashed across his face and chest without warning. The pain was instantaneous. Any exposed skin immediately seared with unbearable heat, his eyes had become hot coals within his skull. He let out an agonized shout as it pulled sharply back, tearing the skin of his hands with its crystalline scales.

Mo Bai stumbled blindly as he was yanked up by surprisingly strong arms. “God fucking shit, Mo Bai!” The spy’s voice was thick with terror as he dragged Mo Bai further back. They stumbled together as the cliff face shuddered. Mo Bai felt the breath of the serpent as it struck the ledge where they had just stood.

“When I say jump you need to jump!” The spy shouted. “I’m going to point you in the right direction and you need to jump as far as you can!” The small hand on his arm squeezed tightly. “The water of the spring will clear the venom. I’ll keep the serpent from catching you. I swear.”

There was the sound of fluttering paper next to him and a sudden flash of heat bloomed in the air, nearly burning Mo Bai’s side with its intensity. The serpent shrieked above him and he heard the crash of the water below them as it thrashed in obvious agony.

“Now!” screamed the spy, grabbing Mo Bai by the shoulders and shoving him towards the sound of the water. Without a second thought Mo Bai launched himself into the air with as much strength as he could muster against the burning pain.

Wind whistled past his face and he heard another boom and scream from the serpent before he hit the water and the world went dark around him. The air was pushed from his lungs with the impact and he felt a crack of bone in his foot. The new pain was overshadowed by relief as the burning from the serpent’s venom dissipated in the heated water. He could almost feel it streaming away from his eyes as he blinked them open. Without pausing, he turned his head to the surface and ignored his throbbing foot to kick his way up towards the wavering sunlight. 

Mo Bai broke the surface in time to see the glorious curve of the spy’s blade as he carved a wicked line across the surface of the Twin Tailed Crystal Serpent’s exposed gem. In that moment between heartbeats, the enormous jewel cracked—

Then shattered into thousands of shining pieces, wreathing Shang Hua in a cloud of twinkling light.

Mo Bai couldn’t tear his eyes away from Shang Hua’s vicious snarl even as serpent screamed in pain. What could he possibly care for the beasts’ writhing death throes as his gege, his A-Hua, turned and dove towards him, face breaking out into a relieved grin as he caught sight of where Mo Bai treaded water.

Mere feet from the surface Shang Hua jumped from his sword, the resulting wave swamping Mo Bai as he crashed into the spring beside him. There was a moment of confused splashing before Shang Hua’s hands were on his arms, his shoulders, his face— words bubbling with anxiety as he turned Mo Bai’s head from side to side.

“Are you okay? Did it work? Can you see?”

Mo Bai wanted to sweep him up and kiss him so badly it hurt. I’m fine, it worked, I can see, I can see so much more clearly than before. I’m sorry I doubted you, gege. A-Hua. Shang Hua, stay with me, be with me, let me beg for your forgiveness.  The words clogged in his throat; in that moment it was too overwhelming to speak. Instead, he leaned forward and was broken apart all over again when Shang Hua met him in the middle, pressing their foreheads together with a choked sob.

“I can’t believe we did that.” Shang Hua whispered feverishly, “I’ve never done anything like that before.”

Mo Bai looked into his gege’s eyes, squinting past the water that still ran down his face in rivulets. “You did well.” He managed to push out, as though he wasn’t breaking apart, as though he wasn’t already half in love, as though this had been the most mundane thing he’s ever seen.

If only he could find words as easily as his A-Hua.

You saved me, instead became, “I can see.”

No one has ever done this for me, let alone done it twice, turned into, “Let’s get out of the water.”

Thank you, I owed you my life as a child and repaid it with suspicion and fear and pain. I don’t know how to make up for this, came out as, “We should camp for the night.”

Shang Hua looked up from where he leaned against Mo Bai’s shoulder as they sat together on the banks of the spring and smiled weakly. “Y-yeah. That’s probably a good plan, my Prince.”


Later, after they had caught their breath, Shang Hua pointed a small cave behind the waterfall where they could make camp. As they stepped past the thundering water, Mo Bai was gratified to see that he had been right. Glowing moss filled the cave, giving it an unusually plush floor and a soft but insistent light.

Despite Shang Hua’s soft noises of protest Mo Bai had taken most of the initiative in setting up their small encampment. He laid out furs for them to sleep, cleared a space for a small fire, and dove back into the spring to catch a few fish to cook as Shang Hua sat back and cleaned his sword.

He might not be able to say what he wanted, but he could show Shang Hua through his actions exactly how much he wanted to care for his gege in return.

Once the fish were properly roasting, Mo Bai caught Shang Hua looking at him with a small frown and felt his heart skip a beat.

“My Prince…earlier…. did you forget what I said about the light of the serpent’s gem dissipating demonic Qi?”

Mo Bai looked away, ashamed of the humiliated flush he could feel burning on his cheeks.

“…and what I said about the serpent’s venom?”

The temptation to open another portal and disappear was growing more powerful by the moment.

Shang Hua only sighed and shook his head “Next time my Prince, please promise me you’ll be more careful? I really couldn’t handle it if anything bad happened to you…we- we got really lucky today.”

It took effort, a lot of effort, but Mo Bai managed to swallow his pride and nod. “I’ll be more careful next time Shang Hua. I promise.”

The smile he got in return was enough to make it all worth it.

Chapter Text

Soft puffs of warm air brushed against Shang Hua’s skin as he circled lazily over the lower pools of the Sky Stair Spring. The past four days of searching had taken him and Mo Bai almost all the way across the southern borderlands—and now, with only two springs left in their shortened list, they had decided to split up to cover more ground. Not far enough to cause problems with the blood oath, but far enough for Shang Hua to have a bit of breathing room for the first time in over a week.

He had been searching on his own for over two hours, flying from narrow ledge to narrow ledge, dodging between the thin waters that trickled down the steep mountainside filling the springs below.

With a sigh Shang Hua peered up though the grey mists towards where Mo Bai was similarly searching the upper tiers of the cascading springs. Being able to teleport probably made the whole spring-to-spring search a bit easier, Shang Hua grumbled to himself. As if in reaction to his mental complaints, Shang Hua’s shoulder gave a painful twinge as he craned his head back just a bit too far.

Even now, days later, the adrenaline-fueled slaying of the Two Tailed Crystal Serpent had left him more than a little sore.

Shang Hua chewed on his lip to keep from whining at the ache. He probably should have taken time over the past few days to meditate and heal his injuries, but he doubted he would have been able to concentrate for long enough to make a difference.

The first night after the battle, Shang Hua was tempted to blame his unease on the Cavern of the Crystal Serpent itself. What sane person could meditate knowing they’d written over sixty pages of bad porn set in their current campsite? Not even a soaking wet Mo Bai who called him by name and offered him the best bits of his roasted fish had managed to make him forget the details of Luo Binghe’s most famous orgy.

Unfortunately, his inability to meditate wasn’t grounded in memories of bad straight porn. No, that wasn’t the real problem at all.

Meditation only worked when you could clear your mind, and Shang Hua’s mind had been drowning in anxious panic from the moment his dagger struck true. With his own goddamn hands, Shang Hua had completely fucked a major PIDW plotline and he didn’t know what to do about it.

Shang Hua had tried his best to make sure the Serpent would survive their encounter. Without any unwieldy distractions, Mo Bai surely could have handled that mid-tier monster no problem— but that wasn’t the point. If Luo Binghe didn’t go through the Two Tailed Crystal Serpent plot, his whole arc in the demonic North would be ruined before it could even begin.

Obviously, this wasn’t the only plot that had been pushed wildly off course. Shang Hua knew that his own relationship with Mo Bai was more than a little OOC— but surely it didn’t matter if the two of them were friendlier than he initially imagined in his shitty stallion novel. As long as they maintained a connection that could eventually assist Luo Binghe, everything could totally work out. Shang Qinghua was a tertiary background character, hell, his death was a smaller plotline than the Two Tailed Crystal Serpent! The damn thing should have been the key to one of Luo Binghe’s big second act power ups— Now it was just a very sparkly corpse.

Unable to keep his thoughts from descending into an anxiety fueled spiral, Shang Hua landed beside the next pool with a grumble. He took a deep breath and stood completely still for a long second before letting out a frustrated shout that turned into a startled yelp. His sword sprung to his hand in a fluid sweep of steel, only to fall to the side as he recognized the crackling blue portal materializing in the cold air beside him.

Mo Bai stepped into view, his black fur cloak billowing out behind him in an impressive wave.

“My Prince!” called Shang Hua, anxiety forgotten in the face of his somber companion. “Is everything alright? Did you find the flower? Or, aha…” Shang Hua felt a flush rise hot on his face. “Did you hear me…um…?”

Mo Bai gave a single shake of his head before stepping forward to look Shang Hua over.  He bore the inspection with as much patience as he could manage, bouncing slightly on the balls of his feet until Mo Bai gave a satisfied hum.

“My Father is nearby.” Mo Bai said without preamble, voice soft in the surrounding silence of the spring.

Shang Hua froze mid-bounce, unable to resist looking around, as though the current Mobei Jun could jump out of the mist right then and there.

“Nearby is not here.” Mo Bai huffed, unable to keep the faint strains of amusement from his tone before a new frown settled on his face. “But it is close enough. We should move on.”

Shang Hua rubbed at his earring, which had grown cold against his skin as he’d flown in the mountain air. “Is your father likely to come seek you out, my Prince? We only need half a shichen to finish our search and then we could move on to the next spring if we don’t find the flower-”

“If we linger, someone will come.” Interrupted Mo Bai, “My father will have already sensed me. I do not….” Mo Bai hesitated uncharacteristically, looking down at Shang Hua with an unreadable expression. “It would be dangerous. Come.”

Shang Hua felt rather like a bobble head as he nodded several times in a row, staunchly ignoring the way Mo Bai’s baritone curled along the length of his spine. “O-of course my Prince. Don’t mind me, really. I wasn’t thinking.”

“We will return once his hunting party has moved on, Shang Hua.” Mo Bai promised before he summoned another portal and guided them through the shimmering magic without another word.

Shang Hua scrunched his eyes shut and tried to ignore the way the world twisted and roared as they were transported.

The portal was honestly becoming the most familiar part of his interactions with Mo Bai. Ever since the whole Two Tailed Crystal Serpent ordeal, Mo Bai had begun to call him by his name without complaint or coercion and Shang Hua really wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

Of course, he wanted to be called Shang Hua directly, but wasn’t all of this just a bit too much? Forget OOC, this was bordering on unbelievable— Mo Bai was never supposed to be this soft, this considerate, this...this...well…

Shang Hua shook his head, feeling his ears heat up at the memories of the past few days. Some piece of him had really believed that the world would course-correct their relationship as it had done with his placement at An Ding Peak. They’d end up as King and Servant, Master and Spy. It was inevitable in the way that all things were inevitable here. If he was lucky, their association would be less brutal than he had imagined in PIDW and maybe he wouldn’t end up dying a cannon fodder's death.

Uncomfortable ideas continued to worm their way into his thoughts. With all of these changes, was Shang Qinghua’s death even guaranteed now? Was anything in this world guaranteed? His doubts all came right back around to the dead Two Tailed Crystal Serpent.

How was Luo Binghe supposed to use the chipped gem of the Crystal Serpent to open the Hidden Library of the Heavenly Masters when Shang Hua had shattered that same gem in a desperate bid to save Mo Bai?

The library had been a treasure trove of ancient scrolls, one-of-a-kind techniques, ancient treaties, and information on Luo Binghe’s Heavenly Demon ancestry that could be found absolutely nowhere else! If Luo Binghe is denied that knowledge, who knows how the cannon events of PIDW will pan out in this world?

Was this world actually meant to be PIDW or was it free to spiral out of control at any moment?

Shang Hua bit his lip, forcing back a full-blown panic attack for the seventh time since he slayed the Serpent. It would be ok. Focus. Measured breathing, in for seven seconds, then out for ten.

“Shang Hua?”

With a start, Shang Hua opened his eyes and saw Mo Bai looking down at him with mild concern.

“Are you alright?”

Shang Hua let out a bark of awkward laughter and immediately wished he could disappear into the ground. “Yes, my Prince, of course!” his voice was high and strangled and utterly unconvincing.

Mo Bai’s eyebrows furrowed minutely and he carefully took a hold of the collar of Shang Hua’s cloak.

“You will rest.” His tone brokered no argument, but Shang Hua still managed to splutter in response.

“My Prince! We need to find the flower, I can’t just sit here—”Shang Hua waved a hand at their surroundings before breaking off, eyes wide as he took in the view. They were cradled in a shallow valley made up of sloping snowfields spotted with delicate flowering willow trees made of ice.

“I… whoa…” his voice was small, practically breathless even as Mo Bai let out a low amused huff beside him.

“If I leave you to sit here while I search the spring, will you rest?” Mo Bai pressed.

“Yeah.” Shang Hua nodded, already distracted by the intricate ice flowers blooming on the willow branches. He moved to step closer to the trees, but squeaked in alarm as strong hands pulled his cloak around his torso like a warm burrito. He was then hoisted up to sit on a low boulder that had been cleared of snow while he had been distracted.

Mo Bai remained close, face only a few inches from Shang Hua’s as his hands rested on the boulder on either side of Shang Hua’s hips.

“You will rest.” Mo Bai ordered, not moving an inch as his breath tickled Shang Hua’s cheek.

“Y-yes.” Shang Hua stuttered as he looked up into Mo Bai’s face and hoped vaguely that his breath didn’t smell terrible because, wow they were really close. Should they be this close? This wasn’t the kind of close that masters and servants were, was it? Was he forgetting something in the background of PIDW?

If he was being honest, Shang Hua didn’t really want to have a master and servant relationship with Mo Bai. In fact, he just wanted to stay looking into Mo Bai’s eyes like this forever thank you very much. They were the kind of blue you only saw in the deepest, clearest parts of the ocean or on the hottest of summer days and Shang Hua wondered if there was something ironic about that.

He licked his suddenly dry lips and any forthcoming words failed him when Mo Bai’s eyes darted down to catch the movement.

“Gege promises he will stay?”

Shang Hua’s face nearly melted off at Mo Bai’s words and he scooted back on the boulder to gain some space for his brain to begin functioning again.

“I promise! I promise! I won’t move from this spot!” Shang Hua yelped as he covered his face with his hands, desperate to escape the full attention of his Prince.

Mo Bai pulled back with a small hooked smile that made Shang Hua’s stomach flop when he risked a peek through his fingers.

“Good,” he rumbled before turning to survey their surroundings. “I will search the Frozen Flowering Spring.” At that, Mo Bai turned to walk down the short slope towards the sliver of pale water that just peeked through the thick canopy of crystalline trees.

A gentle breeze stirred the surrounding willows and their icy leaves and flowers chimed softly as they bent and swayed around Mo Bai’s receding figure. Shang Hua watched with a smile until his Prince was little more than a smear of black on a wide white canvas.

Once more he longed for his watercolors, the pale blues and shades of grey would be a challenge to get right, but it would be so satisfying to at least try to capture the landscape before him.

After a moment’s debate Shang Hua began to dig through his sleeves. If he was going to be forced to sit and relax, he might as well take full advantage of the opportunity. It took a bit of searching, but with a small victorious hum, he pulled a small box tied with twine out of his sleeve alongside a blank notebook.

He had realized that Mo Bai had taken his journal on the second day of his… well… stay…in the Northern Palace, but he was pleased to see that his spare blank book had remained with his other belongings. Shang Hua went through three or four books a year and always kept a backup in case he should fill his current notebook and have need for more paper.

Although, maybe he should look into a more secure method of holding these books than just tucking them into his sleeve.

Shang Hua shook his head; he could work on the logistical realities of hiding proof of his meta knowledge when this ordeal was over. For now, he finally had the opportunity to indulge. With another excited hum he pulled the twine loose with careful fingers and smiled down at the thin black sticks of high-grade charcoal as he slid the top off of the box.

They had been a gift from his Shizun after his first successful spying mission and were his treasure. Out of all of the strange anachronisms he had unintentionally dumped in PIDW, this, at least, made him feel at home in this borrowed skin.

Shang Hua took out the charcoal with a careful hand and flicked back his sleeve. There was a certain inevitability to the way his hands, arms, and even his face would end up coated in black dust— but for now he was determined to keep his borrowed robes as clean as possible.

The moment he touched the charcoal to the blank page, Shang Hua felt the tension release from his shoulders. His eyes flickered from the landscape to the paper beneath his hands as he moved in bold strokes, loosening his muscles with easy warmups before moving into actual sketches. The sweep of an ice willows branch like a dancer stretching before their performance. The delicate curve of the flowers and leaves that adorned them. The barely visible spring, tucked as it was in this hidden valley. His prince striding across snow, stooping to look behind boulders, stretching a hand out as he pointed at the text of a book, eyes half closed in sleep with a peaceful smile stretching across his face.

Shang Hua hurried to smudge out that last drawing, thankful to have caught himself before he’d spent too long on his prince’s perfect cheekbones. Drawing Mo Bai wasn’t the kind of peace he needed right now. What he really needed was distance. Mindless work to keep his mind too busy to panic while he actually thought about this whole…mess…

With a deep breath Shang Hua turned to a fresh page in his book, and began drawing out the soft understructure of a full landscape sketch of the valley.

He had screwed up an important piece of the PIDW plot unintentionally. That wasn’t something he could easily escape. But if Luo Binghe was actually an unbeatable stallion protagonist, wouldn’t he be able to find a way into the Hidden Library of the Heavenly Masters without the intended key? Just because Shang Hua had written the Library to be impenetrable even to Xin Mo’s teleportation abilities didn’t mean Binghe wouldn’t figure something else out. Right? Just because the plot couldn’t progress as the book intended, it didn’t mean that the whole world would implode.

Shang Hua rubbed his eye with the palm of his hand and frowned down at his drawing, taking a moment to smudge out the crooked horizon line and replace it with a better version.

Did the Library really even matter? What would it mean if Luo Binghe never found the information hidden within its hidden walls?

Uniting the Demon realm would become much more difficult without full mastery of his heavenly demon blood, not to mention the lack of ancient treaties would mean he lost out on those early game allies that he didn’t beat to a pulp to join his armies. Forget about combining the two realms, the techniques he’d based that whole endeavor on were hidden in the library. Hell, Binghe probably wouldn’t even be able to beat Mo Bai if he never received the power-ups offered by his first foray into the Library.

The mere thought of Mo Bai on his knees before Luo Binghe, bloody and broken, made Shang Hua’s hand twitch, striking a dark line across his delicate landscape.

If Luo Binghe never comes into his full power, the world would honestly be better off.


 

Later, Shang Hua didn’t flinch when Mo Bai emerged from a humming portal and took a seat on the boulder next to him. He leaned over Shang Hua’s shoulder, close but never touching as he watched Shang Hua put the finishing details on a fresh version of the landscape.

“When did you learn to draw?” The question was a soft spill of cold breath against his neck and Shang Hua shivered at its strange intimacy.

“I don’t actually remember how old I was when I started. When I was young, I drew with anything I could get my hands on. Brushes, charcoals, sticks in the dirt.” Shang Hua answered quietly. “I only started receiving formal training when I joined An Ding peak.”

Memories from two lifetimes played in the back of Shang Hug’s mind as he worked. Beginner art classes on weekends under harsh fluorescent lights, learning how to grind ink for the first time sitting at his second uncles elbow, his early struggle to put together a decent portfolio, Su Zhanjin correcting his brush technique with a soft smile, the smell of turpentine at the back of his college oil painting class. Every moment under dual suns that had led him to this moment with Mo Bai at his side.

Shang Hua turned and offered a timid smile. “Would you let me draw you, my Prince?”

There was a moment of surprise on Mo Bai’s face that was quickly tucked behind a single raised eyebrow. “Why?”

“Because I want to. Because you’re handsome.” It took all of Shang Hua’s courage to say it out loud, but the momentary look of quiet surprise on Mo Bai’s face made it worth the effort.

Mo Bai looked at him, then at the notebook, then out across the snow and ice willows. There was something a little lost in his expression and it made Shang Hua’s stomach drop out.

“I-if you don’t want me to, I won’t!” Shang Hua said, scrambling to make up for whatever slight he’d made against Mo Bai. “I just— I wanted—I mean…”

Mo Bai shook his head once and Shang Hua choked down his apologies to let Mo Bai find his own words.

It took a few minutes, but when Mo Bai looked back at him, his shoulders had settled and whatever emotion had gripped the demon was once again tucked away.

“I look like my father.”

It was an explanation and an admission packaged into a single sentence that Shang Hua really shouldn’t have understood as well as he did.

“You don’t. You look like— like you.” Shang Hua blurted out, unable to put together the right words to express the distinction.

“I have inherited everything but his white hair.” said Mo Bai calmly. There was a hint of bitter acceptance in his words that twisted Shang Huan heart into vicious knots.

“I doubt your father looks half as spirited when he talks about the North, my Prince. I doubt his eyes hold the same concentration as he cooks, or spark as he argues.” Shang Hua insisted. He wanted to take Mo Bai’s face in his hands and kiss away the shadows of hatred that lingered there, but he couldn’t take that kind of liberty.

Mo Bai’s hands curled into fists, then relaxed as he looked into Shang Hua’s eyes with deadly seriousness. “I hate him.”

The admission hung between them honest and raw. There was a depth of emotion that seemed ready to spill from Mo Bai at a moment’s notice, only held back by the Prince’s iron will.

Shang Hua opened his mouth to say ‘I know’, but the words couldn’t come out.

Instead, he asked, “Why?”

There was a long silence and Shang Hua nearly took it all back; Mo Bai doesn’t have to answer, never has to answer. Before he could though, Mo Bai finally spoke.

“When I was young, I thought that my father had killed you. I thought he’d spilled your blood alongside every other villager in that town and then refused to do the same to my Uncle who had left me for dead.” The words came slowly, and Shang Hua had to clench his fists in his sleeves to hold back his own guilty conscience.

“As time passed I realized that my father’s neglect of his duties as a parent were only overshadowed by his neglect of his duties as king.” Mo Bai bared his teeth in a snarl of disgust. “When he dies, I will consume him, and that will be the only gift of his for which I will be thankful.” Venom dripped from every word, poisoning the very air around them.

Shang Hua forced himself to speak, if only to see the anger drop from his Prince’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I won’t ask you again. Ever, if you want.” He willed himself not to cringe under Mo Bai’s intense stare as he reached and carefully placed a soft hand against his prince’s upper arm. He squeezed softly, ignoring the way those firm muscles trembled with barely suppressed rage. “You deserved better.”

Mo Bai looked down at the contact and for a moment he looked young, unguarded, and terrifyingly relieved.

“Thank you.” His voice was almost a whisper as he leaned, just slightly, into Shang Hua’s touch. 

Chapter Text

After the sun dipped below the winding hills and painted the sky with vibrant reds and purples, Shang Hua once again found himself tucked underneath Mo Bai’s arm as they passed through his portal back to the Sky Stair Spring.

Here on the eastern half of the southern borderlands, the sky was already the deep blue of early evening. Under the scant light of the crescent moon, Shang Hua gripped the edge of Mo Bai’s cloak with one shaking hand and rubbed at his suddenly cold earring with the other. If Mobei Jun’s hunting party hadn’t moved on yet, they would need to make a quick exit in order to avoid the Northern King’s attention.

Wind passed over the narrow mountain ledge where they stood and rustled the leaves of the hardy trees that grew out of the cracked stone in the cliff below.  Time slowed for Shang Hua. Anxiety turned seconds into minutes as Mo Bai stretched out his senses into the world beyond the spring. He lowered his head to press against the dark fabric of Mo Bai’s cloak, pulling away just before making contact. Instead, Shang Hua cast another nervous glance around the small ridge. Running into Mobei Jun would be the worst-case scenario here, followed closely by running into LinGuang Jun.

Just as Shang Hua’s imagination was beginning to run wild, Mo Bai opened his eyes.

“He’s not here.” Mo Bai said confidently. “We will split up as before, meeting in the middle. I do not wish not camp here, so if we do not find the flower, we move on to the final spring.”

Shang Hua nodded, then realized he was still holding onto Mo Bai’s cloak and dropped the fabric like a hot coal. “Ahaha, uh yes my Prince of course. The distance isn’t far enough to disturb the blood oath so we should be just um, just f-fine.”

“Shang Hua.” Mo Bai interrupted, looming over the cringing cultivator. His face was half in shadow as he leaned close, the sharp angle of his cheekbones illuminated in the moonlight.

That face is going to be devastating when he’s fully grown. Shang Hua thought desperately before focusing on what Mo Bai was actually saying.

“Be swift. Call my name if there is danger. I will come.”

Mo Bai was terrifyingly close and Shang Hua wondered what it would be like to steal a kiss from those soft looking lips. Instead, Shang Hua reached out and resettled the cloak on Mo Bai’s shoulders so it sat correctly.

“Of course, my Prince.” He reassured. “I will absolutely call for you.”  

Shang Hua waited for Mo Bai to nod in acceptance before he took to the air on his sword, desperate to escape before he could act on any of his utterly unreasonable impulses. Like tucking Mo Bai’s long dark hair behind his ears or touching that strong jawline. Once in the air, Shang Hua swooped down towards the lower tiers of the spring, only slowing his descent when he heard the tell-tale whoosh of Mo Bai’s portal opening and closing above him.

This was a mess. This was all a mess. He’d gotten so turned around in the intoxicating solitude they’d shared in Mo Bai’s quarters that he’d let himself forget the reality of his situation. This was a story, there was a plot. There were things that were bound to happen, destined to happen even. What kind of moron saved his future murderer and then started thinking about kissing him?

Shang Hua did. Of course, he did. Shang Hua sighed miserably as he twisted in and out of the waterfalls trickling down the various mountain springs.

Whatever happened when they were Shang Hua and Mo Bai might not even have an impact when they become Shang Qinghua and Mobei Jun! Just because he was quiet, smart, and utterly devoted to the North didn’t mean that he wasn’t potentially still Shang Qinghua’s future killer!

Wasn’t there supposed to be a system keeping this story on track? Shang Hua knew it was around, or at least that it existed…somewhere.

