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the unnamed ember that burns in your chest

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Mobei Jun has developed a habit of imposing on Shang Qinghua’s personal quarters. 

Or perhaps, a return to an old habit; before becoming the king of the north, Mobei Jun spent a fair amount of time forcing Shang Qinghua to attend to him in the modest accommodations of an inner disciple, then the slightly less modest accommodations of An Ding’s peak lord. 

Ironically enough, it was only in the human realm that Mobei Jun could well and truly rest. Humans, while detestable, were less hellbent on tedious assassination attempts than fellow demons looking to rid the north of its heir (for personal and/or political reasons). Shang Qinghua’s quarters were a good place to recover, and a respite from the obligations that came with this birthright. Although they occasionally spoke about the movements of Cang Qiong, of developments in the human realm, more often than not Mobei Jun would use the time to set aside such burdens. It had been… an invaluable refuge.

Mobei Jun could admit in hindsight what he’d never acknowledged at the time; somehow, in that period of his life, Shang Qinghua had gained his trust.

As Mobei Jun grew stronger, he became powerful enough not to need such refuge. And with Shang Qinghua taking residence in the northern palace, there was no need to seek him out. If Mobei Jun called, Shang Qinghua would come. Nothing throughout their years of companionship contradicted this certainty.

Then Shang Qinghua left.

 


 

“My king… wouldn’t you prefer your own bed?” Shang Qinghua asks.

“No,” Mobei Jun says. He doesn’t bother to open his eyes. It’s a test, of sorts. If Shang Qinghua were truly aggrieved, he would demur with a strained smile; either completely silent, or overflowing with flattery (excessive even by his own standards). An obvious tell now that Mobei Jun cares to note it, though not one he always knows what to do with. It would be much more simple if Shang Qinghua could be direct, but that mostly seems to happen when he’s pushed to unwanted extremes. So Mobei Jun waits for the results of this test.

Shang Qinghua heaves a put-upon sigh. “Then, this humble servant would appreciate it if you didn’t freeze the sheets.” It’s a pointed statement, just short of critical, which is—paradoxically—a reassuring reaction; if he’s comfortable enough to complain, he can’t be too bothered. 

Shang Qinghua paces for a bit afterwards, light footsteps to and fro, fabric rustling with aimless motion. He mumbles something, a hushed conversation with himself. Papers shuffle amidst the tap-tap-tap of something against his desk.

It’s hard to say how much time passes before Shang Qinghua stills; enough for Mobei Jun to be halfway asleep, idly maintaining a temperature that hopefully won’t have Shang Qinghua griping about the need for twice the usual amount of quilts to compensate for the chill.

“My King,” comes a whisper. “Are you awake?”

Mobei Jun’s heart stutters in his chest. And for no good reason; how weak, to be so affected by something so simple. 

There’s a slight dip, which must be Shang Qinghua sitting at the edge of the bed. Then, a gentle hand runs through Mobei Jun’s hair. “Your hair will get tangled if you sleep like this,” Shang Qinghua chides, as if Mobei Jun hasn’t slept like this countless times without issue. “Won’t you allow your devoted servant to braid it for you?”

He clearly doesn’t expect or want an answer. Were he to get one, he’d no doubt skitter away with apologies and excuses and melodramatic tears. 

What’s the point of asking? 

Plausible deniability, perhaps.

It takes insurmountable effort, but Mobei Jun keeps his breath even. He doesn’t flinch away from the touch. And doesn’t lean into it, either, refusing to chase each maddening stroke of Shang Qinghua’s hand. The intimacy, entirely one-sided, is almost unbearable; it would be easier if he could just…

Above him, Shang Qinghua quietly marvels at how soft his hair is, how smooth—“Commercial-tier, the kind of bullshit you’d see on TV,” whatever that means—and how unfair it is that Mobei Jun’s able to achieve such a state without… something Mobei Jun can’t even begin to parse, words that wouldn’t be found in the demon realm. Then Shang Qinghua spirals into the usual praise; the arch of Mobei Jun’s eyebrows, the shape of his nose, his eyes, dark as the finest ink and no doubt the envy of the night sky—“But don’t open them! I don’t think my heart could take that for several reasons,” he jokes to no one—and it’s… difficult to understand.

