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He didn't even mean to. Ordinarily, when Shang Qinghua is very engrossed in his task and is lulled in the monotony of paperwork, it just happens that he’ll start humming which then eventually evolves into a soft song sang under his breath. Shang Qinghua doesn’t think it happens often and when it does it’s usually when he’s just by himself.

But today, as he is doing the accounts of the Northern Palace, he starts to hum, and then he gets deep enough into his filing and sorting that he didn't even notice he had started singing until Mobei Jun called his name.

"Shang Qinghua."

He cuts off mid-verse of a popular Chinese pop song—what is it now, two or three decades ago?—and regards his King with wide-eyed curiosity, hoping Mobei Jun didn’t realize that Shang Qinghua had sort of forgotten he was in the same room.

"Yes, my King?”

"You are,” he narrows his eyes—not in an angry way, but more like he’s trying to parse his next words, “...singing."

"Ah.” Well, that wasn’t what Shang Qinghua was expecting! Not at all! Had he been singing? Oh, no. Was it annoying his King?! “I—was I? This servant apologizes, my King." He gives an embarrassed laugh. Ah, shit. Was Mobei Jun terribly annoyed? Was he terribly off-key? Shang Qinghua knows he's not a good singer by any stretch of the imagination, but he didn't think he was that bad? "This one didn't realize. I will stop right away. It won't happen agai—"

"No.” Mobei Jun cuts him off, settling back in his seat and dropping his eyes back at a document in his hand. “Continue."

"My King?” Shang Qinghua was not quite sure he heard him right. “Pardon, my King. I don’t think this one heard correctly?”

“Continue. I…do not mind it."

"Ah.” Shang Qinghua did not miss the brief hesitation in his words, but the look on Mobei Jun’s face tells him he's not going to repeat himself so he better not have any follow-up questions. “Yes, of course. If my King wishes so."

Shang Qinghua does as he’s told but not with little self-consciousness. If he switches to a slower song and makes sure he hums a little softer…well.

Later, when they've finished with both of their work and Shang Qinghua is tidying up his corner of the study, Mobei Jun speaks again.

"You never told this King you could sing."

His face is unreadable as always, but does Shang Qinghua detect a hint of wonder in his tone? Surely not. He prides himself in knowing how to read his King best but surely this one could not be accurate? Still, it doesn’t sound like an accusation or a reprimand. Mobei Jun did let him continue and seemed alright enough with it even when Shang Qinghua is pretty sure his voice cracked on some notes. He butchered some bars when he tried to rap a hiphop song from memory but it’s not like his King would know and he sang very softly. So. He couldn’t have been all that bad then, right? Right??

"Well, my King," Shang Qinghua shrugs, a little sheepish for some reason, "you never asked."

 

--

 

Shen Qingqiu makes the discovery one day when Shang Qinghua sings a passage of a text the Qing Jing Peak Lord has been poring over for days.

"See, it's not a text. It's a song, bro!"

The Qing Jing Peak Lord looks at Shang Qinghua with a mixture of shock and incredulity which Shang Qinghua ignores in favor of humming the rest of the verse.

“What the fuck,” he says breaking his usual peak lord façade he’s kept for decades in the wake of his sudden and shocking discovery. “You can sing? We’ve been here for literal ages. How the fuck am I just finding this out now?”

Wow, Shang Qinghua thinks, it must have been a real shock if Cucumber-bro let his pretentious peak lord façade slip and is dropping f-bombs left and right.

“You didn’t ask?? Literally, no one did?? I mean, it’s not that I’m good or anything. I just know how to carry a tune.”

“And read musical notes apparently.”

“Yeah, I had some piano and violin lessons when I was a kid, you know, back in—yeah. Never amounted to anything though. Was too lazy to practice,” Shang Qinghua shrugs, casual. Typical Chinese extra-curricular education his parents—mostly his mom—tried to push on him. “My mom really wanted to have a musical kid, I guess? So, I had some vocal training too. That didn’t take off either so a lot of good that did except take a lot of my free time when I could’ve been, I don’t know, playing Tekken or something.”

Shen Qingqiu shoots Shang Qinghua another incredulous look.

"No, bro. You're really good. I'm only saying this because it's the truth."

Shang Qinghua feels a little awkward at the compliment. He’s never been good with them. But he accepts it nonetheless because Shen Qingqiu—and Cucumber-bro—rarely ever gives out compliments so Shang Qinghua knows he means it genuinely.

“Oh…uh, well, thanks? I guess?”

The Qing Jing Peak Lord just nods, seemingly pleased. But really, though. Shang Qinghua should have known every little good thing has an equal price to pay, especially if they came from Shen Qingqiu.