He had been assigned his role of Shang Qinghua as a child and been told to become an An Ding Peak disciple, but the robotic voice and the hovering screen interface had never appeared again. There was no alert when he’d decided to forsake An Ding peak. No warning when he saved Mo Bai. No ping when he tried so damn hard to run away from his fated role. Nothing.

Of course, he’d ended up on An Ding peak anyway. He was even in contention to become Head Disciple, regardless of his various schemes to escape. He’d even been considering just taking the position before he’d been kidnapped by Mo Bai. If he ever got back to An Ding Peak, he’d probably still say yes!

Did that mean this was this all just inevitable?

Was he going to lose Mo Bai’s trust at some point and reluctantly become a hated but needed spy? Was Mo Bai really destined to kill him? Shang Hua didn’t want Mo Bai to kill him, he wanted Mo Bai to kiss him. The memory of Mo Bai’s handsome face bathed in afternoon light, looking down at him with trust and satisfaction made Shang Hua’s bury his face in his hands and groan out loud.

As he circled the narrow mountain on his sword, taking the time to carefully look around the edge of each cascading spring, Shang Hua slipped further and further into his own chaotic thoughts.

If this was all really destiny, how had he been able to alter so many storylines? If he could interfere in Mo Bai’s origin story, fall into a lost-friend drama plot with a teen Mo Bai, and destroy the key to one of Luo Binghe’s big plotlines— maybe nothing was bound by canon.

His own life, his own death—what if they really were up to him? Could he even prove that his involvement with An Ding Peak was destiny? What if it was nothing more than coincidence?

Shang Hua had heard from a system exactly once, then he’d been ditched. He’d never actually encountered a punishment for deviating from the plot! So maybe everything that he was agonizing over really didn’t matter.

Excitement began to build as he considered the consequences of this potential truth. If he really wasn’t bound by PIDW, then the promise he made to come back with Mo Bai and come to a real understanding wasn’t hollow, or false, or bound by anything but their own emotions and expectations for each other.

Shang Hua landed on the banks of one of the larger springs, sheathing his sword in one smooth movement. He paced back and forth half paying attention to the ground as he imagined his Prince’s hooked smile.

Without a system, could he risk telling his secret to Mo Bai? Transmigration really wasn’t something he’d expect his Prince to believe without a truth telling aid, so now might be the only opportunity he had to come clean.

There was a thrill to the idea that he could come clean to someone, anyone, about his previous life.

With the blood oath’s protection from his Prince’s initial anger, Shang Hua could beg for forgiveness and then offer the world as repayment for his sins. His unique knowledge could help Mo Bai become an unbreakable Demon King of the North. He’d gift Mo Bai every powerful item, break into any shielded reliquary, do whatever it took to ensure that his Prince was untouchable, unbreakable, unbendable— even by the Heavenly Demon Lords.

The North would thrive under the rule of its truest king in generations.

Never would his Prince bow to Luo Binghe— bloody and broken on the floor of his own throne room.

Shang Hua alone could offer this apology, this power, this atonement for his own unknowingly committed sins.

No one would hurt his prince ever again.

Head still buzzing with thoughts of Mo Bai’s potential glory, Shang Hua jumped down to the next level of the spring, nearly crushing a patch of small white flowers as he landed.

He’d tell Mo Bai the truth, offer everything in apology, and wait to see if his gifts would be accepted.

Shang Hua summoned his sword to hand, moving to leap upon the blade once more before freezing in place.

He turned.

There, almost crushed in his eagerness to move: a white flower with five petals in the shape of a star, surrounded by slim blue leaves.

The Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower. Growing right there in the dirt. So well hidden in the scant moonlight, he’d almost missed it.

It was small— smaller than he had initially imagined when reading about it in Mo Bai’s rooms, but that just meant it was going to be easier to eat. The thought was absurd enough to make Shang Hua giggle as he stared down at it. He knew that he should have been able to reach down and just, pluck the flower from the rocky ground, but his arms refused to obey. Instead, he only managed to crouch down beside the delicate bloom.

“I’m going to pick you.” He whispered. “I know you’ve probably been living here for a while, but I need your help with something.” The petals trembled beneath his gentle fingers as he moved to expose the plant’s stem. “I’ll only take the flower. You’ll grow back after a few years as long as I leave your roots and stalk. So don’t be too mad at me.”

Shang Hua pulled a sharp knife from his boot and carefully cut the bud free, marveling at how delicate it looked cradled in the palm of his hand.

 “You see, you’re going to help me help Mo Bai become the most powerful demon in the goddamn world.” He whispered over the thundering beat of his own heart.

As Shang Hua stood, the sharp chill radiating from his earring was all the warning he got before a crackling cold raced across his legs and chest, trapping him in place. His building scream of terror was muffled into a gasping whine as his lips sealed themselves together with a brutal flash of frost.

“You know,” A honey sweet voice complained, “It shouldn’t be so surprising to find out that you’re a human Ming Fan.  My dearest nephew always loved your world so much more dearly than the Northern Palace.”

LinGuang Jun circled in front of Shang Hua from out of the shadows, a wicked smile dancing on his lips as he looked the young cultivator over from head to toe. Gone were his flowing palace robes, replaced instead by dark armor and a white furred cloak that swayed in the gentle breeze from the spring.

“This lord assumed that Brother had finally taken my advice and plied Mo Bai with a sweet freckled face— it was my own mistake to think he would have even cared to listen.” LinGuang Jun shook his head with theatrical remorse before reaching out and pinching Shang Hua’s cheek with fingers that froze and burned with equal intensity. “Are you the origin of my nephew’s disgusting obsession with the human realm?” He mused, “Or are you just unlucky enough to have caught his gaze?”

Shang Hua trembled, half with rage and half with the biting cold that emanated from the ice LinGuang Jun had used to lock him in place.

“Not feeling talkative, hm?” LinGuang Jun teased, cruel amusement evident in his voice. “That won’t do. This Lord has questions about your search for the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower.”

He smiled as Shang Hua winced. “What, did Ming Fan really believe that this Lord wouldn’t have noticed what you had spread out across your desk in the library? Tsk tsk, how naïve. It’s almost sweet.” LinGuang Jun sneered and plucked the flower from Shang Hua’s hand, looking at it with mild disapproval.

“Tell this Lord, is my nephew intending to slip the bloom into a courtier’s drink? Force a general to consume it before his father holds court? Sprinkle the crushed petals across his beloved Uncle’s dinner? There are so many options for a truth-telling poison of this strength.”

LinGuang Jun frowned as he stalked around Shang Hua. “If you were actually a demon servant, I’d suspect that my nephew had finally taken an interest in court treachery…but now...” With a sigh LinGuang Jun waived a hand and the ice that wrapped around Shang Hua’s limbs crawled with dark blue energy, forcing him down to his knees.

“Of course, my nephew would rather drag himself through the human realm or the barren wilds than engage in Northern Palace politics.” LinGuang Jun huffed. “Pitiful, as always.”

Shang Hua fought back a furious snarl. The violence that burned in his gut was nearly overwhelming, but Wang Shijie’s voice in his ear kept it from overtaking him.

 Hasty action leads to a hasty death Shang Shidi.

Even though was hard to think around the rabbit-quick pace of his own heartbeat, Shang Hua forced himself to breathe evenly. Four counts in, seven counts out. He slowly started to cycle his spiritual energy. If LinGuang Jun was going to monologue like a Saturday morning cartoon villain, Shang Hua had time to find a way out of this mess.

“How is my nephew ever going to rule if he disregards the court to go galivanting off with some pitiful little human, Ming Fan? This Lord always knew he’d never be fit to take up the crown— it’s not like his father ever was— but surely he was supposed to be better than this.” LinGuang Jun continued his tirade and gestured down at Shang Hua with distaste before he schooled his expression back into a soft polite smile. “Oh well, we’ll just have to work with the tools that we have.”

With a wave of his hand, water from the spring twisted up and froze in the air creating a seat for LinGuang Jun to settle with a flourish. He leaned back into his newly created ice throne and rudely tipped Shang Hua’s chin up with the toe of one black boot. “That’s quite enough from me. If you want to survive past this meeting Ming Fan— why don’t you tell this Lord exactly what you are doing travelling across the southern border with my nephew?”

The ice sealing Shang Hua’s lips and teeth together melted with a flick of LinGuang Jun’s wrist and Shang Hua couldn’t do more than splutter and cough before looking up and giving LinGuang Jun a heated glare. He took a breath to scream for Mo Bai, but LinGuang Jun kicked his mouth shut with a painful clack that left his teeth aching.

“I wouldn’t do more than whisper my dear Ming Fan. If you scream,” Shang Hua flinched back as LinGuang Jun reached out to scrape a sharp nail across his bruised chin, “This Lord promises that you will lose your whole lower jaw before my nephew can even whip up a portal.”

It took all of Shang Hua’s emotional maturity, self-preservation instincts, and hard-won bullshitting abilities to not spit directly in LinGuang Jun’s smirking face. Instead, he dipped his head forward and let himself stutter and tremble. After all, most people couldn’t tell apart rage from fear.

“P-please have m-m-mercy. T-t-this servant doesn’t know anything a-about what the Prince has p-planned.”

“You don’t expect me to believe that, do you Ming Fan?” LinGuang Jun’s voice held a hint of playful coaxing, but Shang Hua could hear the hint of steely displeasure just underneath.

“T-truly! T-this servant is supposed to b-be gaining his t-t-trust, his royal highness hasn’t shared a-any of his plans.” Shang Hua kept his head down and tested the hold of the ice against his legs where LinGuang Jun couldn’t see. He couldn’t move a muscle.

“Why would he travel with you if you don’t have his trust?” LinGuang Jun asked.

Shang Hua opened his mouth to respond with another lie, but LinGuang Jun interrupted him with a gasp.

“Oh, OH, how sweet. How utterly ridiculous.” He crooned mockingly, grabbing Shang Hua’s face in a brutal grip and forcing him to look into LinGuang Jun’s light purple eyes. With a faint horror Shang Hua realized they would have been the same exact shape as Mo Bai’s— if not for the spidering scar that marred them.

“He’s testing you, isn’t he?” LinGuang Jun murmured. “He doesn’t trust you, little Ming Fan. Was A-Bai going to force you to eat the flower and spill your secrets? What would he do if you’d lied and dropped dead before his eyes? For all the effort he put into hiding you at the palace, I’m sure it would break his weak little heart.”

Shang Hua’s stomach dropped out, but he didn’t let his face show the new terror that gripped him.

“W-what?” He whimpered, doing his best to feign complete and utter ignorance. “My Lord I don’t know what you’re implying…”

“Oh, Ming Fan, if my nephew is going to believe you— you’ll have to be MUCH more persuasive than that. Let’s see what he thinks of all of this.”

Shang Hua held back a wail of pain as his lips were resealed in a burst of frost that bloomed from LinGuang Jun’s hand. The ice that held him in place melted and twisted until it burned against his bare skin, tucked and hidden beneath his borrowed clothes. At this, Shang Hua abandoned the guise of a ‘terrified servant’ and threw his entire weight against his restraints.

 LinGuang Jun laughed openly at the rise of Shang Hua’s spiritual power as he thrashed and squirmed, unable to escape.

“Don’t fret,” LinGuang Jun soothed, smoothing a hateful hand over Shang Hua’s mussed hair. “I’m sure my nephew will have mercy when he sees you willingly kneeling at my feet. Although, he is sensitive to betrayal, so maybe he will just make your death quick.”

Shang Hua screamed behind his sealed lips, glaring at LinGuang Jun with more hatred than he’d ever felt either of his lives.

LinGuang Jun only smiled in response. “Another sound and you lose your jaw my dear Ming Fan. Now, A-Bai should be here in just a moment.”

On cue, the familiar sound of Mo Bai’s portal cut through LinGuang Jun’s teasing. Shang Hua couldn’t see Mo Bai as he emerged, but he heard his punched-out breath as his Prince saw the farce laid out before him.

There was a pregnant pause, then LinGuang Jun sighed. “Oh, Ming Fan, this Lord thought you said my nephew would be too far away to sense us. What a shame.”

All laughter had been stripped from LinGuang Jun’s voice, leaving only well-feigned annoyance. Shang Hua imagined tearing that lying tongue out at the root and throwing it into the Endless Abyss. Locked into place by the ice, he could only hope— could only trust—that Mo Bai wouldn’t be fooled.

The temperature dropped precipitously and Shang Hua clenched his eyes shut, silently begging Mo Bai to think this through. To see how utterly absurd this was. His hope faded as the silence extended for ten seconds, twenty seconds, a minute—Shang Hua could taste the copper of his own blood as he worked to tear his mouth open-, desperate to beg for Mo Bai to say something—anything.

Spy.” Came Mo Bai’s wretched and broken snarl, cutting the cold air like a knife.

Anything but that.

“A useless one too.” LinGuang Jun huffed. “So little time at your side but all he was able to tell me was that you were looking for the Thousand Truths Pained Beauty Flower. Maybe I should have let you use it on him, but it was such a trial finding a willing cultivator with the kind of looks you favor.”

For a second there was only silence, then the small crescent shaped outcropping they were all stood upon exploded.

Shang Hua didn’t see what exactly had happened, but from the sound of crackling ice and the oppressive demonic power that had been so gentle and familiar up to this point— Mo Bai was taking all of the scant water of the surrounding levels of the Sky Stair Spring and attempting to murder his uncle with it.

How nice.

Shang Hua would have been more concerned if he hadn’t been thrown from the outcropping to tumble down the steep slope of the mountain, unable to slow or stop his fall with the binding ice still holding him in its cruel grasp. Stone scraped his skin raw but he hardly noticed the sting. Even as he crashed into the rocks of the next outcropping and slid to a halt inches from the next spring, the emptiness in his chest made the odd angle of his leg and the blood running from his torn lips a distant concern.

How stupid was it to think he’d get lucky enough to make peace. That’s not the kind of relationship they were meant to have. Afterall, Mo Bai was meant to be his Killer.

Shang Hua whimpered as the familiar thrum of demonic energy that heralded Mo Bai’s arrival rippled through the air.

“Why did you do this?” Mo Bai demanded before he had even fully stepped out of the whirling portal.

From where he lay on the ground Shang Hua could see the cold fury reflected in Mo Bai’s eyes. “Was it fun to pretend?” he hissed.

Shang Hua scrambled back, he didn’t care about the way the nerves of his leg screamed in protest as they were dragged across the rocky ground, he just didn’t want to die with Mo Bai so sure of his betrayal. “M-my p-prince!” he forced out between frostbitten lips. “W-wait!”  His vision swam as Mo Bai grabbed him by the front of his robes and lifted him high, shaking him with brutal strength.

“Why choose to serve my Uncle? Did it give you pleasure to make a fool of me??” Mo Bai’s voice was even and cold but his trembling grip on the front of Shang Hua’s robes tore at the green fabric.

Shang Hua opened his mouth to respond and choked as something small was shoved between his lips by a hand covered in fabric. He could feel the chill of Mo Bai’s skin through the barrier of his robe as the hand pressed against his face.

“Swallow.” Mo Bai hissed, “The faster you eat, the faster this all ends.” His eyes were cold, empty, everything that the future Mobei Jun should be.

Shang Hua could only whimper as he chewed on whatever he’d been forcibly fed. Soft petals were sweet and cool against his tongue, but he didn’t bother to savor the flavor. Chewing only enough that he wouldn’t choke, Shang Hua swallowed the flower and felt spiritual power well up from his stomach to warm his aching throat.

Mo Bai took away the hand that covered his mouth and glared down at him with eyes that glowed with an internal light. “Open your mouth.”

Shang Hua did as he was told, wincing as his chin was wrenched down so that Mo Bai could ensure he’s actually swallowed the Pained Beauty Thousand Truths Flower.

“You’re not even going to resist?” Mo Bai’s demanded, fury and confusion barely audible beyond the ringing in Shang Hua’s ears.

“N-n-,” Shang Hua’s throat spasmed as the magic of the flower blossomed deep in his gut. It took a long minute to get enough air to actually respond around the vast well of power that now sizzled just beneath his skin. “No.”

“Fine. That saves us time. When did you reveal our search to my Uncle?” snapped Mo Bai.

Shang Hua flinched at the cold fury behind his question as Mo Bai’s hands dug into the ruined fabric of Shang Hua’s robes, half choking the smaller man with the pressure.

Just as the books said, there was no compulsion, only a gentle pressure— a feeling easily overwhelmed by the pain and fear warring in his chest.

“H-he found out when w-we were in the L-library my Prince. B-but I-I didn’t tell-“

“Traitor!” Mo Bai snarled with rage and shook Shang Hua like a doll, uncaring of his hoarse scream as his injured leg was jostled. “How did he know you were here?”

“I think he cast a spell on my earring!” Shang Hua sobbed, every movement felt like a hot iron was being shoved from his shin all the way up to his hip and it made stars burst in the corners of his vision. “I didn’t know! I swear I didn’t know!” he wailed.

“How long have you been lying to me? Why did you agree to do this?” Mo Bai growled, inches away from Shang Hua’s face. The intimacy which had only hours ago been so thrilling only leaves Shang Hua trembling from head to toe, stumbling over his own stuttered breaths.

Cold laughter announced LinGuang Jun’s arrival and Shang Hua only wept harder, his pain and fear suddenly subsumed by desperate rage. Each tear was an additional point of pain as they froze on his cheeks.

“You’re really waiting for his answers nephew? A-Bai, how sweet. I never thought you would have such mercy in your cold little heart.” LinGuang Jun was a shadow among the ice and moonlight, casually strolling through the tumbled rocks and chunks of ice that Mo Bai had kicked up in his fury.

Shang Hua caught a glimpse of LinGuang Jun’s smirking face as Mo Bai let go of the front of his robes. Without the support he fell to the ground with another sickening crack as his surely broken leg collided once more with the rocks.

Mo Bai stiffened and coughed as Shang Hua’s vision faded to white from the pain. When his eyes cleared, he saw a thin line of blood, black in the darkness of night trail down Mo Bai’s chin.

“Well, if my nephew won’t do it, this Lord has no use for an ineffectual spy.” LinGuang Jun moved before Shang Hua could take a breath and grabbed him by the throat. Ice spread from his touch and Shang Hua nearly convulsed as his skin began to burn with cold. He couldn’t make a sound; the hands were too tight around his already abused throat so Shang Hua was forced to thrash soundlessly as he clawed at LinGuang Jun’s wrists.

He was going to be frozen from the inside out, Shang Hua thought hysterically. He’d be turned into a human popsicle with Mo Bai watching calmly and willingly— believing he’d been betrayed on the highest level.

Shang Hua had sworn just a few minutes ago, never let anything hurt Mo Bai again.

Maybe if LinGuang Jun hadn’t been having so much fun, Shang Hua wouldn’t have been able to get away with it. If the joy of tearing into his nephews’ heart with sharp teeth wasn’t so irresistible— he’d surely have seen that the icy bonds holding Shang Hua still this whole time had cracked with the way the cultivator been tossed around. He’d have stopped Shang Hua as he reached into his sleeve and he certainly wouldn’t have been caught flat footed as Shang Hua poured every bit of spiritual energy he had left into the stack of talismans he’d kept hidden for days— igniting a blooming fireball that threw LinGuang Jun out into the night air like a ragdoll and Shan Hua up against the stone wall of the cliffside to crumple to the ground in a smoking heap.

It would have been more merciful if he’d lost consciousness, but Shang Hua felt every moment of pain as he lay in the dirt. Trembling hands pulled at the front of his robes and he opened his eyes to see that he was on his side, smoke and ash floating in the still air as he licked his bleeding and cracked lips. Everything, absolutely everything hurt. He heard a familiar voice talking, very far away, but he didn’t care. The voice raised in pitch and volume as Shang Hua blinked up at the navy sky of the demon realm. The constellations were so different from home, he missed home. So fucking much.

“—ang Hua!”

He blinked and looked dazedly up at Mo Bai who knelt above him, looking down at him with wild eyes.

“M-my Prince…” Shang Hua slurred. He tried to get up, only to whimper and flinch when Mo Bai’s hand shot forward to push him down. Of course, of course he shouldn’t move. Moving might make Mo Bai think he’s trying to escape. “I’m sorry,” Shang Hua whispered “I-I didn’t tell you I’d seen your uncle. I should have. I-I he…I didn’t even th-think of it… a-and before he-he trapped me. It was hidden under my cloak…holding me in place. Keeping my mouth shut. M-my Prince, this servant did not betray you.” There was no filter to Shang Hua’s words as he spoke, he was focusing too hard on not shaking himself to pieces. He knew he must be utterly hideous with fat tears dripping down his burned and blotchy cheeks, but he couldn’t stop.

“I-I hope he’s dead.” Shang Hua forced out. Because it was true. Because it would be worth every second of pain if he could have just sent LinGuang Jun to hell where he belonged. “I hope he c-can never fucking hurt you again m-my prince. I-if I could have killed him when I found you in that loft I-I would have ju-just to keep you fr-from suffering ever again.” The world was trembled around him with every word— no, no he was just shaking uncontrollably. Was this shock? Ah, probably. Mo Bai might not even get the chance to finish asking his questions. Maybe the shock would kill him first.

Shang Hua closed his eyes and tried not to let himself fall to pieces as Mo Bai stilled above him; horror stretched across his normally blank face.  

Shang Hua’s eyes flew open as he was scooped up into Mo Bai’s arms like a child, wrapped in a black cloak far too large for his body. His confusion lasted only as long as it took for the pain in his broken leg and burned arm to catch up to him. He bucked involuntarily, desperate to be free of the agonizing feeling of pressure against his injuries. Mo Bai held him fast and Shang Hua couldn’t stop the pained scream that ripped from his bloodied lips. He must have finally lost consciousness because next he realized; he’d been submerged in warm water with only his face peeking out into the cool air.

He blinked away the soft beads of condensation that stuck to his eyelids and saw Mo Bai standing above him. After a moment he understood that Mo Bai must have him still cradled in his arms. 

“My Prince, what...?” he croaked weakly.

Mo Bai looked down at him, face sharp and serious as he looked Shang Hua over. “The Heaven Stair Spring has healing capabilities. It has helped a little, but actively using your spiritual energy will help more.” Mo Bai explained. As though that was really all Shang Hu had been asking.

Unable to expend more effort than it took to nod in response, Shang Hua closed his eyes and sunk into his own power, beginning to circulate his own energy and heal the wounds that had indeed begun to scab over with the help of the springs water. His leg still throbbed and ached fiercely. He knew in his gut that it would take weeks before he would be able to walk on his own again.  

When Shang Hua opened his eyes, the stars of the night had begun to fade with the coming of dawn’s pale light. The agony of his burns was now reduced to a low pulsing ache.

He’d gotten lucky.

The talismans he’d made were meant to be thrown or laid down as traps and detonated from a distance. Burning his arm and half his face was the least he could have endured— and that was only because he’d managed to stick the talisman bundle to LinGuang Jun’s sleeve before detonating the stack. The demon’s own frantic escape meant he had been only at the edge of the explosion rather than right in the heart. 

Shang Hua gave an experimental flex of his fingers and found them miserably stiff, but still useable. At his movement, Mo Bai gave a soft sigh, opening his eyes and looking down at Shang Hua from where he was still standing and supporting the cultivator.

They looked at each other in silence. The magic of the flower still simmered in Shang Hua’s gut reminding him of their remaining oath.

“Shang Hua?” Mo Bai whispered.

“Yes?”

“You’re really Shang Hua?”

Shang Hua nodded weakly, once again resisting the urge to tuck some of Mo Bai’s loose hair behind his ear. Whatever closeness he might have fantasized about, he understood now that it impossible to pursue.

“Yes. This servant’s name is Shang Hua. He met you in person when we were both children and we traveled through Huan Hua Palace territory together before we were separated. This servant…this servant regretted that we were separated in such a terrifying way.” It had to be enough, even if Mo Bai blamed him for accidentally involving LinGuang Jun, proving that he rescued his prince as a child had to count for something.

Mo Bai’s face remained blank as Shang Hua spoke. His blue eyes staring unseeing into the water just past Shang Hua’s head.

“I… what do you want?” Came Mo Bai’s broken sigh, miserable in its own smallness.

“What do I want?” Shang Hua asked, confused. When Mo Bai nodded in response, Shang Hua stared up at him, dazed. Maybe he wasn’t about to meet his premature end after all.

“My Prince, I would follow you for the rest of my life.” Shang Hua whispered, resting his head against Mo Bai’s damp shoulder. He figured he was owed at least this little comfort after the whole ordeal. “That would make this servant…very happy.”

He wanted to go back to Mo Bai’s room, to that little space where they had been alone together. The soft rediscovery of who they had each grown to be. The uncertain pleasure of working and living apart from the reality of the world had been something Shang Hua neglected to treasure at the time. So now he could have this. Serving Mo Bai wouldn’t be so terrible.

Mo Bai remained silent for long enough that Shang Hua began to drift off, lulled by the lapping of the water and the faint beat of Mo Bai’s heart. The sound of Mo Bai’s soft voice brought Shang Hua to the edge of awareness, but a familiar roaring hum made him sit straight up in Mo Bai’s arms.

The portal that engulfed them was almost as disconcerting as the empty city street that they emerged onto, still dripping from the water of the spring. The pale skies of the human realm stretched above and Shang Hua looked up at Mo Bai with confusion.

“My Prince?”

Mo Bai refused to look down at Shang Hua as he walked, not even sparing a glance as Shang Hua called for him again.

A cold dread grew in his stomach that only became more intense as the half-familiar walls of the inn they had been staying at over a week ago came into view.

When Mo Bai placed him gently down onto the steps of the inn, there was a swift unwinding of energy, a release of heat and pressure so constant Shang Hua hadn’t noticed the way it had sat beside his heart until it was gone.

Their oath had finally been fulfilled.  

Shang Hua instinctively flinched back as Mo Bai flicked his hand towards his chest only to gasp when the water in his clothing and on his skin turned to ice, then flowed up into Mo Bai’s hand— leaving Shang Hua completely dry.

Silence hung between them like heavy glass and Shang Hua wanted nothing more than to smash it to pieces then grab Mo Bai’s leg and plead for a second chance. Please, please take me back. We can change how this story ends.

