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dreams that had never come true

Chapter Text

 

 

 Mobei-Jun’s search for Shang Qinghua had taken him to many strange places. He had quickly exhausted all more familiar locations. He had come to this last strange place not because Shang Qinghua was a strange man who knew many strange things (though he was), but because… because… it was becoming evident that if he did not seek out strange methods, he would never find Shang Qinghua if he did not wish to be found. 

 

 It was becoming evident that Shang Qinghua did not wish to be found. 

 

 Failing to find Shang Qinghua was not an option. Mobei-Jun had many things to make clear to the infuriating, illogical, irreplaceable, invaluable human. The debt he owed to Shang Qinghua yawned beneath him like an abyss. The damage of knowing him chewed at his heart like a flame. 

 

 At long last, he had his father’s power and position, he was finally Mobei-Jun in truth, the one and only, and yet it seemed as though he had nothing. He had not anticipated the horrifying cost of his ascension. He looked upon his victory and felt nothing but anger. The future stretched ahead of him with an increasing emptiness and… a coldness that terrified him beyond reason. 

 

 Fear had long made fools out of better men than him. Mobei-Jun did not have much experience with this type of fear, this toothsome thing that burrowed deep into his being, and it must have made him a worse fool still. 

 

 The last strange place he went was a deep cave in the far reaches of the Northern Desert that had many names. It was a place which had birthed many whispered legends and many more warnings. It was a place where time and space were thin. It was the errand of a fool. He had hoped that between the powers of his ancestors and his own shadow-stepping abilities, he might be able to tame this abyssal vent enough to determine Shang Qinghua’s location. 

 

 He had to know if the human was alive. He had many enemies and Shang Qinghua was not without his own enemies, so it was imperative that Mobei-Jun find the human before he crossed paths with something or someone dangerous. 

 

 Every time he closed his eyelids, he could see Shang Qinghua’s bleeding body before him, pale and empty-eyed. This could not happen. 

 

 Mobei-Jun had not slept in several days when he reached this abyssal cave. He had not eaten either - for most food seemed to remind him of Shang Qinghua, which made his stomach begin to turn as wretched memories followed. He had encountered several deadly creatures in his search for the missing human, yet another on the way to this last strange place, and he had not dealt with the creatures as carefully as he should have. The new injury on his thigh burned. 

 

 He did not… recall precisely what had transpired in this last strange place. It pained him to try and remember. All he remembered was the desperation to find Shang Qinghua and make amends for what now could not be undone. 

 


 

 Mobei-Jun came back to himself in sunlight and pain. He was leaning against a thick tree, fingers digging into the bark, and he blinked rapidly at the greenery surrounding him and the dappled light through the leaves above. It was warm… no… it was hot. The pain was no longer in his thigh. It had moved to his abdomen, slightly to one side, and shifted from a dull throb to a flaring burn. 

 

 He had been deep underground and now he was… not. 

 

 He tried to stand and stumbled to his knees. His body felt different, misshapen and lighter somehow, most likely a side-effect of his injuries and exhaustion. The ground was wet beneath his hands. The grass smelled of rain. 

 

 It frosted beneath his fingers, spreading quickly, and Mobei-Jun’s power felt both wild and yet sluggish to answer his call. The power of his ancestors was supposed to be near-inexhaustible, a fact he had tested harshly and proved to be untrue in his search for Shang Qinghua, and yet he felt drained. He had apparently needed to escape that abyssal cave at great cost. 

 

 He could hear voices. 

 

 Mobei-Jun looked up and saw a muddy, uneven road, then followed it to see a large, beast-drawn cart of disciples in painfully familiar yellow robes. His heart lurched so strongly that it took him to his feet again. His vision turned black and spotted, but when it cleared again, he could not breathe. 

 

 The one in the driver’s seat looked exactly like Shang Qinghua. 

 

 His twisting power spread out from him wildly, ahead of him as he leaned forward for a better look, freezing the wet grass and the tree beside him and the puddles of the road. The ice captured the wheels of the flat-bed cart with a jolting CRACK. 

 

 The An Ding Peak disciples swayed violently and cried out unhappily for it.  

 

 “You moron!” one of them cried. “You really can’t even drive a cart?!” 

 

 The one in the driver’s seat had his back to the others; he closed his eyes and pressed his lips tightly together, like Shang Qinghua did when he thought others weren’t looking. He brushed stray hair from his eyes with a flick of his fingers like Shang Qinghua did. 

 

 As his fellows cursed in rage, one of the disciples in the back smacked the rails of the cart to get the driver’s attention. “Hey! Get on with it already! What the hell have you stopped for?” 