“That being said and now that I know you’re actually talented at something—seriously, why did you even become a writer when you could’ve been, I don’t know, an idol or something?” Shen Qingqiu pauses. “No, wait. Idols have to be attractive. And charming. Not shut-in hikikomori weebs.”

“Says the person who commented whole college literary level essays on every chapter like it’s fucking graded and bought VIP passes for advance readership plus all the extras! I knew you were a platinum subscriber, bro! Writers see the top contributors!” Pot calling the kettle black, really. Like Cucumber-bro wasn’t a shut-in hikikomori weeb himself. He had to be to have all that free time reading all those Zhongdian novels, analyze and pick them apart bit by bit, and memorize lore Airplane didn’t even realize he wrote. “And hey! I resent that! I was okay-looking, alright? Probably not enough to be street-casted but the make-up would’ve taken care of it! I became a writer by choice!” Not really, it was more of a hobby thing that became something of a side-gig to cover living expenses his parents’ allowance couldn’t cover that eventually became his main source of income, but Cucumber-bro didn’t need to know that.

Ignoring the bit about being one of Airplane’s top fans—which he’s sure Cucumber-bro took as an insult—he sneers, “If you were a singer instead of a shitty hack writer, we wouldn’t be in this mess of a world you created!”

“Yeah, well,” Shang Qingua sputters trying to think of a comeback. He likes to think he’s gotten good at them what with constantly verbally sparring with the likes of someone as barbed tongued as The Qing Jing Peak Lord almost every time they see each other. “It’s not like you didn’t have fun being in this world! Don’t even lie! You even married my OP protagonist son!”

There. Cucumber bro can’t say anything against that because it’s the truth after all.

True enough, Shen Qingqiu just narrows his eyes at Shang Qinghua in warning before hissing ‘Quit calling Binghe your son’ murderously under his breath.

“You stirred me off tangent,” Shen Qingqiu says, raising his fan and affecting his peak lord persona once again. “Anyhow, this master humbly requires your assistance.”

Shang Qinghua watches as Shen Qingqiu stands up, gracefully like a waterfall falling upwards, and walks to one of his many bookshelves in the bamboo house. He pulls out a book and opens it to a page where Shang Qinghua sees the word ‘hymns’ at the top. He frowns at the saccharine smile on Sheng Qingqui’s face.

“I need you to help me navigate through this whole section for my lessons.”

The An Ding Peak Lord just barely manages to not roll his eyes. Of course.

Adopting a seemingly hurried disposition, Shang Qinghua puts on a deeply apologetic look as he slowly tries to stand up and edge his way out of Shen Qingqiu’s study.

"Oh, no. This peak lord apologizes in advance, Shen-shixiong, but this one actually has to—”

"Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky."

Really?! His whole fucking ID?! Damn!

"...fine."

Shang Qinghua relents as he sits back down and resigns his afternoon to helping Shen Qingqiu with his lesson plan. He watches the Qing Jing Peak Lord set up his qin and wonders why he didn’t just ask Luo Binghe for this.

“Binghe is…not particularly versed in vocal arrangement.”

“Wait, really? So even the protagonist’s halo has a limit? Wait. Didn’t I write a plot where he has to serenade a potential wife or something? I mean, I feel like I would’ve. Six-hundred something wives and all.”

“Surprisingly, you actually didn’t.”

“Huh,” Shang Qinghua says while Shen Qingqiu just hums his assent as he positions the book of hymns between them. “Well, what do you know.”

That’s a wasted plot device right there if there ever was one. Not to mention, it would’ve surely saved him from being Shen Qingqiu’s teaching assistant for the day. He just knows Luo Binghe would’ve been more than eager to jump at the opportunity. Shang Qinghua just hopes his protagonist demon lord son doesn’t hold this over him.

 

 

The next day, Shang Qinghua finds himself sitting beside Shen Qingqiu before a class of Qing Jing Peak disciples taking up intermediate qin.

"Your Shang-shishu is here to help me today."

They greeted Shang Qinghua politely—bless them and bless Cucumber-bro for teaching these kids better manners than the original goods ever did—but it was clear from the way they regarded him that they all thought Shang Qinghua was just going to assist their Shizun by turning the pages of the music book probably.

But then Shen Qingqiu started strumming his qin and Shan Qinghua opened his mouth to sing.

 


 

News (and gossip) travels fast in Cang Qiong—especially something apparently as shocking and juicy as the peak lord of An Ding singing in Qing Jing Peak’s music classes—that before long, Xian Shu Peak has sent for An Ding Peak’s songbird of a peak lord to sing their compositions.