He took a breath in and reached up, only to freeze as Mo Bai jerked back sharply, avoiding his touch.

They stared at each other with wide startled eyes.

Mo Bai shook his head, hands clenching and unclenching as he avoided looking directly at Shang Hua. “This lord doesn’t—”

The inn’s door clattered open behind Shang Hua, interrupting Mo Bai mid-sentence as a set of surprisingly familiar voices call out to him with mixed terror and relief.

“Shang Shidi!” “Shang Shixiong!”

Mo Bai took one step back, then another, his eyes remained trained on Shang Hua even as Wang Yue and three other teal-robed cultivators darted forward, swords unsheathed, to stand between them. The bodies of his martial siblings partially blocked Shang Hua’s view of Mo Bai, but in the moment before the demon disappeared into another swirling portal, he could swear that he saw his own heartbreak reflected in those blue eyes.

As the portal closed a breathless whimper ripped itself from Shang Hua’s throat. He’d been left. Just like that. All of that pain and effort for what? He hiccupped, barely catching a stuttering breath as his martial siblings crowded around saying things he doesn’t even care to understand.

Wang Yue broke through the haze that was threatening to overtake him; half frenzied as she cupped his face.

“Shang Shidi, Shang Shidi! Are you okay? How did that bastard Prince even find you again?”  

Shang Hua stared at her for a long moment before letting out a single breathless whine. He ignored her question and chose instead to bury his face into his Shijie’s shoulder and sob.

Chapter Text

It took exactly three weeks and six days after being carried back to the sect by his martial siblings for Shang Hua to be released from the medical halls of Qian Cao Peak. The freshly named Mu Qingfang was friendly but gentle as he finished changing out the last of the bandages covering his remaining wounds.

“Shidi will need three more days of complete rest, then he may take on light paperwork only. In another two weeks Shang-Shidi can move to light physical work. No heavy lifting, no flying, and no sparring outside of An Ding Peak.”

Shang Hua suppressed his urge to scoff and instead smiled at Mu Qingfang “Ahah, Mu-Shixiong, the only thing on this Shidi’s mind is rest.” 

Mu Qingfang’s eyebrows drew together but Shang Hua only forced his smile wider.

“See that it remains that way, Shidi.” He instructed, still frowning. “This Shixiong will be very unforgiving if you return prematurely.”

Shang Hua bobbed his head with a fake laugh and stood without taking Mu Qingfang’s offered hand. The astringent smell of the medicinal herbs stung his nose and made his eyes prickle. He hated every moment he had been trapped here. “Thank you for your help these past weeks.” He said before giving a stilted bow.

“Make sure to go straight to your leisure house!” Mu Qingfang called as Shang Qinghua limped towards the exit. “No detours!”

The smile fell off of Shang Hua’s face as soon as he passed through the doorway into the empty hall. If he was right, Wang Yue would be waiting for him just outside the front gate. With this in mind he turned in the opposite direction— careful to keep out of sight of any Qian Cao cultivators who might have been making rounds tending to their patients.

After a few turns he emerged into the muted light of an overcast sky and looked out across the medical gardens. A long path crossed back and forth between row upon row of flowers that helped with everything from Qi deviations to broken limbs. Shang Hua didn’t give them a second glance, only sparing enough attention to ensure he didn’t crush any blooms as he used just a touch of his spiritual power to jump the high fence that blocked off the garden from the rest of the peak.

Wang Yue caught up to him halfway across the rainbow bridge that connected An Ding and Xian Shu. She called his name loud enough to startle a few Xian Shu Shimei’s who were walking just a little further down the path. They peered back curiously as he plastered on a smile and turned to face Wang Yue with his hands politely tucked into his sleeve.

“Are you still mad at me?” She demanded; expression pulled tight as she closed the distance between them. Her hair was mussed and the color on her cheeks was high from her efforts catching up to him.

“Of course not. If Shijie would excuse this Shidi, he needs to report to Shizun before returning to his leisure house for an additional few day of confinement. But what’s new about being confined on An Ding Peak.”

Wang Yue’s face screwed up further— caught somewhere between eating a lemon or stepping on a tack. “Stop that.” She insisted, voice tight “Shang Hua, we were keeping you safe.”

“Oh, of course. It’s wonderful to know that Shijie and Shizun are so dedicated to keeping all of the An Ding disciples safe. Truly admirable. Now, if Shijie wouldn’t mine, this Shidi needs to report to Shizun.” The fake smile hurt his cheeks but seeing Wang Yue’s frustration satisfied the small bitter part of him that had festered during his recovery.

When she failed to do more than glare at him, Shang Hua gave a polite bow before he turned and continued across the bridge. The two Xian Shu cultivators gave him a wide berth but quickly began whispering behind their sleeves after he limped past.

Fuck what Mu Qingfang said. He should have just flown.

Wang Yue jogged up behind him as he stepped onto the tiled paths of An Ding Peak.

“I’m sorry we lied to you Shang Shidi.”

 He continued to ignore her, choosing instead to march steadily towards the Peak Lord’s Leisure House.

“We should have just told you outright what was happening and let you come to your own decisions.”

Shang Hua clenched his fists within his sleeves but still refused turn towards her.

“Didn’t it occur to you or Shizun that I might not have run away so often if I knew there were demons looking for me? What was so difficult about telling me that saving the Northern Prince as a child had caused the sect problems? That keeping me here was for my own safety? That the sect leader had made Shizun swear an oath that he would keep me from interacting with demons before I was allowed to be accepted into the sect?”

Wang Yue tugged on Shang Hua’s shoulder, finally forcing him to turn. He still refused to meet her eyes and stared stubbornly over her shoulder at the well-manicured trees.

“You were a child!” She snapped, “The Sect Leader’s insistence meant that Shizun had tacit permission to work with Qing Jing’s barrier masters, update the wards, monitor your movements, and take whatever other actions needed to keep you safe! By the time you were actually able to sneak off the peak for more than a day, he expected those precautions to be unnecessary. In the end, it was just a matter of waiting till you were of age. By then you’d have had the skills of an adult cultivator and would be able to make your own way if you still wanted to leave. Shizun didn’t…Shizun didn’t think the Prince would ever find you…If he’d known that you still held a good opinion of him…”

What?  Would you have kept closer tabs on me? Kept me from leaving? Manipulated me into investing more and more of my time into the Peak so I’d stay safe? You knew he was looking for me and you never told me!” Shang Hua didn’t bother to keep his voice down as he snarled at Wang Yue.

“He was hunting for you!”

“He was looking for the person who saved his life! He wouldn’t have hurt me.” Shang Hua insisted.

“He did hurt you!” Wang Yue shouted back, her face flushed with anger.

“Only because you kept me in the dark! So good. So kind,” Shang Hua mocked. “What an excellent way to protect your stupid little Shidi.” Tears prickled at the edges of his eyes; he knew he was being unfair but he didn’t give a single shit.

“Shang Hua!” Wang Yue cried out as he turned his back and limped determinedly towards Peak Lord’s Leisure House.

He’d always thought of Su Zhanjin’s peculiar desire to keep him at An Ding as a passive quirk of the larger plot. Something that was nonsensical but dedicated to keeping him at Ciang Qiong until Luo Binghe’s story came to prominence. Who knew his snake of a Shizun was concealing orders from the Sect Leader behind his blank smile? All of that good will and all it served to do was keep him from Mo Bai. He obviously wasn’t going to be 'Shang Qinghua: Spy for Mobei Jun' anymore, so what exactly was the point of any of this?

Su Zhanjin was already standing at the door to his Leisure House, waiting for Shang Hua as he approached. Without waiting for an acknowledgement Shang Hua passed through the low walls surrounding Su Zhanjin's neat garden filled with subtle poisons only stopping when he came before his Shizun.  

Shang Hua bowed low and asked in a strained voice. “This disciple would like a word with Shizun if it is not an imposition?”

Su Zhanjin mirrored Shang Hua’s empty smile and nodded, “Of course. Wang Yue, if you wouldn’t mind.” He said mildly, gesturing for them to follow behind as he turned back to his house.

Shang Hua didn’t bother to look over his shoulder at Wang Yue as she followed them both into Su ZhanJin’s private office. He took a seat when indicated and pasted on his most blankly pleasant expression as Su Zhangin settled into place at the desk.

“What was so urgent that you disobeyed a direct order from Mu Qingfang to come speak to this teacher instead of going to rest?” Su Zhanjin asked, looking over Shang Hua from head to toe. His gaze lingered intentionally on the bandages that still wrapped Shang Hua's hands and throat.

Shang Hua didn’t bother pretending to flinch at the implication he’d been watched even while in the medical halls.

“Shizun, this disciple wanted to first thank you for your years of concern and protection. It is with a heavy heart, that this disciple must secede from the sect.“

Wang Yue’s gasp was so utterly gratifying that it took all of Shang Hua’s effort not to burst out laughing on the spot.

He’d made his decision over a week ago and hadn’t budged since. The sect's knowledge of his relationship with Mo Bai and their underhanded tactics to keep them separated had resulted in a world where Shang Hua had absolutely no place in his own story. If he wasn't here to fulfill his role, why should he stay? Everyone who lived on these peaks was bound to die at his protagonists’ hands in about twenty-five years or so anyway. Why should he wait around to see this pile of scheming background characters go up in smoke?

Leaving wouldn’t even be difficult. He had stashes of coin, food, and simple clothing hidden around the peak. Even if he couldn’t reach any of them before he was tossed from the mountain, he had other stashes further afield. He could start again, be independent, forget that the words Proud Immortal Demon Way had ever existed— at least until Luo Binghe brought about the end of the world. But there were years and years before that was bound to happen. Maybe there was enough time to forget the burning sting of frostbitten rejection in his heart.

“No.”

Shang Hua looked up, daydreams about his freedom shattered with a word.

“No?!” he spluttered, “What do you mean 'no'? You can’t force me to stay with lies and underhanded bullshit anymore, Su Zhanjin.”

Wang Yue jumped to her feet with an angry shout only to be stopped by Su Zhanjin’s raised hand. Shang Hua couldn’t care less about her fury.  

“If I want to leave, I’ll leave!” He knew he was being rude, unfilial, ungrateful, and unreasonable along with every other sin he’d be accused of later. “I’m not going to be anyone's prisoner anymore!” Usually he was an angry crier, but he’d done more than enough crying over the past month. He was wrung dry.

Su Zhanjin’s voice was hard as steel when he spoke.  “Shang Hua, this teacher knows this is difficult but— You. Cannot. Leave.”

“Why not?” Shang Hua demanded as he stood and fumbled with his belt— intent on throwing his disciple robes directly in Su Zhanjin’s face. “I’m sick and tired of being here. My whole life you’ve kept me fucking trapped! You didn’t even have the decency to tell me why I was under lock and key. The Sect Leader knew that I was being searched for by demons? You changed the wards around the peak to make it harder for me to leave? I’m done not being told what’s happening! I’m done with you! With An Ding! With this whole fucki—."

Su Zhanjin’s palm hit the table hard enough to crack the wood and make Shang Hua jump. His over-robe hung half removed as he stared wide-eyed at his Shizun who was looking more through him than at him.

“Sit,” Su Zhanjin ordered.

“No.”

“Shang Hua, I said SIT.”

Shang Hua hated how quickly his knees buckled under the pressure of his teacher's spiritual energy.

“Wang Yue. Leave.”

There was a rustle of fabric as she disappeared down the hall without a word of protest. Su Zhanjin closed his eyes and waited until her footsteps faded from hearing before he spoke again.

“This teacher apologizes, but you are not allowed to leave the sect, Shang Hua.”

“Wh—“

“Quiet.” He snapped. “You are right. We should have told you earlier why we were keeping you on such a short leash. Demons were searching for you as a child due to your involvement with the Northern Prince. We hid this from you alongside our vow to the Sect leader to keep you contained in the sect until you were able to fend for yourself. None of that has anything to do with why we are keeping you now.” Su Zhanjin gave a weary sigh, “Shang Hua why do you think you have not been questioned in any official capacity outside of myself and Wang Yue since you returned?”

“I...” Shang Hua paused, suddenly unsure. “I was injured. The Sect Leader was waiting to speak to me until I was cleared by Qian Cao.”

“Not so terribly that you couldn’t speak," Su Zhanjin pointed out.  "Shouldn't the Sect Leader be eager to know what happened after you disappeared from the site of a slaughter? Don’t you think the other Peak Lords want to know how you came to spend such an extended amount of time associating with the young Demon Prince of the North? Specifically, the one with whom you had such a positive relationship with as a child?”

Shang Hua felt the slow maneuvering of a trap as it was being set, only he couldn’t see the shape it was taking.  

“I was kidnapped.” He reasoned slowly. “The Prince recognized me and wanted to know if I-I was really the same person who saved him.”

Su Zhanjin eyed Shang Hua critically, “So you say.” He continued before Shang Hua could protest. “This teacher believes you. He really does. The sect leader though— he may have to be convinced. Bai Zhan’s Peak Lord has already demanded to know why you weren’t immediately interrogated. Qing Jing’s Lord wants to secret you away and pick apart what you may have learned about the North during your captivity. The only thing that has kept the other Peak Lords from tearing into you like feral wolves is the fact that I officially named you my succeeding disciple immediately after understanding the situation.”

Shang Hua was glad he had sat when instructed to do so because he’d have fallen on his ass otherwise.

“Oh.” He managed.

“Yes, 'oh'.” Su Zhanjin mimicked without heat. “Now if they want to talk to you, they have to come to An Ding and make nice. For as much as they might complain, they need to respect your new position within the sect hierarchy. Shang Hua, if you leave now you lose every bit of that protection. You would not get to tell your story over polite tea with the Sect Leader or even have to endure a shouting match between Qing Jing and Bai Zhan peaks. Instead, you would get to see the polite dungeons of Qiong Ding where they would wait and smile and just see how much information they could wrench out of you.”

Shan Hua looked up at Su Zhanjin, fear finally outweighing the miserable fury that had fueled him all the way from Cian Cao. “Shizun…Shizun, please don’t trap me here. Please just let me go. I didn’t tell Mo B— the Northern Prince anything useful about the Sect. A—all Shizun has to do is give me an afternoon…then I’ll disappear. Nobody will find me. Please don’t do this. T-there must be another disciple on An Ding Peak who can take the position.” Shang Hua pleaded with Su Zhanjin, even though he knew it was fruitless. “Please. Just… just let me disappear.” The potential future where he spent even more meaningless years here before being killed by the armies of the protagonist stretched out before him in terrifying detail.

Su Zhanjin shook his head solemnly. “This teacher cannot just let you go. The Sect needs to know what you have seen Shang Hua. This teacher can only make sure your words are heard here on An Ding instead of behind bars.”

Shang Hua focused on the neat piles of paper that sat on the shelf behind his Shizun’s desk, he wanted to throw them to the ground. Tear them to shreds. Holler in the face of every cultivator here about how this doesn’t fucking matter anymore. His plot has gone tits up and the world had no use for who he was supposed to be. Instead, he sat, and continued to weakly plead his case.

“I-I don’t… I don’t want to be here Shizun… can’t— can’t you just let them talk to me here and then l-let me go?”

 Su Zhanjin stood and began to pace behind his desk, hands crossed behind his back. “Don’t you realize how vulnerable you are Shang Hua? As an inner disciple of An Ding Peak— my chosen heir even if you are unwilling to accept it— you know everything from the names of our spies in other sects to the schedule rotation for importing food. You were also just kidnapped by the Prince of the Northern Demon Realm. What would have happened if he had kept you?” Su Zhanjin shot Shang Hua a searching look, “This teacher cannot understand your anger over this matter Shang Hua. You claim that the Prince’s aim was not to harm you— fine. The Northern Prince is what— sixteen? Sixteen and he brought you back to us with burns, broken bones, and frostbite. Not to mention the truth-telling poison he forced you to eat that could have killed you. If this was what happened under his protection, how can you blame us for wanting to keep you safe for all of those years in-between?”

“It was a misunderstanding!” Shang Hua whispered, clenching his hands until his knuckles ached. “Mo Ba—.”

“If anyone outside of An Ding heard you talking like this, you’d be accused of treason, Shang Hua!” Su Zhanjin shouted; temper frayed past the breaking point. “The Northern Demons are not just the enemy because they are demons. They have a sworn vendetta against Huan Hua Palace, our allies. Shang Hua you were seriously hurt in his company, you cannot defend this anymore!”

Su Zhanjin rubbed a hand over his face, looking more tired than Shang Hua had ever seen. “If the other peaks get it into their heads that you are a traitor, the best-case scenario is that you are sent off to the Huan Hua Palace Water Prison to await trial. The worst-case scenario is tied between banishment from the sect— where you will be sent swordless out into the world where some rival to the Northern Prince will snatch you up to use as a pawn, a bribe, or just a novelty— or execution. If you want to avoid all of that Shang Hua you need to come to your senses. Stop defending the Prince, and accept your place as my succeeding disciple, heir to An Ding Peak. The position will shield you from their worst suspicions as long as you keep your misplaced sympathies to yourself. Please, A-Hua, just consider what this teacher is trying to say."

“Why push so hard for this?” Shang Hua asked after staring at his Shizun for a long moment, voice still raw from his earlier shouting. “Why do you want to protect me so badly?”

Su Zhanjin walked around the table and knelt before him, placing his hands on Shang Hua’s shoulders before he responded. “I’m not just throwing you into this position for your protection Shang Hua. You were the first choice to be my successor before all of this happened. This teacher is sorry that things have ended up less favorably than we would have hoped, but it’s the same result in the end.”

“Wang Yue would make a fine Peak—” Shang Hua tried before he was interrupted by Su Zhanjin’s scoff.

“Wang Yue does not have a diplomatic bone in her body. She’s also been training to lead our spies in the field for years, you would really deprive the sect of her capabilities?" Su Zhanjin turnd to level him with a critical eye.  "Shang Hua you can name every master in Cang Qiong sect. You are friendly with every distributor on this side of the Luochuan river. If I asked you what was available in the storehouses on Wan Jian based on the average use of products you could give me an accurate number even now after weeks away from the sect. You make quick decisions, you consider your martial siblings in those decisions, and I trust you to do this work. Why ask this teacher to pass his mantle on to someone less worthy?

 “I- This disciple, this disciple isn’t the only capable person on the peak aside from Wang Yue. There are so many others who would say yes in an instant, Shizun please.”

“They aren’t the best!” Su Zhanjin’s grip on Shang Hua’s shoulders tightened painfully, making him flinch. “Shang Hua listen to me. Aside from all of that— you have a mind for subterfuge, for betrayal, for oncoming unknown danger. Even though you’ve lost your head over this Demon this Lord still trusts you. Something is stirring in the world outside of Cang Qiong Sect. An incredibly powerful Demon has been travelling the human realm in disguise and we have not been able catch them. Huan Hua Palace is scrapping with demons every few days and there is something wrong with their Palace Master. You know it’s true. If An Ding Peak isn’t at its best then this teacher is afraid that our sect will be swept up in whatever trouble is on the horizon and we will all suffer for it.

 “I don’t want it!” Shang Hua snapped. “I- I can't! The other peak lords will never trust me! Shizun please, I can’t do this!” Freedom was slipping from his fingers with each word that passed between them. 

Su Zhanjin’s face flashed with muted fury, then twisted into a blank smile, one Shang Hua wore himself when his final cards had to be played. “Shang Hua you will accept your appointment or I will hand you to Qiong Ding and inform them directly of your sympathies for the Northern Prince.”

“You wouldn’t.” Shang Qinghua felt the trap snap closed around his neck with devastating clarity.

Su Zhanjin raised an eyebrow and loomed over him. “I would. Accept your appointment as the next Lord of An Ding Peak, Shang Qinghua. The world is changing and you need to keep the Sect safe. This teacher will not sit back and watch his best student be interrogated as a traitor by his martial siblings, nor will he let his best student leave Cang Qiong to burn.

Shang Hua felt a lick of terror run up his spine, for dizzying moment he was sure Su Zhanjin knew.

Knew that Luo Binghe would one day slaughter every single Shidi and Shimei he could lay hands on, run the remaining Peak Lords through with his sword black as night, drench the mountains in blood and fire before crushing them in the conjunction of the worlds.

The moment passed, and he could breathe. But it made nothing better.

Finally, seeing no other way out, Shang Qinghua bent forward in a bow “…This disciple understands.” His eyes were hot and itchy, fuck he had been doing so well. He was so fucking sick of crying.

He heard Su Zahnjin rise to his feet and allowed himself to be pulled up as well.

“Don’t be afraid.” Su Zhanjin soothed. “This teacher is sure any rough beginnings with your generation of peak lords will smooth out as time goes on. You have an impressive ability to overcome obstacles.”

Shang Qinghua bowed wordlessly, watching through blurry eyes as tears dripped down his cheeks to splatter against the wood floor.


After a year, Shang Qinghua realized he was no longer screaming himself awake from hazy dreams of being frozen alive at the hands of a laughing demon every third night and considered it an improvement.

 

On the second anniversary of being beaten, burned, then dumped on the steps of an inn, Shang Qinghua stayed up crying for until dawn wondering why Mo Bai's hooked grin still made his chest tight with longing.

 

Midway through the third year, Shang Qinghua began to wear robes with low collars again— no longer flinching at the vivid frostbite scars that marred the side of his neck when he saw them in a mirror.

 

The fourth year came and went without Shang Qinghua even realizing it had gone. The most notable thing was Su Zhanjin's insistence on his participation in the final Immortal Alliance Conference before the Qing Generation’s ascension.

 

As the fifth year approached with the Immortal Alliance Conference, Shang Qinghua didn't dream of anything but paperwork and the stress of taking on his masters responsibilities. When the time came, he climbed into his saddle at Su Zhanjin’s side and resigned himself to the long, dreary trek towards Tian Yi Overlook.

The worst part of the run up to the Immortal Alliance wasn’t the endless polite greetings, demonstrations designed to show the hosting sects talents or even the mandatory “make nice” meetings with the leaders in the other sects. No. The worst part was sure to be the “bonding” dinner organized for the Qing generation by Yue Qingyuan’s Shizun.

Shang Qinghua had tried his best to avoid it but Su Zhanjin made sure escort Shang Qinghua directly to the dining room with a firm hand and a fake smile. 

"Your relationship with your martial siblings will never become harmonious if you don't spend time with them. Besides, this is also to greet your newest Shidi. Liu Qingge was named successor to Bai Zhan peak today after beating the current Bai Zhan Peak Lord into the dirt." The old bastard had said with a smile. 

Shang Qinghua bared his teeth at his Shizun and ducked into the room with a grumble. 

As avoidance wasn’t an option, he decided that silence was tonight's best defense. Su Zhanjin was wrong about exposure smoothing out the rough edges of his martial siblings first impressions of him. ‘Demon sympathizer' or 'Demon Kidnapping victim’ still seemed to be their first thought when looking his way.

Slipping past the already gathered cultivators like a shadow, Shang Qinghua took a seat next to Wei Qingwei. His Shixiong was the only one who'd never given him grief over the whole ordeal. Wei Qingwei even smiled down at him as Shang Qinghua snatched up a wine bottle and poured himself a cup.

"Are they working you to death, Shidi?" He asked teasingly.

Shang Qignghua nodded vaguely, "You'd think there'd be less work since we're not hosting the damn conference." he grumbled.

Wei Qingwei laughed at that and toasted him with his own cup.

The rest of the inheriting peak lords filtered into the room slowly, taking their seats and conducting themselves with at least the pretense of immortal cultivators as they gossiped about the ongoing conference. Even Liu Qingge showed up on time, to no one's surprise sat in his seat stiff as a board and glared at his plate without saying a word.

Shang Qinghua let his attention wander, unconcerned with joining in on the conversations around him. He considered the decorations Tian Yi Overlook had placed around the dining room afforded to their group for the evening. His eye was drawn to a stark painting of barren peaks encased in deep winter frost. Unwilling to let it sour his mood he quickly looked away. Everything else in the room was pale grey and soft browns, soothing to the eye, if a little boring. At least Tian Yi Overlook’s cultivators had better taste than Huan Hua Palace he mused.

As time passed Shang Qinghua found himself relaxing just a little pit. If he could just sink into the low-lit shadows of the room and avoid catching the eye of his martial siblings, maybe he could get through the night without too much of a fuss.

Of course, as soon as the thought of a quiet evening crossed him mind, Liu Qingge's head snapped up and he turned a harsh glare in Shang Qinghua's direction.

“Were you really kidnapped by a Demon Prince?” Liu Qingge asked, voice over-loud in the small dining room.

“Ah?” Shang Qinghua looked up at his newest Shidi with a blank smile “Excuse me?”

“Were you kidnapped? Or were you actually working in concert with the Demon?” Liu Qingge pressed. “Shizun told me your story and I don’t believe it.” He scowled down his perfect nose at Shang Qinghua who really, really, wished he could waste some of the talismans he had layered inside his sleeve to just disappear.

Shang Qinghua curved his shoulders and sunk down in his seat, knowing it made him look weak and unassuming. “Well, this Shixiong didn’t…ah…really have a choice in the matter. But there’s u-uh records of wh-what happened on Qiong Ding and Qing Jing. If Shidi really wants all of the details he can read them when we re-return to the sect.” He quivered intentionally under Liu Qingge’s glare. The more pitiful he looked, the less likely Yue Qingyuan was to sit back and let Shang Qinghua get bullied over their first course.

Right on time Yue Qingyuan coughed politely. “Liu Shidi, please. This is not something that should be discussed just now.”

“Why not?” Shen Qingqiu’s snide tone lashed across the table like a whip.

Shang Qinghua snuck a glance at the elegant figure and wished, that he’d given into impulse and poisoned his acerbic Shixiong’s tea when they’d first met.

“For the first time we have our entire generation of peak lords at one table— now that Bai Zhan has finally picked their newest top brute.” Shen Qingqiu sneered. “Why shouldn’t we take the opportunity to discuss this—” Shen Qingqiu's dark eyes swept over Shang Qinghua with distaste, “—unresolved matter.”

The reactions of his fellow future Peak Lords ranged from vaguely curious to outright distrustful. Qi Qingqi leveled Shang Hua with a suspicious glare that rivalled Liu Qingge, while Wei Qingwei rolled his eyes and downed another cup of wine.

