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A Child Once

Chapter Text

 

“My king, don’t touch that-!” 

 

The man who would be Mobei-Jun pushed himself off the ground at once, blinking the blinding light out of his eyes, straining to hear any cries of pain or breakage over the ringing in his ears. Even before his sight returned, he reached for his servant. He heard nothing. The power in the air felt like it was tearing at the nose, at his fingers as he reached, but it was fading, and he needed to know what it had done to the human. 

 

His chest and lungs burned with anger - it had to be anger, for what else could it be? And that only made him angrier, for he hated the heat, especially when it ran wild under his own skin. 

 

Why hadn’t Shang Qinghua warned him of the artifact’s danger earlier? Hadn’t he been paying attention?! Why had he thrown himself forward like a fool?! Did he not think Mobei-Jun was strong enough to control it?! Or too weak to take the brunt of any damage?! Shang Qinghua’s unnecessary interference had made everything worse.

 

Mobei-Jun’s fingers caught on the edge of Shang Qinghua’s robes, a yellow blur to his vision, which were sprawled over the floor and came… too easily as Mobei-Jun pulled… and then finally caught. The robes then tugged against Mobei-Jun’s hand. Mobei-Jun pulled Shang Qinghua towards him, across the floor, at least seeing a familiar flail and hearing a soft whimper as he did so, but the movement was misshapen inside the clothes and his human servant was much too light. Shang Qinghua’s weight had more than halved. 

 

Shang Qinghua’s size had more than halved. 

 

A glance up at the artifact showed that it was unmoved, the light and energy of its effect fading back into itself. It appeared little more than a decorated keepsake box. It was clearly more than that. Mobei-Jun would have been better off smashing it on sight. 

 

Mobei-Jun turned over the struggling being in the yellow robes over to see what had been done to his human servant. He came face to face with a child. 

 

The child froze. 

 

Mobei-Jun froze. 

 

It was a human child, of age unknown to him. Not an infant, and yet alarmingly small, drowning in the robes of a peak lord. Wide eyes. Open mouth. Mobei-Jun’s hand was against the child’s chest and he could feel the child’s heartbeat thrumming against his fingers. 

 

The child swallowed and shivered. 

 

In the child’s face, Mobei-Jun could see familiar features turned unfinished, as unnatural and impossible-seeming as undoing the stroke of a brush upon a painting or taking back the strike of a chisel upon a statue. The coloring was the same, the dusting of freckles remained, but Shang Qinghua’s face was softer and rounder in youth, as was the rest of him. Long brown hair was slipping out of ornaments that no longer fit his head. The oversized yellow robes slipped off one shoulder. As alarmingly small as he was, the fat remained in the form of a child’s, but the muscle of the man was gone. 

 

“How?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 

 

The child Shang Qinghua had become said nothing, continuing to stare up at him with wide brown eyes, which were now welling with tears. 

 

Mobei-Jun leaned forward, gripping the front of the child’s robes, and the tears began to fall. The child whimpered. Mobei-Jun noticed the smell of urine first, then looked down and saw the wetness spreading through the oversized yellow robes beneath the child. He let go and leaned back. Surprise was more prevalent than disgust. 

 

The crying child fell back slightly, and stared at him without recognition.

 

It was not just Shang Qinghua’s physical form that had been reduced to childhood, Mobei-Jun realized, but his mind as well.

 

The child Shang Qinghua had become did not remember Mobei-Jun.

 

Mobei-Jun could not have moved or spoken in that moment if the thought had occurred to him. Thought escaped him entirely in this moment. 

 

The child scrabbled backwards, testingly, and seemed to notice the urine. The child began to cry even harder, his round and fat face turning an uneven red, his features twisting up in upset. His breathing was quick and ragged, with a keening whine breaking through. Exactly as one might expect of a human child finding themselves lost and cornered by a demon lord. 

 

Mobei-Jun had seen Shang Qinghua cower from him before. He had seen countless pathetic displays: whining, begging, pleading, shrieking, and even tears, but… not like this. 

 

The artifact that had done this was still unmoved. Mobei-Jun did not know how to force it to undo whatever it had done, or if it was even possible, without potentially inviting the same curse upon himself. Shang Qinghua was more important than this strange object. Mobei-Jun had heard horror stories of apparent blessings of youth that were deadly curses in disguise to those who did not know their tricks. Time was of the essence. 

 

He surged to his feet and picked up the child his human servant had become. Shang Qinghua screamed, the high-pitched shriek of the young, filled with terror. The child struggled frantically but uselessly under one of Mobei-Jun’s arms. 

 

Mobei-Jun lifted his other hand to rip open a portal in front of him. He determinedly felt nothing as the screaming, crying child freed small fists from the yellow robes and beat at his side. 

 


 

There were not many places that Mobei-Jun could go for any form of assistance. Instinct was telling him to seek out Shang Qinghua. Even now, a pathetic, engaging conviction remained that the true Shang Qinghua was out there and could be consulted on how to fix himself. Shang Qinghua was always there.

 

Mobei-Jun’s human servant was infuriating, occasionally worse than useless, but more often Shang Qinghua had impossible knowledge or at least direction towards who possessed the correct knowledge. Many monsters, many of Mobei-Jun’s foes and rivals, had fallen by a human servant’s word. Many injuries had been healed by Shang Qinghua’s hands. Mobei-Jun saw no reason Shang Qinghua would not have known how to fix this as well. 

 

How dare Shang Qinghua fall into this curse?! 

 

The shadows of the portal released them into the sunlight, on the path towards a humble house encircled by rich greenery. Mobei-Jun didn’t care for the supposed beauty of the location. He moved swiftly down the path towards the house. 

 

The child had stopped screaming and was shaking fiercely. The silence made Mobei-Jun’s heart skip, but a glance down revealed that the child was not obviously injured or unconscious. 

 

The door of the house opened before Mobei-Jun could reach it, which was not a surprise. Luo Binghe exited the house, glaring at him for the intrusion, only to pause at the sight of the child under Mobei-Jun’s arm. Luo Binghe was dressed in simple black robes, a human design, though his Heavenly Demon mark was still visible on his forehead. 

 

“What happened?” Luo Binghe demanded. 

 

“An artifact,” Mobei-Jun answered. “I did not bring it.” 

 

Luo Binghe’s look promised Mobei-Jun would have regretted it severely if he had brought anything potentially dangerous to this place. He looked at the child under Mobei-Jun’s arm again. He was apparently considering whether or not to make Mobei-Jun regret coming to this place regardless, but he turned his back on Mobei-Jun, walked back into the house, and did not shut the door behind him. A good sign. 

 

Mobei-Jun came forward, but did not enter the house. He returned his focus to the child, still shaking fiercely under his arm, and was at a loss on how to stop it. 

 

A moment later, a human in simple green robes exited the house, without ornamentation, his hair tied back into a simple ponytail. Shen Qingqiu’s expression remained formidable, however, his eyes fixing immediately on the child. Luo Binghe exited the house again after his human lover, gaze fixed steadily on Mobei-Jun in unnecessary warning. 

 

“Put him down,” Shen Qingqiu commanded. 

 

Mobei-Jun lifted the child up slightly to one side, putting his other hand under the child’s armpit, so that he could put Shang Qinghua on his feet in front of him, facing Shen Qingqiu. It was difficult with the oversized robes. As soon as Mobei-Jun thought he had the child upright, the trembling child immediately dropped to his knees. 

 

Shen Qingqiu glared at Mobei-Jun as though this was his fault, before the human cultivator kneeled in front of the child. Carefully, Shen Qingqiu raised his hand, and then used his sleeve to gently wipe at the child’s face. 

 

Mobei-Jun realized that the child’s tears had frozen in the space between spaces. Shang Qinghua as a man had often complained of the cold and pressure of the portals, but he had a cultivator’s strength to carry him through them. It was more than likely that Shang Qinghua’s spiritual power had also been reduced to that of a child, rather than that of a peak lord. 

 

“He does not remember me,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

Shen Qingqiu froze, glancing up towards Mobei-Jun again, carefully retracting his hand. 

 

“I see,” the human said, before slowly moving his hand to the child’s wrist. 

 

Mobei-Jun saw the human’s nose wrinkle slightly at the soiled robes. 

 

The trembling child allowed Shen Qingqiu to hold his wrist for but a few seconds, before tugging it back, beginning to cry again. Shen Qingqiu’s expression did not seem unduly alarmed. He looked at the child with pity, but not with panic, and Mobei-Jun allowed his shoulders to relax slightly at this sign his human servant was not in immediate danger. 

 

“My name is Shen Qingqiu,” the human cultivator said softly. “I know that it is very scary to be lost, but I am here now to help you. Would you like to get cleaned up and find new clothes? And to tell me what happened?” 

 

The human cultivator extended his hand for the child to take. 

 

The child did not take it, instead sitting there and continuing to sob wretchedly. 

 

Shen Qingqiu did not pick the child up, waiting patiently. 

 

Behind the humans, Luo Binghe jerked his head to one side, and Mobei-Jun followed the Demon Emperor a dozen strides away from the pair on the ground. Mobei-Jun stopped before they turned the edge of the humble house, unwilling to let the humans out of his sight. Fortunately, Luo Binghe stopped as well, and did not press them farther away. 

 

“What happened?” Luo Binghe repeated. 

 

There was not much to tell. The artifact had been sent as a gift by a distant relation Mobei-Jun had assisted in his duties as the future Northern King, and the artifact had apparently passed the rounds of inspection to reach Mobei-Jun personally, which likely meant that one of his servants had been looped into a scheme. Mobei-Jun had not actually intended to touch the object when Shang Qinghua’s graceless interference had brought on the curse. 

 

“Of course,” Luo Binghe drawled, disbelieving. 

 

Mobei-Jun glared at him. 

 

“Where did you leave this object you of course were too clever to touch?” Luo Binghe demanded. “What happened to it?” 

 

“At the palace in my private rooms. It was apparently unmoved and unchanged.” 

 

Few had access to Mobei-Jun’s private rooms, which had been locked against disturbances when Mobei-Jun had left them. He and Shang Qinghua were the only ones able to access them now. If this was a scheme, then an attack was likely, and an attempted retrieval of the problematic artifact was also a possibility. 

 

To the side, Shen Qingqiu’s patience had coaxed the crying child to take his hand, and the humans were slowly entering the house. The child could not walk in the oversized robes. Shen Qingqiu carefully helped the child pull them up to free his feet, then helped to hold them up so the child could walk. The child clung to Shen Qingqiu’s other arm like a lifeline. 

 

“Binghe, a bath, please,” Shen Qingqiu called. 

 

“Of course, Shizun.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu took the child inside the master bedroom of the humble house. Mobei-Jun was permitted to enter the house, but no farther. The bedroom door was closed, and only opened partway to accept the filled bathtub from Luo Binghe before gently closing again. The half-demon emperor then went to wash his hands and prepare a meal, occasionally glaring at Mobei-Jun, leaning against a wall with his arms crossed, for existing within his human love nest, as the both of them waited with their ears cocked towards the muffled sounds in the other room. 

 

Mobei-Jun’s ears were sharp, but listening at first only offered him more pitiful crying and more gentle coaxing from Shen Qingqiu. “You don’t have to wash if you don’t want to, but I think you would feel better if you do,” the human cultivator said. “I won’t watch. I’ll turn my back and I’ll guard the door as you change,” the human cultivator said. And so on. 

 

The crying eventually turned into hoarse gasps and other shuddering breaths, as the child evidently endeavored to stop. There was a rustle of fabric. Some gentle splashing. A soft, melodic humming that Mobei-Jun quickly placed as coming from Shen Qingqiu. More splashing. Some muffled sobs. Eventually, some soft murmuring from Shen Qingqiu and more rustling fabric, presumably putting the child in unsoiled robes. 

 

The child mumbled something. 

 

“Pardon?” Shen Qingqiu answered, his voice nearly as soft. 

 

Mobei-Jun had to strain to hear. He could see Luo Binghe’s ear, so human, but slightly pointed now that he had come fully into his demonic heritage, twitching slightly as well. 

 

“Who are you?” the child asked. 

 

“My name is Shen Qingqiu,” the human cultivator repeated. “What’s your name?” 

 

The child mumbled again. 

 

Shen Qingqiu was silent at first, before he said, “It is very nice to meet you, A-Yun.” 

 

Mobei-Jun stiffened. His human servant’s name when they had first met had been Shang Houhua. Mobei-Jun was unfamiliar with human naming conventions, but he had been under the impression that new names and titles were gifted with great achievements. The ascension to peak lord over thirty years ago had given his servant the name Qinghua. 

 

Shang Qinghua had been insistent that he had never in his life done anything to deserve a special title before that, and had muttered that even this peak lord’s name had been given begrudgingly. The human servant had been insistent that his background was humble, utterly unremarkable, an unwanted son of an unfortunate family that had fallen into poverty. Mobei-Jun had never cared enough to look into any of these claims. Blood seemed to mean less to humans. Shang Qinghua had seemed so utterly unimpressive then. 

 

It should not have been a surprise that Shang Qinghua had been holding something back. That Shang Qinghua had lied to him. It was nevertheless infuriating. It seemed like evidence of disloyalty, covered up, when Shang Qinghua had no right to hide anything from him. 

 

Mobei-Jun took a deep breath and exhaled at length. His fingers were digging into his arms too tightly and he released his deathly grip before he could pierce skin. He had known that Shang Qinghua hid many things from him. He allowed this. 

 

He allowed this mainly because no amount of pushing had ever made it through Shang Qinghua’s lies and distractions and labyrinthian misdirection when it came to his true reasons for doing anything beyond impenetrable devotion and cowardice. The human servant must have assumed that Mobei-Jun would have disliked something in his past to hide this. 

 

He wanted to confront Shang Qinghua immediately, but… Shang Qinghua was not here. 

 

“How old are you, A-Yun?” Shen Qingqiu asked. 

 

“...Seven,” the child answered. 

 

“That’s a fine age,” Shen Qingqiu said warmly. 

 

Seven years old was ten years before Shang Qinghua - the disciple who would be Shang Qinghua - had met the demon who would be Mobei-Jun. Mobei-Jun thought about how much his human servant had changed over the years they had known each other. It had been a gradual change. At that first meeting, Mobei-Jun had also yet to gain his full adult height or breadth. 

 

“Where am I?” the child asked, sounding as though he might cry again. 

 

“Ah…” Shen Qingqiu said. “One moment.” 

 

It took Mobei-Jun several seconds to realize that Shen Qingqiu was setting up some sort of privacy spell, and only a second more to decide that this was utterly unacceptable. Why?! To answer such a simple question?! What did Shen Qingqiu intend to tell the child Shang Qinghua had become that he did not want to be heard by anyone else?! Was the other human attempting to create a divide between Mobei-Jun and his servant? 

 

Mobei-Jun had been breaking through and stepping around the protections of human cultivators for decades, for neither humans nor demons often thought or were often able to guard against the shadows well enough to keep his unique gifts out. It was simple work now to reach through the shadows - to create the thinnest cut, almost imperceptible, just into the next room - bypassing any protections, to let sound through. 

 

“There we are,” Shen Qingqiu murmured. 

 

Nearby, however, Luo Binghe focused on this action at once. He put aside what he had been doing before in the kitchen to glare at Mobei-Jun with dangerous intent. 

 

“Don’t spy on Shizun,” Luo Binghe hissed. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not move, glaring back. 

 

Shang Qinghua’s loyalty was to him above that of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Anything that Shen Qingqiu intended to say to Mobei-Jun’s servant was Mobei-Jun’s right to hear. 

 

Luo Binghe apparently disagreed. 

 

“Now, where were we…” Shen Qingqiu murmured. 

 

“Mobei,” Luo Binghe whispered warningly. 

 

“Where am I?” the child repeated, in an even more frightened tone. 

 

“That’s… difficult to explain,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

“Why?!” 

 

Luo Binghe stalked silently across the room, the Heavenly Demon mark on his forehead flaring, and stopped directly in front of Mobei-Jun. Luo Binghe glared up, as Mobei-Jun glared down. The air around them began to heat with the half-demon’s focused power, quickly becoming uncomfortable to an ice demon, the sensation undeniably headed towards painful. 

 

“Well…” Shen Qingqiu began. 

 

“Mobei,” Luo Binghe breathed again. 

 

Mobei-Jun held firm.  

 

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me!” Shen Qingqiu said abruptly. 

 

“What?” the child said, confused. 

 

Luo Binghe blinked, turning his head towards the closed door and his human lover’s sudden shift in tone. The demonic energy lessened from painful back down to merely uncomfortable. 

 

Mobei-Jun resisted the urge to tear the sliver of shadow open wide and to step through to see what was happening. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed and then… 

 

The other room was silent. The human cultivator did not open the door to confront Mobei-Jun for his spying. Mobei-Jun had expected the development to be that Shen Qingqiu had noticed that the privacy spell had been bypassed. Instead, the door remained closed. Mobei-Jun couldn't sense another spell in the works.

 

And then Shen Qingqiu shouted, “Don’t just push the button to accept like that!” 

 

“Sorry!” the child cried. “Sorry! Sorry!” 

 

“You can’t-! You-!” Shen Qingqiu inhaled sharply. 