Out of everyone in the sect, only the An Ding Peak disciples know of their Shifu’s talent and it is a rule drilled into every disciple to never speak about it to anyone outside of their peak. The reason they never told anybody is because they knew this is exactly what was going to happen. They’ve always wanted their Shifu to be rightfully recognized more and be given the praises he is due for his many talents but not like this! Not if it keeps him off their peak more than he already is!

Shang Qinghua’s head disciple, a no-nonsense young woman, tells him as much.

“This one, and the rest of her martial siblings, just don’t think it’s fair, Shifu. Not at all. It’s just more work on top of all your peak lord responsibilities.”

Shang Qinghua is flattered truly. His disciples are such good kids! He assures her that it’s fine and that he really doesn’t mind helping the other peak lords.

Meanwhile, Mobei Jun is having the worst time of his life. Like the An Ding disciples, the knowledge of Shang Qinghua’s singing is a closely guarded secret of his. And much like them, he also knew this is exactly what would happen if word got out of Shang Qinghua’s truly melodic singing voice.

He used to come by An Ding Peak to find Shang Qinghua in his chambers, always welcoming him with a startled but notably delighted ‘my King!’ as a soft smile blooms on his face. But now, Mobei Jun mostly arrives at an empty room with no Shang Qinghua in sight and with no gauge of when he might return, and it just keeps happening.

One day, he shows up at An Ding for yet another day of keeping an eye on Shang Qinghua (keeping him company) and maybe forcibly drag him back to the Northern Palace (persuade him to go home) if he’s just lazing around An Ding Peak. There is much work to do back in the palace after all.

Mobei Jun arrives at Shang Qinghua’s chambers to find it bare of his presence yet again, so he hazards to go to his office. He waits there and then is later greeted by a sour-faced An Ding Peak disciple who he guesses is Shang Qinghua’s head disciple judging by the way she navigates through the messy room scattered with stacks of scrolls, papers, tomes, and other administrative supplies with ease. The displeasure on her face doesn’t seem to be directed at Mobei Jun, seeing as she has yet to notice him, but more like she is just irritated at something. Even stranger is she doesn’t even startle when she finally took notice of Mobei Jun lounging on the long bench at the far end of her Shifu’s office. Curious.

“Good afternoon, Your Highness,” she bows in greeting and Mobei Jun wonders at the way she doesn’t tremble in his presence like most humans would and seem to almost sound as if seeing a demon lord in her Shifu’s office is nothing out of the ordinary. “If you’re looking for Shifu he’s either at Qing Jing Peak with Shen-shibo’s music class or at Xian Shu Peak with Qi-shigu’s disciples.

Mobei Jun foregoes his curiosity about this disciple’s strange lack of fear in the presence of a demon lord and merely raises a brow. She seems to get the message.

He didn’t expect her to launch in a full-blown rambling rant much like Shang Qingua tends to.

"They've been hogging Shifu ever since they found out he can sing. This one gathers that perhaps His Highness knew about it too, yes? We haven't seen Shifu for more than a shichen in the mornings before he's swept by one of the other peaks and then at night when he returns." She frowns further, aggressively arranging the stacks of papers in Shan Qinghua’s desk, as she continues her diatribe.

Shang Qinghua’s disciples seem to take after their peak lord. At least this one does. Mobei Jun is suddenly reminded of Shang Qinghua mentioning once that his disciples are like his children.

“They never really took notice of Shifu before but now suddenly they can’t get enough of him? See, this is why we never told anyone Shifu sings. We knew this is exactly what was going to happen.”

Mobei Jun feels a sudden bizarre kinship with the rest of An Ding Peak.

The disciple continues to putter about the office arranging this and that. She continues to run her mouth about the unfairness of the other peaks wanting to monopolize Shang Qinghua and his newly discovered vocal talents while Mobei Jun sits in silence. It strongly reminds him of Shang Qinghua.

“It’s not like we just want to keep Shifu here to finish all the work he leaves behind that cannot be delegated to others when he’s at the demon realm—which, you know, no offense meant to you, Your Highness. Whatever it is you and my Shifu have going on is of course none of this humble one’s business.”

Mobei Jun raises an eyebrow at that but otherwise says nothing.

“It’s good that Shifu is getting all this attention and it’s great that people are finally recognizing how great he is. It’s just that…we want to be with Shifu too when he’s here in Cang Qiong. We like it when he’s here in An Ding. And we like the little songs he sings when he thinks no one is listening, even though we can’t really understand the lyrics. I suppose they’re songs from Shifu’s hometown.” She stops for a breath and clicks her tongue at a document before grabbing a brush to scribble something on the margins. Shang Qinghua does that too, Mobei Jun notes. “But now they’re always calling for him for something or other about music. As if Shifu doesn’t have enough work on his plate as it is as a peak lord. And you know Shifu, Your Highness, you know he always has a hard time saying no. Actually, I don’t think Shifu even knows how to say no.”