“Shen-Shidi is fine. Leave him alone.” Wei Qingwei griped, and Shang Hua felt a wave of relief at even the small defense on his behalf. “So what if a demon shook him around a bit? He came back unharmed,” he flinched a bit, gaze flickering towards the wandering scars on Shang Qinghua’s neck before powering though, “ –and since then he hasn’t done anything but take on more paperwork than this Shixiong has ever seen in his life.”

Unfortunately, paperwork wasn’t exactly something that could sway Liu Qingge. “If he is weak enough to be kidnapped, he shouldn’t have the Peak Lord position.” Shang Qinghua resisted rolling his eyes as Liu Qingge continued, “Why should we even trust him? How do we know he didn’t trade sect secrets for his life?”

Mu Qingfang frowned at this, “You might be the only one aside from Yue-Shixiong that could have fought off a Demon Lord at eighteen Liu-Shidi.” He pointed out dryly.

At this, a small argument broke out between several of the other disciples. Half argued over who could possibly defeat a teenaged demon prince while the other half argued over whether that was even the point.

Through all the noise Shang Qinghua merely sunk further into his seat, swiping his wine cup from the table to take a long drink. Was this it? Was this what his life was going to be like until the sect was burned from the map like a bad memory? He swirled the remaining wine in his cup and frowned. He only had to hang around for another quarter Shichen before he could disappear from the dinner without Su Zhanjin coming to nag him later. With that in mind he downed the rest of his drink and immediately poured himself another cup.

A prickle of unease along the skin of his neck made him look up. Liu Qingge, his first assumption, was completely absorbed in an argument with Mu Qingfang. As Shang Hua looked down the table though, he met Shen Qingqiu’s dark gaze over his gently waving fan. Shang Qinghua was tempted to toast him mockingly, but before he could gather the courage to do so or the sense to let it go, a loud knock sounded against the door. A sudden awkward hush descended upon the room of arguing cultivators.

Shang Qinghua shot to his feet before anyone else could make a move, desperate to just get away from his martial siblings. Please GOD let there be some kind of logistical issue with the Cang Qiong camp. Not enough tents, spoiled water, Gu-Shidi’s been carried off by flower demons and needs to be ransomed with rare smelling salts. Anything.

A tall woman in golden Huan Hua Palace robes glared down at him as he slid the door open. Dark hair spilled in long waves around a sharply cruel face. Shang Qinghua gaped at her like a fish out of water before offering a short uncertain bow. “May we help you with anything Miss…?”

The woman looked him over without speaking. Her golden hairpiece layered with etchings of peonies and orchids caught the flickering candlelight as she tilted her head in acknowledgment.

There was something familiar about her; it wasn’t that he’d seen her before though. It was similar to the way Yue Qingyuan’s face had made his stomach swoop before he’d ever known the man’s name.

“Are you Shang Qinghua?” She asked sharply.

“Yeees?” He answered, still peering up at her uncertainly.

“May we speak privately?” She shot an intense glare over his head and he heard a few affronted whispers from his marital siblings who were still sitting at the table.

“I’m sorry, who are you?” He asked, manners forgotten in the rolling disquiet she provoked in his chest.

At this, she actually paused and looked down at him with raised eyebrows. “Su Xiyan. Huan Hua Palace Head disciple.”

Shang Qinghua stared at her, the numb roaring in his ears overwhelmed whatever she said next. There was a wild moment where he considered drawing a knife and slitting her throat.

No Su Xiyan, no plot, no problem.

The image of her blood on his hands made the wine in his stomach rebel and he stepped back with a wheeze.

She reached out and gripped his elbow with an overly firm hand. He wanted to pull away, needed to pull away.

“This one needs to speak with you. Now.” She tugged on his arm and he stumbled forward a little, half surprised by her strength.

The buzzing panic in his brain was smoothly interrupted by a broad back wrapped in black fabric. Yue Qingyuan’s voice was as mildly polite as ever but there was no room for argument in his tone as he smoothly stepped between them.

“Su Xiyuan, Shang-Shidi is not able to speak with you at the moment. Is there something that this one can discuss in his place?”

Su Xiyan didn’t seem cowed be Yue Qingyuan. Why would she be? Shang Qinghua thought hysterically. She’s sleeping with the most OP person in the whole world— so OP that Shang Qinghua had to toss him under a mountain to keep from fucking up the whole plot. He tried to tug his sleeve out of her grasp but she didn’t loosen her grip one bit. 

“Please accept my apology,” She gritted out between clenched teeth, “but this is an important matter.”

Yue Qingyuan’s expression didn’t change, but the atmosphere around him became immediately more oppressive. “If it’s important, of course we must assist. Please come in and join us.”

“This one needs to speak with Shang Qinghua alone.” She insisted, her own oppressive aura lit up Shang Qinghua’s senses like fireworks.

“S-shixiong.” He squeaked before clearing his throat and repeating himself. “Shixiong, may we—” he motioned between he and Su Xiyan, “step into the hall for just a moment? It if is truly an emergency this Shidi will come and let you know. If not then he will come back in just a minute.”

Yue Qingyuan looked down at the way Su Xiyan’s hand gripped Shang Hua’s sleeve a little tighter at that, then frowned.

“Do not take long.” He nodded his head and watched as Shang Qinghua was tugged out into the dimly lit hall. With a snap of the door the tittering conversation from his fellow future peak lords was cut off.

Shang Qinghua sighed and looked up at Su Xiyan again, trying to fight the waves of anxious energy that threatened to shake loose with every passing moment. There was something a little surprising about her appearance. She was no willowy sister waiting to be swept off her feet by a demon emperor. Su Xiyan had a square jaw and broad shoulders that spoke of a lifetime training to fight. Her glare was severe, but there were bags under her eyes that Shang Hua had not noticed in his initial panic. She looked worn down and wary as she gave him a long look from head to toe.

“What can I help you with, Head Disciple Su?” He prompted as silence lingered for just a little too long.

She shook her head, making a finger seal before gesturing out sharply. Shang Qinghua flinched, relaxing only after she finished casting a small array around them. It pulsed gold with her own power as it hovered at waist height.

“Is it for silence?” He asked, peering down at the glowing lines of power.

She didn’t bother answering, instead choosing to scrutinize him further. “What do you know about demons, Shang Qinghua?”

Only long hours of spy work kept him from freezing and backing away. Instead, he leveled her with a puzzled smile. “Little more than your average cultivator outside of my own specialties, Miss Su.” He lied. “If you need help with demons, my Shixiong Shen Qingqi—”

“Don’t lie to me.” She snapped. “I know you were taken by the Northern Prince four years back.”

“I— excuse me?” He stuttered. No one outside of the sect was supposed to know. They’d done work, hard work to make sure that no one outside of the sect knew about that. Even a whisper of his involvement with Mo Bai could cause the other sects to demand he be interrogated, imprisoned, or worse. All the road bumps he’d faced in his own sect made worse by the fact that to accuse him of collusion now would make Cang Qiong itself vulnerable.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard, but you’re mistaken.” He said, overly conscious of his expression as he stepped intentionally back towards the door. His martial siblings might not have been great company, but they weren’t about to let him get snatched away to the Huan Hua water prison without a fight.

Su Xiyan’s hand snapped out and grabbed his wrist in a painful grasp, her eyes suddenly wild even if her voice was perfectly even. “Shang Qinghua, I need you to listen to me!”

“I’ve never spoken to a demon! You need to let me—“ His wrist creaked then there was an audible crack as her intense grip shattered the lacquered armor of his bracer. Even as blood dripped from his split skin, he threw down two talismans. One that disrupted her silencing array, and another that forced them apart.

She snarled at him, “Shang Qinghua!”

The door flew open as both Yue Qingyuan and Shen Qingqiu stepped out in unnerving synchronicity. Unwilling to cause an incident that would take all night and more than a little diplomatic maneuvering to resolve, Shang Qinghua waived them both down.

“Ah, Yue-Shixiong, Shen-Shixiong— it was just a misunderstanding. Su Xiyan was… was just on her way.”

Su Xiyan didn’t seem to care that he’d given her a perfectly good out. Instead, she took a menacing step towards him before looking to Yue Qingyuan’s pleasantly blank smile and Shen Qingqiu’s decidedly less pleasant glare. Her eyes flicked towards the door where Shang Qinghua could see several of his other marital siblings peering out with less than friendly expressions.

For all Cang Qiong cultivators sniped at each other, it sure was nice to see them close ranks when an outside force tried to take advantage— even if it was only to preserve their own reputation.

Maybe if Su Xiyan had twelve other head disciples to back her up, she would have stayed. As it was, she turned on her heel and left without even a nod.

Shang Qinghua watched her golden silhouette until it disappeared down the hall and out of view.

“Shidi?” Yue Qingyuan asked softly, a note of tense concern in his voice.

“Hm?” He responded, suddenly too tired to continue pretending to be fine.

“Are you alright?”

He looked up at Yue Qingyuan, opening his mouth without managing to say anything for a moment.

Yes? He thought. No? Maybe? The woman whose child will kill you and most of our marital siblings just cornered me to talk about demons. I don’t know how to feel about talking to her or even letting her live? Words failed him until Shen Qingqiu closed his fan with a snap and smacked Shang Hua’s injured wrist with a sneer.

“What was that about?” He demanded, eyeing Shang Qinghua with open suspicion. “Not content to dally with demons, now you’re keeping secrets with the Huan Hua Palace Sect?”

 Shang Qinghua's wrist smarted from the blow. He wanted to take that graceful fan and snap it in two. Why couldn’t this two-bit baby villain ever refrain from escalating a situation?

After a long day, a long year, a long fucking lifetime of suppressing himself, Shang Qinghua looked up at Shen Qingqiu and promptly lost control of his mental faculties.

“I wonder if Yue Shixiong ever regrets the year he spent trapped in Linxi caves begging to be let out to go save his A-Jiu. If I was in his place and only found a burnt house after being released, then, years later dredged your bitter ass up I’d probably throw myself off a bridge.”

Yue Qingyuan’s face went deathly pale while Shen Qingqiu’s face turned an interesting shade of green.

Shang Qinghua’s mind caught up to his mouth.

“Oh fuck.”

Before Shen Qingqiu could decide to tear him in half, he fled.

He might not have been the best fighter, strategist, or even spy in Cang Qiong, but he was an expert in his own field. With the flick of his non injured wrist, he activated his third talisman of the night and let the world around him sizzle into dark mist.

In a flash, the world reconstituted itself. His teleportation talismans might not take him far, but their ability to hide his qi was one of his crowning achievements over the past few years.  The other was the talisman he activated as soon as he was sure he hadn’t been pursued. A small cut on his thumb, slid across the paper that he then stuck to his chest ensured that he would be invisible to cultivator senses for the next two Shichen.

Was it petty to use these things to avoid the consequences of his actions? Unquestionably. Did use up a massive amount of his Qi reserves that might have been better spent tomorrow during the conference competitions? Of course. Did he regret it? Absolutely not.

From his new perch on the roof of the main hall, he could actually hear Shen Qingqiu’s voice echoing across the Tian Yi Overlook courtyards. The rapid rise and fall of his shrieking made more than one head poke out of a door or window in the buildings below.

After straining to catch more than a few words, Shang Qinghua felt confident that Shen Qingqiu was focused more on eviscerating Yue Qingyuan than on hunting down his loose-lipped Shidi. There was a pang of guilt in his gut. Yue-Shixiong hadn’t deserved that. Well, maybe he did- but not from Shang Qinghua, and definitely not in front of all of their martial siblings.

Shang Qinghua bit his lip. Maybe, they’d work out their issues and become better people for it?

Unlikely. If he kept a low profile for the next…year…they might be able to pretend this never happened. 

For now, he walked over to a decorative overhang on the west side of the main hall’s roof. He had noted it as a good place to hide when they first rode in through the large entry gates. It was dry, dark, and practically invisible unless you already know what to look for. With a resigned sigh, he tucked himself into the small space.

What was he doing still sticking around at Cang Qiong sect anyway? He COULD disappear, he SHOULD disappear, so...why didn’t he? A little voice in the back of his head whispered where would you go? No one wants you anyway. You’re useless anywhere but here. He batted it away with the ease of practice. Just because it was true didn’t mean he had to dwell on it.

A droplet of rain caught his eye and Shang Qinghua shifted to tuck himself deeper beneath the overhang as the dark clouds above opened up, releasing a slow pattering drizzle that gave a slick shine to the tiles on the roof. The soft sound muted Shen Qingqiu's furious shouts and turned his little sanctuary into its own world. Separated from the drama and bustle far below.

He closed his eyes as he pillowed his head on one arm. He’d just rest for a moment, then he’d find a better place to hide out until morning.


Shang Qinghua woke to the sound of shouting. He nearly smacked his head on the roof the overhang before he remembered exactly why he wasn’t cozied up in his bed. With a glance he realized he must have slept far longer than intended. The crescent moon hung low over the sloped rooves of the sect and in the distance the light blue of dawn was tinging the horizon.

He sat up and took a moment to try and listen to the various shouting below him. Even with Shen Qingqiu’s prodigious temper, it was unlikely that he was still berating Yue-Shixiong after this much time had passed. Shang Qinghua rolled out from under the overhang, far less focused on staying hidden than on what was being screamed across the courtyards at the break of dawn.

Just as he was about to peek his head over the edge of the roof, a familiar golden silhouette landed soundlessly next to him.

Su Xiyan looked almost as startled as he felt when she turned and saw him crouching on the tiles to her side.

There was a beat of silence, then Shang Qinghua dashed to the side intent on jumping into the courtyard and disappear into the rush of cultivators below. Sadly, Su Xiyan hadn’t earned her position as head disciple for nothing. Still clumsy from his unexpected nap, Shang Qinghua gave a choked yelp as she grabbed him by the collar. Without a word she slapped one hand over his mouth, keeping him silent as she shoved him back into the space beneath the overhang.

“Tell me the truth right now or I swear I will gut you like a pig.” She hissed in his ear. “Are you consorting with the Northern Demons to kill cultivators?”

Shang Qinghua stared at her in open confusion until she removed her hand. He shook his head and whispered back, “No! Su Xiyan—"

“Is the Demon Prince of the North evil?”

“What? No! I mean—”

“Are you friendly with him? Do you care for him? Is he someone that can be trusted?” She asked, her hand pulling his collar so tight he almost choked. He scrabbled at her wrists, panic making his chest go tight.

“Just stop! Stop! What is all this about?” He plead, hoping to distract her as he reached for another talisman. Before he could make his move though, she let go of his collar. He fell back onto his ass with a cough, gasping for air. He reached up to massage his neck as she continued to stare down at him. Her cold face was stricken but she didn’t move back or even put her hands down.

Shang Qinghua inched away, eager for some space as he squinted up at Su Xiyan. Dark circles were pressed under her eyes, only deepened by the scant moonlight. She looked more tired than a cultivator of her level should be even if she’d stayed up the whole night without rest.

How far was she in her own tragic plot? He wondered uneasily.

For all he had intended her to be a ruthless, complicated woman, she really was supposed to have been in love with Tianlang-Jun at the end of it all. Just how close were the doomed pair to their tragic end…?

She met his gaze without flinching, every line of her body was tense— nearly vibrating with restrained energy— but suddenly she slumped, like a puppet whose string had just been cut. The hidden violence behind her every move faded into an exhaustion as she lowered her hands to her sides.   

“Please.” She asked in a hoarse whisper. “Tell me about Mo Bai.”

It’s simple and honest and Shang Qinghua felt a horrible swirling of nausea as he watched her strong face fill with something like misery.

“I— I trust him.” He found himself saying. “You—you can’t tell anyone. He’s good. We met as children and I saved his life. We ran into each other again as teens and had some bad luck— we just— he isn’t a bad person. He didn’t mean to hurt me, he never asked me to betray my sect—I—we—I just—” Shang Qinghua put a hand over the scar on his neck. “Whatever anyone’s said…he didn’t mean to hurt me.”

Su Xiyan watched him with furrowed brows.

“How long has it been since you’ve spoken?” She asked.

“Nearly five years.” He answered.

“Did you sell out other sects to him in exchange for freedom?”

“No!” He protested sharply.

“Why?”

“He never asked me to!” Shang Qinghua squawked, irrationally offended on Mo Bai’s behalf. “Besides, I didn’t want to, t-that’s not what our relationship was about!”

“Then what was it about?” Su Xiyan pressed; her gaze hard.

“I—It wasn’t about anything. We just—we were just…” Shang Qinghua trailed off, an image of Mo Bai leaning over him with his crooked little smile rose unbidden in his mind. “We were just trying to find out if we could still be f-friends. And in the end, it just— it just didn’t work out.”

Su Xiyan sat back on her heels, a frown crossing her lips.

“Do you want to see him again?” She asked slowly, as though trying to sound out the right words.

“Yes.” Shang Qinghua answered before he could stop himself. The longing in his voice so obvious he might as well have hung a sign that said ‘demon sympathizer’ around his neck and jumped down into the courtyard. Before he could take back his words, or even try to confuse his meaning with pointless chatter, Su Xiyan leaned forward again, her expression intent.

“If you met a demon other than Mo Bai, would you fight them on-sight?”

“No...?” He answered, unable to follow her line of questioning.

“Why not?”

“Demons and humans have a lot of differences— like a lot of differences, but I’m not going to kill someone who isn’t attacking me without reason. We don’t, um, we don’t all have to be enemies.” He left the ‘regardless of what our elders say’ hanging.

Su Xiyan stared at him silently for before something like resolve fell over her face.

“Come on.” She hauled him out of his nook by the arm and kept a tight grip as she dragged him, half crouching, to the edge of the roof.

“I- what?” He stuttered, confused by her sudden frantic energy.

 She shushed him intently and peered around. “All of that shouting is about you.”

“Yeah, I know. I really put my foot in my mouth with my shixiong—”

“No, not last night.” She whispered. “Now. Right now. They’re looking for you, Shang Qinghua.”

“What? Why?” He asked, craning his head to get a better look at the people scurrying across the courtyards in the growing pre-dawn light.

 She shushed him again, this time shaking him with a quick tug of his arm. “If you aren’t lying, someone’s set you up. Your Shixiong found evidence linking you to the Northern Demon Prince in your tent.”

“What?” He yelped, unable to contain the panic in his voice.

“Shut UP!” She hissed, tugging them down out of view once more. They waited breathlessly, pressed shoulder to shoulder against the roof tiles. After a few minutes without an alert being raised, it seemed no one had heard his outburst and the tension eased between them.

“You don’t believe I’m guilty?” Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but ask in a hushed whisper.

Su Xiyan frowned down at him and he closed his mouth with a weak huff of nervous laughter.

“No,” she said with a sigh. “From what I’ve heard, you’re far too smart to leave incriminating love letters to the Prince on your cot alongside an obviously demonic seal.”

Shang Qinghua gaped at her. He was offended on his own behalf. Who on earth was pulling half-assed dime novel detective shit to fame him?  

“Come on.” She hissed, interrupting his indignant sulk.

He was pulled out of his chaotic thoughts as Su Xiyan jumped off of the roof with alarming speed. She hadn’t bothered releasing his arm from her unreasonably strong grasp so he was forced to follow along as best as he could. It took some effort but he managed to keep pace as she darted from rooftop to rooftop. There was something even a little thrilling in the way they both managed to move like shadows across the slowly brightening landscape.

He hesitated for only a moment as they reached the walls surrounding the sect. If they passed through the barrier, someone would surely notice. Su Xiyan looked over her shoulder with a grim smile as she felt him pause.

“Follow in my footsteps, exactly.” She murmured.

He watched as she stood tall and thrusted both of her hands out to her sides parallel to the ground. Energy gathered at her fingertips, building quickly as she sketched out a glowing talisman in the air before her. With a snap of her fingers, it released and she darted forward through its golden glow.

With a panicked breath he followed her steps. Shang Qinghua had trusted her this far. One, two, three, jump— there was a ripple of warm energy as they passed through the talisman and then again as they passed through the wards of the sect. It was something of a relief to find that the barrier didn’t respond to their passage and they landed silently in the still darkened space beyond the tree line.  

Su Xiyan didn’t bother to pause, turning immediately as she landed and beginning to tug things out of the qiankun pouch at her hip. A second pouch decorated with Huan Hua Palace golds and oranges, a crinkled slip of paper, and a waterskin that looked half full. She shoved the whole pile into Shang Qinghua’s still trembling hands.

 “Do you know the Gentle Crane Inn? Four days west of here at the fork of the high road?”

 Shang Qinghua nodded and watched with mounting confusion as Su Xiyan tugged a pin tipped with a beautiful golden peony straight from her hair.

“The one run by old man Yin and his four daughters?” He confirmed, eyes darting over her head to check for pursuing cultivators.

“Yes. The pouch has food, supplies, and a bit of money. I can meet you at the Inn three days after the conference ends. You’re not safe here, and I can’t leave with you or else things will get difficult very quickly.” She spoke hurriedly and Shang Qinghua found himself tucking everything she handed him into his own Qiankun pouch without argument. “Be careful, be quick, and do not get caught. When you get to the inn ask old man Yin for Luo Haotian. He—” She paused and her lips give an odd quirk. “He’s a fool and a romantic but if you give him this,” she pressed the peony pin hard into Shang Qinghua’s hand, “and tell him I sent you, he’ll help.”

She waited until Shang Qinghua tucked the pin and the pouch into his sleeve to give him a slight push deeper into the forest. “We have a lot to talk about, but right now you need to run— or else you’ll be sitting in the water prison come morning.” She pushed him again when he only managed to stare at her instead of moving. “GO.”

Shang Qinghua reached out and grabbed her wrist before she could turn back to Tian Yi Overlook. He refused to let go until she turned back and looked him in the eye.

 “Don’t trust the Palace Master.” He blurted out, powering through even as she gaped at him, “I-I can’t explain right now, but get out before he makes it so you can’t leave ever again. Meet me at the Gentle Crane Inn. Promise you’ll be careful.” It’s less of a question than a plea, but he had already fucked the plot hard enough already— might as well go for broke.

She twisted her wrist in his grasp and he jumped, half expecting a blow— but she didn’t move to strike. Instead, she took his forearm in a gentle grip. Her slate eyes met his in the dawn light of the forest. The soft whisper of the wind and the distant shouting of agitated cultivators filtered through the trees as they stood without saying a word. As one they let go and turned in opposite directions.

Shang Hua took off into the trees, running through his various options. True dawn was still an hour or so away, he could fly above the tree line until then, but once the sun showed its face, he’d have to dip into the forest to avoid being spotted.  Soon cultivators— potentially from every sect at the alliance— would be hunting him across the surrounding landscape. It wasn’t ideal, but there were worse places to be hunted. As the unofficial “Wardens of the border” Tian Yi Overlook was purposefully placed close to the edge of the Demon Realm. If he pushed, he could be deep in those selfsame borderlands within a Shichen.

Of course, for more powerful cultivators, the borderlands were little deterrent, but that wasn't why he was headed in that direction anyway.

He shoved the formal over robe he had worn for the peak lord’s dinner into his pouch and mounted his blade. Putting the rising sun to his back he flew low and fast, just skimming the canopies of the trees below.

There was a particular demonic temple that Shang Qinghua knew was hidden just three Li into the borderlands. Sure, it would be swarming with spider demons, but he was one of three people in the known world who knew the location of the temples secret entrance. As long as he didn’t bother decoding the seal placed on the inner sanctuary, there’d be no danger. He’d sleep in the antechamber without worrying about any other intruders. Luo Binghe had to go through a whole questline with three demon wives to get into that temple, no righteous cultivator was going to be able to find their own way in without completing the protagonist-only questline first. He’d rest there for a full day and figure out his next steps.

If he wasn’t completely off base, Tianlang Jun was waiting for them at the Gentle Crane Inn. He could end up merrily ripped to pieces by the strongest being in all three realms if he wasn’t careful.

For now, he had to make it to the temple without being caught and skinned alive by every cultivator in the surrounding area.  


By the time Shang Qinghua dove into the terrifyingly thick fog of the borderlands, the sun had risen fully over the horizon. He stretched his senses as far as they could go, focusing intently on the slight pings of spiritual energy to the east and north that were bearing down on him faster than he’d hoped. With a huff, he dipped down to the forest floor and jumped from his sword, stumbling with exhaustion from his flight.

He needed to make another concealment talisman. It would take his spiritual energy down to dregs, but it would be better to walk his way to the temple than get caught by righteous cultivators at this point in the game.

The gnarled leafless trees towered above him as he whipped out his ever-present stack of blank talismans. He nipped his finger and licked the tang of blood from his lips before he began to draw.

A breeze blew through the little clearing, lifting the sweaty hair from the nape of his neck. Shang Hua shivered as it passed, discomfort slowly rising. As tired as he was, it took him a moment to realize that something was wrong. He felt the gaze of another person slide along his spine like oil on water.  Even as his spiritual energy flickered, already pushed past its limits, he whirled and leapt back up onto his sword.

His breath fogged as it streamed past lips making his heart jump. Shang Qinghua paused mid-air suddenly hopeful as the temperature around him dropped perilously.

 “My Prince?” he breathed, turning to look behind him.

For a moment there was nothing, not even the twitch of branches in the breeze— then cruel frost bloomed around his neck like a collar, yanking him off of his sword with a dizzying familiarity.

Chapter Text

Mo Bai watched from a nearby rooftop as Shang Hua fell into his martial sisters’ arms with a choked sob. Even after a night healing in the Sky Stair Spring- his gege was trembling from head to toe, blood and grime dried across his robes in odd places. Mo Bai struggled with the urge to step back through a portal, snatch up his gege from the crowd of chattering disciples, and spirit him away to a place for just the two of them. But Shang Hua had told Mo Bai the truth. If his gege truly wanted to serve Mo Bai, then there were years of work that would need to be put in before the Northern Court was fit to host his human companion.

Still, he waited until Shang Hua’s martial siblings had bundled him inside the inn and out of view before summoning a portal and returning to the harsh chill of the Northern Fortress.