Shang Qinghua flatters out of self-interest, an ingratiating appeal born from desperation. He says what he believes others want to hear. He’s often wrong, of course; Mobei Jun couldn’t care less about such obviously empty words, especially now that he knows what hidden resentment lies behind them.

But Shang Qinghua also flatters without an audience; exclusively without an audience, something private, not shared with anyone. Not intentionally, at least. Which has to mean something.

Against his will, something blooms in Mobei Jun’s chest. Not a nameless feeling, but at the moment it’s a bitter warmth best kept distant. One that will leave him soon enough. 

And then return.

Shang Qinghua never seems satisfied with his work. He braids, only to comb out his efforts and start anew. Again, and again, and again, long enough for his perpetual monologue to peter out to silence. 

Somehow, Mobei Jun succumbs to sleep before the braid is finished.

 


 

Mobei Jun drifts back into consciousness to the faint sounds of indistinct muttering. Shang Qinghua sits at his desk, brush in hand. His face is obscured by the angle, the light of a nearby lamp casting a glow over the edges of his profile. The cadence of his voice couldn’t be called soothing; harsh at times, thoughtful at others, then bursting with exuberance; a mismatched rhythm no one could hope to follow.

A braid, slightly disheveled despite all the times it’s been redone, lays over Mobei Jun’s shoulder, carelessly tied with a simple ribbon that might’ve once been used for a scroll.

The bitter warmth remains.

“Why did you save me?” Mobei Jun asks on impulse; the question somehow comes out evenly, as if he’s retained any measure of his composure.

At least, that’s what Shang Qinghua seems to hear. He twists in his chair to look, brows furrowed in confusion. “My king?”

“When we first met.”

“Are you feeling nostalgic?” He sounds incredulous, maybe even amused. Indulgent. Shang Qinghua has become a little bolder in his irreverence since their reunion. A strange shift, but not an unwelcome one. “It’s been so long. Did you forget what I said, or are you asking if I remember? Of course, it was because I simply wanted to follow you for the rest of my life,” Shang Qinghua says, shamelessly ignoring that this was a promise he’d already broken. “Even as a lowly outer disciple I’d heard stories of the great demonic heir of the north. What strength, to give Huan Hua so much grief at not even the height of his power! Truly, how could anyone hope to measure up against—”

“Shut up,” Mobei Jun interrupts. If he didn’t, he’d no doubt be subjected to the usual bullshit. “Be honest.”

Shang Qinghua stutters to a halt, slightly startled and with a grimace of clear distaste. He quickly replaces it with a pathetic and injured look. “My king, what lies have I said?”

The question isn’t worth an answer. Mobei Jun just glares at him with eyes that are, apparently, the envy of the night sky. 

Shang Qinghua may be a fundamentally dishonest man, but he’s also a weak-willed coward that folds easily under pressure (except for when he doesn’t). Fidgeting under the weight of Mobei Jun’s relentless gaze, Shang Qinghua lasts maybe a full minute before letting out an aggravated huff. “It’s the truth,” he complains, turning back to whatever has been strewn across his desk. “And who are you to say it isn’t, anyway? Why do you get to decide whether I’m honest or not? Aren’t you just fishing for an answer? My king, I can’t read minds, how am I to know what would satisfy you—”

“Why did you save me?”

Silence stretches between them. 

Maybe Mobei Jun pushed too much, too soon; it wouldn’t be the first time impatience got the better of him. And for what? At best, idle curiosity; at worst, single-minded desperation. Neither are particularly flattering. But Mobei Jun stupidly aches to know anything honest from Shang Qinghua, even if it cuts deep, or because it cuts deep—

“I didn’t want you to die.” 

Shang Qinghua speaks plainly, no whine, no wheedling, stripped bare of pretense. He doesn’t elaborate, as if this single sentence was all he could bear to part with; he sits with his back to Mobei Jun, haloed by the flickering lamplight. 

Mobei Jun lets out a quiet breath.

At least in this regard, the feeling is mutual.