It is important to note that at this point, Shang Qinghua’s head disciple has left and shortly returned to serve Mobei Jun some chilled wine. One that he favors. Something must have shown on his face as the disciple seems to have felt the need to explain.

“Yeah. Shifu keeps stock of it for when you come here. He didn’t say but we all know. Shifu much prefers to drink the fruitier ones. This one is a little too strong for his tastes.”

Mobei Jun narrows his eyes at the cup and discreetly checks its contents. It doesn’t seem to be laced with some poison of any kind. He sees and smells not a trace of it. Still, he eyes it with suspicion.

“Oh, forgive this one’s bluntness, Your Highness, but I assure you it is not poisoned. I realize my words may sound like empty assurances but this one swears on her life. You are Shifu’s most honored guest and doing so will be very rude.”

Rude, she said. As if poisoning a powerful demon lord is just a slight in manners and basic hospitality and not at all an incredibly daring, not to mention stupid, endeavor.

“Even if it is, this demon king is impervious to most.”

“But, of course, Your Highness.”

Mobei Jun gets the distinct feeling that this child is mocking him with the way she seems to smile at him indulgently, but there is nothing cruel about it. Just amused. And at Mobei Jun’s expense, it seems. Truly such a bizarre and odd child—and quite different from Shang Qinghua and his usual disposition despite the earlier noted similarities.

“You are not afraid of this demon lord.”

“Hmm?” She hums as he looks up from where she’s put down a plate of sweetbreads and other assortments of snacks Mobei Jun favors. This must be Shang Qinghua’s doing as well. “Oh, well, I mean, after Shifu was reinstated as peak lord and he explained to us the situation, this one and the rest of An Ding Peak decided that, well, if Shifu continues to be acquaintances with His Highness then surely this demon king means no harm to these humble ones? That is to say, we trust Shifu’s judgment.”

Presumptuous but permissible on account that their assessment was based on Shang Qinghua’s.

“What is your name?”

"This one is named Li Qiaolian, Your Highness."

She bows, smiling at Mobei Jun slightly as she comes up, and he hums in acknowledgment before finally taking a sip of the liquor. The disciple refills it as soon as the cup touches the table.

"So, His Highness will do something then? To bring Shifu back in An Ding Peak and maybe lessen the other peaks' tendency to monopolize Shifu? Just lessen of course. As much as we want to keep Shifu to ourselves we know we shouldn't."

Mobei Jun considers this and nods once as he says, "This King will see what he can do."

It is not a promise, but it seems to have satisfied Li Qiaolian. She smiles once again before bowing out, leaving Mobei Jun behind to ruminate on the rather strange conversation (can it even be called that? It seems more like a bizarre brief encounter) he just had with Shang Qinghua’s head disciple.

 


 

The next day, when Mobei Jun arrives at An Ding Peak, Shang Qinghua’s head disciple is already waiting for him along with three identical-looking boys. They look at him curiously as they tilt their heads to the side in synchronized unison. Mobei Jun notes the distinct lack of fear before a demon lord yet again.

“Salutations, You Highness,” Li Qiaolian says greets. “Here to make good of your word this one hopes? I thought to bring my shidis along to escort Shifu on the way back if His Highness doesn’t mind. They are An Ding Peak’s inner disciples.”

Mobei Jun regards the boys beside Li Qiaolian who bows to him in unison with a deferential ‘Your Highness.' When they look up, their eyes gleam of something Mobei Jun cannot quite parse. He thinks he should be wary, but these are just children. And An Ding Peak disciples at that. Still, the way they eye Mobei Jun is—not exactly concerning as it is…strange and perhaps a little bit unnerving for a lesser demon. Shang Qinghua’s disciples are truly a peculiar bunch.

“Shifu is in Qing Jing Peak today. Shall we?”

Mobei Jun grunts and turns to the direction of where Shang Qinghua’s head disciple starts. The three inner disciples, who somehow also seem like it’s normal for them to be on an entourage of a Northern demon king for some strange bizarre reason, bring up the rear and Mobei Jun ignores the way their eyes seem to bore holes on his back.

Li Qiaolian greets The Qing Jing Peak’s head disciple who cowered before Mobei Jun (a more appropriate reaction) before trudging the path up to the Qing Jing Peak lord's bamboo house. All around them, Qing Jing Peak disciples steer clear of their path to make way for Mobei Jun and his truly unusual retinue. It’s still a little subdued compared to what Mobei Jun is used to when he's in the presence of humans, but he supposes constant exposure to a demon lord lessens the effect. Even if said demon lord prefers to play househusband to Qing Jing’s peak lord.