 

“Sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” 

 

“It’s fine,” Shen Qingqiu said, his voice turning gentle again, but strained. “It’s not your fault. I’m not angry at you. You just wanted me to be able to tell you things, so you pushed the button, and that’s all right, just… please… don’t push any buttons like that again, please?” 

 

“Okay,” the child said quietly. 

 

“We just needed to talk about it first. It’s best to find out everything that the button does before you press it. Next time that the System offers you anything, A-Yun, just wait, all right?” 

 

“Sorry. Okay.” 

 

“Okay,” Shen Qingqiu repeated, and breathed deeply to calm himself. 

 

Mobei-Jun had not heard the human cultivator panicking like this in some time. 

 

Luo Binghe was clearly upset by this development, torn between glaring at Mobei-Jun and the closed door. The last of the earlier intent lingered only weakly now. Luo Binghe did not break down the door to see to his human lover’s needs, but he did not yet continue to insist that Mobei-Jun cease spying on the humans in the next room, listening intently to Shen Qingqiu's break in composure.

 

In that same quiet voice, the child asked, “Is it… bad… to spend points?” 

 

“It’s… good to save them if you can,” Shen Qingqiu answered, before his voice dropped to a strained murmur. “I… I had no idea that you had so many of them. How did you even get that many? What were you saving them all for? Shit, I can’t believe the System made you pay that much just so I could be allowed to talk to you. ‘Revelations’? Rotten, bloodsucking, interfering piece of-!” 

 

Shen Qingqiu inhaled sharply again, then said, “Never mind! A-Yun, it’s all fine, it just… that just surprised me. You’re not in trouble. You didn’t know not to do that.” 

 

“Sorry,” the child whispered again. 

 

“It’s fine. It’s really fine. You don’t have to apologize.” 

 

“S-… Okay.” 

 

“Okay,” Shen Qingqiu repeated, his voice forcibly returning to its gentleness. “Okay. Now… now that that’s all over with… I can finally answer your question. It’s… it’s a little complicated, all right? But the most important part is that this is a different world.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not understand. This was the Human Realm, wasn’t it? Was Shen Qingqiu attempting to explain that the child had appeared in the Demon Realm? 

 

“This is a different world with monsters and magic. You and I… came to live in this world,” Shen Qingqiu continued gently. “You came here when you were all grown up, but something turned you back into a child again, so you don’t remember being grown up.” 

 

The child said nothing. 

 

Mobei-Jun still did not understand. This was a strange way to describe the Human and Demon Realms. The Human Realms had both monsters and magic, did it not? Perhaps at this age, Shang Qinghua had not encountered either monsters or magic in the Human Realm. Perhaps at this age, Shang Qinghua had believed that monsters and magic did not exist in his humble world.

 

But… what was this about “buttons”? “Points”? A “System”? 

 

“That was the… Transmigration System,” Shen Qingqiu said. “It’s a… it’s like a computer that helped us get to this world, but… sometimes it’s confusing to use, you can't see all the things it's doing, so you shouldn’t press any buttons unless I tell you it’s all right, all right? It’s all right that you pressed that button now so that we could talk, but we’re trying to save our points for other things.” 

 

“...Like what?” the child asked. 

 

“I… well, I don’t know what you were saving for exactly, but it’s always good to be frugal,” Shen Qingqiu declared. “No one here knows that we came from another world, so we can’t talk about this with anyone else, all right, A-Yun? It’s… one of the rules of being here.” 

 

“...Okay.” 

 

“But in this world, I get to be a cultivator,” Shen Qingqiu said, his voice turning bright instead of serious. “I can do magic, see? Isn’t this amazing?” 

 

Mobei-Jun could not see, but the child gasped. 

 

“Magic is real here,” Shen Qingqiu said warmly. “It’s all right to touch. It won’t burn you.” 

 

The child gasped again and then giggled. 

 

It was nothing like the rare laughter Mobei-Jun had caught from his human servant. Shang Qinghua laughed nervously or dismissively, in surprise or in fear, for show or else hidden against an arm to muffle the sound. This was a child’s laughter, high-pitched and shocked and delighted. Unable to be kept inside. 

 

Luo Binghe turned on Mobei-Jun with wide eyes, and the understanding that had been slowly forming suddenly clicked into place, as Mobei-Jun saw his own confusion in the Demon Emperor’s stunned expression. Shen Qingqiu was not talking of the Human Realm or the Demon Realm as the “different world”. Shen Qingqiu was talking about this world as a whole. 

 

Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua were from somewhere beyond it. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“Your name in this world is Shang Qinghua,” Shen Qingqiu said gently. “I… that’s your name as the... as a member of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. You’re my junior martial brother. I have a slightly higher position in our cultivation sect, though you came to this world… a long time before I did. Our roles in our cultivation sect make me your shixiong and you my shidi, so it’s my job to help you and look after you.” 

 

“Oh,” the child said. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not remember seeing Shen Qingqiu perform this job particularly well before, but there was obvious reassurance in the child’s voice upon hearing that he was not alone.

 

“...Shang Qinghua,” the child repeated, apparently to himself, tasting the sound of it. 

 

“Yes,” Shen Qingqiu agreed. 

 

“And you’re…?” 

 

“Shen Qingqiu.” 

 

“Shen Qingqiu,” the child repeated, uncertainly. 

 

“Yes. You can… you can think of me as a brother. A…” Shen Qingqiu laughed under his breath and said, “A bro, if you will. We have other martial siblings, but… we’re the only people who came from a different world, so we’re… closer.” 

 

“Shang Qinghua,” the child murmured again. “Shen Qingqiu.” 

 

“But in this situation, I think that we can keep calling you A-Yun, if you like. I don’t think that many people here remember your character’s personal name. I don’t think I even know it.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did. It was Houhua. 

 

“...What’s your name?” the child asked. “Your real name?” 

 

“Oh, ah, well… it’s… it’s Shen Yuan,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Yes, I have the same last name as… this person did. Does. But it’s only a silly coincidence. Shen Qingqiu’s personal name is Jiu, so people think that’s my personal name, but no one really calls him that anymore. You’ll have to call me Qingqiu, all right? Yuan is a secret.” 

 

“...Okay.” 

 

In front of Mobei-Jun, Luo Binghe staggered away from him, falling silently against the table and trembling. Mobei-Jun leaned back against the wall and refused to do the same. Though if not for the support, he might not have been able to remain upright. 

 

“Do you have any questions for me?” Shen Qingqiu asked carefully. 

 

“I… I don’t know,” the child said. 

 

“That’s fine,” Shen Qingqiu assured him. “You can ask me anything anytime you want. If it’s about transmigration - that’s what we call traveling between worlds - or about the System or anything to do with that, however, I’ll just have to make sure that no one else can overhear first, since it’s our secret, all right?” 

 

“Okay.” 

 

“Anything is all right to ask. I won’t get mad at you for asking, all right?” 

 

“...Okay.” 

 

Silence fell between them. 

 

Luo Binghe had his back to Mobei-Jun now, hiding his expression, still trembling. Mobei-Jun caught flashes of power, each quickly strangled, quickly swallowed. It was pathetic for a demon lord to shake for any reason but anger. Mobei-Jun’s chest and lungs burned with anger now - it had to be anger to be so fierce - but he did not indulge in any displays. Though he understood now more than ever why one might. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not know many humans. When Shang Qinghua had acted strangely, spoken strangely, Mobei-Jun had first attributed it to his humanity. As time went on, he attributed it to his servant’s unique peculiarities as much as his humanity. What sort of human would willingly throw themselves at the feet of a demon and beg to serve them? A strange one, obviously. 

 

He had occasionally wondered if Shang Qinghua was blessed or cursed with some type of knowing. If some demons were natural seers, natural dreamers, then why would humans not also have the rare natural curse of wisdom among them? Shang Qinghua twitched enough for it. 

 

Now… with this revelation, Mobei-Jun knew that Shang Qinghua’s strangeness came from another world.

 

Though how would a man from another world have such knowledge of this one? 

 

“Who… who are those other people?” the child asked. 

 

“Well, the person who…” Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. “The person who lives here with me is Luo Binghe. He’s the hero of this world. He’s… also my husband.” 

 

“Husband?” 

 

“Yes, we’re… married. To each other.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

“All right?” 

 

“...Okay.” 

 

“The person who brought you here is called Mobei-Jun. He’s… an ice demon. My husband is also a demon, a half-demon, because his father was a demon. Sometimes demons can seem a little frightening, but… did Mobei-Jun do something? What did Mobei-Jun do to make you cry?” 

 

“He…” 

 

“Did he do anything to you?” 

 

“He picked me up and took me here?” 

 

“That’s all?” 

 

“I don’t know- I don’t know him,” the child said, distressed. 

 

“Being picked up by a stranger is a good reason to be scared and to cry,” Shen Qingqiu said quickly, soothingly. “I think he was just surprised by what happened. He wanted to bring you here for help as quickly as possible. But it was good to be scared. If anyone tries to take you anywhere again, you should cry and scream and make lots of noise, all right?” 

 

“All right,” the child repeated. “He’s… a demon?” 

 

“Yes, this world has lots of demons, and lots of ordinary people, too, but these two demons are… good demons. They’re- they can be nice. They don’t eat people or anything like that. They’re just like ordinary people. They’re just a little awkward sometimes.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

“You can stay here with me and Binghe for as long as needed. Our house is nice and quiet and safe. Mobei-Jun isn’t going to pick you up and take you somewhere else, all right?” 

 

The child gave an audible sigh of relief. “Okay.” 

 

Mobei-Jun should have been furious. 

 

He was furious. 

 

But the fury, though fierce, was distant, out of reach beyond the shock of everything he was learning. Shen Qingqiu was taking his servant from him, but Mobei-Jun’s servant was from another world, the same world as Shen Qingqiu had come from. This was a connection that bound them in a secret, mysterious brotherhood. 

 

“If he tries to take you anywhere you don’t want to go, we won’t let him,” Shen Qingqiu said, oblivious to the fact that Mobei-Jun was hearing this. “And if… if the System returns again, if you see any more pop-up windows like that and it tries to sell you anything again, I need you to tell me right away, A-Yun. It’s very important that you tell me first next time.” 

 

“Sorry.” 

 

“A-Yun, look at me. Look at me. I mean it. If the System tries to tell you to do anything, if it tries to force you to do anything - anything at all: to go anywhere or to do anything - then you have to tell me. Don’t accept anything. Don’t press any buttons. Come to me and I’ll help you deal with it, all right? Don’t press any more buttons.” 

 

“...What if…?” 

 

“Yes?” 

 

“What if it’s an accident?” the child asked quietly. 

 

Shen Qingqiu breathed in and out deeply. ” If it… if it forces you to press a button or you press a button accidentally, then come tell me anyway, all right? I’ll help you deal with it. Try not to have any more accidents like that, though? It’s fine, it’s all right, just… please don’t.” 

 

“I won’t,” the child said quickly. “I’m sorry. I won’t.” 

 

“It’s very important.” 

 

“I won’t.” 

 

“Thank you.” 

 

Silence fell between them again. 

 

“I’m… I’m grown up? A… a cultivator?” 

 

“Usually, yes, you’re a grown-up cultivator,” Shen Qingqiu agreed. “My shidi. But it looks like you’ve been magically turned into a child again, for now. It’s fine, though. You have good friends in this world to help you through tough situations like these, A-Yun. It’s all going to be fine.” 

 

“Are…?” 

 

“Yes?” 

 

“Are my parents here?” 

 

“Ah, no. No, they’re not in this world.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

“I’m sorry, A-Yun.” 

 

“Where are they?” the child demanded. 

 

“Back in our old world, still, I believe. I haven’t met them. It’s a little tricky to contact people in another world, you know, like making a very long-distance phone call. You and I ended up… moving a very far way away from home, huh? Much farther than most people do! But we have each other when we get homesick, so it’s fine.” 

 

“Oh,” the child said again.

 

“All right…?”

 

“...Okay.”

 

Mobei-Jun wanted the child to say words other than these ones. There was a familiarity to these responses, but the familiarity of it was not comforting. 

 

It reminded him of the times that Shang Qinghua had agreed to everything he’d said, all of the orders he’d given, only upon some interrogation for the human servant to tearfully confess that he hadn’t actually understood what Mobei-Jun was talking about. That day, he had been too afraid to ask questions when Mobei-Jun's mood was so foul. This was always intensely annoying. Even more so than his asking too many questions. 

 

“Now, I think that we should have some food, what do you think?” Shen Qingqiu said. “We’ll have a nice break for now. Does a meal sound good to you?” 

 

“...Yes?” 

 

“We can have a good meal and you can think about any more questions you want to ask later, and we can all have some nice, calming tea. I think that sounds very good.” 

 

The child didn’t disagree. 

 

“I’ll just tidy up a little first. Any last minute questions?” 

 

“...No.” 

 

The only sounds that followed then was of Shen Qingqiu moving around the other room, occasionally making a humming sound. Mobei-Jun strained, but he couldn’t hear the child at all. It seemed unnatural. It was annoying. What was happening? 

 

A slight flare of heat caught his attention. He opened his eyes to Luo Binghe standing directly in front of him. The Demon Emperor’s eyes were wild. His demon mark burned. 

 

“Not a word about this,” Luo Binghe whispered. 

 

Mobei-Jun glared. 

 

How was he meant to pretend that he had not heard anything? That he did not now know that these humans were intruders in this world? That Shang Qinghua, who had sworn himself to him, had been lying to him all this time? 

 

“Not here, Mobei,” Luo Binghe warned. “Not now.” 

 

“Or else,” he did not say.

 

“Later,” he did not say. 

 

He did not need to say these things. 

 

Warning delivered, Luo Binghe walked back across the house to the kitchen, his stride steadying with every step. The Demon Emperor attended hastily to all the mundane, servant’s tasks he had put aside in order to eavesdrop alongside Mobei-Jun. 

 

Mobei-Jun paid little attention to these actions. He continued to lean back against the wall, not unable to move, but… unwilling to try at this time. 

 

The only thing that kept the anger at bay now, it seemed, was confusion. There was so much that he did not yet understand… and Shang Qinghua was in no state to answer any questions. The irrational urge to go out and find his human servant remained despite everything. 

 

Any attempt to interrogate Shen Qingqiu would only end with Luo Binghe’s sword - or fist - through Mobei-Jun’s heart. Mobei-Jun had already seen how much deception, misdirection, and damage that the half-demon would accept from his lover, and he doubted that this was the limit. If it was the limit… then Luo Binghe would still be nothing if not jealous. It would not be Mobei-Jun’s place to interrogate or punish this other world-traveler. 

 

Shen Qingqiu had also said… that the child had needed to pay, in some currency known as “points” for Shen Qingqiu to be “allowed” to speak of things that the adult Shang Qinghua had clearly already known. One of the “rules” of their presence in this world was not to speak of their origins. Silence was clearly not enforced completely, but there were many types of magical oaths and curses out there in the world, which could make interrogation difficult. And whatever this thing called the Systen was - some being, by the sound of it - Shen Qingqiu was obviously… frightened of its power and machinations.

 

At least, Shen Qingqiu clearly did not trust a child to be able to manage its commands. 

 

Was Shang Qinghua in danger? 

 

The System had somehow been able to appear to Shen Qingqiu and to the child inside this sanctuary, a place that was wreathed in the protections of a Demon Emperor and an immortal master of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, and to escape again without being seen. Mobei-Jun had sensed nothing from it. It had warped neither shadows nor space that he could feel. Why would it not be able to do such a thing, if it could travel between worlds at will? 

 

Shen Qingqiu evidently believed that even Luo Binghe’s powers were no match for this thing… for whatever contract existed between them. And if Luo Binghe could do nothing… then what could Mobei-Jun possibly do against it either? 

 

He needed to think. 

 

Mobei-Jun exhaled harshly, leaning his head back against the wall. 

 

He hated scheming. He needed Shang QInghua back at once. 

 

The privacy spell broke. Mobei-Jun closed the sliver in the shadows that had allowed him to overhear so many secrets, and the door opened. Shen Qingqiu stepped out with the child at his side, holding one of the child’s small hands in his own in order to guide the child along. 

 

Luo Binghe turned to greet his lover with a wide smile, perhaps too wide a smile, as though he had heard nothing. It was almost impressive to Mobei-Jun. 

 

“Shizun, a meal will be ready soon. May I get you some tea? Snacks?” 

 

“Tea would be wonderful, thank you, Binghe,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

The human smiled softly down at the child beside him, who was attempting to hide behind him slightly, without actually touching him, while simultaneously looking around the room with wide eyes. A plain green shirt overlaying a white one had been repurposed as robes for the child, with a belt to help keep the oversized garments in place. The hair ornaments of a peak lord had been removed in favor of allowing the child’s long hair to remain loose, damp only at the ends, falling partially over one eye. 

 

“This is A-Yun,” Shen Qingqiu said. “A-Yun, this is my husband, Binghe.” 

 

Luo Binghe paused in his preparation of a tea tray in order to smile at the child. “Hello, A-Yun. Welcome to our home.” 

 

“Hello,” the child said. 

 

“And this…” Shen Qingqiu turned to Mobei-Jun. 

 

Mobei-Jun pushed free of the wall, though he did not know what to do next. 