There was a soft ripple of surprised murmurs from servants and courtiers alike as he strode out into the main courtyard. He didn’t usually bother walking the halls when he could just walk between shadows, but if he was going to change the court, he needed to at the very least, interact with all of its various parts.

How else would he see what needed to be destroyed and rebuilt to his own standards?

The fierce depictions of his ancestors carved into the walls of the great hall glared down as he consciously slowed his pace to acknowledge those courtiers he could tolerate. He imagined the stone faces watching over him growing more and more displeased as he continued his work. For all of the power they would eventually provide him, his lineage had done less for him than a trembling human.

“Your royal highness,” murmured an older man, pausing to bow as Mo Bai passed.

It took a moment for Mo Bai to place the demon in his head. Zhou Yifei, a minister from the frozen northern coast. He was loyal to the Mo clan and had handled the trade relations between the Southern Plains and the Northern Court since Mo Bai was little more than a child.

“How go the negotiations with the Sha clan over the Well of the Fire-Born-Maiden?” He forced himself to ask. It would take thousands of these little conversations to make himself more than just a shadow of his father.

Zhou Yifei stared at him with the look of a man wondering if he should call for a priest. “This one was unaware that your highness had heard of that unfortunate incident. The negotiations—,” the demon sighed, “the negotiations go as well as they can with the Sha clan involved.”

Mo Bai nodded, pushing past the knot in his throat to continue. “Good. If there is trouble, contact this Lord. He has experience with their heir Sha Hualing that can be used as leverage.”

Zhou Yifei bowed deeply as Mobei Jun tuned to walk on, his expression of startled shock barely hidden behind his wide sleeves.

All at once the hall was bathed in a blue glow as the sapphire eyes of his ancestors burst to life with blazing light. Mo Bai paused for half a second before summoning a portal and stepping through to the deep woods of the eastern hills.

His plans could wait, for now a tactical retreat was necessary.  

His father had returned.


Surprisingly, it took five weeks for Mo Bai to be summoned back to the Northern Fortress to present himself before his father’s court.

Many demons had whispered within Mo Bai’s hearing that the throne room of the Northern Fortress was severe. Unwelcoming. Overly enchanted with its own austerity. Tianlang-Jun had once mused that it reflected the true hearts of the Northern line- barren, hard as stone, immutable.

Mo Bai always wondered what he saw that others missed. Even now as he knelt before the Black Ice Throne, the familiar power of his ancestors thrummed through the glittering ice that spiraled across the floor in delicate fractals and climbed the walls in wide arcs. Every humming piece of this immense web of magic reached out and acknowledged him as one of its own. Through it he could feel his cousins from where they stood to the sides of the aisle, his uncle from where he lingered to the side of the throne, and his father, the living vessel of their family’s power, seated before him.

He didn’t need his deep magical connection to the throne though to sense the dangerous atmosphere immediately upon entering the room. The courtiers had been utterly silent, and no servants lingered at the back of the hall. Worst of all, he saw his father’s ice whip coiled neatly in his hand— a slow plume of hazy fog rising from its barbed length like steam.

His footsteps sounded over loud in the silent hall as he walked forward. Each step echoing up to the vaulted ice ceiling that allowed light to stream into the vast room.

When he reached the base of the dais, Mo Bai bowed low, careful to keep his eyes lowered to avoid sparking his father’s ire. Somewhere behind the throne stood his uncle, hands folded behind his back, expression hidden behind a silvery grey veil. The new accessory had drawn Mo Bai’s eye when he’d entered the room, but his gaze hadn’t lingered. There were more pressing threats than his uncle here.

The pale tiles dug into his knees with a comforting chill as he knelt with his head still bowed.

His Father sighed; Mo Bai could hear the click of jewelry as the tall demon shifted forward on the Black Ice Throne.

“Where has my son been these past weeks?” Mobei Jun asked. The hidden humor in his voice made the hair on the back of Mo Bai’s neck stand on end.

“Hunting, Father,” he answered bowing low as he waved a hand towards the bloody pelt of an Aurora Night Fox laid beside him. The blindingly white fur of the massive creature made it difficult prey, more than enough to keep him from the court for weeks on end. It would make a beautiful cloak for Shang Hua.

“That’s not all my son was doing," Mobei Jun said, disappointment lacing sharply through his voice.  "This King is not stupid. He also hunted in the eastern hills to avoid punishment when he was young.”

Mo Bai didn’t flinch at the accusation. He had been hoping that the lack of immediate summons to the fortress had meant LinGuang Jun hadn’t told his father about his recent dalliances— But it seemed his uncle might simply have been biding his time. Unwilling to admit wrongdoing without proof, especially in front of the gathered court, Mo Bai chose his next words carefully.

“What has this son done that is worth punishing, father?” He kept his tone flat, emotionless, empty of any meat for Mobei Jun to sink his searching claws into.

“My son has disfigured his Uncle of course.”

Mo Bai froze, he could sense the humiliated ire burning in his uncles’ eyes at the barely hidden laughter in his father’s tone from where he knelt.

“Brother, please.” Came LinGuang Jun’s quiet entreaty.

Mo Bai glanced up at his uncle, the demon’s face remained unreadable beneath the veil he wore. The grey silk was embroidered along the edge with his favored pattern of blue frost blossoms. His stomach twisted at the memory of his uncle’s smile when Mo Bai had brought him a handful as a child.

Mobei Jun continued without acknowledging his brother’s interruption. “Not that my clumsy Didi’s face wasn’t already tarnished but now—,” Mobei Jun reached out with reflexes faster than Mo Bai or Linguang Jun could ever hope to match— and snatched away his brother’s veil, “he is nearly unfit to be seen in polite company.”

Vicious, possessive, brilliant satisfaction bloomed in Mo Bai’s chest right beside a twinge of sympathetic horror at the sight of the burns that now spiraled across the left side of LinGuang Jun’s jaw. There was a rumble of hushed murmurs from the crowd, but Mo Bai couldn’t focus on anything they were saying.

In their youth Mobei Jun and LinGuang Jun had been venerated as twin beauties, their white hair and pale faces identical in every way. When Mobei Jun had stolen his brother’s bride, he ensured they would never be mistaken for each other again. Even in his cruelty, he had been conscious of his brother’s pride. The scar was slim and spidering- far less brutal than his ice whip could have left. 

What had once been marred by a single scar was now twisted like a flash fried piece of animal fat.

His gege had done that.

Mo Bai craved to kiss those clever fingers one by one. He silently swore he would do so once he returned for Shang Hua.

With a hiss of displeasure LinGuang Jun snatched the veil back and turned away to reaffix the silk before turning back to face Mo Bai with murder in his eyes.

“Now when this Lord asked his Didi who had marred his pretty face, do you know what he said? He told this Lord  ‘Ask your son’!” Mobei Jun looked down at Mo Bai with the kind of casual curiosity that could explode into unmitigated violence in a single moment.

“So, tell me A-Bai, why would you hurt your Uncle in this way?”

Another hush spread through the court and Mo Bai felt the eyes of every person in the room settle on his back.

“Uncle tried to take what was mine.”

He tried not to tense, as silence descended on the court. If punishment was the price for keeping his father’s attention off of his Shang gege, Mo Bai would gladly pay.  

Instead of the expected lash of his father’s whip, Mo Bai was greeted by a bark of laughter that echoed through the tense throne room.

“Like father like son.” Mobei Jun said between booming chuckles that come from his chest with wholehearted feeling.

Had Mo Bai been in his uncle’s place he might have stabbed Mobei Jun regardless of the consequences. If the hatred that currently blazed in those purple eyes didn’t include Mo Bai, he might have even lent a hand.

Without daring to move from where he knelt, Mo Bai watched as his uncle stormed from the throne room, face pale with fury.

 


That night, Mo Bai increased the wards on his rooms. Whatever form it took, he was sure that his uncles’ revenge would be swift after Mobei Jun’s callous humiliation.

When the news came the next morning that his uncle had retreated from court, choosing to take residence in the eastern snow palace with their cousins, Mo Bai had been more than a little surprised.

Although, the longer he thought about it, the more he was sure his uncle was doing what he himself had done five weeks earlier. This was nothing more than a tactical retreat, meant to give breathing room for plots and plans rather than an abandoning of his goals— whatever they may be.


Six months later, Mo Bai found the opportunity to discuss his suspicions with a sympathetic ear when Mo Dongxu returned to the Northern Fortress at the head of her loyal battalion, still coated in blood from her conquest of the Shark-Toothed-Seal Clan in his father’s name.

“Let Xiaohan scheme,” His Mother advised when they finally sat together in her barely used courtyard, a pot of steaming tea between them.

“But what if—.”

She cut him off with a raised eyebrow and Mo Bai bowed his head.

He never felt tongue tied in her company. There was always a part of him that wished she would stay in court permanently instead of leading his father’s armies as the fiercest Demon Saintess of the North. If she resided in the Fortress, he would always have a trusted ear—but he could never ask her to endure his father simply for his own comfort.

His mother sighed and reached out a hand to push back a strand of his hair that had fallen loose.

“Xiaohan has chosen to leave court, so use this as an opportunity. Solidify your position A-Bai. Without your uncles constant undermining, you will have better luck gaining the respect you deserve. The army is one thing, you’ve demonstrated the strength needed to secure their loyalty over and over again.” The look of pride in his mother’s eyes was as fierce as it had ever been as she continued to stroke his hair. “You are my son through and through. Politics just doesn’t work for us in the way they work for your father. You will learn from my mistakes though. If you are to succeed in the Northern Fortress, you need allies in the court. I know you hate it, but spend more time in court, build your power. If you truly want something, that power will be the only way to keep it.”

“Yes Mother.”

“Good boy.” She smiled down at him, her sharp teeth glinting in the sunlight that streamed through the frosted windows. Her lessons in the court had come at a high price and she’d always been sure to make sure her son knew the balance.

 

-

The Tea Room in the Gentle Crane Inn was packed to the brim, but the crowd of humans at the surrounding tables only made Tianlang-Jun more energetic.

“A-Bai,” Tianlang-Jun teased, his fingers pinching the skin of Mo Bai’s cheek in a vaguely threatening manner. “You’ve been avoiding your cousins! It’s been almost a year since we’ve spoken, and here you are just wandering right into my favorite inn for a chat. Tell me, whatever happened to your little cultivator? Was he an imposter after all?”

Mo Bai’s chest felt itchy at the reminder of Shang Hua. He hadn’t been able to contact the cultivator since their separation and it was beginning to chafe. “No,” he forced out. “Not an imposter.”

Tianlang-Jun let out a soft hum that fell somewhere between pity and contempt. “Ayah, so my cousin encountered heartbreak after all.”

The pinch lost its punishing force and Tianlang-Jun wrapped an arm around Mo Bai’s shoulder. For a moment he flinched back before realizing he was being offered comfort.

Tianlang-Jun ignored Mo Bai’s confusion, barreling forward with his own agenda as always. “Ah, A-Bai, come, come— tell us everything and we’ll see what can be done.”

Mo Bai looked at the surrounding tea room, then back at Tianlang-Jun with a raised eyebrow.

Zhuzhi-Lang understood the unspoken ‘here?’ in Mobei Jun’s expression and flicked out a discrete talisman, pressing it against the wood of the table top with a hiss of demonic qi.

“The conversation will be private, cousin,” he assured, voice as soft and respectful as ever.

“Ah, what a smart nephew I have,” teased Tianlang-Jun, grinning down at Zuzhi Lang . The affection in that gaze made Mo Bai's skin prickle with a feeling that he had to consciously set aside. Instead of thinking about uncles, he focused on Shang Hua and told his cousins about the fraught time he'd spent with the cultivator at his side.

-

Three years pass in slow, miserable motion.

Shang Hua didn’t leave his mountain.

Mo Bai couldn’t pass through the wards.

A small part of him wondered if they had been built to keep him out.

-

Mo Bai regretted agreeing to attend the banquet celebrating the birth of Lord Sha’s sixth daughter the moment he stepped through shadow into the uncomfortable heat of the Sha stronghold.

The infant was little more than a ball of bright pink flesh with teeth sharper than knives and lungs more powerful than a full-grown Jaguar-Boar. Everyone in the Southern Court was desperately pleased by this fact except for Sha Hualing, who insisted that she had been much louder than her newest sister as a babe.

All of this ensured that Mo Bai had a pounding headache before the first course was even served.

When the jade token at his hip flared with his mother’s energy, he’d been deeply grateful to step away from the hollering crowd and through a portal built of his own power.

That all changed the moment he stepped through shadow and into a maelstrom of ice, wind, and untamed power.

The Qi deviation that had consumed his Father mid-court would have leveled the Northern Fortress in its entirety had his mother not recently returned from her latest conquest. She alone contained his father’s wildly fluctuating qi as other nobles fled for safety. She screamed instructions that Mo Bai obeyed without question. Together they desperately worked to seal Mobei Jun in the deepest part of the Northern Fortress, calling upon the ancient magics of the ancestral tombs.

Mobei Jun would sleep, contained, until his own demonic qi was so depleted Mo Bai could consume the remaining power to properly take his place in the lineage.

Exhausted past the point of respectability, Mo Bai sprawled on the stone floors of the catacombs next to his mother. His breathing was slowly returning to a normal pace after exerting himself to the fullest extent of his capabilities.

“You will ascend without your birthright.” The bitterness in his mother’s voice was tangible as she spoke.

Mo Bai looked up to see her staring daggers at the door to the room that was to be her husband’s prison, and eventually his tomb.

“Yes,” he answered needlessly. The soft pulsing light of the locking array cast a pale red hue over his mother’s face, turning her dark hair into the deepest black of night. There was no grief in her gaze.

“He couldn’t even wait for you to come of age before leaving a mess in your lap. One final indignity for the both of us. His parting gift.”

“Mn.”

Mo Bai knew his mother would rather they all have continued to endure his father’s presence until Mo Bai’s position was fully secure, but deep in his heart he couldn’t help but feel relief. The leather of his father’s whip creaked as he clenched it in his hands. He’d have to think of the perfect way to destroy the cursed thing. Never again would he fear it’s sharp crack as he knelt before the Black Ice Throne.

His mother’s voice pulled him from his thoughts.

“This was your uncle’s doing, there won’t be enough proof to cast him out of the court for it though,” she grumbled. “Bide your time A-Bai.”

“Yes, mother.”

They sat together in uncomfortable silence as the power of Mobei Jun ebbed and flowed against the binding array like the frantic beating of a dying heart.

“I’ll stay.”

Mo Bai’s heart stuttered and he couldn’t help but look up into his mother’s stormy face. Thousands of questions sat caught on the tip of his tongue.

Her hand was cold as it took his in lieu of speaking more. Her grasp is as strong as he remembered from his childhood and it unspooled some of the tension that had been coiling around his heart like a vice. He squeezed her hand back, unwilling to let go.

“Thank you,” he whispered.


“He was given the courtesy name Qinghua and given the position of inheriting disciple.”

Tianlang-Jun lounged against the wall of Mobei Jun’s war room as he spoke. “A-Yan says he will be ascending with the other lords of the Qing generation, although she doesn’t understand why he was chosen.”

Mobei Jun thought he would have been pleased to have even a scrap of news about Shang Hua after all of this time, but the memories of their fraught interactions felt so far away with the Northern Court bearing down on him from all sides. What use was news when the Fortress still wasn’t a place where Shang Hua could live in peace?

He stared out at the scattered tokens representing the rebelling clans across his territory on the map before him. Small pockets of discontent had begun to crop up in the year since his father’s deviation and his own ascension. All manner of demons had taken up arms, trying desperately to wrench control of the North from the Mo clan in this perceived moment of weakness.

The only thing universally understood in the Demon Realm was strength, and Mobei Jun had been forced again and again to prove that he was not to be underestimated—even without his ancestor’s power backing his rule.

A scowl began to make its way across his face. There was a pattern somewhere in the mess before him, he just couldn’t find it. For a moment his heart thudded at the thought of Shang Hua at his side, teasing out all of the little threads he was missing in the bigger picture. It shouldn’t feel this terrible to miss someone he’d spent so little time with.

“Da Ge,” Mobei Jun started, aware of the weakness he’s showing by even asking. “Shang Hu— Shang Qinghua hasn’t left the mountain at all? Not even for a day?”

He knew it was safer for his gege to remain isolated within his sect, but when he had realized he couldn’t pass through the empowered wards, he’d felt nothing but hatred for the precaution. Why was his gege hiding? What happened to wanting to serve Mobei Jun forever? It’s not like he could do so while hidden away so thoroughly. The sour swirl in his stomach only increased with Tianlang-Jun’s nod.

“I would have let you know if I’d heard otherwise A-Bai. I even checked with A-Yan—Shang Qinghua hasn’t left his sect in four years.”

Did he change his mind? Mobei Jun wondered distantly. I should have never let him go back to them.

Tianlang-Jun sighed and pushed himself off the wall to walk along the side of the table and gaze down at the map. “Do you want A-Yan to try and contact him? She might be willing, but it will be some time before I see her again.”

Mobei Jun found himself unable to do more than nod. His thoughts and desires trapped in his throat as they always were. He wanted Shang Hua here more than ever, but they’ve never been further apart.


It was five years to the day since he last saw Shang Hua and Mobei Jun knew his court could feel his foul mood from where they stood below the dais. His power alone was enough to force his courts attention, the addition of his mother’s presence turned their attention to obedience. Mostly.

Mobei Jun still hated the shadow of his father he could see reflected in their eyes as he reclined on the Black Ice Throne.

He glared down at the cowering figures of his ministers. The oppressive aura of his own power, usually kept in check out of his desire to hold court without smelling the fear-sweat of his subjects, pressed down upon them now without mercy.

Not a soul dared speak without his permission

Out in front of the court, trapped between spikes of ice that skewered his upper arms to his torso Qu Ruiyi glared back with mutinous fury.

“Was there a reason you decided to interrupt this Lords court?” Mobei Jun asked, well aware of the shiver his deep voice sent through the onlooking crowd.

“Y-you—” Qu Ruiyi spat, flinching as the ice surrounding him shifted with a quirk of Mobei Jun’s fingers.

“Me,” Mobei Jun prompted lazily. His cold eyes watching for which ministers winced at his cavalier façade.

Qu Ruiyi lost his composure when faced with Mobei Jun’s disregard. “You! You are the epitome of your father's mistakes!” The boar headed demon howled. “Your father stole a bride and a throne from LinGuang Jun and now you have been sent here by the gods to show how his corruption will destroy the Nor—”

Mobei Jun didn’t even blink as the blood from Qi Ruiyi’s heart splattered across his face in a hot spurt. 

Qu Ruiyi gaped down at the ice spike that had torn through his chest, blood dribbling from his mouth as he spasmed in shock.

“If LinGuang Jun desires this Lord’s throne, he should come take it for himself,” Mobei Jun offered, standing in a swirl of black robes and reaching out for the familiar thrum of his demonic Qi.

“Until then, all other opinions on the matter are to be handled the same way.” He clenched his hand and Qu Ruiyi’s body was shredded into fine mist by an array of black ice swords.

He looked out across the silent crowd noting the small flickers of resentment as they appeared. “Are there any other matters that require this Lords’ attention today?”

After a moment, the familiar figure of Zhou Yifei stepped forward.

“My King, if this one may speak?” The demon’s voice didn’t waver even as a sticky droplet of what was once Qu Ruiyi dripped from the ceiling and landed at his feet.

Mobei Jun nodded and retook his seat on the Black Ice Throne, ignoring the tacky feeling of blood drying on his face. He felt his mother’s approval from her place at his side as the court resettled and Zhou Yifei began to speak. Court always went so much smoother after a demonstration of his own strength. 

Hours later, after he gave his final ruling on a property dispute between major clans, Mobei Jun waived a hand.

 “This court is dismissed. All other matters will be handled in the morning.”

His stomach was close to growling and a pressure headache was forming between his ears. Sometimes he really did understand why his father hardly ever bothered with the realities of ruling. With a nod to his mother, he summoned a portal and left his ministers to clamor in his wake.

He had refused to take on his father’s rooms after his ascension, instead choosing to designate the entire western tower as the new royal wing and expanded his existing network of rooms at his pleasure. Still, within the heart of his new set of private libraries, offices, and armories, was his same room from childhood.

As the crackle of his portal faded Mobei Jun ignored the temptation of his wide bed filled with soft furs and instead walked directly into his wash room. He dropped his cloak with a sigh and pulled at the ties of his formal robes with eager fingers.

Even worn loose, there was still too much fabric for him to feel fully comfortable. After the robes he plucked at the heavy crown that held his hair back, this at the very least, was placed carefully on a shelf, respected as all gifts from his mother were meant to be. Next to the crown, tossed with much less care, went the beads, rings, and other jeweled clasps that completed his image as Mobei Jun.

Finally, bare of all the trappings of his title, Mobei Jun dove into the blessedly cold bath.

The stress of court, of his title, of his long push to shape the North into something better, something powerful, something right— faded away in the silent chill of the water.

He resurfaced with a gasp that fogged in the frigid air and immediately reached for a cloth to scrub his face. Blood was common in court, but there really was nothing pleasant about letting it dry on his skin and flake off over the course of several hours.

Today’s spectacle had been nothing compared to the fuss that had been kicked up when he had banned the sale of human meat on the open market. The servants had scrubbed the throne room for more than a week after Mobei Jun had demonstrated exactly how seriously he took this particular law.

He ducked back into the water, and focused back on today’s disruption. Qu Ruiyi wasn’t the first demon who had come forward with a claim that LinGuang Jun was the rightful heir to the throne. While the council of elders still explicitly backed his father's and therefore his own claim, the slow consistent trickle of rebels, conspiracy theorists, and attempted assassins stuck in his mind like an unwieldy thorn.

His uncle’s hand had to be in here somewhere- but just like every incident in the past year, he was sure that any investigation of Qu Ruiyi would come up empty.

Mobei Jun absently considered sending a spy to the Eastern Snow Palace just to annoy his uncle, but the few trustworthy servants he now had were too valuable to waste on a potentially useless errand.

By the time he climbed out of the bath, Mobei Jun was no longer thinking about Qu Ruiyi, his uncle, or even that day’s court. Instead, as he sat to comb out his hair, he cast an eye over the recent additions made to the washroom. Just that morning he’d finally fine-tuned the array at the bottom of the large wooden tub set to the side of his large ice pool.

Now, when the tub was filled with water, a cultivator could supply just a touch of spiritual energy and the water would grow warm and stay that way for hours. It had taken almost a month to get perfect— his first attempts had barely given any heat, while his next attempts boiled off the water in a flash. Now though, he thought he had it just right. Although, he wouldn’t know for sure until someone less sensitive to heat than himself was able to test it.

Carefully side stepping the twinge of longing he felt at the idea of a calloused and scarred hand dusted with freckles drifting across the surface of the water, Mobei Jun noted that he should find an appropriate mat to place next to the tub the next time he slipped into the human realm.

Instead of fiddling more with the array, Mobei Jun grabbed a fresh robe and threw it on as he strode out into his bedroom. He was hungry and tired and there was still more goddamn paperwork to do.

With his mother in residence, the risk of poison from the kitchens has been reduced to almost nothing, but still Mobei Jun carefully used a talisman to check the dishes that were delivered while he bathed. When no puff of black smoke emerged from the edges of the paper, he sighed and took the bowl to his desk where he sat and glared at the paperwork sitting on the polished surface.

At the top of his to do list were the reports from his spies that he needed to triple check against each other to ferret out a traitor, then came the six marriage proposals he rejected out of hand, followed by a scrawling invitation to a hunt with horned master of the moonlit palace Wei Chengxin that he would consider if the bastard agreed to his trade negotiations.

Two hours later, with his dinner left half eaten and forgotten, Mobei Jun leaned back and stretched with a low growl that turned into a pleased sigh as his back cracked with a pop. The rest of his work could be left for morning before he met once more with his ministers.

Finally, he allowed his attention to stray to the letter he’d set on the edge of his desk that morning, determined to leave it as a reward for completing both court and his own paperwork with minimal disruptions. 

A sealed letter from Tianlang-Jun— hopefully with news of Shang Qinghua.

Five years. It had been five years since Shang Qinghua had disappeared behind the wards of his sect, but Mobei Jun hadn’t let his hope for another chance fade completely. Tianlang-Jun had mentioned an immortal cultivation conference taking place at one of the human sects and he’d promised to reach out if Shang Qinghua was in attendance.

Mobei Jun resisted clenching the letter in his hand and ruining it. Patience. He could be patient.

He sighed and picked carefully at the seal.

A clatter against his window made him turn with a snarl, ice already forming at his fingertips incase this was some ill-conceived attack.

When no figure crashed through his window Mobei Jun slowly let himself relax. He set the letter carefully on his desk and stood.

At first glance, aside from a slight crack in the ice, there was nothing out of place as Mobei Jun peered out the window. Then a flicker of color caught his eye. Half a foot beneath his window, caught on one of the icy crenellations on the walls of the fortress, a metal object shone in the light of the full moon above. Tied to the object, a pale ribbon pattered with odd splatters of black ink fluttered in the high winds.

With little effort, Mobei Jun called on his own power and pushed the ice of his window aside so that he could lean out and snag the item. As he leaned forward, he was careful to keep an eye out on his surroundings, seeking any kind of incoming attacker who was just waiting for him to grab the bait.

The silver hair crown gleamed in the warm light that spilled from his room. A gust of wind tugged the ribbon loose and Mobei Jun’s hand snapped out to catch the fabric before it disappeared into the cold night. There was an unpleasant wet sensation under his fingers just as the tang of iron filled his nose.

Five years and he still knew the scent of this blood.

Shang Qinghua.

The hair on Mobei Jun’s neck stood on end as he pulled back into the room, someone was watching.

His head snapped up just in time to see the gleam of the knife and dodge before it could sink into his eye socket.

Without a thought Mobei Jun threw out an arm and black ice blades followed his will.

A cut off scream told him they had struck true.

Mobei Jun carefully untangled the ribbon from the crown and wrapped the bloody fabric around his wrist. His fingers were steady as they moved, not showing for a single second the turmoil that practically howled beneath his skin.

For a moment Mobei Jun was still, then with a flick of his wrist, a dark blizzard manifested around him with a howl as he stepped through his own portal. Waiting for him on the roof of the western observatory, a slim, nondescript demon was currently skewered to the tiles with Mobei Jun’s ice swords.