The Qing Jing Peak head disciple runs ahead of them and announces their arrival. They are then greeted by a very confused and a little panicked Shang Qinghua at the sight of his King with his disciples. Half of Shen Qingqiu’s face is hidden behind his fan but his eyes shine in amusement as Luo Binghe stands beside him looking equal parts amused and bemused.

Li Qiaolian steps in front and bows to them, “Good day, Shen-shibo, Lord Luo. Apologies for the sudden visit but we have come to collect our Shifu.”

Shen Qingqiu acknowledges Shang Qinghua’s head disciple and then his eyebrows climb to his hairline as his eyes land on the three identical faces bowing just behind her.

“Oh, I didn’t know they come in threes.”

Meanwhile, Shang Qinghua looks like he’s going to have a stroke with how much his eye is twitching.

“Xiao Lian, what—why are you—my King—"

"Shang Qinghua,” Mobei Jun growled low, electing to ignore all formalities and everyone else in favor of addressing his head steward, “how dare you shirk your duties to your peak and your King. If you have no tasks to accomplish here, then get back to the palace where much work awaits."

"That's not true!” Li Qiaolian pipes up beside him. “Shifu actually has a lot of work to do. You know work is never finished at An Ding Peak.”

Shang Qinghua immediately goes on the defensive.

"It's not my fault! I was just—Shen-shixiong needed—I was—" He takes a look at the way his head disciple is looking at him a little beseechingly then at the frosty glare Mobei Jun is directing at him and sighs. Resigned to his faith and the talking down he’s inevitably going to get. "Ah, of course. This peak lord apologizes."

This is the price to pay for being just a little good at something, ah? This is what he gets for helping? Take all his “talents” away! He doesn’t need them! It’s just more work and trouble than he ever cared for anyway!

He turns to Shen Qingqiu to apologize for having to cut short their meeting and excuse himself. The Qing Jing Peak lord dismisses him with a wave of his fan and a meaningful look over its blades. Shang Qinghua didn’t quite get what the look meant, but he didn’t have enough time to think about it before he was being escorted out of Qing Jing Peak.

The walk to An Ding was awkward and silent. Shang Qinghua itches to fill the silence with mindless chatter but he gets the feeling he will just make it worse for himself if he even makes a sound.

This is not fair! He’s a peak lord! Why does he feel like a child being scolded and escorted to timeout? He didn’t even do anything wrong, ah! Why did he need to be ‘collected’ as if he was a wayward child who wandered too far from home?! Aiya, how embarrassing! Sure, he may have left behind some paperwork, but he could just finish them before he retires for the night!  This whole entourage was completely unnecessary and uncalled for.

He was just about to voice out his very righteous and indignant thoughts when the youngest of the triplets bumps his shoulder and Shang Qinghua turns to see the three of them grinning up at him before running ahead on the path up An Ding Peak. Li Qiaolian then sidles up to his other side and gently nudges him. Gone is the stiff head disciple persona she adopts when on official business as she smiles up at Shang Qinghua in equal parts apologetic and shy, like a puppy who knows it did something particularly naughty but is too cute to be lectured.

And, ah, Shang Qinghua couldn’t help it. All the righteous anger in him seeps out like a balloon being divested of its air and whatever scolding he was about to dish out died on the tip of his tongue. Ah, well, what is he to do? His disciples are really just too cute for him. He never can stay mad at them for long.

When they got to An Ding, contrary to what his head disciple had proclaimed earlier, there isn't any actual work waiting for him. Instead, they sit him down in the pavilion at the back of An Ding Peak's main building, overlooking the lakes and the peonies, and tell him to relax. He's been working so hard. There is chamomile tea, an assortment of Shang Qinghua’s favorite snacks, and a bottle of alcohol he reserves for Mobei Jun served on the low table.

And then the strangest of all strangest thing happens.

“These disciples thank His Highness for his assistance today. Please enjoy the refreshments, Shifu, Your Highness.”

His disciples bow and thank Mobei Jun before excusing themselves!

"What.” Shang Qinghua gapes after them. What the fuck just happened? “My King—what the—"

Mobei Jun doesn’t say anything about it other than telling him to sit down and to pour them drinks.

 


 

Shang Qinghua is set to perform at Cang Qiong’s end of the year feast. Mobei Jun is only made aware of this because Luo Binghe is currently mooning about Shen Qingqiu being one of the performers.

“Shizun is going to play the qin while Shang-shishu sings. Of course, Shizun is the main attraction. Shang-shishu is just an accompaniment. Shizun is—“

“Wait, what?”