 

“A-Yun, this is Mobei-Jun,” Shen Qingqiu finished, as to be expected, far less warmly than he had introduced his lover. “I’m sure that he didn’t mean to frighten you before. You two are… friends.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s expression dared Mobei-Jun to disagree with this statement, putting a demon lord and his human servant on something resembling equal terms. Mobei-Jun’s worldview was still too disordered to take his rightful offense. Whatever world Shang Qinghua was from, he had sworn his life to Mobei-Jun’s service! This did not change that! 

 

But this child had made no such promises. 

 

This child… Shang Qinghua… A-Yun stared up at Mobei-Jun from across the room, still standing slightly behind Shen Qingqiu for protection. Not cowering, at least. Not crying. 

 

“...Hi,” the child said. 

 

Mobei-Jun could do nothing more than nod. 

 

“A-Yun is going to be staying with us for the time being,” Shen Qingqiu announced. “Our house is a better place for him than a cultivation sect or the Demon Realm.” 

 

“Of course, A-Yun is welcome for as long as needed,” Luo Binghe agreed. 

 

Shen Qingqiu smiled at him, relieved, before he turned a more serious expression on Mobei-Jun, yet again daring the demon lord to disagree with him. “The Demon Realm is no place, after all, for a human child,” Shen Qingqiu said pointedly. 

 

Again, Mobei-Jun managed to nod, his teeth gritted this time. 

 

Shen Qingqiu was infuriatingly correct. The Demon Realm was no place for a human child. Without adequate protection and care, the Demon Realm was no place for a demon child either, and Mobei-Jun had no experience with either kind. He had made no arrangements for such things, for he had no spouses or concubines, and he had no heirs and no bastards. He would have left such arrangements to Shang Qinghua. 

 

At least Shen Qingqiu apparently knew better than to put the child back solely into the care of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Mobei-Jun knew that Shang Qinghua was not popular with his own sect, due to his loyalty to a demon, though his human servant infuriatingly insisted on staying and the sect leader had for some unfathomable reason accepted him back into the fold. It would not do to leave a vulnerable child at the mercy of Shang Qinghua’s enemies in the Human Realm any more than the Demon Realm. 

 

Shen Qingqiu guided the child to the dining table, settling the both of them down beside each other, and the child quickly tugged his hand free of Shen Qingqiu’s grip. The child folded his hands anxiously in his lap instead. It was such a familiar gesture that Mobei-Jun could not help but stare at the proof of identity. 

 

Luo Binghe served the humans. There was a teapot and a few bowls of snacks for them, but there was only one teacup on the tray. 

 

Shen Qingqiu closed his eyes and sighed. “Binghe, we really do need more cups.” 

 

“As Shizun says.” 

 

Mobei-Jun was not invited to join them at the table, nor did he invite himself. Instead, he stood off to the side and watched Shen Qingqiu coax the child into trying some of the snacks that Luo Binghe had provided them. 

 

The child chewed slowly, making strange faces, before apparently deciding that the food was more than acceptable, and Shen Qingqiu did not stop the child as he carefully ate his way through the bowl. The child ate hungrily, steadily but not hastily, and as though he expected permission to be revoked at any moment.

 

The child also kept glancing nervously at Mobei-Jun, still without recognition. 

 

The longer that Mobei-Jun looked, the more he saw Shang Qinghua in this child, even though it had seemed clear enough before. Without another distraction, the child picked at his food in the same way. He clacked the roasted seeds against his teeth, sometimes, until Shen Qingqiu raised an eyebrow at him, and he consciously stopped the annoying habit. And it wasn’t just Mobei-Jun who received the wary looks: the child was constantly looking around the room, though not with the exact same sharp eyes and careful glances Shang Qinghua had practiced. 

 

One new thing was that the child kept tugging at his loose hair, picking a handful off his shoulders and looking at the damp ends as though it was strange to him. Shang Qinghua usually kept his hair up. Mobei-Jun could not tell why it distracted the child. 

 

This child did not look like a creature from another world. He appeared to be nothing more than a human child. As Shen Qingqiu, with a hand to his head as though nursing an ache, appeared to be nothing more than an ordinary human cultivator.

 

Mobei-Jun exchanged a look with Luo Binghe, who again looked at him with unnecessary warning, and said nothing for now.

 


 

Only after Mobei-Jun had passed through the unforgiving darkness of his own portals did it feel as though his head had regained any clarity. He stood on solid, frozen ground, and breathed in the cold of the Northern Desert deeply, until it had filled every crevice of his chest. It was an ever-shifting landscape, chaotic and deadly at the best of times, but it was his own. This was a world that he knew with certainty. 

 

Mobei-Jun lashed out, punching forward, summoning a ridge of icy spines from the earth that tore open the landscape in front of him. A frozen wave glittering in the snow. 

 

Then he smashed through the nearest spine of ice, a spike three times his height at least, and hurled it into the next. He summoned ice spears from the air with a flick of the hand, and sent the volley crashing into the other spines. He summoned another ice spear into his hand and attacked the broken shards. It was still not enough. 

 

He made to throw the summoned ice spear with his own arm, only to crack it into pieces with the force of his grip, and staggered. He snarled. And when he tried to straighten, he came up against a sword being held in warning at his throat. 

 

“Are you finished?” Luo Binghe demanded. His eyes and demon mark burned. 

 

Mobei-Jun was not finished. This world was his to shape and destroy. 

 

He fell backwards, into shadow, and Luo Binghe followed him with a stab of the sword that pierced through the darkness. Mobei-Jun knocked the sword aside with an arm sheathed in ice. The burning sword whirled to bite at him again. 

 

Mobei-Jun met the attack with more ice and shadow, barely deflecting it, and summoned a new ridge of icy spines to pierce the Heavenly Demon through from at sides. Luo Binghe leaped away, smashing through one of these icy spines, and lunged again. 

 

They fought one another without mercy. 

 

Luo Binghe slammed Mobei-Jun into his own icy spines, breaking the ice around them. 

 

Mobei-Jun dragged Luo Binghe across the ground by his feet with a shadowy hand that had attached from behind, shaking him violently, and earned a long, burning cut down his forearm as the half-demon freed himself. 

 

Luo Binghe took one of Mobei-Jun’s own ice spears and nearly took out his eye with it. 

 

Mobei-Jun trapped Luo Binghe’s sword in ice and then tackled him into the snow, smashing him into the ground hard enough to crush a lesser demon. Luo Binghe punched him in the side repeatedly hard enough to do the same. 

 

It went on and on in this manner. 

 

Long past first blood. 

 

Long past tenth blood. 

 

It did not go on for as long as it could have. This great violence took less than an hour, and it ended with Mobei-Jun on his back, Luo Binghe on top of him, and Luo Binghe’s burning, bloodied hand tight around Mobei-Jun’s throat. The landscape around them had been shattered. The snow fell lightly around them. 

 

Luo Binghe’s demon mark had burned before. It blazed now. He did not look as though any part of him was human. In his eyes, Mobei-Jun could see that it would take very little here for the Demon Emperor to finish it permanently. The hand around Mobei-Jun’s throat tightened with the temptation. 

 

Mobei-Jun’s heart thundered in his ears as he gripped Luo Binghe’s arm, unable to summon ice enough to banish such fire beneath the skin. His power was slipping out of his reach. 

 

Instead of delivering a final blow, Luo Binghe closed his eyes, breathed deeply, and the power of a Heavenly Demon retreated. The fire lessened. The deadly grip of his hand relaxed, though he did not let go. 

 

Mobei-Jun gasped, involuntarily, as he could breathe again. 

 

Luo Binghe opened his eyes again, sharp once more. “We’re finished,” he said, letting go, standing up, and stepping away from Mobei-Jun. He limped away to pick his sword free from the broken ice and snow, summoning it back to his hand. 

 

Mobei-Jun rubbed his burning throat, pushing up on his other arm through the pain. His bruises were already evident among the cuts and other tears in his skin. 

 

Luo Binghe limped back to him, his stride fixing itself as he walked, and grabbed Mobei-Jun’s arm to pull him back to his feet. He held Mobei-Jun steady there. Mobei-Jun clung to Luo Binghe’s arm to stay upright and exhaled deeply. They were both bloodied and bruised. Their hair and clothing had been greatly disheveled, ruined beyond simple fixing. 

 

“Did you know?” Luo Binghe demanded. “Did you have any idea?” 

 

Mobei-Jun met Luo Binghe’s eyes and sneered. It didn’t merit a verbal response. 

 

“Of course not,” Luo Binghe muttered, and released him. 

 

Mobei-Jun breathed in the cold of the Northern Desert again. The clarity of mind felt more complete now that the anger had been released. Beside him, Luo Binghe breathed in deeply as well, pulling himself and all his power back behind his mask of humanity. 

 

“...Who would guess such a thing?” Luo Binghe said. 

 

Mobei-Jun grunted, looking at the state of his robes. His furred coat was in shreds. He dropped the end of it. They would change before they went to interrogate the relation who had dared to gift a cursed artifact, and perhaps again before they returned to the Human Realm. 

 

“But it makes too much sense to be dismissed…” 

 

It did. This was perhaps the most frustrating part: to be so confused, to not know what he did not know, and yet to have such a revelation slot into place so neatly. 

 

Luo Binghe turned on him again and demanded, “Was there such a time that Shang Qinghua ever suddenly changed? That he had become another person overnight?” 

 

The thought froze Mobei-Jun’s chest still for a moment. 

 

But then he considered it. 

 

“...No,” he said. 

 

Not that he could tell. 

 

He was not certain that he would have been able to tell. This was another stilling thought. 

 

“Why?” he demanded. “Did such a thing happen with Shen Qingqiu?” 

 

“...Yes,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“When?” 

 

“When I was a disciple. People thought it was a qi deviation and he had lost his memories.” 

 

Mobei-Jun considered this again. Mobei-Jun had not paid his human servant as much attention as he wished he had now, but he did not recall such a marked change. Shang Qinghua had always seemed like a strange person, but never a different person. What had Shen Qingqiu said? That Shang Qinghua had come into this world a long time before he had? 

 

Luo Binghe laughed, but without humor. “Like he became a different person overnight,” he repeated. “A different person overnight! ‘I have the same last name as this person did’! ‘Shen Qingqiu’s personal name is Jiu, so people think that’s my personal name’! They really were different people! All along! It has to have been then. It has to be true.” 

 

Mobei-Jun said nothing, in part because he was not entirely following. The concept of Shen Qingqiu seemingly becoming a different person overnight sounded vaguely familiar. Perhaps Shang Qinghua had mentioned it before. 

 

But had the same thing happened to Shang Qinghua? 

 

He could not know for certain without Shang Qinghua or Shen Qingqiu. 

 

“We will say nothing about this,” Luo Binghe decided, his mad smile fading. “To anyone.” 

 

Mobei-Jun scowled. 

 

Luo Binghe looked away, unintimidated. “This ‘A-Yun’ needs to be kept near Shizun for them to discuss things. It’s the only way to learn more without them knowing. Unless… perhaps through dreams…? This ‘System’ can also eavesdrop on Shizun and Shang Qinghua somehow. Besides, Shizun is right that neither the Demon nor Human Realms are safe for Shang Qinghua like this.” 

 

There was logic in this. 

 

Mobei-Jun still did not have to like it. 

 

“Shizun is afraid that the ‘System’ will force A-Yun to do something,” Luo Binghe muttered. “Spend ‘points’? No, that wasn’t the focus of Shizun’s warnings. It was about the ‘System’ forcing A-Yun to go somewhere or do something. Something dangerous…?” 

 

“You will not let him,” Mobei-Jun snapped, “to bait this thing.” 

 

Luo Binghe gave him a sharp look, before shaking his head. “No,” he said. 

 

It was an agreement, but Mobei-Jun did not feel satisfied. 

 

“Shizun must have been forced to do something against his will before,” Luo Binghe mused, looking off into the white horizon. The snow was catching on his hair, lingering on his shoulders, he did not appear to feel it as it melted. “Or else… witnessed Shang Qinghua be forced to do something against his will before, but… some of Shizun’s actions… they have never entirely made sense… how much of it was truly him…?” 

 


 

The distant relation who had sent a cursed artifact as a gift was a dead end. The artifact, which resembled a puzzle box, was meant to increase one’s power, but the relation had not created it and confessed that they did not actually know how to use it. It had been acquired by one of their ancestors. They had thought that the future Mobei-Jun might know how to make use of it, rather than allow it to continue gathering dust in one of their vaults. 

 

Neither threats nor truth potions had changed their tune. If they had been given the idea by a schemer clever enough to act through someone else, clever enough to try and frame them, they did not remember being given the suggestion. They had immediately admitted fault for their thoughtlessness, only having wanted to show their gratefulness, and had made immense offers of restitution while pleading for their life. No one had meant for this to happen. 

 

It was all, apparently, a mistake. 

 

“I’ll have the Elder Dream Demon search their dreams for any meddling,” Luo Binghe said, as they left, not so much an offer as a declaration of intent. 

 

Mobei-Jun nodded, swallowing his frustration. 

 

He had been tempted to punish the Southern Border Shuang Clan anyway, but he had refrained. It would create a mess he did not need, at a time when he most did not need to lose loyal followers, which may have been the secondary goal of any schemer. He had even accepted very limited restitution as an apology for the inconvenience. What had stayed his hand the most, perhaps, among far greater reasons, was the memory of Shang Qinghua saying that he liked this distant relation. The human had said so shortly before the inspection of the gift that had turned into a curse. 

 

It was better that it was an accident, rather than a scheme. That such revelations should come to light due to a trick of fate was often the way of life - life was inelegant, raw, and infuriatingly undignified, Mobei-Jun knew well enough - but he wanted nothing more than someone to tear apart with his bare hands for this. 

 

Instead, he and Luo Binghe returned to the Ice Palace, which was Mobei-Jun’s father’s main residence, to properly contain and secure the artifact. They interrogated the servants who had brought the gift to Mobei-Jun’s private rooms. Mobei-Jun set trusted servants the task of discretely discovering the artifact’s origins, and barely refrained from breaking something when one of them assumed Shang Qinghua would be involved in the investigation. 

 

Luo Binghe intervened to declare that Shang Qinghua would be in the Human Realm for the foreseeable future, implying that he had borrowed the human servant from Mobei-Jun for a private matter. Mobei-Jun did not need his enemies somehow discovering the vulnerable state of one of his most valuable servants. 

 

They returned to Luo Binghe’s house in the Human Realm empty-handed: to deliver the news that there was nothing to do yet but wait. They had changed before returning. The injuries of their release of frustration were already gone on Luo Binghe, and the worst injuries on Mobei-Jun were fading, hidden beneath his new robes and furred cloak. 

 

“Binghe, what happened to your other clothes?” Shen Qingqiu asked, after exchanging greetings. 

 

“Shizun, you have to dress to impress in the Demon Realm,” Luo Binghe deflected. “We had to speak to a few people and act a certain part, so I needed to change.” 

 

“I see,” Shen Qingqiu said knowingly. “Well, the laundry is your problem.” 

 

Luo Binghe laughed. “Thank you for your approval, Shizun.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes. 

 

The humans were essentially unmoved from when Luo Binghe and Mobei-Jun had left them. It should not have been so relieving, but it was. The empty bowls from the earlier meal had been stacked haphazardly in the kitchen, unwashed, so that the cleared table could be covered in books and scrolls. Most of the open texts seemed to display maps: of both the Human Realm and of the Demon Realm. 

 

Under ordinary circumstances, such a thing would have seemed innocent, but now only contributed further proof that Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua were world-travelers. Proof for the child that this was a strange new world. 

 

While Luo Binghe spoke to his lover about what they had found, Mobei-Jun stared at the child. The child was bent over one of these maps, still in borrowed clothing, still barefoot, long hair still loose like a curtain to hide behind, silently watching Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe speak. The child noticed Mobei-Jun looking at him and shrunk in on himself slightly, though ultimately returned his attention to the news being shared, giving a few nervous glances. 

 

“No easy answer,” Shen Qingqiu sighed. “Typical.” 

 

“Sorry, Shizun.” 

 

“No, no, it’s fine. I just… A-Yun, did you hear that?” 

 

The child nodded. 

 

“Do you understand what it means?” 

 

The child almost nodded, but caught himself, looking uncertain. 

 

Mobei-Jun watched as Shen Qingqiu, in the same gentle voice he had used to explain the traveling between worlds, explained to the child that they were studying the artifact that had turned him from a “grown-up” into a child. The child nodded attentively, but Mobei-Jun doubted how much the child understood. The child seemed relieved to hear that nothing would be happening to them just yet. That much was clearly understood. 

 

“It’s time to hurry up and wait,” Shen Qingqiu said teasingly. 

 

“What?” the child said, frowning. 

 

“Never mind. What does A-Yun want for dinner?” 

 

Luo Binghe took this task upon himself, unsurprisingly, commenting on the mess that had been made of his kitchen. He started by washing the dishes. Mobei-Jun had never in his life seen a demon lord do such a thing, much less with a smile, apparently happy to serve. He might have attributed it to a trick to lure the world-travelers into complacency, if not for the fact that this was evidently the ordinary course of events in this small house. 

 

The humans returned to the text, specifically the maps. Shen Qingqiu took up the scroll on the table again, a map of a part of the Human Realm, traveling across the lands with a finger, describing facts of the environment or remarkable beasts that lived in these places, occasionally mentioning cultivation sects. The child listened raptly, mostly in silence. 