 

 The one in the driver’s seat made a familiar glare, still where others could not see, before he was shoved off the cart by the disciples at his back, and his arms cartwheeled wildly to keep him from falling into the mud. Before the driver even crouched down to inspect the wooden wheels, Mobei-Jun knew how he would do it, the way Shang Qinghua bounced on his heels once before he dropped, balancing his forearms on his knees. Shang Qinghua even lifted one of his hands to his chin, rubbing it gently. 

 

 Mobei-Jun’s feet took him forward without his permission. 

 

 Shang Qinghua stiffened at the sight of the ice and his head snapped up. He was shaking even before his eyes landed on Mobei-Jun approaching. 

 

 In his shock at seeing the human again, Mobei-Jun had lost his tenuous grip on his power, and so the cold spread out from him to transform summer to winter. The ice thickened on the ground. The air emptied of all warmth, turning sharp and cold. Shang Qinghua’s quick breaths came out as a fog. 

 

 Shang Qinghua did not like the cold. 

 

 Mobei-Jun stopped. He wrestled for control of his power, which still felt wild and sluggish and drained, but it was difficult to focus past the thundering of his heart and the searing flame quickening in his side. This was not right. He had already searched for Shang Qinghua at An Ding Peak and the human had not been there. 

 

 Shang Qinghua’s hair was different. He was thinner. He was yet again wearing the robes of a disciple, an unfavored one, which was a position that he had put behind him approximately thirty years ago. He looked younger. 

 

 Mobei-Jun had seen this scene before. 

 

 One of the disciples on the cart leaped down and drew his sword. Mobei-Jun heard it, even though his vision blurred again, and he heard the others clumsily follow suit. 

 

 “What sort of evil demon dares to cross our path?!” the leader called. 

 

 “You dare to appear in front of Cang Qiong Mountain disciples?!” another agreed. 

 

 “Begone, demon! Or taste our blades!” a third cried. 

 

 Mobei-Jun rarely had patience for the bravado of weaklings, but for Shang Qinghua, the arrows of ice that he summoned and loose through the air only struck the ground in front of these An Ding Peak disciples and the cart they were still clumsily exiting. The ice arrows were not elegantly formed, varying greatly in size and sharpness, some were like silk threads and others were like heavy clubs. The largest of them was stuck in the cart just below the leader’s armpit, almost level with his heart. 

 

 The disciples fell back with terrified screams or froze on the spot. 

 

 Mobei-Jun only truly had eyes for Shang Qinghua, who was still crouched beside the wheel, wide-eyed. None of the ice arrows had come near him, but he was still shaking. 

 

 This did not feel like a dream. Nor an illusion. Mobei-Jun was not skilled in dream magic or illusions, but he knew enough to protect his own mind from such parasites, and he could sense no competing powers. The ground was solid beneath him. The pain in his side chewed at him like a fire. His power was weak and unruly in his grasp, but it was familiar and did not truly feel corrupted. 

 

 Even if this was a vision borne from pure desperation, it was… good to see Shang Qinghua again.

 

 Too young. Too scared. Yet… alive and well. His eyes were not empty. 

 

 The disciple leader apparently followed Mobei-Jun’s staring, as he reached over with a trembling hand and unceremoniously yanked Shang Qinghua to his feet, then pushed him towards Mobei-Jun. “Go! Go forward! Why aren’t you going?” 

 

 Mobei-Jun regretted not putting an ice arrow through this disciple’s throat. 

 

 Shang Qinghua stumbled and caught himself, then skipped back, away from both Mobei-Jun and the disciple leader, back towards the cart. He clung to it, shaking his head with vigor. “Go to do what?” 

 

 “Defeat the demon!” the disciple leader cried, waving his free arm towards Mobei-Jun, even going so far as to stop his foot. “Go defend the righteous path and execute this evil creature for the sake of the world, you moron!” 

 

 “Right after you, shixiong!” 

 

 “Can’t you see that he’s challenging you?! I told you to go, so go! Stop this nonsense!” 

 

 The disciple leader grabbed Shang Qinghua harshly by the arm. One of the disciples in the cart kicked at Shang Qinghua’s hands, still clinging to the driver’s seat of the cart, and another shoved at his head. In hindsight, it was almost impressive that it took nearly four other disciples to drag an unwilling Shang Qinghua away from the cart and to push him forward like a sacrifice. 

 

 When Shang Qinghua’s face turned towards him again, Mobei-Jun saw that he was crying. He struggled wildly, clearly terrified, yet with flashes of fury peeking through. “I don’t want to! Shixiong, don’t make me! People will remember this kind of cruelty, forcing me to die like this-!” 

 

 Mobei-Jun had no more patience for this infuriating scene. 

 

 “I’m not forcing you to die!” the disciple leader cried. “If you can defeat this monster- urk.” 