Luo Binghe levels him a glare for the interruption, but it dissolves into a wicked gleam when he realizes Mobei Jun does not know that the An Ding Peak lord is part of a performance; that he is just hearing about it for the first time from Luo Binghe—of all people—because Shang Qinghua himself did not deem to tell the ice demon. A saccharine grin spreads on Luo Binghe’s face, which to anyone who doesn’t know him may come off as charming, but just looks truly nasty to Mobei Jun as he itches to erase it from his liege’s aristocratic face.

“Oh, did Shang-shishu not tell you?” Luo Binghe asks affecting an innocent façade that is fooling no one least of all Mobei Jun. “That’s strange. He must’ve forgotten to give you an invitation. Oh, well. Don’t think too hard on it, Mobei. I’m sure he’ll get around to it. Eventually. Maybe. You know how much of a scatterbrain he can be and—oh, look at that! I need to start on Shizun’s dinner. Well, I’ll be off then!” And then he portals out of Mobei Jun’s throne room right after leaving chaos in his wake.

Mobei Jun allows himself to seethe for half a shichen before he tears open a portal to Shang Qinghua’s chambers. He steps out of it and into the room just as Shang Qinghua is entering, a notable weariness on his countenance.

“M-my King!” Shang Qinghua stutters as he stands in attention. “What brings you here at this time of—”

He doesn’t give Shang Qinghua the time for formalities and directly asks, “Why have you not given this King an invitation to your performance yet?”

“Your what? What do you—Oh!” Shang Qinghua’s eyes narrow in confusion before grimacing as realization dawns on him and he lays out his excuses. “Well, my King, that is because—well, this one didn’t want to be presumptuous that my King would—i-it’s just that, this servant knows that my King is a very busy demon lord, and he has much more important matters to—”

Mobei Jun refrains from rolling his eyes and sighing. He knows from experience that Shang Qinghua can and will talk in circles, more so when he is cornered. It’s going to take quite some time for him to get to the point and say what he actually means—and that’s only if he actually says what he means, which is to say, if Mobei Jun leaves Shang Qinghua to his own devices, will never happen. Mobei Jun decides to give him a push and speed up the process.

“Shang Qinghua,” Mobei Jun cuts off his stuttered excuses with a call of his name in a tone he usually reserves for court. It yields the desired effect as Shang Qinghua seems to reel in his ramblings enough to come back to himself.

“Yes, my King?”

Mobei Jun holds out a hand imperiously, “My invitation.”

He watches as Shang Qinghua slowly and hesitantly pulls a folded invitation from his sleeves. Mobei Jun takes it and sees that his name is inscribed at the front. Was Shang Qinghua just carrying around his invitation without ever planning on giving it to him? If his name is on it then surely there was intent to invite him? Why has Shang Qinghua not given it to him immediately?

“I’m on the fifth act with Shen-shixiong,” Shang Qinghua starts to run his mouth again before Mobei Jun could think about his confusing behavior further. He points at the part of the invitation where his and Shen Qingqiu’s names are listed. “He'll be playing the qin. I-I'm just the vocal accompaniment. It's a little bit around the end of the program. Of course, you don't have to stay that long, my King. In fact, you don't have to go at all. This one knows my King is a very important and very busy lord and he has better things to do than to sit around and watch such performances but—ah. The disciples of Xian Shu Peak choreographed a really good performance this year. And they helped with the lyrics of the song Shen-shixiong and I are going to perform. Not that I'm asking you to come! Not if my King doesn't want to, of course! This servant doesn't want to waste my King's time and I—"

"Shang Qinghua."

"My King?"

"Do you want this King to come?"

"I—that is—I'm not—if you're not—"

"It is a yes or no question, Shang Qinghua."

The weight of Mobei Jun’s stare is enough to flatten Shang Qinghua to the ground that he ends up blurting out, "Yes! I want my King to come!" And then he seems to realize what he just did and follows it up with, "If he so wishes."

There. Was that really so hard?

"Then I will be there."

"My King, really, you don't have to if you don't want to. It's just—this one knows that you—"

"Shang Qinghua.” Mobei Jun gently puts a hand on top of Shang Qinghua’s head to stop his frenetic rambling. He moves it down to his chin to tip his head up and look at him. "I want to."

"O-Oh." Shang Qinghua blinks up at him before audibly swallowing as Mobei Jun lets him go. "Okay, my King."

Mobei Jun sees his widened eyes but he also spies the small pleased smile Shang Qinghua tries to hide by ducking his head low. Really, Mobei Jun thinks, Shang Qinghua would do better to just tell this King what he wants more.