The fear in the demons’ eyes as Mobei Jun emerged grew more and more pronounced with each step the Northern King took towards him.

“I-I’ll tell you everything!” they choked out around a throat-full of blue blood.

Mobei Jun barely raised an eyebrow as he glared down at them.

“You will.”

The scream of pain that echoed out as Mobei Jun clenched his hand above the would-be-assassin could surely be heard from every corner of the Northern Ice Fortress.

Chapter Text

Awareness came to Shang Qinghua in slow flashes. Disjointed scenes and feelings scattered between long periods of nothing.

Violet eyes filled with dark laughter.

The prickling of his tears as they froze on his cheeks.

A pale room with gray walls and spiraling arrays that seemed to twitch and twist in his unfocused vision.

Piercing pain in his shoulder that made him scream and scream and scream.

When Shang Qinghua was able to stay awake for more than a few passing moments, he realized he was being carried through a long dark hallway in strong arms. His captor’s voice was low and sweet as he stirred but quickly turned to mocking laughter when he gasped at a blast of icy air that poured through some freshly opened passage. 

The shock of cold bore unsettling clarity in its frigid touch. In an instant, Shang Qinghua was fully aware of the precarious nature of his situation. Injured, captive, at the mercy of whoever cradled him in their arms like a war prize.

Without opening his eyes, he began to circulate his spiritual energy. He bit his tongue to resist sighing as the harsh edge was taken off of the surrounding air. It was cold, so fucking cold, cold enough to be in the Northern Demon realm if he was, as he suspected, genuinely unlucky.

He breathed in— his captor smelled hauntingly of plum blossoms, peppermint, and the sharp scent of cold snow. Beyond that was the smell of dust, stone, and blood.

It took a lot of practice to remain completely limp as he was laid down on a surface so frigid it might as well have been ice.

He had one chance at this.

With a grunt, Shang Qinghua pushed himself up onto his elbows then scrambled to unsteady feet.  Shadowy figures surrounded him on all sides. Unprepared for the sheer numbers of his enemies he threw out a hand, desperately calling out for his sword, but there was only the faintest of answers from far away. One of the shadows loomed larger than the others and darted forward when Shang Qinghua turned and bolted for the door. He knew there really wasn’t much hope in escaping, but what kind of cannon fodder would he be if he didn’t try to make a run for it.

Predictably, a firm hand grabbed his shoulder, shoving him to sprawl belly down onto the frigid floor. A weight like a knee was pressed against his spine and his right hand was wrenched above his head.

“Wh—?” His gasped question was cut off by a sharp blow to the back of his head that made him bite his tongue.

“Quiet down Xiao Ming. Although I suppose I should call you Xiao Hua— that is your real name after all.”

Shang Qinghua’s thoughts shattered like glass against pavement as he heard the voice that had haunted his nightmares for the past five years. It was hard to forget the sound of the person who tried to kill you.

“Tsk, don’t tremble like that. Xiao Hua is making the knots harder to tie.” LinGuang Jun teased.

Shang Qinghua’s other wrist was pulled above his head before he’d had a chance to move. LinGuang Jun had finished wrapping a rope around one wrist and was working smoothly to finish binding him completely.

“H-hey, wait! l-let me go!” Shang Qinghua yelped, but the ropes were only yanked tighter. Unwilling to just give in, Shang Qinghua jerked his hand away and attempted to roll over.

Fingers tipped with sharp claws dug into his back— pinning him to the ground with no hope of escape. Shang Qinghua gasped as his free hand was neatly snatched and a loop of rope slipped around it like a noose.

“Didn’t this Lord say to be quiet Xiao Hua? Is Xiao Hua too stupid to listen to directions?”

Shang Qinghua didn’t bother responding, instead, he focused all his efforts on slipping his bonds as LinGuang Jun fought to keep him still.

“Why can’t Xiao Hua behave? He won’t have to tolerate being bound for long— without his cultivation, the cold will surely lull Xiao Hua into a deep sleep.” LinGuang Jun sounded positively cheerful even as his claws dug into Shang Qinghua’s back, scoring surely bloody lines through the ruined fabric of his robes.

“Not that Xiao Hua deserves my mercy of course. He is a piece of filth that deserves to suffer, but—” LinGuang Jun gave a sharp tug and the comforting warmth of Shang Qinghua’s spiritual energy disappeared with a silent ‘pop’. “This Lord has other plans.”

The shock drove the air from Shang Qinghua’s lungs in a silent wheeze.  Without his cultivation, the icy air of the room bit through his clothes like the fangs of a wolf, dragging every smidgen of heat out in the blink of an eye.

“Not a fan of the cold?” LinGuang Jun teased. “How did my nephew think this was going to work out if Xiao Hua can’t tolerate a slight chill? Well, as things stand this Lord supposes his nephew won’t have to worry about that for much longer. Up we go.”

Shang Qinghua flinched as clawed hands grasped his sides, forcing him to his knees before wrapping around his waist to lift him like a child. He bucked and writhed, unwilling to go wherever LinGuang Jun was carrying him. Desperately scrabbling for space to breathe—but the loss of his cultivation made the room spin as his bound wrists were snatched up and pulled up and over his head by an unshakeable strength.

Cold metal slipped against the bare skin of his wrists just beneath the immortal binding cables, but before Shang Qinghua could look up to see what LinGuang Jun was doing, the demon released his hold. He braced himself for a truly pitiful fall to the icy floor, only to gasp as his weight was caught and held by whatever had been passed between his arms.

Piercing pain erupted in his shoulders like a blooming fire, the heat of which made him howl like an animal.  The sound echoed around him— repeating back his heaving sobs in a sick harmony with LinGuang Jun’s pleased laughter.

He could just feel the icy floor beneath his feet, the stretch and burn of his calves as he found his balance on tippy-toes lessened the pain enough for Shang Qinghua to catch his breath—but only barely. 

Sweat prickled and froze at his temples as he realized he’d been hung from a hook like a pig in a butcher’s shop.

The frigid air ran down his throat like a razor with every gasping breath.

Fuck.

He pressed his face into his straining bicep and desperately tried not to vomit.

It hurt.

Every twitch of his wrists, every freezing tear that tracked down his cheeks, every shift of his weight on unsteady feet— “I’m going to fucking die.”

“Mn. Yes.”

Shang Qinghua glared up at LinGuang Jun, hating the tears that blurred his vision and dragged icy tracks across his cheeks.

LinGuang Jun merely raised an eyebrow in return, violet eyes crinkled with satisfaction as he met Shang Qinghua’s furious gaze.

“That is the point of this. Well—” The demon mused, “not the whole point of course, but the rest won’t matter to Xiao Hua.”

Shang Qinghua felt tongue-tied, or rather, he felt like he needed to vomit. But staying quiet would only result in LinGuang Jun leaving him to die, so he licked his lips and tried to even out his shaking voice. “Is this about the fire talismans when we last met? T-this one wo-would say that his reaction was justified a-at the time. My Lord w-would truly seek revenge for something like that.”

LinGuang Jun cocked his head, “Why wouldn’t this Lord seek revenge? Is Xiao Hua saying this Lord’s offense is unreasonable?”

Shang Qinghua’s eyes lingered uneasily on the veil LinGuang Jun was wearing. The hair on the back of his neck stood upright, and not just from the cold.  

“A-ah, b-but isn’t this a lit-little extreme? My L-lord could have killed t-this servant in a moment? W-why u-uh go through t-this kind of effort?” Shang Qinghua knew his words were risky. His life now rested on the effort LinGuang Jun had put into this elaborate kidnapping mattering more than the instant satisfaction of slitting Shang Qinghua’s throat

“This Lord disagrees.”

Shang Qinghua hid his flicker of satisfaction as LinGuang Jun took the bait, faking a harsh wince as sharp claws dug into his flesh. He turned his head, following the pressure on his chin to meet those cold eyes. 

With his other hand, LinGuang Jun unclipped his delicate veil— revealing flesh that had been warped and burned by spiritual energy. Shang Qinghua’s spiritual energy.

Oh fuck.

LinGuang Jun gave a bloodthirsty smile and leaned forward until he was the only thing Shang Qinghua could see.

“This Lord thinks he should be peeling the skin from Xiao Hua’s sweet face before forcing Xiao Hua to kneel at this Lord’s feet and beg for mercy until he dies of blood loss.”

Shang Qinghua exerted every ounce of control he held over his weakened body to remain utterly still while those sharp claws traced the curve of his jaw— as though still considering this option.

The sudden cool puff of air across his cheek as LinGuang Jun chuckled made him startle and lose his footing with a squeak. All at once, his shoulders were screaming as they threatened to dislocate as the odd angle paired with the pressure of his full weight. While Shang Qinghua struggled to regain his balance LinGuang Jun pulled away, hiding a wicked smile beneath his veil once more.

“Unfortunately, this Lord has bigger plans than just revenge against one cultivator. Xiao Hua will serve a larger purpose in this Lord's plans. Who knows, after all, is said and done, maybe this Lord will look back at the bait he laid and feel a spark of fondness.”

Shang Qinghua resisted spitting in LinGuang Jun's face as he winked, but only barely.

“Either way, this Lord will have to be content knowing that for humans, freezing to death is supposedly a deeply unpleasant way to go.”

Shang Qinghua hated the way he could sense LinGuang Jun’s broad smile from behind the veil as the demon stepped back and summoned a long sharp spear of ice to hand. A piece of him, separate from the pain and the terror, noted that LinGuang Jun’s ice was the palest blue, almost delicate in its construction. He eyed the wickedly sharp tip— half expecting to be skewered in between one heartbeat and the next, but LinGuang Jun merely flipped the spear in hand and began carving something intricate onto the stone floor. In the low light, Shang Qinghua couldn’t see the details, but as minutes passed, he felt the low humming power of an array beginning to take shape. 

When LinGuang Jun circled behind him to complete the array Shang Qinghua craned his neck, desperate to find any clue as to what bullshit plot this all might be a part of. If he could just find one detail, one artifact, one unique set piece, he might find a way to escape. At the very least the search would stave off the anxiety attack that was sinking its claws into his lungs with every shaking breath.

Start from what you last remember.

Thinking of Wang Yue made his eyes sting, but as always, the memory of her calming voice helped him steady his thoughts.

I was on the edge of the Demon Realm borderlands and Tian Yi Overlook’s territory when I realized there was someone else there. Then…nothing.

Well, not nothing. A breath of cold air, the moment of hope that it was his Prince, then a burst of pain that turned the world to shadow.

He’d been kidnapped, obviously. It was just the kind of terrible luck he’d come to expect in this shitty world he’d created after all. Shang Qinghua held back a frustrated sigh, he’d curse his own writing later. For now, he turned his focus back to the current situation.

Careful tugging on the immortal binding cables, revealed nothing. He cautiously tensed his biceps just enough to test the hold of the hook that suspended him for weakness. One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand— he relaxed his arms. The hook supported his full weight without even shifting.

Unless LinGuang Jun left the room, he couldn’t do any more obvious poking around for structural weaknesses. He sighed and glanced around the room, noting the pale grey stone and the stylized figures made of black glass set into the walls at regular intervals. He shot them a poisonous glare. These were the shadows he’d mistaken as other assailants when he’d first opened his eyes. Each figure seemed to dance in the flickering blue light of several scattered braziers and Shang Qinghua’s stomach swooped at the illusion of movement.

His discomfort mounted as he peered around and no plot sprung to mind.

It all really screams Northern Demon Realm, but I must have used that black glass description dozens of times, Shang Qinghua thought miserably. Trust LinGuang Jun to pick somewhere generic to enact his evil plan. Bastard.

As though he’d sensed the direction of Shang Qinghua’s thoughts LinGuang Jun reappeared, brushing imagined wrinkles from the front of his ethereal blue robes. “Now that we’re all set, this is goodbye Xiao Hua. If luck is on his side, Xiao Hua may see A-Bai one more time before the end. Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Shang Qinghua froze, fury tensing every muscle in his body as his eyes snapped to LinGuang Jun.

“Fuck you.” 

With a chuckle LinGuang Jun reached out to run a gentle thumb across Shang Qinghua’s lower lip— pulling back before Shang Qinghua could bite. “As tempting as that is Xiao Hua— unlike his brother, this Lord is not a bride-stealer.” LinGuang Jun’s eyes narrowed, a sudden flash of heat and hatred making its way across the exposed part of his face for just a moment. “None of this would have been necessary if I was A-Bai’s father.”

Shang Qinghua couldn’t stop himself from going for the low blow. “Mo Bai is lucky you weren’t his father. At least his real father wasn’t a coward.”

LinGuang Jun’s fist connected with Shang Qinghua’s stomach so quickly, he hadn’t even seen him move.

He saw white, then red, then for a long horrible moment— nothing at all.

Shang Qinghua whimpered as his hanging head was grabbed by the hair and dragged back up to face the consequences of his loose tongue. Ice crackled across the room like solid lightning, forming and fading in between every furious heave of LinGuang Jun’s shoulders.

“My brother,” he hissed, words misting in the air between them, “Locked me in a tomb and impersonated me at my own wedding in order to steal my bride. When the deception was revealed, he hid behind our father who had never made his preference in heirs a secret.” LinGuang Jun shook Shang Qinghua viciously, uncaring of the hair he ripped from the smaller man’s scalp. “I am smarter than my brother ever realized, more cunning than my nephew can imagine, and I will be a better king than either of them. Once Mo Bai takes the bait and follows your trail here— it will all be over. The rule of the North will pass to me, and when my brother finally fades into a shade of his former self, I’ll make sure to tell him exactly how his son tasted before he takes his final breath.”

Shang Qinghua opened his mouth to deny that Mo Bai would bother following someone he’s ignored for the past five years. The words don’t even make it past his lips. LinGuang Jun’s hand darted out, slapping a talisman against his chest with a strike that forced all of the air from Shang Qinghua’s lungs.

Pain, nausea, and the sharp burn of demonic energy flooded his senses in a suffocating wave. He was frozen. Overwhelmed. Subsumed. Suspended halfway between awareness and oblivion, Shang Qinghua faded into the comforting dark.


Shang Qinghua opened his eyes to see the empty room, burning braziers sending distorting shadows across the inset glass figures making them dance with each wave of the blue flame.

He blinked and realized hours must have passed by the nauseating hunger in his gut and slow dying flicker of blue flame. Whatever talisman had sent him spiraling into the dark seemed to have run its course, leaving him awake enough to shiver.

“Fuck me.” He forced out, just to hear his own voice in the darkness.

“No,” he corrected, tilting his head back to glare at the ceiling and presumably the sky beyond. “Fuck you. Fuck whoever made this place and put me here.  Are you enjoying this?” He demanded, taking a moment to spit a glob of half congealed blood onto the floor. “Watching the way my wiggling to escape the plot fucked me over? Is this funny to you?”

Shang Qinghua sighed and scrunched his eyes closed. What sick irony that he’d end up murdered by a Northern Demon. “Ah, my Prince, you didn’t want me dead but it’s nice to know his uncle could pick up the slack.”

Shang Qinghua allowed himself two shuddering breaths to wallow in his self-made misery before looking back up at his surroundings. He didn’t want to fucking die here, no matter how likely it was starting to look.

The generic glass figures mocked him as he craned his neck trying to narrow down what stupid plot this could be a part of. With every drop in temperature, Shang Qinghua can’t help but imagine them circling him, hand in hand, laughing as he struggled to find a way to escape the grave he’d dug for himself.

He paused as the thought struck him— would he have lived longer if he’d just gone along with the plot as it was? If his interaction with Su Xiyan were anything to go by, Luo Binghe would be born within the year— which meant that there were twenty-six or twenty-seven years before Cang Qiong burned to the ground, after that Shang Qinghua the character had lasted for another six or so years in cannon?

Thirty-two extra years- give or take a bit of arithmetic was undoubtedly better than dying at twenty-four for the second time. He’d finally have a thirtieth birthday party…ignoring the fact that no one would be left who cared enough about him to celebrate it. 

That had to be better than this, right? If he’d have known from the start that this was where he’d end up, he’d have stuck to the plot.

Mo Bai would have been hunted down and beaten bloody only to be saved by his father. Sure, it would have been traumatizing, but wasn’t everyone’s childhood traumatizing?

The memory of Mo Bai’s trembling shadow as he pressed into the walls of the barn made Shang Qinghua hide his face against his arm and let out a hiccupping whine.

Surely he could have sacrificed everything that had made him happy in this shitty second chance at living to get a few more years, right?

He couldn’t even bring himself to pretend. If dying now was what it took to have had the chance to save Mo Bai, to scoop him up into the barn loft to avoid his pre-ordained beating, to hear the quiet devotion that underpinned every word when he talked about the Northern Realm, to see the graceful tilt of his hooked grin in the low light of a Northern Aurora— it had been worth it.

If he’d been put here to fix his shitty plot- he was glad he’d at least gotten the chance to help his Prince. Maybe Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan would figure things out and lead Cang Qiong to a more stable future. Maybe Su Xiyan and Tianlang Jun would disappear to raise their son into a good man. He could hope so, but that still paled in comparison to the pure happiness he’d felt in his time with Mo Bai.

He shifted a bit, the strain on his arms was beginning to make his heart feel funny. Stuffy and warm and far too full for the kind of day he’d been having.

“Ah, my Prince,” he whispered to the empty air, “Seeing you, I was very happy...”

Shang Qinghua’s foot slipped and he grunted as his shoulder gave an ominous crack. He struggled to get his feet back underneath himself once more, it was getting harder and harder to control his movements.  The biting cold had begun to recede, leaving in its wake a tingling warmth. He’d heard once in his previous life that feeling warm was one of the final signs of hypothermia, followed soon after by unconsciousness, and, well…

That’s okay, he thought idly.  It’s not like I haven’t done this before. He reasoned. I bet the first time’s got to be the worst. This time, this time I wonder if I’ll wake up somewhere new…ah, I kind of…I kind of hope I don’t.


“—inghua! Shang Qinghua!”

The pain in his shoulders lessened sharply and it was enough to jog Shang Qinghua out of his daze. A strong arm wrapped around his waist and hoisted him up. The sudden change in position made him groan and he let his head drop against the soft fur of his savior’s collar.

If this was a deathbed hallucination, he’s thankful it’s a pleasant one.

“Shang Qinghua!” Come’s the same deep voice, this time accompanied by a warm breath against his ear.

He blinked blearily up at the person holding him and gasped.

Mo Bai’s gorgeous face was inches from his own, glaring down at him with an expression of thunderous fury.

Every inch of baby fat had been burned away leaving behind the most handsome man Shang Qinghua had ever seen.

Chiseled cheekbones, thick black hair, a bright demon mark set between heavy eyebrows. Shang Qinghua huffed a disbelieving laugh. God this hallucination of Mo Bai came straight out of the best kinds of PIDW fanart, didn’t it?

Shang Qinghua gaped up at him, unable to do more than blink as Mo Bai shifted his grip, jostling them closer for just a moment.

“My P’rnce?“ He slurred, unable to stop himself from smiling stupidly at Mo Bai’s harsh expression. “You…” he trailed off something at the back of his mind, making him frown.

LinGuang Jun had called him ‘bait’.

“-shouldn’t be here.” He said, cursing his clumsy tongue for fumbling half the sounds he managed to push out.

“No.” Mo Bai growled, “Shang Qinghua shouldn’t be here.” He shifted his one-armed grip once again, hiking him up as he fought with his other hand to release Shang Qinghua’s bonds.

The flesh beneath his wrists stung as the cables were tugged. It was an odd, far-away feeling, but enough to make him flinch.

Shang Qinghua shook his head, his breath started to come faster. The Black glass figures mocked him in the sputtering light of the dying braziers, dancing around them in a horrid circle. Circle. LinGuang Jun had traced something on the floor, something powerful.

Shang Qinghua forced himself to raise his head against the screaming protests of his neck and back.

“M-my Prince listen, y-you have to let me go, you can’t be here. The circles, the—”

Mo Bai ignored his half-mumbled rambling, choosing instead to reach down and wrap Shang Qinghua’s thighs around his waist with a firm hand. The thick waist between his thighs had the perfect amount of plush give above muscles hard as steel. Shang Qinghua’s thoughts ground to a halt as he stuttered and flushed.

Mo Bai didn’t meet Shang Qinghua’s eyes as he adjusted his grip.

“Squeeze.” He ordered, giving his thigh a sharp pat. “This Lord needs both hands.”

Shang Qinghua stared dumbly at the dusting of purple visible in the fading light of the braziers and cursed his ridiculous assumptions. Of course, Mo Bai was uncomfortable with a position like this. He had to focus on not making it any worse for his Prince.

With a monumental effort, Shang Qinghua tried to slow his thundering heartbeat, taking deep gulping breaths of the frigid air as he timidly squeezed his legs around Mo Bai’s ridiculously wide hips. For a moment he thought he’d be alright, but then Mo bai released his grip. With a squeak, Shang Qinghua was forced to clench his thighs much tighter as he tried not to slide down his Prince like some unfairly muscled fire pole.

A giggle bubbled up from his chest and caught in his throat, coming out as more of a hitched sob. Mo Bai murmured something soft in Shang Qinghua’s ear, making him shudder as the cool air brushed against his sore neck.

With two hands Mo bai made short work of one of Shang Qinghua’s bindings. His poor abused wrist flopped down against Mo Bai’s shoulder with a particularly pathetic plop. As soon as his wrist slipped free of the ropes, he felt the flow of his cultivation returning. Spiritual energy cycled through his body like a stream clearing debris after a rainstorm, leaving nothing but a familiar shining energy buzzing and sparking beneath his skin.

“Fuck.” Shang Qinghua whispered emphatically. The swirling nausea and thudding pain that had seared through his limbs was reduced every passing second. Clarity was a welcome change as he lifted his head and looked back up at Mo Bai who was still fighting with the knot on his other wrist that had been drawn through a cruel icy hook that dangled from the ceiling.

Engraved on the hook were swirling patterns of stylized flame.

Lady Xue Yanfei

The name hit Shang Qinghua like a bolt of lightning— his stiff fingers scrabbled for Mo Bai’s cloak tugging sharply.

“My Prince, wait!”

Before the words had even left his lips, the braziers gave a final splutter and went out. For a moment there was only the sound of their mingled breathing in the oppressive darkness. Then with a howl of pain Mo Bai’s back arched and his head snapped back as the trap carved into the black ice floor below their feet activated with a crackle of blue lightning.

Desperate to keep a hold of his Prince, Shang Qinghua clung to Mo Bai with all of his strength. He refused to let his now-convulsing body slide to the floor and out of his grip.

“Fuck fuck fuck!”  Shang Qinghua cursed. With reserves of strength he didn’t know he had, he twisted his hand to grip the remaining immortal binding cable that suspended him from the ceiling and lifted.

Sweat broke out on his face as he slowly, slowly, pulled Mo Bai’s trembling form up and away from the array. Shang Qinghua’s muscles screamed in protest. Even with his renewed cultivation, the days spent barely conscious had taken their toll. His breath came in short puffs of fogging air, practically invisible in the darkness. The smell of ozone pervaded the room, obscuring the fresh pine scent that lingered around Mo Bai like a ghost.

If he could just break Mo Bai’s connection to the array on the floor—

With a grunt of pain, Shang Qinghua’s grip slipped and he screamed as something tore in his shoulder.

Only the desperate squeeze of his legs around Mo Bai’s hips saved the now unconscious demon from flopping to the ground to die on that damned array.

 Shang Qinghua let out a string of vile curses, as he fought to get a better grip on Mo Bai. This was all his fault, he was too fucking short, too fucking weak, and too fucking useless to save his Prince even after all they’d been through.

He pressed his face into the unbearably soft fur of Mo Bai’s mantle. “Think!” He moaned desperately. “Xue Yanfei, who the fuck was she! A wife, a Princess, some kind of royalty! Evil? No, not her. Her mother. Her mother set a trap and used her as bait.” He muttered, mentally flicking through pages of a story he’d written a lifetime ago. “The Braziers had to go out for the array to activate.”  Craning his neck even as he babbled, Shang Qinghua looked down and around at the sickeningly green glow of the array. He cataloged the symbols carved into the stone, mind flying through every desperate piece of critical theory he retained from An-Ding’s old masters.

“Theft— draining— power— that’s it!” He screeched.

Shang Qinghua grabbed Mo Bai’s head and tugged it back- only taking a second to whisper an apology before he slammed their lips together in a messy kiss, parting his lips immediately to pour spiritual energy into his Princes’ mouth.

Elder Lady Xue wanted to steal Luo Binghe’s power. Elder Lady Xue had assumed he was a full demon masquerading as a half-demon to throw off his enemies. In her mind, no half-demon could be as powerful as the blackened protagonist was— that arrogance had been her downfall as her deadly array was unable to handle the combination of both spiritual and demonic energy coursing through its delicate construction.

Crap writing, but as Shang Qinghua clung to Mo Bai, holding him up with one desperate arm wrapped around his neck and two legs clinging to his waist— he begged whatever cruel god that had placed him into his own world as punishment to have mercy. Just this once.

Shang Qinghua kissed Mo Bai’s unresponsive lips for a full minute, pouring every piece of power he had into the younger man’s mouth. The chill that had dissipated when the binding cables had been released was creeping into his fingers and toes once more, bringing with it a prickling pain. Even as he began to shiver, the discomfort only made Shang Qinghua tilt his head and offer more energy for his Prince to consume.

Even if he died here, he wouldn’t let go. Not until the cold grip of this place dragged his heart to a stuttering halt.

Just as the chill was becoming unbearable, the hips beneath his thighs shifted and the pressure on his arm lessened as Mo Bai haltingly found his footing and slowly, very slowly, stood.

A returning rush of frigid demonic energy passed between their lips, lighting every single one of Shang Qinghua’s nerves on fire as the icy chill was chased from his body.

Shang Qinghua couldn’t bring himself to open his eyes as they continued to kiss. He felt Mo Bai’s hand trail up his arm to tug at the remaining bonds. As they loosened his trembling hand fell to Mo Bai’s chest, where it was promptly crushed as Mo Bai’s arms wrapped around him and tugged him close.