 

 The ice arrow through his throat cut off this disciple’s insulting speech. Slightly larger and it might have taken the human’s head off. Instead, he fell backwards to the ground, with the ice arrow still embedded in his neck. 

 

 The other disciples screamed and let go of Shang Qinghua, who also screamed. 

 

 Two of the disciples turned and ran away immediately, four others followed only seconds after, attempting to scatter. One of the disciples clumsily cast a fire spell towards Mobei-Jun, but it was weak and washed over his skin like little more than harsh sunlight. Another charged with their sword glinting. The last pulled an unsteady Shang Qinghua in front of him like a human shield. 

 

 Eight ice arrows flew through the air, gleaming silver, thinner and more like silk strands now that Mobei-Jun had a firmer grasp of his power. These arrows pierced through the eye of the human with the sword, through the mouth of the one who had cast the fire, and through the backs of those who were attempting to flee. Blood splattered across the wet, frosted grass. 

 

 Only Shang Qinghua and the wretch daring to use him as a shield were left. 

 

 Shang Qinghua, clever as he was, was already flinging himself towards the ground. 

 

 Mobei-Jun’s final arrow swiftly went through the suddenly bared disciple’s heart. They fell back against the cart with a THUMP that made the beast attached to it cry out. The old and mundane horse had already been startled and distressed, but it could not pull free from the icy puddles clawed around the wheels. 

 

 Shang Qinghua glanced around at his fallen fellows, then before Mobei-Jun could think to speak or reach out to him, he flung himself forward and clung to Mobei-Jun’s thighs. His body was solid against Mobei-Jun’s legs. His grip was tight and his arms were warm. 

 

 He felt real. 

 

 “My king, please let me follow you for the rest of my life!” he wailed. 

 

 Mobei-Jun stared down at the human and felt aflame. This was too much. To relive this scene brought down emotions that roared and clawed inside his chest - confusion foremost, but also a deep rage to be confronted with this promise that Shang Qinghua would not keep. Like all others before him, Shang Qinghua had betrayed him. No matter what he had said before, Shang Qinghua had left him. 

 

 Shang Qinghua may have been right to leave, he thought, and that was even more infuriating. For how could he have known things that Shang Qinghua would not say?! How could he give things that Shang Qinghua would not demand?! How could he have known-?! 

 

 He should have known. He had been willfully blind.   

 

 This younger Shang Qinghua was looking up at him now, clinging even more fiercely. His eyes were wide. His cheeks were wet with lingering tears. “My king, please accept me,” he begged. “I’m very useful! I’ll be very useful!” 

 

 This had not been a lie. 

 

 Shang Qinghua had saved his life time and time again. Shang Qinghua had given him medicine when he was sick or injured. Shang Qinghua had given him food, good food, that he had not needed to check for poisons or mind-altering potions. Shang Qinghua had given him information that he had no apparent way of knowing, bringing him victory in many endeavors. Shang Qinghua had given him shelter when he needed rest; when he could not trust his own absent father’s servants or his own ambitious family members, he had somehow been able to find comfort and safety in the heart of a human cultivation sect. Time and time again, Shang Qinghua had provided for him and protected him. 

 

 And Mobei-Jun had failed to sufficiently repay this. 

 

 “My king, please, please, please spare this loyal servant and let him follow you for the rest of his life. No one will serve you better than me! I can serve tea, carry water, wash clothes, fold blankets… ah, no, that’s no- I can serve you as an undercover agent! I can-” 

 

 “Yes.” 

 

 “-pass on- what?” 

 

 “Yes,” Mobei-Jun said again. 

 

 He reached down and cupped the side of Shang Qinghua’s face with one hand. There was mud on his fingers, which transferred to Shang Qinghua’s too-young face, but Shang Qinghua did not complain. The human stared up at him. Shock, terror, and hope warred on his tear-stained face. He had such an expressive and confusing face. 

 

 Mobei-Jun had once thought that Shang Qinghua had an unremarkable face. In his search, he had missed this face so strongly that sometimes he could not breathe for regret. 

 

 “You will serve me,” Mobei-Jun said. “You will not betray me. You will not leave me.” 

 

 “No! No, never, my king!” Shang Qinghua agreed at once. 

 

 If this was a vision, it was fading quickly. Mobei-Jun’s power had broken free of his control, after all his focus and exertion, and now it seemed to have deserted him completely. The fire in his side was threatening to consume him. Mobei-Jun’s sight blackened at the edges and he hissed at the pain of it all, unwilling to be separated from even this vision of Shang Qinghua. 

 

 “My king…? My king, are you…?” 

 

 The world fell away, into darkness and fire, and Mobei-Jun fell with it. 

 


 

 Mobei-Jun returned to uncomfortable warmth all around him. He was lying on a soft bed, with a deep ache in his side, and there was the smell of strong medicine in the air. He was damp with sweat and there was a wet cloth across his forehead. On his uninjured side, there was the unpleasant heat of another body, another leg pressed against his own. 