 

Occasionally, the child gave another nervous glance in Mobei-Jun’s direction. 

 

The sunlight began to fade outside the windows, marked only by Luo Binghe lighting new lights before continuing his play at servitude. When Luo Binghe announced that dinner was nearly ready, Shen Qingqiu bid the child help him clean up the texts, and the child helped readily enough. Mobei-Jun was invited to join the meal this time, but he did not have much appetite, and both Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu clearly begrudged his presence. 

 

There was nothing keeping Mobei-Jun here. There was much to do back in the Demon Realm, especially in regards to the artifact that had cursed Shang Qinghua, but even without it there were his duties on his father’s behalf and his duties on Luo Binghe’s behalf. Luo Binghe had deemed Mobei-Jun unnecessary in the next step in investigating the world-traveling. 

 

He was expecting it to be Luo Binghe to order him to stop lingering without good reason and go. It was a surprise for Shen Qingqiu to be the one to call out to him. It was even more of a surprise for Shen Qingqiu to insist on “seeing him out” of the house. 

 

Luo Binghe objected, but his lover deflected his concern. Luo Binghe and the child were left attending to the dishes, as the Demon Emperor had requested the child’s assistance, and Mobei-Jun felt warning eyes boring into his back as he left. Shen Qingqiu stopped only a few steps outside the house, so it was certain Luo Binghe could still hear them. 

 

“It will soon be time for A-Yun to sleep,” Shen Qingqiu said, lowly enough that the child inside likely could not have heard them, unless he had been standing directly by the front door. “I’m sure there is much to do in the Northern Desert.” 

 

“There is,” Mobei-Jun agreed stiffly. 

 

“Then we won’t keep you.” 

 

“...I will return another time,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“Hopefully the next visit will bring news,” Shen Qingqiu said.

 

It was clear that this meant Mobei-Jun would not be welcome without news. 

 

“I will check on the child,” Mobei-Jun insisted. 

 

“What for?” Shen Qingqiu said. “I did not know that Mobei-Jun knew anything about human children; is that not why A-Yun was brought here? There is no need for Mobei-Jun to come intimidate a child. There is no reason to even look at the child.” 

 

Mobei-Jun scowled. “He is my servant.” 

 

“Not yet,” Shen Qingqiu replied, glaring back as fiercely as any demon lord. “And if you do anything more to that child, then you will be made to regret it.” 

 

Mobei-Jun recalled the outcome of his first fight with Shen Qingqiu. He ached to remind this human cultivator of the outcome of their meeting. Fortunately, he also recalled the outcome of his last fight with Luo Binghe, who was undoubtedly listening. The injuries he had gained still pained him, preventing his anger at such an offensive threat from being his undoing. 

 

“I will not act without good reason,” Mobei-Jun allowed. 

 

He did not intend to do anything to the child, but Shang Qinghua was still his servant. Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu were taking the child from him, each for their own reasons, but Mobei-Jun retained some authority. He would not release Shang Qinghua so completely or so easily. 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s glare fiercened, his spiritual energy sharpening to a point, and he even stepped forward. “There is no good reason to be cruel to a child,” he snapped. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not have a response for this. 

 

Shen Qingqiu visibly regathered himself, then turned away and reentered the house, closing the door behind him, leaving Mobei-Jun outside in the darkening evening. Luo Binghe did not come out afterwards to add anything more. This was, Mobei-Jun supposed, statement enough. 

 

He left, walking down the path away from the house, so that he might rip open a portal wide enough to return him to the Northern Desert. He seethed with every step. How dare Shen Qingqiu make such threats? Such accusations? Mobei-Jun knew better than to treat a child - a human child - as he might treat a… full-grown cultivator… 

 

Mobei-Jun paused. 

 

Did Shen Qingqiu see the way that he treated Shang Qinghua as cruel? 

 

Mobei-Jun shook his head and ripped open a portal, stepping through into the comforting darkness and cold of nothingness, before the shadows released him back into the Northern Desert, inside the Ice Palace. Unfortunately, this time, neither the portals nor the return to his homeland seemed to do anything to clear his mind. 

 

He had not… been kind to Shang Qinghua over the years, especially early on in their acquaintance, when Shang Qinghua had been untrustworthy and unproven. Now, Shang Qinghua was a valued servant. He was some days closer to ally than advisor, and Mobei-Jun often indulged his whims far beyond what any demon lord would consider acceptable either way. Mobei-Jun had been careless with Shang Qinghua’s humanity at times, but Shang Qinghua was a cultivator, and Mobei-Jun had heeded any demands made. Shang Qinghua’s loyal service had entitled him to make a few demands. 

 

Shen Qingqiu was mistaken in his assessment. He lacked understanding. 

 

As soon as Mobei-Jun thought this, however, he recalled the fact that Shen Qingqiu had dimensions of insight on Shang Qinghua that Mobei-Jun had not even known existed. Shen Qingqiu had kept Shang Qinghua’s secrets as they jumped between worlds and performed whatever it is they had done for this ‘System’ that made demands of them and deals with them. 

 

Mobei-Jun still could not recall a point where it seemed Shang Qinghua’s personality had changed completely. He had only known one Shang Qinghua, he was sure of it. 

 

Yet now he mind leaped to Luo Binghe’s other question: how many of the world-traveler’s actions had been his own? Many of Shang Qinghua’s actions had never entirely made sense, particularly those surrounding his cultivation sect and Shen Qingqiu in recent years. Mobei-Jun would have to review Shang Qinghua’s actions on many occasions through this new eye. 

 

He stopped again, in a lonely hall in the Ice Palace, as a stilling thought occurred. 

 

When he had met Shang Qinghua, he who was now the future Mobei-Jun had been nothing. Impressive, in comparison with any human, of course, but only one prince of the Northern Desert among many. He had not been the eldest. He had not been the most powerful. He had been young, without any real accomplishments of his own, without any real wealth or influence of his own, and he very likely would have died in the Human Realm without Shang Qinghua’s interference. He had been no one's king. That title on Shang Qinghua's lips had seemed for a long time to be an offensive, ignorant, ingratiating gesture. 

 

It had never made any sense that Shang Qinghua would save him. It had made even less sense that instead of holding this debt over Mobei-Jun’s head, scheming which would have ended poorly for him sooner or later, Shang Qinghua had begged to follow Mobei-Jun for the rest of his life. Mobei-Jun had been rightfully suspicious and disdainful of such disloyalty and greed. Years later, privately, he had resigned himself to being confused yet immeasurably grateful that Shang Qinghua had chosen him as his way forward in life. 

 

He had never imagined that Shang Qinghua had not had a choice. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Shang Qinghua did not make an especially attractive child, Shen Qingqiu thought. A-Yun was still cute, of course! All children were pretty cute! A-Yun had a perfectly ordinary face with perfectly average features! He just wasn’t exactly the sort of child typically shoved into advertisements to sell projects with their big eyes, bashful smiles, and cute youthful enthusiasm. 

 

He had shied away when Shen Qingqiu had tried to brush his hair, for one thing, and now it was definitely tangling. A-Yun had even shied away from Shen Qingqiu trying to neaten it with a hand. Which made sense! Shen Qingqiu was a stranger and A-Yun had probably never had hair this long before. Still, the tangled hair made him look more than a little bedraggled, since he had kept playing with it, even when his hands had still been sticky from dinner. 

 

A-Yun was stout in shape, much like his adult counterpart, but his cute chubbiness was countered by the slightly drawn look to his face, which might be attributed to stress and exhaustion. A-Yun was clearly struggling to stay awake now. He tried to hide a yawn behind his arm.

 

He watched people much the way that Shang Qinghua did, his head turning this way and that at nearly every little movement at first. The jumpiness had decreased over the course of the day, at least, especially after Mobei-Jun had finally left to do whatever it was the ice demon usually did with himself. Now, A-Yun only glanced over towards Binghe, who was putting together a sleeping place for their guest, when there was a particularly loud rustle of fabric or scrap of furniture. It was a quick, dismissive gesture. No longer fearful. No longer terrified. 

 

That was a relief. Who could say they enjoyed a child looking at them like they were a villain? Shen Qingqiu had many memories better left forgotten, but he could hardly forget his first sight of the frightened, defeated slump in the protagonist’s shoulders when called in front of the teacher who’d treated him so poorly. This wasn’t that, thank goodness, it was hardly comparable at all, but the reminder of such things wasn’t appreciated. 

 

A-Yun was surprisingly quiet and well-behaved, and couldn’t really be described as happy or energetic. It was probably the newness and strangeness of the situation, Shen Qingqiu thought, of being lost in another world. Children needed time to warm up to these things. They needed to get the lay of the land. It was almost certainly totally normal and nothing to worry about whatsoever. There was no need to panic. 

 

Shen Qingqiu might have once laughed off the idea of Shang Qinghua - of Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky of all people - ever being such a quiet and well-behaved child. Shang Qinghua was often so irreverently unsympathetic, so irritatingly unserious, that Shen Qingqiu had equally often wanted nothing more than to strangle his fellow transmigrator. Just a little bit. But A-Yun had studied the maps with a focus alternating because dazed and intense, his treatment of them alternatively desperate and then careful when Shen Qingqiu gently intervened. His young expression had alternated back and forth between confused, terrified, and enthralled. 

 

It reminded Shen Qingqiu almost exactly of disciples more than twice A-Yun’s age, which was a little funny to contemplate. Outdone in dedication by such a small child! It wasn’t often, especially these days, that he saw a disciple with such earnest focus, attempting to push forward despite all the obstacles beating him down. 

 

Now, Shen Qingqiu observed with concern, this child’s expression was uncertain, exhausted, and apparently frustrated from a lack of full understanding. The obvious obstacle here was that A-Yun probably couldn’t read most of the maps, being only seven years old. Shen Qingqiu had put the maps back in front of him as a distraction while Binghe tidied up after dinner and prepared a bed, but it looked like this distraction wasn’t any good anymore. 

 

“A-Yun, I think it’s time to get ready for bed,” Shen Qingqiu said softly. 

 

A-Yun looked at him, apparently even more upset than before, watching Shen Qingqiu get to his feet and reluctantly following as Shen Qingqiu bid him to stand. Shen Qingqiu took A-Yun by the hand again to guide him. Again, A-Yun immediately started trying to subtly wiggle out of his grasp. Thankfully, he wasn’t as slippery as his adult counterpart. 

 

Binghe had put together a little bed in one corner of their main room. The house only had one bedroom, after all. But Binghe had thought to put up a sheet as a curtain, creating an alcove of sorts, and the structure reminded Shen Yuan of a pillow fort. 

 

A-Yun didn’t seem to hate it, though he neither smiled nor said thank you, crawling inside to “test it out” only at Shen Qingqiu’s urging and looking around uncertainly. He crawled out again, also reluctantly, to change for sleep, to be shown where and how to relieve himself if necessary, and to brush his hair.

 

Again, there was great resistance to the hair-brushing. A-Yun insisted that he could do it himself, then when Shen Qingqiu relented, just sort of skimmed the comb over his hair so that it neatened slightly but nothing was really untangled. It was clumsy, cute, and completely ineffective. Shen Qingqiu was certain A-Yun knew this and was trying to fake him out. 

 

Well, at least this was proof that it was Shang Qinghua. 

 

Shen Qingqiu watched in dismay until Binghe, who was leaning against their bedroom doorway, attempted to disguise a snicker as a cough. A quick glance confirmed that Binghe was laughing at his frustration just as much as their guest’s antics. 

 

“All right, no,” Shen Qingqiu sighed, and took the comb back from A-Yun, lest they remain here all night and have nothing accomplished. 

 

“I can do it myself!” A-Yun cried. 

 

“You’re not doing it properly,” Shen Qingqiu chided. “Have you ever had hair this long before? Don’t worry, A-Yun, I’ll be gentle. I won’t pull too hard. Let me help.” 

 

A-Yun submitted to assistance very unhappily. His face was all screwed up. Shen Qingqiu really did try not to pull, to work carefully through the knots, but A-Yun soon started to cry. 

 

“Am I pulling too hard?” Shen Qingqiu asked. 

 

“...No.” 

 

“If I am, just tell me.” 

 

A-Yun said nothing. He just sat there with fat blobs of tears streaming down his face, occasionally whimpering, occasionally sniffling, or else smearing snot into the rolled-up sleeves of yet another shirt that was far too large on him. It was incredibly pitiful. 

 

By the time that Shen Qingqiu was done and had braided off A-Yun’s hair for sleep, he felt like the cruelest scum villain to ever live. So much drama over some hair-brushing! 

 

“All done,” he said quietly. 

 

A-Yun nodded and crawled into the makeshift bed to hide. 

 

“If you need anything, anything at all, you can come wake us up, all right? No one will be angry. It’s okay to be a little sad and a little lonely when you’re lost and so far from home.” 

 

A-Yun was now completely under the blankets: a sad little lump. A silent little lump. 

 

“Goodnight, A-Yun,” Shen Qingqiu sighed. 

 


 

Shen Qingqiu felt exhausted as he prepared for bed. Childcare really was tiring! And it hadn’t even been for a full day! He felt as though he had a much greater understanding of all parents, and also as though he might pass out as soon as his head hit the pillow, though simultaneously as though he wouldn’t sleep at all. Was it too early to go check on A-Yun? 

 

He took a deep breath and rubbed at his temple with one hand. 

 

“I thought this type of thing was over,” he muttered. 

 

It would probably never be over. Damn Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky and his overdramatic plots creating such a chaotic world of tropey magical hazards!  

 

A gentle hand picked the comb from his grip. 

 

“Shizun, allow me.” 

 

“I can do it myself,” Shen Qingqiu said wryly. 

 

Binghe chuckled. “I know.” 

 

He didn’t give it back and Shen Qingqiu didn’t try to take it back. It was nice to have Binghe’s sure careful hands work through his hair, as they had done so many times before, and would inevitably do many times in the future. He didn’t need to be coddled like this, but if Binghe wanted to do this, as he always insisted he did, then it was fine. 

 

“I can’t be that bad with hair, can I…?” 

 

Binghe made a soft sound of amusement, before saying, “I like Shizun’s hands.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu laughed quietly. “Binghe.” 

 

“Shizun is very careful about these things,” Binghe said, amused, before his voice turned gentler. “I don’t think that it was about the hair.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed. “I know.” 

 

Binghe hummed. 

 

He had been quiet all day, Shen Qingqiu observed, even before leaving with Mobei-Jun to see if this plot device had an easy fix and coming back with the news that they had to wait. Binghe had been attentive, accommodating, and everything that Shen Qingqiu could have wished for in a partner in such a situation. He hadn’t hesitated for a second to accept an emergency guest into their home. He had been nothing but kind towards A-Yun. 

 

It wasn’t as though Shen Qingqiu had expected him to get into a fistfight with Mobei-Jun for the intrusion, but he had expected… a few wry comments here and there, perhaps? Binghe and the ice demon had hardly looked at each other, it seemed. He was sure that Binghe would never carelessly throw out a child in need or anything - underneath it all, his former disciple still had a soft heart - but a few wry comments and some pouting about Shang Qinghua of all people being their potentially indefinite guest would have certainly been warranted. 

 

Instead, Binghe had mostly been smiling and quiet. 

 

Not even a little bit of pouting? 

 

“I’m sorry about the intrusion,” Shen Qingqiu offered, after a little while. 

 

“It’s not Shizun’s fault.” 

 

“Well, I won’t argue with you there.” 

 

“Good, because I’ve already blamed Mobei for it.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu laughed again, but it felt hollow this time. “Still, I am sorry for the intrusion,” he insisted, “and for making the invitation when this is your home as much as mine. I know… I know that you wanted it to be just the two of us here… for at least a little while…” 

 

“These things happen,” Binghe said, apparently unconcerned. 

 

Shen Qingqiu wasn’t sure what to say. He appreciated the understanding, of course, but he would have expected Binghe to follow such a statement up with… with… oh, Shen Qingqiu didn’t know! Probably some ridiculous, shameless statement about how Shen Qingqiu could “make it up” to him later! 

 

Binghe wasn’t being jealous and embarrassing for once? Good! That was definitely a good thing! It was good that Binghe could be a little more serious in emergencies. 

 

“...It is going to be the two of us for the rest of our lives,” Shen Qingqiu supposed finally, pushing through the embarrassment of saying such a thing. “We can spare a few moments for the responsibilities of having friends. Surely they’ll have to give us privacy sometime.” 

 

Binghe’s hands paused in Shen Qingqiu’s hair, and then Shen Qingqiu felt a much more solid weight warm along his back. Binghe bowed his head and pressed his lips against the crown of Shen Qingqiu’s head, a hand tightly gripping Shen Qingqiu’s shoulder for balance, and he stayed there like he was hiding. Shen Qingqiu’s face heated up a little, but he remained strongly upright. Binghe often got like this when Shen Qingqiu mentioned a future that unfurled in front of them as an extension of their happy present. 

 

It was a frightening thought sometimes, one which made his chest feel light in the same way approaching a sheer cliff without being able to fly might: the prospect of spending the rest of his life with one person. Wanting to spend the rest of his life with one person. 

 

The warm hands at his shoulders were just as easily able to reach inside his chest, in more ways than one. Shen Qingqiu could barely imagine his heart literally being torn from his chest. Not anymore. The prospect of the figurative event sometimes left him too dizzied to stand, despite being incredibly unlikely, probably in part due to the newness of the idea. 