A knock on the door breaks the moment and the voice of Li Qiaolian sounds off from the other side.

“Shifu, some disciples from Zui Xian Peak came to add more things on the list of raw materials they need for brewing Blue Moon Plum Blossom Wine. I told them they already exceeded their allotted budget and we already afforded them extra for their current list but they won't budge.”

Shang Qinghua heaves a heavy sigh, one hand coming up to massage his temple, before opening the door regardless of Mobei Jun standing in the middle of his chambers.

Li Qiaolian blinks when the door to her Shifu’s door swings open with more force than usual. Her eyes immediately spot Mobei Jun in the room and she bows to him in greeting too.

“I told them a thousand times the orders were already put through! They can’t just ask to put in another batch especially since their budget couldn’t cover it anymore!”

Li Qiaolian just shrugs. “I told them the same thing.”

Shang Qinghua clicks his tongue and mutters something under his breath. Mobei Jun just nods when Shang Qinghua turns back to him asking to be excused.

“It’s fine, Xiao Lian. This Shifu will take care of it. Please attend to my King while I’m gone?”

“Sure, Shifu.” Li Qiaolian watches her Shifu go, shaking her head fondly at his mutterings, before turning to Mobei Jun. “Are you staying, your highness? Would you like some refreshments?"

"No need. This King has gotten what he's come for and will be leaving."

Li Qiaolian spies the invitation in his hands and smiles. "Ah. I see Shifu finally gave Your Highness his invitation. He's only been carrying it around for days. This disciple kept on telling him to just give it to you."

This time, Mobei Jun very nearly rolls his eyes. Shang Qinghua truly baffles him. He nods to Shang Qinghua’s head disciple before tearing open a portal but stops when she calls out to him.

“Oh, one more thing, Your Highness. If this humble one may make a suggestion?”

“Speak.”

"Shifu is rather fond of the Thousand Petalled Snowfrost Pansies. We don't grow it here because it only thrives in cold climates."

Mobei Jun stares and blinks blankly at her as if in askance why she is telling him this. She seems to get the message yet again and actually lets out a sigh (a sigh! In the presence of this King! Who raised these children with such insolence as to not show deference to this demon lord? Not Shang Qinghua certainly?) as if she cannot believe she has to explain.

“It is customary for invited guests to bring flowers to give to the performers after the show as a congratulatory token, Your Highness."

Ah. So, he sees. Of course, how is Mobei Jun to know such things? His knowledge of human customs is truly still lacking and leaves much to be desired. Thankfully Shang Qinghua’s head disciple is as useful as her Shifu and has excellent foresight. Mobei Jun instantly excuses and forgives her impudence.

"This Mobei Jun understands."

Li Qiaolian smiles, bows, and waves at him goodbye as Mobei Jun steps into the portal.

 

--

 

On the day of the performance, Mobei Jun arrives in his most formal robes—the ones that are usually reserved for important banquets—and a bouquet of Thousand Petalled Snowfrost Pansies. Luo Binghe sees him as he’s entering the pavilion where the performance will be held and looks questioningly at the flowers on his hand.

“What’s that for?”

“I was told it is a human custom to give the performers flowers after the show as a congratulatory token.”

“What,” Luo Binghe hisses.

Mobei Jun couldn’t help but feel a little smug at the blank look his liege shoots him. “Oh, is Junshang not aware?” He asks and lets a hint of a smirk to grace his lips.

He feels all the smugger when the lights dimmed, signaling that the performances are about to start before Luo Binghe could even get up and scramble to procure a bouquet for Shen Qingqiu.

(Halfway through the performances, Luo Binghe orders Mobei Jun to tear open a portal under his feet so he could slip out without interrupting the show. He returns just before Sheng Qingqui and Shang Qinghua are up on the stage notably flowerless because he didn’t know what Shen Qingqiu’s favorite was and he got way into his head thinking he might offend his Shizun if he just gives him a bunch of random flowers.)

When Shang Qinghua takes the stage with Shen Qingqiu, Mobei Jun shakes himself awake from the light dose he’s under while he waited for Shang Qinghua’s turn. He truly does not care for any of the other performances and is really only here for Shang Qinghua alone. Mobei Jun's eyes focus on Shang Qinghua as he gets into his position and takes his cue.

A hush falls on the audience in anticipation. Mobei Jun watches as Shang Qinghua takes a steadying breath just as the opening notes of the qin drift in the air. Shang Qinghua’s eyes fall shut and when he opens his mouth to let out his voice, everything seems to fade into the background. Mobei Jun feels the world blur around him. From the moment the first word was sung, nothing else exists other than him and Shang Qinghua, singing a song about love and triumph.