 

 He opened his eyes to a humble ceiling lit by moonlight. The window was open, but the merciless summer night was clearly giving out no cooling winds. 

 

 Mobei-Jun did not want to let himself believe that this was not a vision. He had already made a fool of himself time and time again in his search for Shang Qinghua; he refused to be ensnared in some dream demon or other cowardly illusionist’s trap. He had to break free of whatever illusion this was and find Shang Qinghua in truth. 

 

 Yet… this felt real. Last Mobei-Jun remembered, he had entered an abyssal cave where time and space were thin and strange, and he had heard stories in which the past could be relived and redone. It was not… impossible. 

 

 He looked beside him. Shang Qinghua was lying on the bed beside him, on his stomach with his head pillowed on his arms, his face young and relaxed in sleep. 

 

 Mobei-Jun also wanted to believe that this was true. He wanted to have this. 

 

 Shang Qinghua moved in his sleep, he murmured unintelligible things, and he did not vanish into thin air, as Mobei-Jun lay still and watched him closely. Shang Qinghua pressed their bodies together in his sleep and gave a sigh of relief when he found Mobei-Jun’s cooler skin, he threw an arm over Mobei-Jun’s middle and a leg over Mobei-Jun’s leg. The heat of him was nearly unbearable, yet Mobei-Jun endeavored to be still. A careful hand felt over Shang Qinghua’s torso, exploring the weight and realness of him, and he could feel Shang Qinghua’s slow, hot breaths against his skin. 

 

 He attempted to meditate, but could not focus. His force of will was strong, but his flesh was weak, much weaker than it would be. Eventually, Mobei-Jun carefully pushed off and rolled away from Shang Qinghua, swinging his legs off the bed, and brought his hands to his head attempting to summon ice. Any kind of cold at all. 

 

 Still it felt like he was being roasted alive. It almost felt like he was dying. 

 

 His side throbbed and burned as revenge for his movement. 

 

 Mobei-Jun looked around the dark room of this human inn. There appeared to be supplies on a nearby table, including food and water. Mobei-Jun focused on the water. It felt as though if he did not drink this water immediately, he would die. 

 

 This weakness was intolerable. It was infuriating. He had forgotten just how serious this injury had been, confronted with the fact that he did not know if he could walk that far. His legs felt weak. His head was dizzied. It was almost certain that if he tried to stand, he would fall onto his face at once, and he could not bring himself to crawl. 

 

 Why was this wretched, swollen heat allowed to exist? It was torturous. 

 

 Yet… Mobei-Jun looked over his shoulder at Shang Qinghua. He did not want to wake him. He did not need Shang Qinghua just for this. He was not so pathetic. 

 

 If he collected the water silently, he could… return. 

 

 Then decide what to make of this vision. 

 

 Mobei-Jun forced himself to his feet, aiming not for the water but for the nearest wall, and he collapsed against it. His knees buckled, but did not collapse beneath him. Pain swell mightily, but abated again slowly as he forced himself to breathe. 

 

 At this success, he slowly transferred himself to the nearest piece of furniture, a shelf of some kind. From the shelf, he went to a side table, which wobbled violently, and then Mobei-Jun himself was shaking, his knees buckled again, and his hand slipped due to his own sweat. He fell. The side table broke under Mobei-Jun’s weight. 

 

  CRASH. 

 

 Shang Qinghua awoke immediately, bolting upright in bed, and cried, “What the fuck?! What? Oh!” He threw himself out of bed, then to his knees in front of Mobei-Jun, and said in an unnaturally silky tone, “My king, you’re finally awake-” 

 

 “Shut up!” Mobei-Jun snapped, sitting up with embarrassingly considerable effort. At this rate, he would soon be literally aflame, possibly from sheer humiliation. 

 

 Shang Qinghua flinched backwards. 

 

 Mobei-Jun froze. 

 

  “Ungrateful!” Shang Qinghua had declared, before he had left. “Disrespectful! Cruel!” 

 

 It was happening again. Already, he was failing to do better. 

 

 Even if this was a vision, he could not risk it. 

 

 Mobei-Jun did not move. He could not move. He did not know how to move without making Shang Qinghua hate him. He sat on the floor, next to a broken table, and burned. His vision blurred again between the overwhelming pain and the panic. 

 

 Shang Qinghua slowly unfurled. “My king?” 

 

 Mobei-Jun could not speak either. 

 

 “My king, are you...? Do you still remember who I am…?” 

 

 “Yes,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

 He had been offered the chance to magically forget, in his search for Shang Qinghua, by one of the seers who failed to locate the human and who had assumed he was dead. Forgetting was easy, they told him. Forgetting was painless, they told him. He had nearly killed them for it. 