 

What if… what if Binghe got bored of him? What if Binghe realized that the real Shen Qingqiu wasn’t as good as the idea he had built up during childhood and through hardship? What if all the pain Binghe swallowed turned into resentment and he decided that some things weren’t entirely forgivable after all? Shen Qingqiu had never been in love before now, so what if he wasn’t… good at it? Shen Qingqiu thought about Binghe leaving him… about Binghe deciding to love someone else as well or instead… and felt physically ill. 

 

Forever together was frightening enough. Forever apart was even worse. 

 

Binghe drew back enough to lean down and then forward to one side. He kissed Shen Qingqiu’s temple, then again on his cheek, and then at where the neck met the shoulder. Then he drew back again, completely, and deftly finished dealing with Shen Qingqiu’s hair. After he was done, he went to prepare for bed himself. 

 

“Shizun is good with children,” Binghe observed. 

 

It was on the tip of his tongue to say: “I have a little sister.” But the easy explanation caught against his teeth, because it was untrue now, wasn’t it? His mind quickly corrected the statement to: “I had a little sister.” But that was untrue as well. Shen Jiu had never had a sister. 

 

It was usually easier not to have these kinds of thoughts, but Shang Qinghua having turned into a child again, one who had needed the very concept and their fact of transmigration explained to him all over again, was bringing a lot of things back to the surface. He was Shen Qingqiu now. If one counted all that time he’d spent… not actively alive… then he had been Shen Qingqiu for over ten years now! And he had mostly enjoyed being Shen Qingqiu! He certainly very much enjoyed his life as Shen Qingqiu now. That only left… the twenty years of his life he hadn’t been Shen Qingqiu… the childhood and the world he couldn’t talk about even if he wanted to share it. 

 

It was one thing to lose someone. 

 

It was another thing to lose even the ability to acknowledge he’d once had them. 

 

“Shizun…?” 

 

“Oh, dealing with children? It’s not difficult. It’s just a matter of being kind.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu stood up, hovering beside the bed, wanting to offer assistance but without a good excuse. Binghe was quick and capable. Any help would only slow him down. Binghe was also remarkably particular about many things, especially domestic things, and while he would surely allow Shen Qingqiu to try his hand, he would probably end up doing it again himself shortly. 

 

Instead, Shen Qingqiu busied himself with fiddling with the bed, opening the covers. “Who would have ever thought that Shang-Shidi would be such a quiet child?” he murmured. “Hopefully, he- hopefully, this won’t last very long, but if it does last for some time, I hope he becomes more comfortable.” 

 

Binghe hummed. “It could be worse, Shizun.” 

 

“Oh?” 

 

“This could have happened to Mobei-Jun.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu laughed, startled. Binghe grinned widely at him. 

 

“If that had happened, then this would all be Shang Qinghua’s problem,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

“Poor Shishu,” Binghe said, more amused than sympathetic. 

 

“That demon lord was surely a brat.” 

 

“‘Was’?” Binghe repeated. 

 

Shen Qingqiu chuckled, though the surprise was wearing off enough to give way to more serious thoughts again. He still wasn’t entirely sure what had overtaken him earlier when he had demanded that Mobei-Jun leave. He could have just had Binghe do it. There had been no need to put himself between the ice demon and everyone else. 

 

It wasn’t like it had been the Immortal Alliance Conference all over again. 

 

He still wasn’t entirely sure what to make of his fellow transmigrator’s relationship with the ice demon. Shang Qinghua didn't actually talk about it; he only complained about it. The way that Shang Qinghua complained about it suggested that the relationship ranged from “bad” to “very bad”. He had very casually made some honestly alarming statements on how demon lords treated their human servants, but Shang Qinghua complained about a lot of things, didn’t he? Everything, really. But then he waved away most probing questions or potential solutions to his problems as too much bother! Too many questions ruined his moaning and groaning! 

 

Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky was certainly prone to exaggeration; he made untrue and unkind comments about their martial siblings and disciples all the time. He could be quite mean-spirited. 

 

Shen Qingqiu had vaguely supposed that Shang Qinghua was sticking with Mobei-Jun now so that he could continue to play both sides, for a little extra protection now that Yue Qingyuan had forgiven him and accepted him back into Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Even though Yue Qingyuan was powerful enough and would be willing to help Shang Qinghua break with Mobei-Jun! Even though Shen Qingqiu would be happy to support it and have Binghe support it as well! Shang Qinghua could leave now! 

 

If Shang Qinghua wanted to put up with that terribly violent demon’s careless treatment as an adult, then that was his bad choice! He was a cultivator, after all! A cultivator powerful and skilled enough to have become a peak lord, too, even if it was only of An Ding Peak. But A-Yun had no powers. A-Yun didn’t even recognize Mobei-Jun, who had probably never even dealt with demon children, which were surely much, much sturdier and probably more bitey than human children. It was for the best that Mobei-Jun and A-Yun had been separated. Just in case. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sat down on the bed, wringing his hands in his lap before he consciously stopped himself.

 

“Half of the time, I don’t even know if I like Shang Qinghua,” he confessed, very quietly. 

 

It wasn’t the sort of thing for A-Yun to be allowed to overhear. 

 

He had said as much to Shang Qinghua’s face before, in moments of anger, and the other transmigrator had only laughed it off and told him that the feeling was mutual. Or else he had said, hopefully or mockingly or somehow a strange mixture of both at once: “Awww, does that mean you do like me half the time? Bro!” 

 

In another lifetime, Shen Qingqiu would have said that he wouldn’t have spit on Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky if he were on fire. He might have said that, actually? He had written a lot of reviews and they all blurred together in near-nothingness now with the distance of time. He might have jokingly called them something like enemies, except that he wasn’t sure that this fan-baiting author would have been able to pick him out of the sea of anti-fans for Proud Immortal Demon Way. He might have said that he wouldn’t have read another of this author’s works if Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had been the last writer on Earth. 

 

And now they were both here in this web-novel turned real world, without any other transmigrators that either of them had noticed. They were allies of a sort, certainly. Shang Qinghua was sometimes very good company, something like a very close friend, and then sometimes friends was an uncomfortable sort of title to claim, even if they did have more in common than Shen Qingqiu liked to admit, even beyond their unique backgrounds. It was sometimes more like… an awkward in-law sort of relationship through the System. 

 

“I believe that Shizun once told us that kindness shouldn’t be dependent on whether or not we like someone,” Binghe said softly, coming to sit beside Shen Qingqiu on the bed. 

 

“...Did I say that?” 

 

He didn’t remember all the aphorisms, proverbs, and desperate bullshitting he’d put out there, especially the stuff from his early days attempting to be a peak lord of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. Somehow, it had gotten even worse when the OOC function had been turned off, because he had largely been keeping quiet in order not to break character before that, and finally being able to talk was a freedom that had gone to his head a little. 

 

Binghe huffed and smiled. “Yes, Shizun, you did.” 

 

“Well, it’s very wise. I should listen to myself.” 

 

“It’s no hardship to have A-Yun with us for a little while,” Binghe insisted. “If he went anywhere else, Shizun would just be worried about him even more, wouldn’t he?” 

 

“Well, there is something to be said for ‘out of sight, out of mind’,” Shen Qingqiu thought, before he smacked it to the back of his mind for being an unkind thought. Binghe was right. He was worried about A-Yun just with the boy in the other room! Especially knowing that the boy didn’t have any memories of this world and could access the System. 

 

“I should go check-” 

 

Binghe lay a hand on his arm before he could stand up. “I can hear him. He’s fine. I think he’s finally falling asleep now, so maybe we should wait until he falls a little deeper before potentially disturbing him…?” 

 

“Oh, yes, it will likely be difficult for him to fall back asleep.” 

 

Binghe nodded. 

 

A-Yun was fine. He probably hadn’t even moved from the bed. It was incredibly unlikely that the child had pulled a heavy shelf down on himself while trying to get a book, or gotten into the kitchen and started a fire, or opened the front door and wandered off into the woods without them noticing. Though, of course, this was Shang Qinghua… 

 

“Surely a little peek out the door couldn’t hurt,” Shen Qingqiu thought. 

 

Binghe leaned forward. “Think of it this way, Shizun…” 

 

“Yes?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu detected a hint of mischief in Binghe’s voice, but he wanted to see where it was going. He trusted that Binghe wouldn’t take it anywhere discomforting. 

 

“Of all my martial uncles, Shang-Shishu being turned into a child and sleeping in our living room is probably the best option,” Binghe said optimistically. “It could be much worse, Shizun. It really could have been so, so much worse.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu laughed. 

 

Binghe gave an exaggerated shudder. “Even Mobei would be better than that.” 

 

“I’m sure Liu-Shidi was a lovely child,” Shen Qingqiu teased. 

 

“Shizun…” Binghe said, with such a ridiculous wounded expression that Shen Qingqiu laughed again. Binghe couldn’t keep the expression up; a delighted smile was breaking through. 

 

Yue Qingyuan made Shen Qingqiu think of Shen Jiu’s childhood and all sorts of broken connections, relationships reaching for a person who wasn’t there and the new ones that had to be formed instead, so he skipped over his kindhearted shixiong for now. 

 

“Wei-Shidi’s sense of humor would probably only get worse. Qi-Shimei…? Are we counting martial aunts? Maybe it’s better if we don’t, I’m sure she would still be too formidable for me. I think Mu-Shidi would be a very polite child, but I can’t imagine him without that terrible mustache…? Oh, no! I can’t stop imagining that now! Binghe, how could you-?!” 

 

They tumbled backwards onto the bed, laughing and grinning. Shen Qingqiu’s playful, admonishing shoving ended with Binghe on his back and Shen Qingqiu on top of him. Their bodies were pressed together in a warm, only slightly awkward line, which became more comfortable as Binghe shifted them into a better fit. 

 

Binghe was so handsome. Sometimes, he really took Shen Qingqiu’s breath away, especially when he smiled like this, he was just so captivating, even though Shen Qingqiu couldn’t have said exactly what it was about this protagonist’s face that made it so good-looking anymore. There wasn’t a feature in this face that he didn’t like. Binghe’s eyes were warm, the steady hands holding Shen Qingqiu’s hips were even warmer, and he couldn’t have not kissed Binghe in this moment for anything. 

 

The kiss was long and slow and sweet. It was a little exciting, but it was also the kind of kiss that Shen Qingqiu could have fallen asleep to, which he meant in the best of ways. It had been an exhausting day and there wasn’t any particular urge to go anywhere. It was nice as it was. 

 

They had already had a very nice morning before Mobei-Jun had shown up with a child-sized Shang Qinghua under one arm. Binghe seemed prepared to draw the kissing to a close at any time, but he hardly protested when Shen Qingqiu kept it going - just to be close to each other after such a trying day partly separated, just to thank Binghe for being so steady through it, and maybe also to put off having to fall asleep to more intrusive thoughts just a little longer. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed against Binghe’s lips. 

 

This man was so good. How was he still so good?

 

Binghe finally broke the kiss - smiling, Shen Qingqiu felt the smile against his lips as Binghe pulled back - to say, “You don’t have to.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu blinked down at him. “Hmm?” 

 

Binghe’s smile looked… well, a little put-on… even though he chuckled. “You don’t have to do this kind of thing. It’s been a long day and tomorrow will probably be a long day as well. We can just go to sleep now.” 

 

Going to sleep without doing anything more had been the plan, yes, but something about the way Binghe said this rubbed Shen Qingqiu the wrong way. He frowned. 

 

“I can’t just do this kind of thing because I want to?” 

 

Binghe’s smile didn’t move at first. Binghe didn’t move at first. And then Binghe was smiling widely, delighted, and pressing quick kisses across Shen Qingqiu’s lips and jaw. It was nice, of course, but Shen Qingqiu pushed back a little more to recapture Binghe’s eyes. Binghe was giving him a heavily-lidded look and-! Oh! Hands squeezing when he was trying to focus! 

 

“Shizun can always do this kind of thing whenever he wants to.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu reached back to grab one of those squeezing hands, holding it hostage. 

 

“Binghe,” he said seriously. 

 

“Yes?” 

 

“Do you really still think…?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu couldn’t even bring himself to say it. The words hurt too much inside his own throat, so surely saying them aloud would be worse, except that swallowing them just made his heart ache even more. 

 

Binghe’s smile faded quickly. “No, no, of course not.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu swallowed roughly. “Good.” 

 

He rolled off Binghe in order to sit beside him, looking down at him. 

 

What had brought this doubt on? It had to be something to do with what had happened to Shang Qinghua. Was it because Shen Qingqiu had so readily invited someone into their home and broken their seclusion for the foreseeable future? Was it something to do with how he was treating A-Yun? If having a child around was bringing up old memories for him, then it was probably bringing up memories for Binghe as well, even if A-Yun was half the age Binghe had been when Shen Qingqiu had met him. 

 

“Did… something happen when you were gone with Mobei-Jun?” Shen Qingqiu asked. 

 

“No, nothing happened,” Binghe assured him, before he sighed. “Mobei was just… upset.” 

 

“He can manage without Shang Qinghua for a little while,” Shen Qingqiu said, unable to find much sympathy for the ice demon. 

 

In another universe, Mobei-Jun had been the protagonist’s right-hand man well enough for years, both before and after having killed the original Shang Qinghua for being a greedy traitor. If this Mobei-Jun’s kingdom honestly depended on Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky in any way, then he deserved to have to do a little work for himself for once. 

 

Binghe smiled again. “That’s what I told him.” 

 

“Good,” Shen Qingqiu repeated. 

 

While he was lost in thought, Binghe pushed upwards in order to press one last kiss against his cheek, wrapping his arm back around Shen Qingqiu’s waist. Shen Qingqiu’s arm went around Binghe’s waist in turn, as Binghe’s head fell against his shoulder. 

 

“Shizun, I didn’t mean for my words to sound like that,” Binghe said, more a little mournfully. “That came out all wrong. I just… didn’t want you to think I’m so selfish that I can’t put my wants aside for your friend. I was trying to say that we should go to sleep now. I wasn’t trying to suggest you weren’t doing what you wanted to do.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu rubbed his hand up and down Binghe’s side, then turned his head to press his own last kiss against Binghe’s head. “It’s all right. I’m sorry that I heard your words that way. Binghe is the most giving person I know.” 

 

Binghe chuckled. “Shizun is the most generous person I know.” 

 

“Hush. Let’s go to sleep now.” 

 

They released each other in order to settle into bed properly, before coming together again underneath the covers, with Shen Qingqiu throwing an arm over Binghe’s side and pulling him close. Binghe ran hot, so if Shen Qingqiu overheated, there was a good chance he’d end up pushing away from Binghe over the course of the night, but while they were both still awake, he was determined to hold Binghe close. Binghe laid one hand on top of the one across his waist, gently squeezing it as he said goodnight. It was a soothing gesture. 

 

“Goodnight,” Shen Qingqiu replied, not truly soothed at all. 

 


 

Shen Qingqiu had been hoping not to dream tonight. A ridiculous wish. It wasn’t a surprise to tumble through the Immortal Alliance Conference, blurring from fight to fight, from memory to memory, and end up on the crumbling edge of the Endless Abyss. 

 

It was an unavoidable plot point, after all. At any point in time, the Endless Abyss was eventually going to happen, it was happening, or it had already happened and ruined everything. There was no escaping it. There was no undoing it. 

 

The Endless Abyss in dreams often appeared even greater than it had been in the waking world, he supposed absently, though he was sure that it had been objectively fearsome. In dreams, the chasm stretched so wide that the other side of it was a misty, forest-shaped blur in the distance. The edges of the chasm were jagged and blackened, ordinary dirt and stone turning into countless obsidian knives. The inside of the abyss turned to a shifting sea of inky blackness after only a few meters, as though the air inside was heavier and altogether different, or as though even sunlight couldn’t survive its depths. 

 

He hadn’t been paying much attention to the details of the Endless Abyss at the time, but he lingered on those strands of grass at the edge now, grasping onto them and having them snap under the weight of his mind, in order to put off paying attention to what had been his focus. It was a useless endeavor. The playing memory was a rushing river and he was swept up in it. His eyes were dragged up to face the person standing in front of him. 

 

Binghe looked so young. He looked younger every time, though perhaps that was just a sign that Shen Qingqiu really was getting old. The protagonist was shorter and thinner, dressed as a disciple of Qing Jing Peak, but bloodied and dirtied by the chaos, and his expression was wide-eyed with devastation as a fresh demon mark burned on his forehead. 

 

Binghe looked down at the sword held in front of his chest, terrified, and oh, that was Xiu Ya. That was Shen Qingqiu’s hand holding the sword. Of course it was. It always was. 

 

He tried to step away, but he was in the space between sleep and full dreaming, and the memory pulled him back into place. He was walking away, except that he was also standing still. He threw down his sword, except that it was also piercing Binghe’s chest. He fell to his knees in front of his disciple and made a shield of his embrace, except that he was also looking coldly down on the weeping boy begging for his forgiveness, who he had loved as dearly as or more dearly than any friend or family in any life. 

 

He didn’t want to do this. He had to do it. He wanted it over with. 