It’s bewitching. It’s enchanting. It’s captivating in its entirety. Shang Qinghua is like a siren calling him forth to the seas, leading him to his slaughter, and Mobei Jun will gladly follow blindly and let him.  Mobei Jun wants to whisk Shang Qinghua away back to the Northern Palace where the high ceilings make for better acoustics and would amplify his voice to make the melody of it bounce off the icy walls beautifully. Mobei Jun wants to vanish everyone in this pavilion and keep this for himself, to selfishly have Shang Qinghua all to himself.

The sighs of adoration for the majestic sound of the qin at Shen Qingqiu’s masterful playing accompanied by the melody of Shang Qinghua’s soothing vocals makes for a truly harmonic ensemble. Some even shed tears as the song ends. Luo Binghe surely does.

After the performance, Mobei Jun stands with the rest of the audience and makes a beeline to Shang Qinghua. There is a line to get to where he is. First the other Cang Qiong peak lords and then a whole gaggle of An Ding Peak disciples congratulating and praising their Shifu for a splendid performance. Shang Qinghua shyly thanks his martial siblings then drowns in his disciples’ adorations, indulging them by doling out head pats and the occasional side hugs. The crowd seems to only disperse when Shang Qinghua looks up, his eyes instantly finding Mobei Jun amidst the crowd standing outside the circle of his adoring admirers, and it’s like they know that was their cue to leave.

Most of Cang Qiong’s Peak Lords turn their noses up at Mobei Jun’s presence while the older An Ding Peak disciples usher out their shidis and shimeis off to the banquet.

Mobei Jun doesn’t pay them any heed because Shang Qinghua is already weaving through the crowds in haste to get to him as if pulled by an indescribable force that anchors him to his King. Shang Qinghua looks radiant in his performance robes and he’s beaming at Mobei Jun, smile wide and eyes alight, a cheerful “my King!” falling from his lips and—oh. Why does that make Mobei Jun feel—

“My King!” Shang Qinghua stops just before Mobei Jun. “My King, you came!”

For an astonishing split second, Mobei Jun forgets to breathe. He looks down at Shang Qinghua, who is vibrating at the soles of his feet and slightly panting with how he practically ran to get to him, grinning and looking up at Mobei Jun as if he really is truly glad that he is there. No one has ever looked at Mobei Jun quite like that before.

“This King said he would, did he not?”

"My King did say. This humble one is honored."

Mobei Jun doesn’t know what for. If anything, he’s the one who feels honored that Shang Qinghua deemed him worthy to come—had wanted him to come. In fact, everyone who just witnessed his performance in this pavilion should be honored that they were allowed to hear Shang Qinghua sing.

“No, this King is,” Mobei Jun says, the words falling out of his lips and completely without his permission. He thrusts the bouquet to Shang Qinghua before he could ask him to elaborate.

“Oh, are these for me, my King?”

“Who else would it be for?”  

"Oh! Thank you, my King. This one is rather fond of the Thousand Petalled Snowfrost Pansies. They're actually my favorite, did you know? It's a shame they only ever grow in the frozen mountain ranges of Kamu by the northeastern borders.”

Had he known before, Mobei Jun would have had the flowers blooming all over the Northern territories.

"They remind me of my King’s eyes,” Shang Qinghua says, his fingers gently skimming the icy blue petals with eyes as soft and as warm as his smile. “They’re the same exact prettiest shades of blues."

Ah. Well, then. How is Mobei Jun to respond to that other than to draw up plans to have a full garden of Thousand Petalled Snowfrost Pansies implanted in the Northern Palace as soon as possible? Shang Qinghua may as well have given the order himself.

“I see.”

“My King? What do you—oh. Oh, no. Did I say that out loud? I did, didn't I? Forgive this impertinent one, my King! I didn't mean that—I only meant—”

"This Mobei Jun understands."

Mobei Jun decides he would most definitely have a whole garden of Thousand Petalled Snowfrost Pansies planted in the Northern Palace immediately. And a pavilion where Shang Qinghua could view them whenever he so wishes. Then later, all around the Northern territories to always remind Shang Qinghua of his King.

 


 

The bouquet Mobei Jun gives him wilts eventually and much faster than it normally would’ve under its climate habitat. Shang Qinghua had them pressed because he couldn't bear the thought of throwing them away. He keeps them in between the pages of his current passion project, one that he’s writing for himself.

And then one day, he comes back to his office in An Ding Peak to see a vase with a single stem of a Thousand Petalled Snowfrost Pansy—enchanted so that it never wilts.

There is no note or any sign of anyone other than himself coming into his office, but Shang Qinghua doesn't have to hazard a guess as to who it is from.