 

 “Oh, that’s… good,” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

 They stared at each other. Shang Qinghua pursed his lips and tapped his fingers, waiting. He did not seem to realize that he was showing this impatience. 

 

 Finally, Shang Qinghua said, “My king, what were you doing? Maybe I can help.” 

 

 Mobei-Jun did not want to admit he had failed to reach the water. If he had truly been given the opportunity to make a new impression on Shang Qinghua, he did not want this to be it. He did not want Shang Qinghua to look down on him again. 

 

 Yet Shang Qinghua’s mind was too fast to prevent this. Shang Qinghua looked around and saw that they were close to the supplies he had left on the table, the destination of the path Mobei-Jun had been taking, and visibly perked up in realization. 

 

 “Oh, you were trying to reach the supplies? Please, allow me! You’re healing, my king, you should stay in bed! What is it? Food? Water? Medicine?” 

 

 “...Water.” 

 

 Shang Qinghua flew across the room to fetch it for him, presenting it almost proudly. 

 

 The heat was stronger than Mobei-Jun’s pride. He did not know if he would have been able to reject Shang Qinghua’s help - even that seemed too close to telling the human to go away or get lost, which was unthinkable. He accepted the water, doing his utmost to keep his fingers from trembling, and drank gratefully. It was too warm, unpleasant to taste, but it was far better than nothing. 

 

 After it was gone, he nodded at Shang Qinghua. Was this sufficiently respectful? 

 

 Apparently so, for Shang Qinghua nodded back as he took it back. “I’ll go fetch some more soon,” he promised. “For now, my king, please let me help you off the floor…” 

 

 Mobei-Jun scowled at the reminder. 

 

 “...unless my king wants to stay on the floor! Staying on the floor is fine!” 

 

 “No,” Mobei-Jun said, determined to stand again. 

 

 Shang Qinghua fluttered around him, like some anxious insect, until finally he could apparently not bear to watch Mobei-Jun struggle to his feet any longer. Shang Qinghua's strong, steady hands reached out - pulling him up, steadying him, pulling him along. Mobei-Jun was helpless to follow. The human had complained often of his chores with An Ding Peak, but he never seemed to have difficulty supporting Mobei-Jun’s weight in the rare times it was required. He was so much stronger than he appeared. 

 

 Shang Qinghua lowered him to the bed with insulting gentleness, but Mobei-Jun needed it, his legs were apparently in the process of melting and his side was on fire again. He fell to the bed with yet another pained hiss. 

 

 “There, my king! Now, I’ll just- oh, wow…” 

 

 Shang Qinghua had clearly opened Mobei-Jun’s robes to reach the Ling Hua dart, but he had not fully removed them. Now, desperate to relieve the heat even more after his embarrassingly difficult walk, Mobei-Jun removed the upper layers of his clothing, as well as his boots, leaving him only in trousers. He belatedly recalled, looking at Shang Qinghua’s wide eyes and open mouth, that humans were typically more modest. This young Shang Qinghua had not yet had dealings with many demons - or any demons before this meeting, he had claimed. 

 

 He wanted to make a good impression on Shang Qinghua, but… Mobei-Jun considered returning the layers and felt unreasonable despair. 

 

 “It’s hot,” he said. 

 

 “Yeah, you are,” Shang Qinghua said, breathlessly, then shook his head violently. “I mean! Of course my king is hot! You’re an ice demon, after all! And it’s really hot out right now because summer is the worst! If you want to remove clothing because you’re super hot, please, please do not let this humble servant stop you, my king.” 

 

 Cautiously, Mobei-Jun nodded, then threw the robes aside. 

 

 Shang Qinghua had always seemed appreciative of Mobei-Jun’s appearance and this made it clear the admiration had been there from the very beginning. Often enough, he had commented on the handsomeness of Mobei-Jun’s face or the strength of Mobei-Jun’s body. Initially, Mobei-Jun had thought of this as shallow falsities, but he had come to alternatively enjoy it and find it frustrating. His looks would not be enough, but if he was truly in the past, then he could - and he would - use them until he could figure out how to win Shang Qinghua’s full regard. 

 

 Despite these thoughts, Mobei-Jun felt in no state to impress Shang Qinghua. After a first meeting this humiliating, whether the original or this revision, perhaps he had never truly had a chance of impressing Shang Qinghua. 

 

 “My king! Don’t-!” 

 

 Mobei-Jun’s head snapped towards the human and Shang Qinghua jumped back reflexively. Mobei-Jun very still and carefully said, “What?” 

 

 “Your, ah, your injury is… bleeding again. I could… I could treat it? Again?” 

 

 Mobei-Jun looked down. So it was. It was extremely painful. 