Mo Bai’s steps were heavy— half stumbling as he carried Shang Qinghua away from the array that still flickered weakly beneath their feet. In the darkness, Shang Qinghua could only guess that they had passed out of the circular room and into a hall as the echo of Mo Bai’s footsteps became more muffled.

Even though they were free of the array, Mo Bai didn’t pull back. Shang Qinghua knew this wasn’t a real kiss, just a mutually beneficial sharing of energy—but he didn’t want to think about that. Not when Mo Bai’s arms were wrapped around his waist and the soft fabric of his cloak was bunched beneath his own trembling fingers.

For a moment Mo Bai just stood there, gently pressing his lips against Shang Qinghua, letting the energy pass openly between them in soothing waves. Then, in a nearly graceless tumble, Mo Bai sunk to his knees and seemed to collapse back against a wall with Shang Qinghua in his lap.

“My Prince!” Shang Qinghua yelped, breaking the kiss with a terrified squeak. He called a light to his hand and leaned over Mo Bai, terrified that he had somehow still succumbed.

“King.” Came the low rumble beneath him.

“What?” Shang Qinghua met Mo Bai’s steady gaze and flushed at the slight gleam of spit on those blue lips.

“King. This Mobei Jun is no longer a Prince.” Shang Qinghua blinked at Mo Bai— Mobei Jun and glanced away quickly.

“O-oh. M-my King.” Shang Qinghua stuttered, unsure of how to proceed. He wiggled a bit, inching his way off of Mobei Jun’s lap only to gasp as the strong arms wrapped around his waist tugged him firmly back against Mobei Jun’s broad chest.

“Stay Gege.” The demon murmured, leaving Shang Qinghua struck dumb as Mobei Jun tilted his head to rest against the wall. “Safer here.” He followed up as if that was any real explanation as to why he was holding Shang Qinghua like a particularly beloved teddy bear.

Shang Qinghua looked up and down the hallway he’d been carried into, searching for any imminent danger. When nothing moved for a long minute, he sighed and let his exhaustion decide for him. Timidly he let his head rest against his Kings’ shoulder. The ever-present tension drained from his limbs with each breath of his king’s evergreen scent.

Without a word, Mobei Jun drew his thick cloak around them both and resettled his arms around Shang Qinghua as though it was the most natural thing in the world.

“My King?” Shang Qinghua asked as the silence dragged on just long enough to make his skin prickle “Why did you come for this servant?”

“Gege saved this Mobei Jun. Again, and again.” Came the soft response, half-whispered against the tingling skin of his neck. “It was this Lord’s time to return the favor.”

Oh.

Shang Qinghua tried to pass off the clenching feeling in his stomach as relief.

Mobei Jun was returning the favor. Of course. That made so much more sense than whatever nonsense had been bubbling in the back of Shang Qinghua’s desperate brain.

With a low rumble, Mobei Jun shifted and curled Shang Qinghua closer, heavy hands resting ever so gently on his hips, thumb stroking back and forth over the silk of his belt.

It took Shang Qinghua an embarrassingly long time to pull his mind away from the gentle touch and realize that Mobei Jun was shivering

At first, he’d only curled closer to his King— offering his body warmth to the larger demon as paltry payment for his rescue. A moment later though he sat bolt upright, a new terror coursing through his veins.

“My Prin- I mean, my King— are you…cold?” Fear sat heavy in the pit of his stomach, Mo Bai was ice incarnate, King of the Northern Demon Realm, cold wasn’t something that should be able to touch him.

“No,” came the slightly petulant response. But a particularly violent shiver made Shang Qinghua frown and reach out for his King’s wrist.

 “My King, please. That— that array was very dangerous. P-please let this servant check to see if you’re alright.” Shang Qinghua pleaded nervously even as Mobei Jun offered his wrist without complaint. 

Xue Yanfei, Xue Yanfei. Shang Qinghua tried to scrape every bit of memory about that chapter from his mind. Where had the trap for Luo Binghe been set? A dungeon of some kind, no a tomb. The Xue ancestral tomb. Something about the Xue branch family living in the Eastern Snow Palace while using their family's tomb to pervert the inheritance ritual of the Mo family line…

With his fingers against his King’s pulse, Shang Qinghua sunk into the icy river that was Mo Bai’s demonic power. It cycled just like his own, only harsher, faster—wait. Shang Qinghua focused. There. Just to the side of his heart, something foreign had been sunk into Mobei Jun’s chest like a hook…no…more like a drain. Even as Shang Qinghua focused, he felt the harsh swell of Mobei Jun’s power fade, just a touch.

Shang Qinghua pulled away, face pale. “We have to go.”

Mobei Jun gave a small quirk of his eyebrow but didn’t fight this time as Shang Qinghua wriggled his way out of his grasp. He frowned as Shang Qinghua tossed aside the cloak and scrambled to his trembling feet.

“You have to trust me, my King, if we don’t leave now, your uncle will consume you whole.”

 

 

Chapter Text

Shang Qinghua made it maybe ten paces before he was pulled to a stop by a gentle hand that closed like a shackle around his wrist.

“My King?” He whirled around to look up into his companion’s shadowed face, “w-we need to keep going.” The slight tremble in Mobei Jun’s grip made the knot in Shang Qinghua’s stomach twist tighter. “There’s a long ah, long way to go and we really um, we can’t delay.” He tugged at Mobei Jun’s sleeve as he spoke, but the demon refused to take another step forward. A deep frown had set across his handsome face, illuminated only by the light in Shang Qinghua’s palm.

“Gege is injured.” Mobei Jun’s voice was soft, his words fogging as they passed his blue lips.

“It’s um, no big deal,” Shang Qinghua assured, trying not to think about the dried blood on his back, the chafed skin on his wrists or the way his shoulders protested each new movement with a creak.

He could deal with it. The more time they wasted, the less time they had to reverse the effects of Linguang Jun’s spell—and if Mobei Jun died…Shang Qinghua bit his lip, mind shying away from the thought before it finished forming.

Mobei Jun’s expression didn’t change even as he let out a soft sigh. “Sit,” he said.

Shang Qinghua spluttered at that, “My king we don’t have ti—”

Sit.”

If there had been anyone nearby to witness how quickly his knees hit the cold stone floor, Shang Qinghua might have been embarrassed. But with no one to judge him, he could easily forgive the way his spine turned to jelly at the booming of Mobei Jun’s authoritative baritone.

In a single smooth movement, Mobei Jun knelt next to Shang Qinghua and pulled a lacquered box from one voluminous sleeve.

“Gege will take off his robes,” He ordered; voice once again soft.

“What? Why?” Shang Qinghua asked, half dazed. After a beat, he flushed red and looked away. “Ah, ignore this servant. O-of course. My wounds. S-silly question. Um--. Here let me…”

With a fortifying breath, Shang Qinghua untied what remained of his sash- his fingers clumsy from the cold. In his writing, his audience never enjoyed it when he focused on unpleasant details. It was all ‘her wounds were tenderly bandaged’ and ‘he spread the salve against her lily soft skin’ but never ‘Fibers stuck to the half-healed cuts, each one sending a sharp sting of pain up her spine as they were pulled free--every tug of the fabric and shift of her arms cracked the barely formed scabs.’

He winced as another cut cracked open and blood dripped down his back in thin rivulets, tracing icy trails across his already abused skin. Too bad whatever created this world added in the unpleasant details he’d left out.

Shang Qinghua folded the ruined fabric of his robe and set it aside. As torn as it was, he’d rather shrug it back on after being bandaged than wander the tomb in just his pants and boots.

“My King, this servant--, ah?” He looked over to where Mobei Jun was sitting and paused. The lacquered box had been opened, revealing a surprising amount of fold-out drawers that Mobei Jun was intently rifling through. A small pile of bundles and cases sat at his side. Before Shang Qinghua could get a closer look at them, Mobei Jun pulled a small ceramic pot from the drawers and snapped it shut with a click.

Mobei Jun looked up, his eyes catching the dwindling light and reflecting it like a cat as their gazes met. For just a moment, Shang Qinghua had the insane urge to cover his bare chest—but Mobei Jun turned away first, his cheeks and ears coloring noticeably even in the darkness.

“My King?” He asked, half tempted to pry into that cute reaction.

“Turn around.” Mobei Jun ordered; his voice noticeably strained as he stared intently at a spot on the ceiling above them.

Shang Qinghua practically spun on his knees, facing out into the darkness as he tried to force down the storm of confused butterflies trying to escape his stomach. Of course, Mobei Jun wouldn’t want to look at him shirtless for longer than he had to. He can’t make the situation even more uncomfortable than it already was, he just had to keep his odd thoughts and strange reactions to himself. 

Suddenly, there was a shock of cold fingers brushing against the spidering frostbite scars on his neck.

Shang Qinghua flinched, only to have Mobei Jun pull away immediately.

An awkward silence stretched between them as Shang Qinghua wished he could just sink into the floor.

Finally, Mobei Jun spoke, “I should have believed you.”

“Ah—.” Shang Qinghua wanted to protest, wanted to reassure his king in a way that would wipe away the unspoken guilt that filled his King’s soft words. “I-it was the fault of t-this servant. My King how could—"

“No.” Mobei Jun’s sudden snarl made Shang Qinghua stiffen, but then his cold hands were once again touching his back, this time softened by a wet cloth brushing against the dried cuts. He couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched him with such care.

“Gege should not apologize to this Lord.” Mobei Jun continued after a moment. “Never.

“Ah?” Shang Qinghua winced as the cloth dragged over a piece of ragged skin. “My King plea-- “

“Quiet.” Mobei Jun ordered, and Shang Qinghua’s mouth snapped shut.

They sat together in silence as Mobei Jun gently cleaned the ragged cuts on his back before spreading a paste that made Shang Qinghua draw a sharp breath in between his teeth over the abused skin. By the time Mobei Jun began to wind bandages around Shang Qinghua’s abused torso, the silence had stretched on so long Shang Qinghua was surprised when it was broken again.

“This lord is sorry. He did not,” Mobei Jun paused, seeming to search for the right words, “protect gege as he should have. He did not believe gege when he should have.”

Shang Qinghua marveled to himself as Mobei Jun continued to speak. In the Proud Immortal Demon Way, he’d written a lifetime ago, the deadly King of the North would never stoop as low as to apologize to a human. He’d have the human on their hands and knees begging to apologize to him! How could two meetings have changed his king’s character this much?

“Gege is hurt…again, because this Lord did not come for him as soon as he left the protection of his mountain. This Lord should have been watching more closely.”

Mobei Jun’s hands did not pause as he gently took Shang Qinghua’s wrists and began the process of cleaning and bandaging the raw skin there, but Shang Qinghua heard the stutter in the tempo of his breathing.

“If gege wants to hide upon his mountain once again…this lord…will not…will not…” Mobei Jun’s hand closed around Shang Qinghua’s forearm, squeezing just a little too tightly to be comfortable.

Shang Qinghua looked up at this, ignoring the pain as he shifted forward. Mobei Jun refused to meet his eyes, instead glaring out into the darkness as though it had personally offended him. At that moment Shang Qinghua wanted to do nothing more than smooth out the furrow between those regal brows.

“My King?” he asked, “My King, what do you mean by hiding?”

Mobei Jun looked back at him in surprise but before he could answer, the light that Shang Qinghua had summoned flickered and died, leaving them in darkness once more.

They hadn’t wandered far enough from the room with the array for the green glow to have completely dissipated, but still the shadows overwhelmed Shang Qinghua’s senses. It was darker than a night with no moon. No, darker than that. Beyond the gentle flicker of that sickly green light, there was nothing but a cold void waiting to devour them whole.

Mobei Jun’s cold hand found his own in the darkness as he moved to resummon a light and pushed it down.

“Gege should save his strength. His light will not last long here.”

Shang Qinghua opened his mouth to ask for clarification before it hit him. “Oh, fuck! The Xue shadow technique!”

There was a beat of silence at that. Shang Qinghua wanted to slap his hand over his mouth and never let go.

“How—“Mobei Jun began to ask but Shang Qinghua cut him off.

“Spying! For my sect? For my sect! I had to research um, the Northern Kingdoms from uh, when we were, ah, together.” Shang Qinghua stumbled over his words. The lies he’d usually spin with ease, if not grace, tangled like loose strings in his mouth.

“Hm.” Mobei Jun’s disbelief was obvious, even without words.

Shang Qinghua pivoted, desperate to cover the slip of his tongue. “Ah, my King…please…t-this servant promises to tell you everything once we’re free. It’s too much right now…”

Blue light crackled to life, illuminating Mobei Jun’s frown as he glared down at Shang Qinghua. Cradled snugly in his palm was a crystal that shone with a steady glow.

“Gege will explain later.” Mobei Jun said before placing the crystal in Shang Qinghua’s palm.

“O-of course.” He promised-- it would be easier to make a satisfactory lie when he wasn’t half-dead in an icy tomb. Hopefully.

When Mobei Jun turned back to the re-opened lacquered box, Shang Qinghua pinched his thigh. Stupid! He had to be more careful, this was the kind of thing that had made his King so suspicious when they were teens! No more knowing weird things out of the blue.

Mobei Jun was rifling through the drawers in the box once more and didn’t bother to look up when Shang Qinghua shuffled closer.

“Ah, well,” Shang Qinghua said, “We should um. We should go.” The crystal was smooth in his hand and he found himself running his thumbs repeatedly along the cool smooth surface.

“No.”

“My King, we don’t have long!” Shang Qinghua protested as he reached out to where he had left his tattered robes.  

Mobei Jun let out a frustrated growl and Shang Qinghua yelped as a large hand shot out and tugged at the fabric in his hand. 

“No.”

“No?” Shang Qinghua squeaked before flinching back as something warm and soft was thrown into his face. He spluttered and flushed as he tugged the cloth off of his head and glared at Mobei Jun. The demon was once again looking down into the box, but a smile was hooked into the corner of his mouth that made Shang Qinghua’s stomach flip.

“What is Gege waiting for?” Mobei Jun pointed out, closing the box with a click. “As he said, we don’t have long.”

The litany of complaints at the tip of Shang Qinghua’s tongue dried up when he looked down at the pile of fabric in his hands. Rolling hills and dense evergreens swirled along the hems of a long robe, each stitch smaller than Shang Qinghua could see in the blue light of the crystal. He brushed his hand along the sleeve and paused as he felt a slight tingle against the tips of his fingers. A Qiankun pocket had been hidden at just the right place to slip items in and out with a flick of the wrist.

He debated protesting, shoving the fabric back into his King’s arms and saying it was too much. But the robe was warm and he was so damn sick of being cold.

Careful not to stretch the wounds on his back any further, Shang Qinghua gently pulled the robe up and over his shoulders. Once he tied the accompanying sash, he turned to see Mobei Jun watching him with dark eyes and furrowed brows.

“My King?” he asked, too startled to give voice to the other thoughts racing through his head. There’s no need to look so mad when I’m just following your instructions! My King, this robe wouldn’t have fit you any way, it’s perfect for this servant so why do you look like you want to tear it apart!

After a beat of silence, Mobei Jun frowned, then stood, sweeping his hair back over his shoulder before looking back down at Shang Qinghua.

“What does gege know about the Xue Tomb?”

Shang Qinghua blinked then shook his head. “Nothing,” he lied.  

“Yet gege knows the Xue shadow technique?”

Shang Qinghua avoided Mobei Jun’s sharp stare and forced a laugh

“Ah, well. This servant doesn’t know much about the tomb,” he amended, “ just um, this servant has heard a little of it. Enough to um, be familiar in passing…” He turned to look down the hallway once more. “Can my King, ah, explain? So, we can, um, face this threat together?”

There was a shuffle, then a snap as the top to the lacquered box was shut.

“Hm.” Mobei Jun sounded less than satisfied, but he didn’t press any further, instead, reaching forward and draping something warm and heavy across Shang Qinghua’s shoulders.

“Wait no, you’ll be cold!” Shang Qinghua protested— intent on giving Mobei Jun his cloak back the moment he realized what he had been given, only to stop short when he saw that Mobei Jun’s cloak hadn’t been removed.

“Ah?” He craned his neck and pulled at the collar of the cloak he’d been given—white fur with hints of iridescence. It tickled something at the back of his mind, but before he could ask, Mobei Jun had plucked the crystal light out of his hands and replaced it with a stack of something that crinkled as he clutched it close. Shang Qinghua gaped down at the stack of talisman paper he’d been given, his train of thought completely derailed, before looking up to see Mobei Jun sweeping down the hall.

“My King!” He yelped, shoving the paper in his sleeve as he stumbled to his feet and followed Mobei Jun’s retreating form. “My King, wait for me!”


The eerie quiet of the tomb kept Shang Qinghua too on edge to indulge in his usual chatter. Sure, he’d written about creepy places, and he’d visited his fair share as a disciple of An-Ding, but the Buried Tomb was easily taking first place in the “ places I could have missed and not been sad ” competition.

When Proud Immortal Demon Way had devolved into the worst kind of face-slapping harem drama stallion novel possible— Shang Qinghua had taken comfort in the fact that he could still create the complex and beautiful locations he’d always dreamed of. While Xue Yanfei had been one forgettable wife among hundreds, the Tomb itself had been easy enough to remember once he’d gotten his bearings.

The idea of labyrinthine corridors that twisted through a tower buried deep in the Northern permafrost had lingered in the back of his mind for months as he tried to find an appropriate wife plot to use it in.

What he hadn’t expected was the sheer detail that filled the gaps in the authorial scaffolding he’d built.

“The Xue are this Lord’s cousins.” Mobei Jun explained as they walked through the twisting halls. “My grandfather’s brother’s line. Skilled with shadow. Skilled with treachery. It’s no wonder Linguang Jun found those willing to buy his lies in their ranks. They are unwelcome in our family’s tomb below the Northern Fortress.”

“So, they’re all buried here ?” Shang Qinghua asked, unable to shake the feeling of unease that lingered in the back of his mind. The slow dimming of Mobei Jun’s light crystal only made the passing corridors more menacing as they continued forward.

“Mn. Each level of the tower houses one generation of the Xue line with their Matriarch at the center.”

Shang Qinghua stopped and looked back the way they came, “wasn’t that…?”

“The center? Yes.”

“Then where was the matriarch?”

“This King does not know. All that was in her tomb was the trap laid by my uncle with you as the bait. This lord does not care to search for bones from a traitorous family.”

The thought of that array made Shang Qinghua tuck in just a little closer to Mobei Jun. Luo Binghe had managed to find and kill Elder Lady Xue before all of his power had been ripped away—would they be as lucky? Would Linguang Jun be cleverer than Proud Immortal Demon Way’s cannon fodder wife of the week villains?

 Shang Qinghua worried his lower lip between his teeth. Neither he nor his King had a protagonist's unbeatable halo, but he was the author. That had to count for something, right?

With the inherent terror of the tomb now subsumed by the awkward atmosphere between them, Shang Qinghua found himself unable to keep from chattering nervously. Sure the carved black stone and occasional mirrored figures set into the walls made the hair on the back of his neck stand up straight—but they had a few hours of wandering before they’d be free.

How lucky were they that this tomb was a labyrinth and not a maze! Wasn’t it better that they just had to follow the single path as it wound its way from the main room back and forth past the dusty lesser tombs? When Mobei Jun only shot him a dark searching glance Shang Qinghua let out a nervous cough and changed the subject.

“Ah, how long has it been since you ascended my King?”

“Two years.” Mobei Jun’s answer was clipped, making Shang Qinghua stumble. 

“Two?!” He yelped, “Ah, my King I mean….” Shang Qinghua wavered as Mobei Jun glared over his shoulder, “t-this servant just thought that your father was still…ah, in his prime?”

He flinched even as the words were leaving his mouth. Mobei Jun’s father was never meant to be a, ah, loving father in his notes. 

Surprisingly Mobei Jun only reached out to gently steady Shang Qinghua on his feet before responding.“He was betrayed. Likely by my uncle. He will spend the rest of his days slowly dying, locked in the tombs below the Northern Fortress.” Nothing about his face betrayed any kind of feeling towards the mention of his father.  

“Ah?” Shang Qinghua tried to keep the shock out of his voice. This was almost sixty years too early! Sure his own plot was off the rails in unimaginable ways but Mobei Jun seemed to keep getting dragged along with him in this plot divergence. 

Mobei Jun t frowned down at Shang Qinghua as though his strangled squeak was personally offensive and he scrambled to cover for his ridiculous reaction.

“I-I mean, ah this servant is sorry…for your loss?”

“It was not a loss.” Mobei Jun clenched his fist even as his voice remained painfully even. “He cared less for the kingdom than his vices, less for his family than his selfish pride, and he would have killed you without a thought after you’d saved this lord’s life as a child.”

“Oh. Well…” Shang Qinghua picked up his pace until he walked just beside Mobei Jun instead of behind. “T-then good riddance. My King is obviously a better ruler in every way.”

“And how would Qinghua know that when he has been hiding on his mountain?”

Shang Qinghua ducked his head, stomach twisting at the cold words. 

“W-well. My King this servant remembers how you spoke of the north when we were last together. How could a uh, a man who cares so deeply about his land and his people be a worse king than his father who neglected, um, both?”

 Mobei Jun’s scowl softened, “Does gege really think that?” He asked. Together, their pace slowed enough for Shang Qinghua to walk at Mobei Jun’s side instead of straining to keep up. 

“Of course.” Shang Qinghua said. “Ah even with everything that happened, I still…I still wanted to see how you were doing.” He admitted, tugging nervously on his own sleeve. “When I lost track of you all those years ago in that crowded square, I uh, I never thought I’d see you again. I thought those cultivators would catch you for sure. So once I’d eaten the flower, I thought we’d at least get to um, talk. You know?” He switched from tugging on his sleeve to tugging on his own hair. “But then ah, you left me back with my sect. So I uh, only got to form an opinion based on our time in your rooms.”

Mobei Jun didn’t stop moving forward, but he did glance down at Shang Qinghua with a deep frown across his face. “It wasn’t safe for gege to stay with this King.”

“Ah, well, yes but--.”

Mobei Jun cut him off, “Gege said he wanted to serve this King forever, but the court is too harsh for gege.”

“Wait—serve you at the court? My King the court of the north would never--”

“ Obviously.” Mobei Jun growled, “That’s why this lord left gege where it was safe. He didn’t expect gege to hide away forever.”

Shang Qinghua put up his hands, “Wait, my King, I wasn’t, I wasn’t hiding!”

“Then why were the boundaries set so that this lord couldn’t enter?”

Confusion made Shang Qinghua splutter as too many thoughts collided in his head at once. “Wha, I, you! My King thought this servant was hiding?” Shang Qinghua couldn’t hold back a bitter laugh, “Hiding with the people who’ve kept me trapped for years? My King, I’ve been trying to escape them since I was first brought there as a child! Do you remember what I said when we first met? I wanted to be a--”

“A bookseller.”

The growing rant caught in Shang Qinghua’s throat, 

“Gege wanted to apprentice under Chen Yao.” Mobei Jun’s voice was quiet, as though he was ashamed to admit remembering something so insignificant. 

Shang Qinghua couldn’t help but picture Mobei Jun as he was in those few weeks they had spent as children with his soft cheeks and strong grip. Refusing to let go of his Shang-ge’s hand. He took a breath and consciously pulled himself back to the present, gathering the courage to reach out and grasp the edge of Mobei Jun’s sleeve. It only took a gentle tug for the demon to look his way.

They stared at each other in the soft blue light of the crystal for a heart-stopping moment, an apology for things he couldn’t bring himself to admit weighed on his tongue but instead Shang Qinghua ducked his head and looked down at his shoes.

With his eyes glued to the floor, Shang Qinghua nearly bumped into Mobei Jun as he came to a sharp stop. When he peered around his King’s bulk, he came face to face with a sheer wall of black stone.

No markings blemished the smooth surface, no signs were carved into the walls, there was no indication of an exit at all.

If he hadn’t written it himself, Shang Qinghua would have despaired at the sight.

As it was, he offered Mobei Jun a weak smile, relieved to have an excuse to change the subject. 

“Ah not to worry my King, something like this can’t slow you down. Not with this servant at your side. He knows exactly what to do—“ he reassured as he hurried forward towards the dead end.

Behind him, Mobei Jun remained silent, a shadow among shadows as Shang Qinghua flitted back and forth across the hall like a hummingbird.

Shang Qinghua wasn’t focused on his King though— instead, he ran his hands along the stone walls, probing for the mechanism he knew was hidden out of sight. The only indication that he was even looking in the right direction was the temperature. The stone was cold. Cold enough to sting as he ran his fingertips along the surface.

“One, two, three—” he counted under his breath, sliding his hand over the subtle panels with an investigatory pulse of his spiritual power. As he reached the count of six, a flicker of demonic energy lashed out at him, scorching his palm. He pulled back with a bitten-off curse as it crackled along his skin like frost before dissipating into steam with a hiss.

 “Gege?” Mobei Jun’s voice was sharp behind him but Shang Qinghua waved his hand easily, not even turning as he responded.

“Ah, My King it was nothing,”

He took a moment to steady himself, cycling his spiritual energy once, twice, three times before pushing the power out and around his fingers to create a blade. With a quick movement, Shang Qinghua slashed at the stone, frowning as he carved into the surface but failed to penetrate further than a few inches.

In Proud Immortal Demon Way, Luo Binghe had been able to break through the barrier in a single blow.

Shang Qinghua screwed up his face, embarrassed to have been caught comparing himself to his perfect protagonist and slashed again.  It was true that he’d never been the best at martial applications of his spiritual energy— but this just felt embarrassing.

After the third strike failed to penetrate, he felt a hand grip his bicep and draw him gently back.

 Mobei Jun looked down at him with furrowed brows then motioned to the wall.

“Explain.”

Shang Qinghua flushed a little at his failure.

“The, ah, mechanism keeping the passage to the next floor locked is, um, behind here. If we can disrupt it, my King, a door will open.”

“A door?” Mobei Jun frowned at the slashed rock. Shang Qinghua paused, realizing he had neglected to explain himself at all.

Had Mobei Jun watched him walk up to a blank wall and start cutting at the stone…without questioning it?