 

The System was there, of course, the unnatural glow of the window burning in the corner of his eye. He turned away from it, except it was in front of him now. He closed his eyes, except his eyes also remained open and the screen was even brighter. He plugged his ears, but his hands also didn’t move, and the ringing of the memory went on and on and on. 

 

It was him or Binghe. Except that if he didn’t make the final push, the System would send Binghe down some other way, he was sure of it. There was no way out. Binghe would definitely survive the Endless Abyss and Shen Qingqiu had no idea what was waiting for him on the other side of thousands of points lost. The System could do anything to him. 

 

“Shizun, please…” 

 

He pushed. The world surged forward. He was only trying to survive. 

 

Binghe fell. He seemed to fall forever. He was gone in the blink of an eye. This was a dream, it could be both, and Shen Qingqiu didn’t know which was worse. 

 

This was a strange dream. He would have expected to wake up now. 

 

But the System was burning red and screaming warnings. He had done it wrong. He was always doing something wrong. The world was going up in smoke, in bursts of terror, the only solid thing were the words PUNISHMENT PROTOCOL looming over everything, and Shen Qingqiu whirled around to see a figure stalking forward out of the darkness: a familiar face twisted with unfamiliar hatred. 

 

“Oh,” Shen Qingqiu thought, “another worst memory.” 

 

The original Proud Immortal Demon Way protagonist was a man by over a century, but this emperor was still just as bitter as the day he’d fallen into the Endless Abyss. He was sharper than the real Binghe in this dream, made of harsher angles. The terror made this memory taller, stronger, fiercer, and his robes gleamed like blood and gold. The promise of everything that should have come to Shen Qingqiu for his role as scum villain in this story. 

 

Shen Qingqiu had already lived this, so in his opinion, he really didn’t need to be here. He ran away, except for how his feet didn’t move. He broke the dream into a thousand pieces, except for how it didn’t go anywhere. He tried to wake up, but he couldn’t surface from this heavy sea. 

 

The words of the exchange didn’t matter, twisted into hateful sneers over time, as Shen Qingqiu tried to break from the memory. He was separate from the scene. He was stuck in it. He barely felt it as the limbs were ripped off, except as a burst of horror. He was bleeding on the ground, except that he was also walking away, leaving himself behind. 

 

“Not again,” he gasped. 

 

The figure of the original protagonist followed him, losing form as it hissed and howled in his ear, and the System loomed larger and louder than before. Horrible fates that he had narrowly avoided only because of a single thread of love that had refused to break. 

 

Something snapped. The memory finally released Shen Qingqiu, flinging him forward into a hundred memories more, which crashed past him like the breaking of a dam. The following years of grief were condensed to the span of a few seconds. Mourning the disciple lost to him, the affection killed so that the System could have its blackened protagonist. Prematurely mourning his own life and freedom, limited though they were, both of which seemed sure to end as soon as Luo Binghe returned, and perhaps deservedly so. Prematurely mourning the sect, all the martial siblings and disciples… all the friends he had potentially as good as damned. 

 

If only he had found out the truth of Shang Qinghua earlier! If only he had remembered the Sun-Moon Dew Mushroom or any comparable plot device earlier! Maybe he really could have removed the scum villain from Binghe’s life early and cleanly, without causing so much heartbreak all around, or else somehow prevented it all and kept him safe. 

 

Shen Qingqiu was finally rising out of the memories, finally being pulled into the waking world, but past the flashing of the System’s old warnings, he caught sight of more faces. Distant and strange. The thread of Shang Qinghua, the surprising connection to a past life, led to another river of memories, blurred figures reaching back to him from within the depths. 

 

Oh, it was his family. He hadn’t recognized his younger sister at first, but when she was standing beside his older brothers, with his parents more distant behind them, he had noticed the resemblance between them all and then it had clicked. They looked so different.

 

No, wait, it was his face that was different now, wasn’t it?

 

They were so far away and only getting farther away from him in this breaking dream; he didn’t even have the time to decide whether or not to reach back, to wave, or to turn away, before he woke up. 

 


 

He came awake to a softer darkness, breathing heavily. He had pushed free of the covers over the course of his nightmare. He wasn’t cold, he hadn’t thrashed free of his clothing or anything, but he felt bare. He turned his head and felt the beginnings of a headache. 

 

Binghe was on the other side of the bed, lying on his side, turned away from Shen Qingqiu, apparently still asleep. His dreams looked peaceful enough. 

 

Shen Qingqiu lay there, controlling his breathing, until he felt that he could swallow all the feelings that had been shaken free back down his throat. He reached down for the cover, searching for its crumpled edge, but then decidedly abandoned it and sat up instead, certain that he was not going to be able to go back to sleep. He held his breath and carefully got out of bed. 

 

Looking back, Binghe apparently remained undisturbed. Shen Qingqiu internally celebrated this little impossible feat, as Binghe was usually such a light sleeper. 

 

He silently left the bedroom, not bothering to close any doors behind him and risk noise, guided by the grayness that was mixing with the darkness. The signs of dawn were seeping in through the windows. It shed just enough light on the little bed that Binghe had made for their guest in the main room to see A-Yun. If there was one thing that Shen Qingqiu appreciated about this second life of his, it was much, much improved eyesight. 

 

It was still strange to see Shang Qinghua as a child. Especially since A-Yun had apparently managed to spin in his sleep, so that one of his feet was using the pillow and his head was at the other end. Blankets had been kicked off in all directions. A-Yun was sleeping on his stomach, apparently peacefully, with half of his face squished against the bed so that his lips puffed out strangely, and… ah, yes, that was definitely a small puddle of drool. 

 

It reminded Shen Qingqiu almost perfectly of that time he had swept into his fellow transmigrator’s office on An Ding Peak only to find Shang Qinghua asleep at his desk. Well, he was glad that Shang Qinghua’s proclamation that he could sleep anywhere held true. 

 

Some things besides the bed did appear to have moved slightly. The cup of water that Binghe had left out for their guest was empty. The stack of books on the table was crooked and one of the maps had been left out, unrolled, as though a small figure had wandered aimlessly through their living room during the night, touching things, before eventually returning to bed. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sat at the table, still able to see A-Yun from this spot, and carefully rolled up the map again, straightening the pile of books that had been left out. Then, as the child hadn’t moved, he took a deep breath, put his elbows on the table, and held his head in his hands. 

 

He hadn’t dreamed of his past life in… He hadn’t ever dreamed of his past life that he could remember. He hadn’t really questioned this before, as he hadn’t really noticed it before. It had been for the best that he hadn’t dreamed of them before. It was all these feelings that this situation was stirring up, undoubtedly; having to explain things to his fellow transmigrator had brought old memories to the forefront of his mind. That was all. 

 

Movement from the bedroom doorway caught his eye and he lifted his head. Binghe was hovering there, looking like he’d been ripped from sleep too soon, and he entered the main room when he saw he’d been noticed. 

 

“...Shizun,” Binghe said softly. 

 

They both looked towards their guest, but A-Yun didn’t stir. 

 

Shen Qingqiu waved off Binghe’s concern. “Just some restlessness,” he murmured. 

 

Binghe didn’t look reassured. 

 

“...How were Binghe’s dreams?” Shen Qingqiu wondered. 

 

Had there been some dream demon trying to breach the defenses of their home? As a disciple of the Elder Dream Demon, Binghe was a potential target for these kinds of things, wasn’t he? Had anyone or anything wandered too far into someone else’s dreams…? 

 

Binghe shook his head and grimaced. “Also restless,” he admitted. 

 

“Did I wake you?” 

 

“No. No, I would have woken up anyway.” 

 

“Well, my apologies regardless.” 

 

Their voices remained hushed, but A-Yun rolled over in his sleep, so they fell silent. 

 

Binghe came closer before he whispered, “Can I get you something?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu noticed that he had been rubbing at his temple with one hand, and tried to wave off Binghe’s concern again. One would think that with all the practice he got, he would be better at this, but once again it completely failed to work, and Binghe came to sit beside him instead. Binghe wrapped an arm around his shoulders and Shen Qingqiu leaned into him. 

 

It was honestly too early to be awake. A part of him wanted to pass out again just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with his budding headache, but that involved standing up and walking back to the bedroom. It was easier to sit here and lean against Binghe. It was easier to not think about the dreams or what they might mean or who could have been looking in.

 

“Are you sure I can’t get you something?” Binghe whispered. 

 

“No, just this is perfect,” Shen Qingqiu sighed. 

 
 

Chapter Text

 

Dreams were fickle things. 

 

It made the Elder Dream Demon particularly suited to them, Luo Binghe had found, as the Elder Dream Demon had put many lessons forward as “the first” or “the most important” thing to be known about dreams. Meng Mo was a demon who didn’t care much for fixed lists when there was flair for the dramatic to be had. 

 

The lesson that Luo Binghe recalled as one of his first lessons was this: there was not one kind of dream.

 

The next lesson then might be this: all these kinds of dreams were not made equal. 

 

People often dreamed without knowing it, while some few dreamed purposefully, with the flow of their mind following their every command. 

 

Some people dreamed in bright, sharp visuals, while others dreamed in long, blurred streams of the written or spoken word. 

 

People dreamed true things sometimes, reliving their memories, or perhaps gifted with rare visions of the future, but people more often dreamed lies. They dreamed their wants into golden fantasies. They dreamed their worries and fears into new nightmarish scenes. They dreamed things that made no sense and had no great meaning, a simple stream of collapsing nonsense as the mind pulled itself from the pools of sleep, through the layers of the Dream Realm, and surfaced back into the waking world. 

 

Sometimes, people dreamed all these different things in a single night. 

 

And sometimes, people didn’t dream at all. Their quiet minds floated by in the deeper layers of the Dream Realm, like dark ships on a wide, dark sea, as distant from each other as the stars in the sky were from each other. As it was with more active dreamers, their safety largely depended on their colliding with nothing dangerous over the course of the night, accidentally or otherwise. Mostly, they slept, if not peacefully, then untouched. 

 

It took careful work to coax one type of dreaming into another, and more careful work to keep the dream in place to see something specific, all without being seen or noticed. It was a constant weaving of countless struggling threads, even with a sleep spell to hold them down. 

 

Even now, Luo Binghe was not entirely certain whether or not what he had seen this past night was true. Dreams were fickle like that. He could never really know for certain the meaning of what he had seen without Shen Qingqiu’s knowledge and help, for Shizun was too powerful a cultivator not to notice if an outside influence was at work too close to him, but Luo Binghe couldn’t ask. He still didn’t know how this “Transmigration System” watched his husband. He still didn’t know whether or not its invisible eyes could see into the Dream Realm as well. 

 

Yesterday, just before Shizun’s conversation with the changed Shang Qinghua had shattered so much, there had been… a sound. A faint, odd chime. It had sounded just before Shizun had begun to admonish Shang Qinghua for interacting recklessly with this System. 

 

Since then, Luo Binghe had watched so closely, listened so carefully, spread his senses wide until his head had begun to ache with the hellish weight of it all, but he had not been able to catch any sign of this world-traveling thing’s presence. In Shizun’s dream, it had appeared as… an ever-changing, floating pane of glass, with glowing spells casting colors and words across its surface. Less of a being, more of… a sign. A message and a messenger in one thing. 

 

PUNISHMENT PROTOCOL. 

 

Those two words kept flashing behind Luo Binghe’s eyes. 

 

Any sort of triumph that had come from the fact that Shizun had not wanted to push him into the Endless Abyss - that Shen Qingqiu had argued against it, raged against it - had been struck down, coldly, by the scene that had followed. On the edge of the Endless Abyss, Luo Binghe had once wondered why Shen Qingqiu had at moments had so much trouble meeting his eyes, agonizing over the potential meaning; he had not seen the invisible being that had apparently also been present that day, threatening Shen Qingqiu with a great loss of “points” if he did not do as it commanded. 

 

What would this loss of points do? Why did Shizun fear this consequence so much? He had cautioned the young Shang Qinghua against it so seriously! Luo Binghe had been too curious in the dream, he had pushed too far, desperate to learn more, desperate to learn everything, and the dream had taken him to another scene apparently dictated by the System: in which another Luo Binghe had… attacked Shen Qingqiu… and had even torn off his limbs. 

 

Had that really happened?! When had it happened? Was it only a vision to communicate the System’s threats? Had the System convinced Shizun that this would happen unless he pushed his half-demon disciple into the Endless Abyss? 

 

But the dream had placed Shen Qingqiu so physically within the scene, struggling desperately to break free of the memory. The helplessness in his quiet statement, “Not again,” broke Luo Binghe’s heart anew every time he remembered it, though not as much as the immense pain that had flooded the breaking dream, the immense emotions that had finally allowed Shizun to wrest control of the dream from Luo Binghe’s grip and shatter the sleep spell chaining him down. 

 

Luo Binghe had so many questions. His search for answers had apparently only given him more questions than before, each more heart-breaking and desperate and infuriating than the last, and he had no fucking clue what to do with them. 

 

He was intensely grateful that he had managed to convince Shizun to go lie down again, to go close his eyes and rest a little before the day really started. The way that Shizun had looked at him… the defeat and exhaustion in his eyes… it was a knife to the heart that remained there even now, bleeding away. Shizun knew something had been wrong with the dream, he was certain of it. He had pressed too deeply, too soon! He had gotten too close! Shizun must have sensed it. Yet Shizun had relented and allowed himself to be put to bed to nurse his headache, saying nothing of dreams. 

 

Shizun had fallen asleep again. Luo Binghe could go - had gone already, several times, as the dawn slowly passed them - to the bedroom door just to watch, to listen, and to sense his husband breathing gently. Dreamless. Painless. Alive.  

 

That brief moment of triumph in the Dream Realm… when Luo Binghe had thought that Shen Qingqiu was not afraid of him, had never been afraid of him… it had not lasted long. Under the scrutiny of daylight, he was sure that he had been right before: Shizun had been afraid of him. Shizun could still be afraid of him now. It wouldn’t be surprising at all if there was fear lingering in some places in Shen Qingqiu's heart, as in his desperation for… many things… some actions well-meaning and some not, Luo Binghe had done much to make Shizun afraid of him. 

 

Before these revelations, he had thought… that he only needed to make… to convince Shen Qingqiu to stop running from him in all his different ways. To look at him. If he could be given the gift of time, then he could slowly show Shizun that there would be no more reasons to be afraid. 

 

He still, occasionally, had the thought that Shen Qingqiu owed him that at least. He banished many thoughts like this, but they persisted, often reminding him of his own capacity for resentment, even though he and Shizun had agreed to put aside questions of “deserving” as an argument that helped neither of them in the search for happiness. 

 

Now, he knew that Shen Qingqiu was also afraid of something else. Shizun’s fear of Luo Binghe was disappearing, hopefully nearly entirely gone by now, but the fear of this… invisible puller of strings remained. This thing which had used Luo Binghe’s image in some form of punishment in order to further its own plans, which had involved his wretched journey through the Endless Abyss, still frightened Shizun. 

 

What did it want? Why had it done these things? What was it doing now? 

 

What deal had been made to bring Shizun into this world? 

 

Why had Shizun needed to leave his original world? 

 

Luo Binghe was already making breakfast inexcusably slowly when he paused at the rustle of cloth. He turned his head towards where their guest was apparently waking to see… well, he saw a lump, because the child had somehow managed to bring down the cloth put up as a privacy screen down on top of himself. 

 

The lump wiggled forward, crawling free of the makeshift bed, and tumbled onto the floor in a very Shang-Qinghua-like fashion. The revealed child stood up and… ah, Shizun would have something to say about the hair again. It was a mess. The child had also somehow managed to pick the braid out over the course of the night, possibly during the aimless midnight wandering that Luo Binghe had overheard and needed to tidy up after earlier. 

 

The child Shang Qinghua looked blearily around the room. He appeared confused as to where he was and how he had gotten here, furrowing his brow and rubbing his eyes. 

 

“...Good morning,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

The child Shang Qinghua’s gaze snapped to him, and he stared for an amount of time that would have been rude for an adult. It was still odd to see Shang Qinghua young. A much smaller, softer version of himself. He had always been an adult to Luo Binghe’s memories, an often overstressed and ridiculous man, quick to play himself up as a worthless coward or a helpful servant depending on the situation, and quicker to avoid attention entirely if possible. 

 

“Hi,” the child Shang Qinghua mumbled finally. 

 

In some ways, the title of world-traveler suited him, though in a different way than it suited Shizun. Shang Qinghua was good at wiggling his way into unexpected places. 

 

Shang Qinghua looked around the room some more, patting his hair and shuffling his feet. 

 

Luo Binghe did not have much experience with children. Cang Qiong typically didn’t take disciples so young, and as he had gotten older, he had had little reason to interact much with the youngest disciples of Cang Qiong, and no reason to interact with the youngest disciples of Huan Hua Palace. Even demons tended to keep their young children away from demon lords, especially a Heavenly Demon one, and the most Luo Binghe had done was throw a vague compliment in the direction of a child if someone’s spawn was being shown off. 

 

 Shizun had said to be kind. 

 

Sometimes, Luo Binghe didn’t know if he could be kind anymore. He could only pretend to be. 

 

“Shizun - Shen Qingqiu, that is - is still sleeping,” Luo Binghe informed their guest. “We woke up too early, so he went back to sleep. I’m making breakfast for all of us.” 

 

The child Shang Qinghua looked at him again and said, “Okay.” 