 

 “Very well,” Mobei-Jun agreed. 

 

 Shang Qinghua looked surprised by this agreement, but did not question it. He gathered some supplies from the table and Mobei-Jun lay down again, allowing the human to clean the injury, apply more medicine, and even apply bandages. He watched the way that Shang Qinghua’s brow furrowed in concentration. He watched the way that Shang Qinghua glanced at him, out of the corner of his eye, gaze bouncing fearfully away every time he met Mobei-Jun’s eyes. 

 

 “There! All done, my king!” 

 

 Mobei-Jun did not feel entirely inside his own body at the moment, but he managed to nod. Shang Qinghua bowed unnecessarily and stepped away with the supplies. Mobei-Jun watched him do this as well. He did not want to look away. 

 

 Shang Qinghua shuffled awkwardly, after he had put everything away and cleaned his hands once more. “My king, is there… is there anything else? Anything at all?” 

 

 “...No.” 

 

 Unconsciousness was threatening to claim him again. 

 

 Shang Qinghua remained standing, taking a few steps towards the table, then back again. He looked around the room. He looked at the bed again, then quickly away. Mobei-Jun did not have the concentration to understand what the human was doing - his eyes were trying to close without his permission - until Shang Qinghua sat down at the table, pillowing his head on his arms again. 

 

 “No,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

 Shang Qinghua sat bolt upright again. “My king?!” 

 

 The human complained often when he fell asleep in strange places. He persisted in nodding off in chairs, at his desk, on the floor, and in the sitting room of his own house, instead of simply asking to leave Mobei-Jun’s presence, and then whining about what this was doing to his back. It was ridiculous and annoying. 

 

 “...There is room on the bed,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

 The bed was slightly too short for Mobei-Jun, lengthwise, but its width was sufficient for them both. It would be hot, but he would not have Shang Qinghua on the floor. At least in this way, he would be assured that the human was nearby. 

 

 Shang Qinghua’s mouth dropped open again. He did not move. 

 

 Mobei-Jun scowled. 

 

 “Oh, my king, this servant couldn’t possibly! I would dare! I wouldn’t dream-!” 

 

 “Be quiet. Stop arguing,” Mobei-Jun snapped. 

 

 Shang Qinghua’s mouth clicked shut and, very, very slowly he made his way back to the bed. Mobei-Jun glared at him expectantly. Shang Qinghua gingerly laid down, on the very edge of the bed, looking far too shocked and uncertain for sleep. They were not touching. There was, in fact, a great deal of space left between them. 

 

 But Shang Qinghua was on the bed. This would do. Mobei-Jun shortly lost his grip on his consciousness, but he fell asleep listening to Shang Qinghua’s careful breathing beside him. Yes, this would do. 

 


 

 The vision did not break by morning. Mobei-Jun awoke yet again uncomfortably hot, with a sleeping Shang Qinghua plastered to his side yet again, and disgusting sunlight pouring in through the open window. The days here had been unforgivably hot, Mobei-Jun remembered. He was already sweating. Perhaps he was still sweating. 

 

 He stared at the humble ceiling and considered what it meant to truly be in the past. He was young and vulnerable again. He did not have the power of his ancestors or the allies of his present. Yet… he still had Shang Qinghua. 

 

 This felt like a humiliatingly worthy trade. It felt akin to a blessing. 

 

 When Shang Qinghua awoke, he flung himself off the bed with a cry of horror. He fell to his knees and begged forgiveness for clinging to Mobei-Jun’s body in his sleep. He said something about the heat during the night and about strange dreams, then cut himself off, and peered curiously at Mobei-Jun’s face and neck. This bewildering, chaotic behavior was extremely familiar. 

 

 “I would have a bath,” Mobei-Jun said, instead of asking after any of this. It would only result in more babbling and even more confusion, before Shang Qinghua would clam up and begin changing the subject to distract from what he had said. 

 

 “Right away, my king!” Shang Qinghua promised, fleeing gratefully 

 

 Shang Qinghua brought the bath into the room, then ran back and forth to bring the water. In the time when Mobei-Jun had been searching for the human, when he had been forced to rest, he had come to hate the silence around him. It settled something in him to listen to Shang Qinghua’s quick footsteps, the thump and rustle of his actions, and his muttering under his breath as he worked. 

 

 Mobei-Jun heard the human mention dwindling funds and money-grubbing innkeepers, and sat up to accommodate this at once. This he could provide. Before, he had not cared for this greedy traitor’s suffering, certain that this pathetic human would betray him or otherwise fail him in the face of the first difficulty. 

 

 It took him a minute to recall how he had managed this at this point in time, but he reached out through space and managed to summon a handful of gold, silver, and small jewels. The northern kingdoms were rich in natural resources. This was… the beginning of what he should have been providing for Shang Qinghua; he knew now that he could not trust the confusing human to simply ask for anything. 