“T- This Servant ah, has seen um, has seen this type of hidden door—''. Before he’d finished constructing his lie Mobei Jun held up a hand to stop him.

Shang Qinghua stared as his King rolled up his sleeve and without an ounce of demonic energy-- punched the rock so hard it cracked neatly along the already scored lines and tumbled to the ground.

A rush of heat flooded Shang Qinghua’s cheeks and only intensified as Mobei Jun turned back to him with a smug tilt to his grin.

“Is that all Gege?”

“A-ah, ye-yes my King.” Shang Qinghua squeaked before throwing himself towards the shattered stone in a desperate bid to hide his embarrassment.

Behind the stone, as Shang Qinghua had expected, was a small alcove containing a single complex talisman.

He leaned forward, bringing his light close enough to read the writing.

“What lazy work,” He muttered under his breath. “Cannon fodder villains for sure. Who was stupid enough to make it so that disrupting this one talisman would break the illusion and unlock the door? Shouldn’t these demons be smarter?” Shang Qinghua took another moment to grumble at the talisman before he looked back to Mobei Jun. “Does My King have a, uh, blade by chance? The— the talisman will react badly to spiritual energy and well,” he spread out his arms. “Your uncle didn’t leave this servant with anything of use.”

In fact, he’d been left with nothing but the shredded robes that Mobei Jun had generously replaced.

No hidden knives, no hair ornaments that could double as knives, not even one of the sharp needles he kept hidden in the hems of his robes had been left to him. At least Máobi—his sword, was close by. The connection between them was present but stretched thin, but if he focused, he could feel the blade's presence, somewhere further down in the tower. He scowled; Linguang Jun better have taken it as a prize. The thought of his faithful, yet rarely revealed sword being cast aside in this dark place left a sour aftertaste in his mouth.

Mobei Jun gently pushed him to the side, breaking his train of thought.

“Ah- My King wait,” he reached out to grab his King’s sleeve, “It’s not—"

Shang Qinghua let out an indignant squeak as he was pushed even further out of the way as Mobei Jun stepped up to the alcove.

“My King—!”

Without even acknowledging his cry, Mobei Jun swept one set of sharp nails across the talisman paper—splitting it neatly in two.

The gentle hum of energy that Shang Qinghua hadn’t consciously registered faded from the hallway and the crystal that had been providing a much-weakened light went dead. He took an unsteady breath and pushed down the sharp pangs of fear that tried to take hold in his gut. They were fine. It was fine. His King was going to be fine.

Shang Qinghua forced a laugh, aware of how airy and strained it sounded as he tried to babble his way past the pounding of his heart. “Does my King have a-another crystal?”

“Two.” Mobei Jun answered over the sound of opening his lacquered box.

With a crackle, another crystal flared to life revealing a trap door made of pale grey wood set neatly into the center of the floor. Shang Qinghua met Mobei Jun’s gaze with a small frown but neither of them pointed out the obvious—two crystals weren’t nearly enough to get them through the remainder of the tomb.

Choosing to ignore that fact, for now, Shang Qinghua merely nodded when Mobei held an elegant finger to his own lips. Together they stepped forward and leaned towards the door.

Shang Qinghua closed his eyes and tried to expand his senses. Demonic energy beside him, the sense of ice and never-ending shadow that was his King. He pushed past that, out into the stairwell beyond- empty air, the soft breath of hardy lichen clinging to cracks in the stone, the trickle of cold water down walls, the stillness of the air.

 Nothing living, or at least nothing sentient.

His eyes snapped open as he heard Mobei Jun take a series of short sniffs.

He blinked up at his king, willing himself not to make any sounds that could betray his confusion.

Before he could avert his gaze, Mobei Jun opened his bright blue eyes.

“There is no— “

“This lord didn’t scent—"

“Ah, My King this servant—.”

“What did Gege—”

They each stopped halfway through their sentences and Shang Qinghua watched a flush of annoyance spread across Mobei Jun’s ears and cheeks. He looked away to hide his surprise, his King was so fierce!

“Shang Qinghua,” Mobei Jun growled, “speak.”

A shiver ran down his spine at the un-ignorable command in that deep voice. He took a steadying breath and continued. “This servant can’t sense anyone beyond the door. So, ah, My King we should be fine to keep going. But, carefully.”

Mobei Jun looked down at Shang Qinghua, his handsome face completely unreadable. In a swift move that nearly made Shang Qinghua cower back— he reached out and cupped the smaller man’s jaw in one large hand, his thumb gently stroking his lower lip.

“Does Gege know what waits at the base of the tower?”

Shang Qinghua blinked up at Mobei Jun, tension coiling in his gut, the ever-present need to escape, to hide, to duck away from his meta knowledge all skewered by that steady gaze.

“Gege doesn’t have to lie.” Mobei Jun murmured, the pressure of his finger still gentle as he stroked it back and forth.

“I…this servant…” He stuttered, the words sticking in his throat. The promise he’d made to himself all those years ago at the Sky Stair Spring echoed in his head. On one hand. what good was his knowledge of the world if he didn’t use it to help his King? On the other, what use was admitting knowledge that only served to make him look suspicious?

“No. T-this servant saw only glimpses of things when he was carried here. A room covered in arrays. Winding staircases. Cold hallways. Nothing….nothing useful.”

The lie slid off his tongue as easily as wine. Of course, he knew what was beyond the door, he’d built it, shaped it with his own two hands the same way he’d shaped Mobei Jun.

Shang Qinghua dared to glance up at Mobei Jun again and saw another intense frown crossing the demon's face. His King looked drawn, tired. Shang Qinghua tried not to startle as he felt his king’s fingers shake with a single uncontrolled tremor. 

“Fine.” Mobei Jun snapped, pulling his hand away and tugging the trap door open without another word.

As his king swept down the stairwell beyond Shang Qinghua couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d misstepped.

At the bottom of the stairs, they slid open a well-disguised door and emerged into another pitch-black hallway. The walls seemed to greedily swallow the light of the crystal, leaving them in a shadow that felt almost like a thick fog. 

As they stepped into this new hall, Shang Qinghua frowned down as multiple clear footprints in the layer of dirt across the floor caught his eye.

   Stupid, he thought. What a perfect way to say ‘Look here! A secret door!’

Mobei Jun was already halfway down the hall before he noticed Shang Qingua hadn't moved to follow.

“Gege. Come.”

Shang Qinghua turned to make sure that the hidden door to the stairwell was shut tight and stopped. 

“I-I wish I’d been with you, my king. Even if…even if it wasn’t safe. I’d have rather been at your side than anywhere else.”

With his eyes on the ground, Shang Qinghua missed the way Mobei Jun's face twisted with open longing. 

“W-we can do better right?” Shang Qinghua rushed to say, his nerves once again building as Mobei Jun remained quiet. “This time we can make our own choices. The only person in our w-way is your uncle…and ah, my sect. If they ever find us.” Shang Qinghua bit his lip, momentarily distracted by thoughts of Shen Qingqiu’s inevitable fury. “Ah but um, that’s in the future. All we have to do right now is make sure your uncle doesn’t get away with hurting you, my King. S-so let’s keep goin--” His sentence was cut off with a squeak as Mobei Jun patted his head with a gentle hand. 

“My King?” He asked, bewildered. 

“Mn.”  Mobei Jun patted his head once more with a gentle hand, ignoring Shang Qinghua’s flustered squawk. 

Before his King could begin acting any stranger Shang Qinghua ducked away and sent a small wave of spiritual energy to clear their footprints.

“Ah, my King, l-lets go! N-no time to waste!”

Mobei Jun didn’t respond, but he did follow along without argument as Shang Qinghua darted into the darkness of the hall. 


One of the worst parts of actually living in his story world instead of just writing about it was the sheer amount of time he spent doing little things that could be glossed over in a single sentence. If he’d been writing this scene, he could have just penned: “Mobei Jun and Shang Qinghua descended layer by layer through the dark winding halls of the Buried Tower, eager to find the exit but wary of those who stood in their way,”.  

But no. 

He had to do the walking himself. Six floors of dark halls, creepy tombs, and winding staircases. 

 It was, in his opinion, bullshit. 

Especially since most of his Spiritual Energy was being spent keeping himself from freezing in the icy air of the tomb, leaving his legs to burn and ache with each step.

Shang Qinghua glared at the practically bare walls, he really should have put something more interesting than inlaid glass figures and alcove tombs every few feet. Hell, he should have put in an elevator. Screw continuity, why did he feel the need to write the words “Luo Binghe descended further into the tomb, so far that he wondered if he’d ever see the light again”?

 God, he should have just been a delivery driver. Screw creativity.

“Gege.”

Shang Qinghua peered up at Mobei Jun, suddenly nervous. Was his King alright? He wasn’t shaking anymore, but had anything else changed?

“My King?”

Instead of responding, Mobei Jun gripped Shang Qinghua’s elbow and pulled him back. Before he could squeak, his King’s other hand covered his mouth.

“Listen.” Mobei Jun’s voice was little more than an exhalation of chilled air across Shang Qinghua’s neck.

He shivered but complied. Closing his eyes to focus on the sounds around them. There was the quiet empty echo of air. A drip of condensation. Silence.

Then—a creak.

Shang Qinghua stiffened but Mobei Jun held him fast. They waited together, encased in the half-shadow of the hall. 

“A-Xiang, are you sure ?” Came a reedy voice, timid even in its nervous questioning.

“What are you stupid? Of course, I’m sure. Something disrupted the array! Do you think Uncle will be merciful if we fail him?”

“No, but—.”

“A-Ying don’t be such a fool.”

Mobei Jun took a cautious step back, pulling Shang Qinghua smoothly with him.

Whoever they were, they had paused just around the next bend in the hall. It took a moment for Shang Qinghua to realize that the way their voices echoed meant they must be in a room, not the hall itself. 

They must have already come up upon the central tomb for this floor.

He met Mobei Jun’s eyes in the soft glow of the crystal and motioned for the demon to come closer, chiding himself for flushing when Mobei Jun dipped down—his ear a hair's breadth from Shang Qinghua’s lips.

The urge to press a small kiss to kiss the winking sapphire earring that rested right on his King’s helix was almost overwhelming.

“My King,” Shang Qinghua whispered, cautious not to brush his skin, “you—ah, you cannot overuse your Qi, it will only speed the draining process.”

Mobei Jun’s eyes shone unnaturally in the low light of the hall making the primal part of Shang Qinghua quail with fear once more at its almost alien nature.

As the silence stretched between them, Shang Qinghua’s confidence plummeted. Why should Mobei Jun believe him? It’s not like he has an explanation for how he knows what is going on here. Or at least, he doesn’t have a reasonable explanation.

Mobei Jun finally cocked his head and murmured, “Gege is sure?”

“A-ah, Yes.”

“Gege has…” Mobei Jun paused oddly, looking Shang Qinghua over with one long quizzical glare. “Gege has seen this?”

Shang Qinghua paused before nodding. He’d said he’d seen some of the tower as he was carried up, did his King just need confirmation?  His attention was quickly drawn back to the hall where the argument seemed to be picking up, A-Xiang taking the time to thoroughly excoriate A-Ying for his perceived idiocy.

“We might have only one ah, one chance, my King.” He whispered, relieved when Mobei Jun nodded and pulled away.

 The rising voices were the perfect cover for the two of them to slowly creep forward.

“Mobei Jun should be dead by now! What are you afraid of?” A-Xiang asked, her voice crisp in the dead air of the tomb.

“Unless he got away,” griped A-Ying. “He can shadow step, it’s not unthinkable! What are we going to do if he’s down there, waiting for someone to tear to pieces?”

A-Xiang scoffed, “Uncle knows he can shadow step, why do you think he set the trap for our cousin’s human pet? If Mobei Jun set foot on that array, he would be little more than a husk right now. If we’re lucky it worked too well and the array was simply disrupted by his death.”

At those callous words, Mobei Jun let out a low growl which was less of a sound, more of a vibration that rippled along Shang Qinghua’s skin.

They rounded the corner and Shang Qinghua saw that they were less than ten steps from the entrance to the main tomb. Blue flickering light cast two harsh shadows along the opposite wall making Shang Qinghua squint.

“Gege,” Mobei Jun breathed, his eyes trained on the door, “Take this. The Xue can wind walk, it may be dangerous.”

Shang Qinghua had half a moment to process that Mobei Jun had just pressed the handle of a dagger into his palm before the demon burst into vicious action leaping into the brightly lit room with a bestial roar. Shang Qinghua had grown so used to the dim spluttering talisman light that the bright glow of the blue lanterns held in the demon’s hands made him flinch back with a stifled hiss of pain

Blinking spots of light out of his eyes, Shang Qinghua dashed forward. He entered the room just in time to see his king grip the throat of a young Demoness dressed in close-fitting grey robes. In one smooth motion, he hauled her off of her feet and threw her bodily into a pulsating array that lay carved into the stone floor at the center of the room.

When she struck the first glowing line, her mouth opened wide— but no scream came out. Shang Qinghua watched with horrified fascination as the color leached from her face leaving her cheeks paler than snow on a winter’s night.

She struggled to push herself upright, one arm collapsing weakly beneath her as she dragged herself forward.  Each desperate move dragged her long nails ineffectually across the stone. When her head finally fell, she caught Shang Qinghua’s gaze with her own. For a moment all he saw was her terror, then her face caved in like shattered pottery. Within seconds her skin began to flake off in small chunks that floated in the air like so many snowflakes.

The other demon in the room howled as he dodged another of Mobei Jun’s strikes. “A-Xiang!” His blue eyes fixated on the rapidly collapsing pile of ash that had been his companion. “You killed her!”

The demon’s black hair and blue skin betrayed his northern heritage, but Shang Qinghua still felt a jolt of guilt and fury as Mobei Jun spoke, his voice colder than ice.

“You expected mercy from this Lord, Cousin?”

A-Ying wrung his hands, eyes darting in between A-Xiang’s remains and Mobei Jun’s towering form. “T-this is how things have to be. Uncle… he—.”

“What did our uncle ask of you Xue Yingwu?” Mobei Jun snarled.

Xue Yingwu cringed back, his breath shuddering out in a wheeze. “U-u-uncle t-told us that he would b-be King if not f-for your father’s trickery.”

Mobei Jun sneered, his sharp fangs glinting in the light, “Fool.”

Xue Yingwu took a step back that was easily matched by Mobei Jun.

“T-this cousin d-doesn’t believe Uncle's lies. H-he’s just doing what his f-father instructed. P-please have mercy, Mobei Jun— Mo Bai.”

Shang Qinghua watched Xue Yingwu’s hands carefully from his spot tucked beside the door. No one this desperate was without a trick or two up their sleeve. He didn’t trust the cringing demon as far as he could throw him.

His suspicion paid off as if on cue, Xue Yingqu pulled a spectacular cannon-fodder move and dove for Shang Qinghua, his body shifting half into mist as he dashed across the room, with his claws extended.

“I-if you won’t show mercy this cousin will take a bargaining chip!”

In the seconds between his leap and Mobei Jun’s strike, Shang Qinghua was struck by Xue Yingwu’s resemblance to A-Xiang. He had the same terror in his eyes at the moment before his death. It didn’t stop him from flicking out the bloody talisman in his hand and forcing the demon from half mist to solid flesh once more.

Then, the lightning strike of Mobei Jun’s claws turned the flesh of his neck into falling ribbons of raw wet meat.

Hot arterial spray hit Shang Qinghua’s already dirt-stained face with a wet splatter. He let out a yelp, it was in his eyes, his nose— he gagged as the iron taste of blood coated his tongue and stumbled forward desperately scrubbing at his face.

It took Mobei Jun’s strong-arm flinging itself around his waist to keep him from stepping into the deadly array alongside A-Xiang.

Mobei Jun’s hands were coated in the blood that squelched as he wrapped his arms around Shang Qinghua’s shoulders, but Shang Qinghua couldn’t bring himself to care. He buried himself against his King’s chest, hands clenching the fabric of his robes with all their might.

A-Xiang and Xue Yingwu’s terrified eyes lingered in his mind's eye, making his stomach roll with guilt and horror. 

Breathe. He needed to breathe.

He couldn’t fucking breathe.

“Gege!” The urgency in Mobei Jun’s voice paired with strong arms wrapping around his back helped push back the raging wall of fear that had trapped him at that moment. “Gege is safe,” he growled “This Mobei Jun will keep him safe.”

Shang Qinghua took a long breath, forced himself to hold it, then released it in a hiss. He did that three more times before he was able to force himself to speak again.

“T-this servant is sorry.” He whispered, “H-he won’t f-freeze like that again.”

Mobei Jun didn’t respond, instead choosing to rub a hand down Shang Qinghua’s spine in a firm, soothing press.

When had his King grown so much taller , he wondered. When had he grown so much broader? Shang Qinghua let propriety slip even further away as he leaned into his King’s touch.

Mobei Jun was here. He was whole.

Shang Qinghua sighed and pulled back a little, pushing insistently against that firm chest as Mobei Jun tried to hold him just a bit tighter. He wasn’t safe though. Not yet.

“My King. W-we have to move on. Ah, we don’t have a lot of time.”

He looked down at where Xue Yingwu laid, his mouth and eyes still open in shock. This close Shang Qinghua could see the resemblance to Mobei Jun in the curve of his lips and the cut of his jaw. The demon’s head, though, was only attached to his body by several strands of purple viscera and the exposed bone of his spine.

The harsh heave of his stomach at the sight was only foiled by the fact that Shang Qinghua had not eaten in what must have been days.

Mobei Jun put a firm hand on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder to pull him away, and Shang Qinghua shook his head.

“Ah, My King, he may have some supplies. Or maybe an important note? Something to give us more information. We definitely should take his lantern. I should, um, go through his things.`` Shang Qinghua shot a glance at the crumbling remains of A-Xiang, noting how even her bones were beginning to disintegrate into flakes of black dust.

“From the sound of it, she would be the one to carry any notes of importance though. We were, ah, lucky that she was weaker than you, my King. If she had lasted long enough to step out of the array, we might have had trouble.”

Mobei Jun looked over as well, his expression unchanging as he viewed what truly could have been his fate were he less OP.

“Xue Xiangmei was always smarter than her brother,” he said, “but never faster. This Lord wouldn’t have let either of them hurt Gege.”

Guilt welled in Shang Qinghua’s stomach, but instead of facing it, he turned back to Xue Yingwu, kneeling to begin searching his corpse. The silk and fur of the demon’s outer robes were good material, but Shang Qinghua was more impressed by the leather bracers that were fitted with several razor wire lengths.

He stared for a moment at the carefully wound wire and wondered if Xue Yingwu was the future Lord Xue from the original Proud Immortal Demon Way timeline. Lord Xue’s razor wire web techniques had been inherited by the wife of the week for this tomb, Xue Yanfei.

Shang Qinghua shook his head, if so, this was another Proud Immortal Demon Way plotline down the drain. At least this time he could benefit directly.

With caution borne of experience, he released the wire from its casing and laid it aside. He was too slight to wear the bracers himself, but tools this valuable were not meant to be left behind.

As he slid his hand along the seams of Xue Yingwu’s outer robes, the particular tickle of energy indicated a qiankun sleeve prickled against his skin.

Paper, brushes, a notebook full of scribbles that he didn’t have time to decipher, and a packet of something that smelled suspiciously like roasted chestnuts all tumbled out across the floor as he shook the sleeve. Lastly, and probably most usefully, a half-used stick of Cinnabar bounced against the tile and came to a rest at his feet.

“Better than nothing,” he mused before beginning to gather up the assorted knickknacks.

“Gege.”

Shang Qinghua looked up to see Mobei Jun standing above him, his face creased with what could only be called a pout.

“Ah? My King?” Shang Qinghua blinked up at the looming demon.

What could he have done to upset him? Was looting the body of his cousin that far over the line? Come on, this was an emergency! He was a cannon fodder villain in a dungeon crawl— what else was Shang Qinghua supposed to do here? Fight Linguang Jun with just a knife and some borrowed robes like some kind of damsel in distress?

“Gege doesn’t need anything from Xue Yingwu.” Mobei Jun grumbled, reaching down to tug at the pile of paper in Shang Qinghua’s hand.

“Ah! My King what?” Shang Qinghua yelped, failing to keep a hold of the sheets.

Mobei Jun tossed the paper aside and frowned down at Shang Qinghua. “This King can provide.”

Shang Qinghua stared up at him. “My King,” he started, unsure of how to proceed without insulting the pouting demon. 

Mobei Jun turned away, but Shang Qinghua caught a flush of purple on his pointed ears.

“My King.” He pressed after a moment.

“Quiet.” Mobei Jun grumbled.

“Ah, but—”

Shang Qinghua’s question was interrupted as the lacquered box was pulled out once again from Mobei Jun’s sleeve. “This King was being foolish…he wanted to protect gege…keep gege from having to fight again.”  The box was shoved into his hands as Mobei Jun continued to speak, “Gege can take anything he needs. It’s his anyway.”

Shang Qinghua clutched the box tightly before it could tip to the side and fall into the slowly spreading puddle of purple blood from Xue Yingwu’s corpse.

“My King?” Shang Qinghua wished he could do more than just repeat those two words over and over again, but he was continually tongue-tied by his icy companion.

 Mobei Jun, what the fuck was this?

Instead of acknowledging him, Mobei Jun turned away and bent down to examine the still glowing array.

Shang Qinghua stared at his King’s broad back for a moment, still at a loss for words. When Mobei Jun showed no signs of acknowledging him, he sighed and pushed himself to his feet. If he was going to open a mysterious gift, he wasn’t going to do so next to a bloody corpse.

As he pulled open the box, it was all he could do to suppress a gasp. He’d gotten a glimpse before but up close the craftsmanship was undeniable. Inside the box was a complex series of drawers that could be pulled out to show several nested compartments. Each compartment was lined with delicate green fabric that carefully cradled each stored item. 

Shang Qinghua traced the carvings around the lips of the top drawer, the part of him that had spent so many years on An Ding was shrieking in awe of the space bending capabilities on display. Each of these drawers could hold an object many times its size with ease.

The first few drawers held essentials. Dried Jerky that he immediately pulled out to gnaw on. A waterskin that he took a long swig from. A slate and chalkboard for quick notes that he passed. The third drawer, though, made him freeze. Cradled in the green silk was a Ling Hua Dart.

Fully intact and set for deadly use.

He shook as he ran a single finger down the smooth side of the dart, thinking of the bloody wound and subsequent pale blossoming scar on Mobei Jun’s side. He wondered distantly if it was still there.

Where had his king gotten this? Only Huan Hua palace knew how to make these darts and they guarded their techniques with jealousy. Even with his author’s cheats, Shang Qinghua only knew how to take one apart, not make one from scratch. Did his king steal it? Did he steal it from the cultivators that almost killed him?

Shang Qinghua shut the drawer containing the dart. The pounding of his heart sounded overloud as it thundered in his chest. He’d deal with those questions later. With a shake of his head, he moved on to investigate the next drawer,

In it, he found a pale white comb carved with a pattern of delicate willow branches nested beside a deep blue hair ribbon.

Shang Qinghua looked up at Mobei Jun’s still turned back and stared soundlessly at the demon. When no words came, he looked back down and continued to investigate.

Each item that followed made the knot in his stomach wind tighter and tighter.

More excellent quality talisman paper, delicate throwing knives with snowflakes carved into the hilt, a familiar amulet that he quickly recognized as the Eternal Twilight Shielding Pendant, a blue inkstone with a twin-tailed serpent carved into the side. 

By the time he pulled open the final drawer, his hands were shaking hard enough to audibly rattle the case.

He blinked, his eyes going unexpectedly blurry as he saw, gently cradled in the green silk, a notebook bound in the same style he’d used as a disciple resting alongside a slim wooden case bound with a leather strap. He picked at the strap with trembling fingers and let out a noise akin to a wounded animal when he saw the beautiful sticks of charcoal stored within.

He looked up again, this time catching Mobei Jun staring back at him with dark eyes that gave no hint as to his thoughts.

“Ah, m-my King.” He said, before jumping as a tear slid down his cheek and landed on his shaking hand.

They stared at each other in silence until Mobei Jun seemed to gather himself to stand a little taller.

“Does  Gege…like it?”

Shang Qinghua opened his mouth, hardly aware of the cold air on his wet cheeks as he gently stroked the edges of the case.

“Y-yes my king,” managed to whisper, “Ah, yes. T-this servant likes it very much.”

Mobei Jun’s shoulders eased and he looked away, a pleased smile finally curving his lips. “Good.”  There was a slight pause before he glanced back at Shang Qinghua. “There is more. If…if Gege wants?”

Shang Qinghua’s face heated so quickly it was a wonder his tears didn’t evaporate in a puff of steam. He found himself leaning forward in a desperate bow, clutching the case to his chest.  “M-my king!” He squeaked, “Y-you’ve already been too generous! This servant would never ask for more!”

Mobei Jun let out a low grumble and Shang Qinghua’s shoulders crept up around his ears, now afraid that he’d insulted the demon.

“Gege.” Mobei Jun paused and Shang Qinghua risked a peek up at his King. The demon was frowning fiercely but not at Shang Qinghua.  Before he could continue though, the array at their feet pulsed with a sickening light, and Mobei Jun doubled over with a groan of pain.

Awkwardness forgotten, Shang Qinghua dashed to his Kings’ side, helping the demon stumble out of the tomb and into the relative darkness of the hallway. This close, he was able to sense the stream of energy siphoning out of Mobei Jun and into the array like spiderwebs in the wind.

“It’s the same,” Mobei Jun gasped, his harsh heaving slowing with every passing breath. “The array. It’s the same as the one that you were suspended over.”

Shang Qinghua was impressed that his king had caught that much detail in the short glimpse he'd gotten of the first array. He himself had only known it was the case because he’d created it that way.

“Gege isn’t surprised?”

Shang Qinghua froze, letting out an awkward laugh. “Ah, my king this servant is, um, he didn’t observe either array very closely. S-so he was simply trusting his King’s assessment.”

Mobei Jun’s flat stare wasn’t encouraging but instead of pressing further, he simply reached out and ran his thumb over Shang Qinghua’s cheek. With a gentle hand, he wiped away the frozen remnants of Shang Qinghua’s overwhelmed tears before tugging him once more down the hall.