 

“...Okay,” Luo Binghe repeated. 

 

This word meant acknowledgement or agreement, he thought. He had heard both Shizun and Shang Qinghua (especially Shang Qinghua) use words he had never heard before or use familiar words in odd ways that he had never heard before, but he had met enough eccentric immortal masters and even more eccentric demon lords not to think too much of it. He was just now realizing that this might be a holdover from their original world. 

 

He would have invited the Shang Qinghua into their home just to assuage Shizun’s worries, but the temptation to control the situation and learn more from the child helped. Now, he… wasn’t actually certain how to do that. He knew how to insincerely flatter powerful immortal masters and demon lords, which probably wasn’t too different from dealing with a seven-year-old, but he wasn’t certain how to extract information from someone who simply might not have any. 

 

A part of him wished that he could be kind. How was he supposed to be kind with an invisible being potentially listening in? Spying on them all to further its own cruel plans? 

 

The kindest thing that came to mind was leaving the child be. The adult Shang Qinghua had seemed to prefer it when everyone - whether that be immortal masters or demon lords - pretended to ignore his existence. Luo Binghe had generally been good with that. He hadn’t had much interest in paying attention to a coward and a traitor unless required. 

 

Luckily, the child Shang Qinghua carefully wandered closer to the kitchen without Luo Binghe having to beckon him forward. He seemed attracted by the smells. He was probably hungry. Luo Binghe took a deep breath, keeping his movements steady so as not to scare the child off again, carefully not looking at Shang Qinghua directly. He could work with hungry. 

 

“...What are you making?” Shang Qinghua asked. 

 

As Luo Binghe explained the dishes, Shang Qinghua shuffled forward for better looks, until he was essentially standing beside Luo Binghe. When he noticed how close they were standing to each other, he shuffled backwards again, though not hastily, giving space. 

 

“Does A-Yun… like to cook?” Luo Binghe asked. 

 

Shang Qinghua shrugged, then shook his head. “I don’t know how.” 

 

“Ah, does A-Yun’s mother do the cooking in his house?” 

 

“...Sometimes.” 

 

“Oh?” 

 

“Not like this.” 

 

“Who does the cooking, then?” Luo Binghe wondered, trying to keep the conversation going. 

 

Shang Qinghua shrugged again. “Mama. Just not like this.” 

 

“I see. How many people live in A-Yun’s house?” 

 

The child Shang Qinghua looked down at his fingers, then looked back at Luo Binghe and said more confidently, “Three.” 

 

That wasn’t much of a household, unless servants weren’t being counted. 

 

“That’s A-Yun, his mother, and… his father?” Luo Binghe guessed. 

 

Shang Qinghua nodded. 

 

“Is it a nice house?” Luo Binghe asked. 

 

Shang Qinghua shook his head. “Not a house. An apartment.” 

 

“Oh, I see.” Luo Binghe said, even though did not see, really. He didn’t know what picture he had expected to be painted, but so far, this was it. “An apartment in someone else’s house?” 

 

Shang Qinghua shook his head again. “In a building,” he corrected. 

 

“What kind of building?” 

 

Shang Qinghua frowned up at him. “An apartment building.” 

 

Luo Binghe nodded. “Of course,” he said, and immediately changed the subject before the child could become suspicious or silent. He didn't want Shang Qinghua to realize this could be considered speaking about the fact that he was from another world. “What kind of foods do you like, A-Yun?” 

 

He learned that the child Shang Qinghua’s preferred food was noodles, that he had never helped his mother with cooking, that he didn’t have any chores in his household, that he went to “school” every day, that his mother didn’t work, and that his father worked but that he didn’t actually know what that work was. Shang Qinghua just shrugged and then said, “Business.” Luo Binghe, struggling with where exactly to lead the conversation, halfheartedly asked if Shang Qinghua’s father might be a cultivator or a warrior, and Shang Qinghua giggled. 

 

“No,” Shang Qinghua said confidently. “He just makes money.” 

 

“Ah, is he very rich, then?” 

 

Shang Qinghua’s smile faded. “No,” he said. 

 

World-travel was something that Luo Binghe, now that he was thinking about it, might have expected of the wealthy and powerful. Had Shang Qinghua’s fortunes changed? Or was his lack of fortune why he had made a deal with this Transmigration System? 

 

Luo Binghe hummed and announced. “Breakfast is ready!” 

 

The child Shang Qinghua perked up at once. 

 

Luo Binghe cleared and set the table, also with Shang Qinghua watching before he directed the child to wash up instead. He turned just in time to meet Shen Qingqiu coming through the bedroom door. It was effortless to smile at him. Luo Binghe was smiling at Shizun before he had realized he was going it, even, and he probably couldn’t have stopped himself even if he wanted to appear anything other than delighted. 

 

Shizun smiled back at him, warm and rested. 

 

“Shizun, good morning!” 

 

“Good morning, Binghe,” Shizun agreed. “Good morning, A-Yun.” 

 

“...Hello.” 

 

“I see that I’m just in time for breakfast. Let’s eat, shall we? Binghe, thank you for making breakfast; it looks and smells delicious, as always.” 

 

“Thank you, Shizun.” 

 

If Shizun’s headache remained, he wasn’t showing signs of it. He had gotten dressed while Luo Binghe had been setting the table, but only in simple green robes again, pulling his hair back into a low ponytail. He looked so soft like this. So relaxed. So… touchable, really. Luo Binghe wanted to sweep him up in his arms and just hold him, and ideally never let go. 

 

“Binghe, come eat. You made this meal, you should get to enjoy it with us. A-Yun, here, come sit beside me again. It looks good, doesn’t it? What do you want to try first?” 

 

Luo Binghe obediently joined them. As expected, Shizun frowned at the child’s unruly hair, reaching out to touch before thinking better of it, but he didn’t say anything about it now. 

 

If a younger Luo Binghe had known that having unruly hair would have compelled his teacher to brush it himself, then he probably would have thrown out his comb and all his hair-ties immediately. The idea was a little tempting even now. Shizun might be a little exasperated by that kind of flamboyant, greedy childishness, but he would probably be outrageously indulgent as well, at least for a little while. 

 

He wouldn't do such things if he was being forced to be here, would he? 

 

Luo Binghe served and ate breakfast, and mostly watched Shizun interacting with the child Shang Qinghua, who seemed in a better mood than the night before. He had very quietly cried himself to sleep the first time, last night, mumbling about his parents. Though his dreams had ended up being silent and smooth things. 

 

It had seemed more urgent to investigate the world-traveling and this Transmigration System than to try to give comfort to a child who didn’t seem to want it. Arguably, it was kinder to leave the child be. Many times, Luo Binghe had desperately wanted comfort when in pain, but other times, he had wanted nothing more than to be left alone to lick his wounds and to feel his anger in peace. This was only one night. 

 

Shizun would be unhappy to hear about this choice, however, among all the other unlikable choices Luo Binghe had made last night. Shizun wouldn’t call it kind. Perhaps that was why Luo Binghe couldn’t stop thinking about it, instead of dismissing it as over and done. 

 

Shizun seemed to enjoy having a guest, especially now that he’d gotten used to the strangeness of the young Shang Qinghua’s company,  making light conversation through sheer force of will. 

 

“Binghe, did you have a good morning? Did you get any rest?” 

 

“A little meditation,” Luo Binghe lied. 

 

Shizun gave him a look, but didn’t call him out on the lie aloud. 

 

“Our kitchen needed some deeper cleaning anyway,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“Hmmm,” Shizun said. “And you, A-Yun?” 

 

“...What?” 

 

“Did you sleep well last night?” 

 

The child Shang Qinghua shrugged, then said, “Yeah.” 

 

“That’s nice.” 

 

Shang Qinghua mostly demurred or shrugged to Shizun’s friendly questions, but Shizun didn’t seem dissuaded, and gently allowed the conversation to lapse into silence so that they could all focus on their meal. Shizun wasn’t a person generally uncomfortable with silence. He enjoyed his own food mindfully, though he was clearly also partly lost in thought, altogether apparently at peace with the world and his place in it. 

 

Luo Binghe had always had difficulty balancing himself. As a child, he had found most forms of meditation pointless; even when his body was occupied, his mind wouldn’t stop moving. There was always too much to think about, to reflect on, to worry about, and of course too many chores and other types of training to do, with never enough time for it all. Inaction was a waste of time. Inaction was the antithesis to survival. Too much time to think could quickly take Luo Binghe down a path of darker and darker thoughts, intrusive and persistent despite all his best efforts, until he was breathless with anger and fear. 

 

And then he had come to know Shen Qingqiu, who could say things like, “Ah, that’s a problem for another day,” and mean it. Luo Binghe had been in awe. Imagine being so powerful and so wise as to have no worries about tomorrow! He had envied that kind of peace. 

 

In a world of ambition, of never-ending greed and suffering and struggle, Shen Qingqiu knew how to be content. Luo Binghe had wanted that. 

 

Now, of course, he recognized that Shen Qingqiu also worried a great deal. He was just good at hiding it most of the time. Shizun was also occasionally in the habit of putting a problem aside simply because he didn’t feel like dealing with it and ignoring it until it turned into an even greater problem with time, which was honestly as infuriating as it was endearing. 

 

Still, Shizun had shown him what it meant to be happy. To rest. To enjoy life as it was, with all its simple pleasures and small joys. In a world that was constantly scrabbling for more and more - to have everything for the sake of having it, or else for the sake of keeping it from anyone else - Shen Qingqiu apparently wanted for very little: only for comfort and good company, and maybe for the occasional trip to sate his curiosity for the fascinating world around him. 

 

Maybe power meant less to a world-traveler? What did it look like to him? That so much blood could be shed to make someone the momentary master of one fraction of one world? 

 

“I thought that we might visit Cang Qiong today,” Shizun announced after breakfast was finished. “We could see if Mu-Shidi or Wei-Shidi have any insight into our current situation, and perhaps show A-Yun a little of the mountain. The peaks are very beautiful.” 

 

“That sounds like a good idea,” Luo Binghe agreed. 

 

The child Shang Qinghua just looked confused, so Shen Qingqiu bent down a little to explain again that Cang Qiong was their cultivation sect, and that its divisions spanned across the Tian Gong mountain range. As Shizun described the mountain’s many unique wonders, Shang Qinghua looked equally intrigued and nervous. 

 

Luo Binghe didn’t want to go anywhere. Not until he had ripped the full truth into light, banished this “Transmigration System” from their lives, and ensured that Shen Qingqiu could not- would not leave into another world. But Shizun was smiling at him again, apparently looking forward to a day out, and when he smiled like that, Luo Binghe wanted nothing more than to believe him. To believe that everything was all right and was going to be all right. Shizun was taking care of it. 

 

It most likely wasn’t true, but for now, Luo Binghe could pretend that it was. 

 


 

Luo Binghe cleaned up after breakfast, listening to Shen Qingqiu assure Shang Qinghua, until Shizun shooed the child off to relieve him and to wash. Then Shizun came up beside Luo Binghe washing dishes, wearing a concerned expression and settling a hand on his shoulder. The touch was warm and soft and felt like the only solid thing in all the world. 

 

“Binghe, are you feeling well?” Shen Qingqiu asked softly. 

 

Luo Binghe put a hand on top of the one on his shoulder. “I’m fine, Shizun. Don’t worry.” 

 

“Well, now that means I have to worry more.” 

 

Luo Binghe laughed and squeezed the hand, before he returned to doing dishes. “It’s strange… it’s strange having someone here at all,” he said finally, which had the benefit of being true. “It’s very strange to see Shang Qinghua so small.” 

 

“And so quiet,” Shen Qingqiu agreed. “Though I thought that I heard you two talking before you called for breakfast. It’s nice that he’s warming up to you. What were you talking about?” 

 

“Cooking, mostly. He watched me make breakfast.” 

 

“Oh, really?” Shen Qingqiu said, smiling. “Did he help?” 

 

Help? That thought hadn’t occurred to him. 

 

“No,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

It was faster to do everything himself than ask a child for help that he didn’t need. 

 

Shen Qingqiu looked both amused and exasperated. “Binghe can and will do everything all by himself, hm? Oh, don’t worry, I was just asking. Helping is a good way to keep children occupied. Didn’t…” He trailed off. 

 

“Yes?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. “It’s nothing.” 

 

“Shizuuuuun, now I need to know,” Luo Binghe insisted. He was curious now. 

 

Shen Qingqiu lifted his hand on the shoulder and poked Luo Binghe’s forehead admonishingly. “Don’t whine. I was only going to ask if I was right in remembering that Binghe said he used to help his mother with the cooking…? Cooking is a good bonding experience.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

Luo Binghe hadn’t thought about those memories in… some time. They appeared occasionally in this peace of their new home, often inspired by memories of their much more recent confrontation with his birth father, but he didn’t tend to linger on them long, especially when he had Shizun to pay attention to instead. Those memories seemed so… delicate. 

 

“Binghe?” 

 

Luo Binghe cleared his throat. “That’s right,” he agreed. “I- she- we used to do that.” 

 

His mother had been sick, always getting sicker, and they had been poor. There had been no choice but for Luo Binghe to help her with her work, but still, some of those memories were very good. Distant. Many of them were blurred with time now. But they were still good. Precious. 

 

She wouldn’t be impressed to know he’d left a child to cry himself to sleep. 

 

She… wouldn’t be impressed by many of Luo Binghe’s choices. 

 

Shizun’s hand had returned to his shoulder and he squeezed again, leaning against Luo Binghe’s side. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.” 

 

“No, it’s… it’s good.” 

 

“Is it?” 

 

“She used to put me in her laundry basket and carry me around the room, and pretend to wash me by tickling me all over,” Luo Binghe remembered. “Until I became too big for her to lift. Or… until she became too sick to lift me. Or both.” 

 

“...I’m sorry.” 

 

Luo Binghe cleared his throat again. “Shizun, I…” 

 

“I don’t think I know how to be kind anymore,” he thought. 

 

“I don’t think that I was meant to be kind,” he thought. “Kindness on my part has rarely brought me anything but grief.” 

 

“I’m trying not to be selfish or reckless again, but I’m scared,” he thought. “I’m trying not to hurt you again, but I’m so angry. I don’t know what’s true anymore. I don’t know if I know you at all.” 

 

“I don’t know how to care for A-Yun,” he said instead. 

 

“...Then you can watch me do it,” Shizun decided. “We’ll fix this, don’t worry.” 

 

Shizun patted Luo Binghe on the cheek and turned to face Shang Qinghua’s return. “Hello again, A-Yun. Binghe is just washing up. In the meantime, I see that the curtain around your bed has fallen down. Could you help by picking it off the floor and folding it up? We’ll put it up again later.” 

 

The child Shang Qinghua blinked, then frowned, and then apparently went about the task because he didn’t have anything else to do. He was… very bad at the task. The end result was a lopsided tower of barely folded blankets sitting on the end of the bed, which was almost distressing to look at. It was barely more helpful than leaving them be. 

 

“Thank you, A-Yun,” Shizun said, pleased. 

 

Luo Binghe wanted to cross the room to fold them properly. 

 

“Could you also please straighten the books on the table there? Then we’ll all get dressed,” Shizun said, and then turned back to Binghe to whisper. “Just talking with him was good, but you can also just invent some harmless things to keep him busy.” 

 

“...I think I just gained insight into some of Shizun’s more mysterious lessons during my youth.” 

 

Shizun tapped him admonishingly on the shoulder, but he was clearly repressing a smile. 

 

“Shush,” he whispered. Then louder, he said, “Thank you, A-Yun! Well done!” 

 

The child Shang Qinghua still looked confused, but also pleased. 

 

Since they were visiting Cang Qiong, they had to “get dressed properly”, as Shizun put it, which meant finding nicer and more complicated robes and hairstyles to wear. Luo Binghe liked Shizun as a peak lord - very much, Shen Qingqiu’s lofty and slightly intimidating looks were something Luo Binghe had shown great appreciation for at great length on… many surfaces - but he still mourned the loss of a more relaxed and private Shen Qingqiu as well. 

 

He also didn’t particularly care for, with his own appearance, having to strike a balance between demon lord and former disciple when he visited the sect, which he made an effort at purely for the sake of limiting the trouble he caused Shizun. It was a game that he would never win. Looking good was still important, however. The occasional looks of envy and awe, even and sometimes especially when it was resentful, were very nice, and Luo Binghe wouldn’t dare to give anyone reason to suggest that Shizun had a bad eye for husbands on that front. 

 

Shang Qinghua yet again had to make do with oversized clothing tied to fit as well as they could, and was gently wrestled into place so that Shizun could brush his hair again. He didn’t cry this time, though he did slouch and pout. Shizun had needed to tell the child every few minutes not to pick at his clothing too much unless he wanted to soon be walking around naked. 

 

It was almost endearing enough to make Luo Binghe forget everything else that had come with this equally ridiculous and upsetting situation. Darker thoughts lurked nevertheless. 

 

Shizun wanted to fly to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect. He didn’t particularly care for any kind of portals and didn’t think Shang Qinghua would enjoy one after his experience with Mobei-Jun, and the flight wasn’t long from this private residence. Luo Binghe had wanted time and space for just the two of them, but he had stomped down on his jealousy, which insisted they hide away from the world entirely, long enough to see to it that Shizun wasn’t far from help or the sect that he still called home. It helped Luo Binghe’s jealousy immensely that Shizun often referred to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect as their “other home”. 