 

 “My king, the bath is- holy shit! Where did that come from?!” 

 

 Mobei-Jun did not answer. Reaching through the shadows like that had been… absurdly taxing. His vision blurred again. Perhaps he should not have done that while so heavily injured and drained, when his powers were still underdeveloped. 

 

 He dropped the funds on the bed and put his head in his hands. 

 

 “My king…?” Shang Qinghua said, quieter, desperate. “My king… are you…?” 

 

 Mobei-Jun shook his head to clear his vision, then raised his head with all the dignity that he could muster. It was not much. “For you,” he said, waving a hand at the gold, silver, and jewels now glittering and gleaming on the bedspread. 

 

 “...What?” 

 

 Shang Qinghua often asked obvious questions and often did not even wait for an answer. When he was surprised, his mind sometimes seemed to hear things several seconds after his ears. Mobei-Jun assumed that this was one of those times. He did not bother to answer the question and focused instead on reaching the bath. 

 

 He made it to the bath without falling, while Shang Qinghua dithered over the funds. 

 

 “This must be for… for the room? And the food? And the supplies?” Shang Qinghua mumbled to himself. “This is… this is good. This is bad. This could buy the whole fucking town, what the fuck. What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?” 

 

 Satisfied, Mobei-Jun stripped and sank into the bath. 

 

 “I could retire on this, probably, this is ridiculous. My king- oh, holy shit.” 

 

 Mobei-Jun’s eyes had closed and his head tilted back in the sheer pleasure of sinking into water, even though it was still unpleasantly warm. That would change in time. The tub was not large enough to stretch out, nor even to comfortably accommodate his legs if he curled up, so he had lifted them out of the water to lounge properly. For a moment, he reveled in an absence of pain, though the throbbing ache returned quickly enough. 

 

 Shang Qinghua was apparently choking. 

 

 Mobei-Jun opened his eyes and looked at the wide-eyed human. “What?” 

 

 Had he crossed the line of human modesty too far too quickly? This young Shang Qinghua appeared slightly red. Mobei-Jun scowled to think of all he did not know - all he had not cared to know - about humans. There was clearly much to discover. 

 

 “I’m going to go do laundry!” Shang Qinghua shouted, suddenly. “My king, please excuse this servant! I need to go do laundry immediately, right now!” 

 

 “Fine.” 

 

 Shang Qinghua left the room, leaving the funds on the bed, but returned after several minutes with everything that he needed to look after their clothing and their room. Mobei-Jun watched as Shang Qinghua capably changed the sweat- and blood-stained sheets, then began to wash the clothes that Mobei-Jun had left on the floor, occasionally sneaking glances (some longer than others) in Mobei-Jun’s direction. It was truly servants’ work. It was beneath Shang Qinghua. 

 

 It would be beneath Shang Qinghua, Lord of An Ding Peak. Currently, it was not beneath Shang Qinghua, outer disciple of An Ding Peak. Mobei-Jun could not bring in anyone else to do the work for him, leaving Shang Qinghua with nothing to do but sit beside the tub… or… perhaps in the tub without him? No, it was too small for that. 

 

 Mobei-Jun shifted in discomfort and scowled at the ceiling to think that he could not simply whisk his new servant away to the Ice Palace. His powers were lessened, his allies were nonexistent, many rivals and other enemies would still be alive - his position was not strong, approximately thirty years into the past, and so he would only be bringing Shang Qinghua into danger. 

 

 His father was still alive, if essentially equally absent. 

 

 His treacherous uncle’s power was… considerable at the moment. 

 

 Progress lost could be made again, at least, especially with Shang Qinghua by his side. It would have been… preferable… if he had been able to present himself as a worthy king to Shang Qinghua now. However, he knew - he had always known, but it was brutally clear now - that Shang Qinghua had been the one to make him a king. 

 

 Shang Qinghua still had his strange and sometimes… utterly elusive-in-reason attachment to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. He would likely balk if he was whisked away from his chores like that, with the way he was clinging to them now. He would not understand why Mobei-Jun was taking him away. Mobei-Jun… disliked the idea of stealing a terrified and bewildered Shang Qinghua away… perhaps earning Shang Qinghua’s resentment immediately by forcing his choice. He would only be making the same mistake as his careless father. 

 

 He looked at Shang Qinghua again, who looked away from him quickly. 

 

 There was no one else to do the work. Mobei-Jun could not do it. He was not… unwilling… to lower himself to servant’s work if Shang Qinghua requested it, but he did not… he did not know how. Hadn’t he embarrassed himself enough? Shang Qinghua could do it for now, but… Mobei-Jun did not know how to make it clear that Shang Qinghua would not only be a servant. Mobei-Jun needed to make his interest unmistakable. 

 

 His head was beginning to hurt. This was all unreasonably complicated. 

 

 Mobei-Jun tilted his head back again and closed his eyes. It had been over an hour and the warm water had turned to a more palatable icy slush. Shang Qinghua had hung a wet cloth over the window to block the worst of the morning sunlight. He could feel himself healing and tried to focus on that. 

 

 To Shang Qinghua’s eyes, he must have appeared to be asleep. The human began to mutter under his breath, in his corner and over the sewing that he was doing, in a way that was confused and agitated. 

 

 “Objective accomplished?” he said first, surprised, followed by a long silence in which he did not breathe. Presumably, Shang Qinghua was watching to see if Mobei-Jun was awake, and it seemed he determined that Mobei-Jun was not. He dropped his voice to a hiss as he continued speaking to himself. “What ‘return home function’?!” 

 

 It was nonsense. Shang Qinghua occasionally muttered this kind of nonsense. 

 

 “Basic accomplishment of- what? Slight romance plot deviation? What romance? Objective accomplished? It hasn’t fucking started yet, what the hell...? Broken piece of shit. What happened to ‘survive’? Is that the story now? I’m not complaining, but actually I am complaining! Holes filled? Nothing’s happened yet.” 

 

 Mobei-Jun attempted to understand this, but it was beyond him. This was actually notably more nonsense than Shang Qinghua usually muttered in his direct presence. 

 

 The tasks that the human took upon himself were strange, the reasons apparently even stranger, and yet they always seemed to turn out in Mobei-Jun’s favor, sometimes through important shifts in power and remarkable danger. He would be dead if Shang Qinghua had not taken it upon himself to save his life for reasons that were his own. 

 

 He had occasionally wondered over the years if Shang Qinghua was blessed or cursed with some form of precognition. Some individuals in the Demon Realm possessed such gifts of knowing, so it had not seemed unreasonable that humans had their own equivalent. Shang Qinghua had never admitted to this one way or the other. When Mobei-Jun had bothered to demand of him how he knew things, Shang Qinghua had rarely answered directly, or only had ever cited vague scrolls or vague gossip.

 

 Caution always seemed best when dealing with the human’s nonsense. 

 

 “...All restrictions gone…” Shang Qinghua muttered next, apparently stunned. “All objectives complete? This is just a glitch, right? It has to be a glitch.” 

 

 The muttering mostly became unintelligible after that. 

 

 Eventually, Mobei-Jun had to leave the bathtub. The water had become quite filthy. He reached for one of the towels Shang Qinghua had brought with the tub and wrapped it around his waist as he stepped out. Shang Qinghua startled so violently that he fell off his little stool. This was utterly unsurprising. 

 

 Mobei-Jun collapsed on the bed, yet again drained simply by crossing a room. 

 

 “My king… can I… can I get you something?” 

 

 “No.” 

 

 “Ah, okay. Just… all my king has to do is say something if he needs anything… like having his injury treated again or...” 

 

 “Yes. That.” 

 

 “Oh? Uh, sure! Yes! Right away!” 

 

 Shang Qinghua scurried off and returned with his supplies again. His hands were steadier now, this second time, and Mobei-Jun tried not to think too much of the sensation of those deft fingers on his skin. This time, Shang Qinghua let one of his hands simply rest on Mobei-Jun’s abdomen, feeling along, while he reached for the bandage - before he realized what he was doing, squeaked, and withdrew the hand at once. Mobei-Jun did not really have the strength to move, and yet it seemed to take a great deal of strength not to move. 

 

 Once he was finished, Shang Qinghua repeated his entreaty that Mobei-Jun call if he needed anything at all. Mobei-Jun grunted in acknowledgment. Embarrassingly, all he wanted to do now was pass out. It was becoming too hot to even think anymore. It was much too hot to speak. 

 

 Shang Qinghua let out a shaky breath. Mobei-Jun cracked open an eye and saw the human wipe his arm across his forehead. Shang Qinghua’s forehead was slightly shiny with sweat. Mobei-Jun was not good at estimating which temperatures were comfortable for humans - on either side of the scale. 

 

 “Take your own bath, if you wish,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

 “W-what?” Shang Qinghua glanced at the tub and made a face. 

 

 “Fetch new water or don’t,” Mobei-Jun snapped at him. “I don’t care.” 

 

 “Ah. Uh, thank you?” 

 

 The human stepped away and Mobei-Jun could no longer force his eyes open, even as he did not immediately sleep. He heard Shang Qinghua dragging the tub across the floor. Sometime later, he heard the slosh of water filling the tub again. After that, everything faded away and Mobei-Jun slept, safe and comfortable, with Shang Qinghua safe and comfortable nearby.