 

They all walked out into the garden together, with their swords in their hands, and Shizun’s other hand firmly holding the child Shang Qinghua’s hand. All of Shang Qinghua’s pouting had evaporated immediately as soon as Shizun had summoned his sword. The child seemed utterly enthralled by the spiritual blades, though he was also wary of them, most likely in part because Shizun had warned him to be careful as to not accidentally lose a finger. 

 

Shizun wanted to practice flying around the garden a little before they set out. 

 

“We can just carry him,” Luo Binghe had said. “It would be easier just to carry him.” 

 

“I know,” Shizun had agreed. “We’ll probably end up carrying him, you’re right. It's too long a flight not to carry him and it's safer that way. But we can have a little fun first, can’t we? What child doesn’t dream at least a little about flying swords?” 

 

So, Shizun put his sword down on the grass and bid Shang Qinghua to stand on it. 

 

Shang Qinghua didn’t do it. He looked more skeptical than scared. 

 

“A-Yun, it’s perfectly safe,” Shizun said, amused. “Look, it’s still in its sheath.” 

 

Shizun even reached out and tapped his own foot against the sword. 

 

This convinced Shang Qinghua to tap his foot against the sword, so quickly that Luo Binghe wasn’t entirely certain he’d touched the sword at all. It was like watching someone trying to test the coldness of a body of water without having to touch the water, which usually ended in a fellow disciple sneaking up behind them to shove them in completely. 

 

Shizun sighed.

 

A little more coaxing convinced Shang Qinghua to stand on it completely, and when Shizun tried levitating the sword, Shang Qinghua leaped off it as soon as it moved. The child threw himself to the grass and then stared at the hovering sword like it was a venomous snake. 

 

“A-Yun!” Shizun said, clearly trying not to laugh. 

 

Luo Binghe swallowed his own laughter, which rose at the sight of Shizun’s exasperation just as much as Shang Qinghua’s antics. Shizun’s amusement was often infectious. 

 

Among the many great mysteries here, some more harrowing than others, there was the mystery of how Shang Qinghua of all people had managed to find the courage to travel between worlds. Perhaps he had done it with his eyes closed. That was a point in favor of these world-travelers needing to leave their original world for some reason. 

 

Shizun allowed Shang Qinghua to slowly approach the floating sword, which was now no more than a handspan above the ground. He allowed the child to poke the great Xiu Ya sword. He allowed the child to wave his hands above and below the sword, checking for strings. He even allowed the child to push it up and down, like playing with a floating toy in water. 

 

Finally, Shang Qinghua sat back, stunned, and said, “It really flies?” 

 

Shizun chuckled. “Yes. Would you like to try again?” 

 

It was easier to coax Shang Qinghua onto the sword for a second time, but he insisted on holding both of Shizun’s hands as Shizun lifted the sword off the ground. Shang Qinghua exclaimed aloud when it did, delighted to the point that words failed him. 

 

Luo Binghe found himself smiling without realizing it. It had been… a long time since he had seen anyone so amazed by something that had become so mundane. When he had originally made it to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, barely managing to get there alive, something like this would have been an incomparable wonder. 

 

Shizun was good at recognizing the small wonders and little joys like this. 

 

He liked being here, Luo Binghe was certain of it. Shizun liked being in this world. 

 

Watching Shen Qingqiu slowly, slowly begin to pull Shang Qinghua around the garden, still no more than a handspan off the ground, the both of them smiling widely, Luo Binghe wanted so badly to believe that Shizun wanted to be here. Not just in this world, but in this garden belonging to this house. He feared it wasn’t true so much that he hadn’t trusted he could believe his own eyes, ever since the question had been raised again with all these revelations, but then Shizun looked across the garden to look at him, to smile at him, to share this small wonder and little joy with him, and a part of Luo Binghe’s heart settled again. For the first time in a day, Luo Binghe could sit back against the grass and breathe easily. 

 

He still had so many questions, but those terrible dreams… and this wonderful moment… they answered the most important one, didn’t they? Shizun smiled like everything was all right and like everything was going to be all right. Luo Binghe didn’t trust that this promise was true, life was too unpredictable, but he trusted that Shizun meant it. That much was surely true. 

 

And then Shang Qinghua shrieked and fell off the sword. Shizun’s diverted attention had apparently caused him to wobble fiercely, to the point where his foot slipped, and only Shizun’s quick reflexes and strong arms kept him from managing to fall face-first into the grass. Instead, Shang Qinghua landed on his feet and stayed upright. 

 

“That was… loud,” Shizun managed, surprised. 

 

Luo Binghe laughed, unable to help it, though he quickly disguised it as a cough again. Shizun gave him an admonishing look now, probably thinking of the child Shang Qinghua’s pride, even though Luo Binghe had been laughing at Shizun’s shock more than anything else. Luo Binghe just grinned back at him.

 

Shizun apparently decided to ignore him. “Are you all right, A-Yun?” 

 

Shang Qinghua nodded. 

 

“...Would you like to get back on the sword?” 

 

Shang Qinghua nodded more enthusiastically, and Shizun helped him back on the sword. Soon, they were moving around the garden again, very slowly, though gradually picking up some speed. Shang Qinghua clung to Shizun’s arms like he would fall to his death if he didn’t, even though Shizun didn’t take him any higher than two handspans off the ground, which apparently seemed like a great height to the child Shang Qinghua. 

 

“A-Yun, don’t look down,” Shizun coaxed. “Just look at me.” 

 

“...Okay.” 

 

“Shizun would make a good father,” Luo Binghe realized. It shouldn’t have been so surprising, since Shen Qingqiu had made a good teacher, too, always encouraging and kind. He hadn’t ever thought about Shizun having children. When Luo Binghe had been a disciple, someone had vaguely mentioned the topic of marriage once to Shen Qingqiu, and Shizun had laughed and said that his disciples and martial siblings kept him busy enough. 

 

Luo Binghe wondered about the faces that had flashed as Shizun’s dream had finally shattered, ruining his plans of discovering more about the world-traveling or the Transmigration System that apparently controlled it. The distant people in the breaking dream had been a family, he assumed, five people who resembled each other. Shizun must have had a family in his original world, unless he had been an orphan. Had that been them? Had Shizun had siblings? Had he been married before? Had he had children before? 

 

Shang Qinghua fell off the sword a few more times, losing his nerve when Shizun moved him too fast or too high, or else turning his face to the breeze and them promptly losing his balance. Shizun apparently had endless patience for this. Shizun smiled when Shang Qinghua lost patience with him restarting them too slow and too low after another fall, begging him to move faster and higher again. Shizun indulged him. 

 

Did Shizun miss his original world at all? The thought hurt fiercely, though Luo Binghe told himself again that Shizun clearly both liked this world and wanted to be here. 

 

“Binghe!” 

 

Luo Binghe looked up out of his thoughts. “Shizun?” 

 

“You’re just sitting there! Come join us!” 

 

“Of course, Shizun.” 

 

Shizun urged him to step onto his sword and demonstrate for Shang Qinghua, and Luo Binghe of course obliged. He didn’t do anything ridiculous. He only glided around the garden in swift, smooth circles, looping around Shizun and the child clinging to him, and once going over the house when Shizun dared him. It was second-nature now to balance on the sword, nearly as easy as walking. It was still gratifying and amusing to see Shang Qinghua’s mouth drop open in awe at such simple tricks. 

 

“There’s always a lot of impressive flying going on at Cang Qiong,” Shizun said, partly to Shang Qinghua and partly reminiscing. “Disciples racing each other around for no good reason.” 

 

“And master cultivators racing each other around for good reason?” Luo Binghe said, amused. 

 

Shizun smiled back at him, mischievous. “Of course.” 

 

“If Shizun wants to show off the skills of a master cultivator a little, then I can help A-Yun.” 

 

It didn’t take much coaxing to convince Shizun to leave Shang Qinghua in Luo Binghe’s care. Shizun was clearly eager to fly today. Luo Binghe hopped off his sword, let the child Shang Qinghua take his hand, and helped him hop onto the sword hovering just above the grass. Shang Qinghua grinned like this small leap had been a great feat. To him, it was. 

 

Luo Binghe held Shang Qinghua’s hand, just the one, and they stood together as Shizun shot up into the sky. Shang Qinghua shrieked when Shizun did a loop. The child shrieked again, even louder, when Shizun did a backflip on his sword. Luo Binghe could see Shizun grinning. 

 

He was grinning himself. It was fun to see Shizun be a little childish. It was also fun to see Shizun confidently show off. It was as nostalgic as it was… incredibly attractive. Luo Binghe felt a tinge of annoyance that he wouldn’t be able to take Shizun back to bed after this, but those feelings could wait, especially with so many other good feelings here. 

 

Shizun looped and flipped some more. Then apparently got it into his head to cast a spell to trail colored smoke, and drew a smiling face in the air above their garden. 

 

Luo Binghe walked in careful circles with the child floating beside him. Shang Qinghua’s balance had improved greatly with even this small amount of practice. His balance seemed to improve even more now that he wasn’t thinking too much about it, too busy watching Shizun play, clearly torn between awe and envy. His deathly grip on Luo Binghe’s arm had lightened immensely as soon as he had made certain that Luo Binghe was as solid as Shizun. 

 

After he had had his fun, Shizun came down from the sky, still grinning, very pleased with himself. He was more than a little windswept, too, ruining the image of a lofty immortal master. Luo Binghe wanted to kiss him even more breathless than he already was. 

 

Instead, he said, “Shizun is very good at flying, hm?” 

 

“Very good,” Shang Qinghua agreed immediately. 

 

Shizun waved dismissively, but he still looked pleased. “I’ve had a lot of practice,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to fly for fun instead of as transportation. That can make it dull.” 

 

“How can flying be dull?” Shang Qinghua demanded, disbelieving. 

 

Shizun laughed. “Good question!” 

 

Invigorated by Shizun’s antics, Shang Qinghua eagerly pushed to be flown around the garden some more, faster and higher than before. Luo Binghe limited him at around three handspans above the ground, however, no matter how much he begged. Shang Qinghua’s grip on his arm loosened as they completed more circles, both of his arms spread for balance, keeping Luo Binghe at a distance now that he was more confident. 

 

He seemed so confident that, at one point, growing a little bored of the circles around the garden, Luo Binghe slowed down and let Shang Qinghua continue without him. Shang Qinghua’s fingers left Luo Binghe’s arm without the child even noticing. He floated along alone for a few seconds. 

 

Luo Binghe looked back at Shizun, who was smiling approvingly at him. 

 

And then Shang Qinghua finally noticed that no one was helping him, flailed wildly, and immediately fell off the sword with a loud shriek. He landed harmlessly in the grass, the act almost more like sitting down than falling. But he looked at Luo Binghe with the most offense and betrayal that Luo Binghe had ever seen on Shang Qighua’s face. It was a little shocking, honestly, and more than a little amusing.

 

“You let go!” Shang Qinghua cried angrily. 

 

“Ah, sorry,” Luo Binghe said. “You seemed to be doing fine on your own.” 

 

“I didn’t ask you to let go!” 

 

“My mistake.” 

 

The child Shang Qinghua pushed himself to his feet, put his hands on his hips, and did his best to glare Luo Binghe down. “Don’t let go like that! Don’t do it!” 

 

“Sorry, A-Yun.” 

 

Behind them, Shizun was laughing so hard that he was doubled over. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Luo Binghe was “in the dog house” as Shizun might have said. He had been thoroughly and perhaps permanently disowned for his great betrayal. This meant that he was no longer allowed to help the child balance on a sword, according to the child himself, he was given deeply distrustful looks every time that he came near until they finally left for Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, and he certainly wasn’t allowed to carry the child for the flight. 

 

Shang Qinghua flew safely in Shizun’s strong arms instead. He was living one of Luo Binghe’s greatest dreams from his days as a disciple! Luo Binghe could admit that he was a little jealous, but strangely, this jealousy didn’t bite or claw or burn at him as other feelings had before, instead being softer and more wistful. He found himself mostly amused, filled with this happy envy. 

 

Shizun was clearly amused by the situation, giving him fond and teasing looks. 

 

Shang Qinghua seemed awed by the experience of flying so high, though he became fearful every time that he looked down, and Shizun had to remind him several times not to look down and scare himself. Shang Qinghua calmed down in time, when he finally decided that Shizun was not going to drop him or allow him to fall. The views that came with soaring above the rest of the world were shared by all of them: an old experience made new once again. 

 

“...Can we touch the clouds?” Shang Qinghua asked at one point. 

 

Shizun’s smile widened. “I’m afraid that they’re higher up than they look, and that it’s quite cold up there. Disappointingly, they’re also not as fluffy as they look. Has A-Yun ever seen or walked through fog?” 

 

“...No?” 

 

“Well, fog happens when clouds form low to the ground. There’s a slight white haze to everything that makes it difficult to see very far, and the air is usually very humid, which means that there’s a lot of moisture in the air.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

“...Does A-Yun know how clouds form?” 

 

“No? What’s ‘moisture’?” 

 

“Ah, moisture means the presence of water. Humidity means that there is water in the air. Clouds form when the water vapor - that is, the water in the air - condenses-” 

 

“How?” 

 

“Well, the sun heats water up and it rises… You know how when water in a pot boils, you can see mist coming off it? That is water turned into steam. Water in a gaseous form. The water rises high into the sky and…” 

 

It was nostalgic to listen to Shizun lecture like this, answering all of Shang Qinghua’s questions and then elaborating further to share his fascination with the way things worked. When Luo Binghe had been young, wary of but increasingly enamored with his changed teacher, he had been convinced that Shen Qingqiu, in his immortal wisdom, knew everything. Shizun had introduced so many new and exciting concepts about the makeup of the world, using terminology that often seemed unique to him. Some of the terminology was still unique to him.

 

Now, well, Luo Binghe knew better about Shizun knowing everything, for one thing. For another, he had to wonder if Shizun’s easy depth and breadth of knowledge was an education from his original world. 

 

“THERE ARE DRAGONS HERE?!” Shang Qinghua shouted, at the top of his lungs. 

 

Luo Binghe returned his full attention to the conversation beside him, where Shizun had been casually listing some of the creatures and spirits able to summon rain or otherwise manipulate water. Shang Qinghua was wide-eyed with shock. Shizun was wincing, though he laughed. 

 

“A little quieter, please, A-Yun!” 

 

“Sorry.” 

 

“But yes! There are! A great deal of them. The ones able to summon rain are-” 

 

It was difficult to say, to Luo Binghe’s fondness, who was more excited by the ensuing conversation about dragons: Shizun or the child he was holding. Neither of them appeared to notice the implication that wherever Shang Qinghua was originally from did not have them. 

 

Shang Qinghua was not permitted to touch a cloud over the course of their flight, but as a quick treat, Shizun did at one point skim low enough and fly slowly enough to allow the child to run his hands through the highest branches of several tall trees. Shang Qinghua giggled as he smacked the leaves as they passed. 

 

They arrived at the sect in good time nevertheless. Shizun hadn’t talked the entire time, though he certainly knew enough about dragons to have been able to fill the entire flight. Sometimes, he and Shang Qinghua had flown in comfortable silence instead, especially near the end, when Shang Qinghua’s head had fallen against Shizun’s shoulder in tiredness. 

 

Shang Qinghua’s awe at the sight of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect was also nostalgic, and Luo Binghe had to admit that it was rightly deserved, as the gleaming cultivation sect sprawled across the verdant mountain peaks, with its rainbow bridge and elegant architecture, was impressive. From the outside, it was difficult to see the flaws that spared no person alive, and certainly didn’t spare an organization as large and powerful as this one. The freshly painted buildings and well-maintained gardens didn’t advertise any of the pettiness, greed, resentment, or hypocrisy resting within. 

 

They landed on Qing Jing Peak, of course, just outside of Shizun’s private residence. They had been seen on their way in - it would have been incredibly pathetic for the so-called “greatest cultivation sect in the world” if no one had noticed them - and that meant that people were already babbling that a peak lord was back in residence, and that Ming Fan or Ning Yingying or some other Qing Jing cultivator was sure to be along shortly to greet them. 

 

Most of the looks in Shizun and Shang Qinghua’s direction had been surprised and curious. Why would the Lord of Qing Jing Peak, the famous Shen Qingqiu, be carrying a child? 

 

Most of the looks in Luo BInghe’s direction had been wary. Some had been outright hateful. Luo Binghe had done his best to ignore them, squashing the urge to remember all the faces. He had done his best to put his regrets and resentment behind him, for Shizun’s sake, but nothing had truly been forgotten on either side. He could not say that fear from these people was undeserved. 

 

“We’re here,” Shizun announced, putting Shang Qinghua down and helping the child keep his balance. “No, no, don’t let go yet! Just stretch your legs! That’s it. Welcome to Qing Jing Peak, the second peak of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, A-Yun! This is our home - mine and Binghe’s house - here at the sect.” 

 

Luo Binghe smiled, pushing darker thoughts aside. It was easy when Shizun said things like that: our home. Shizun meant it, too. This was their house. 

 

It was only a minute later that Ming Fan came around the bend, with a skip in his step that meant he’d been sprinting just before he turned the corner, which became a slightly more dignified, but still hurried stride. He hastily fixed his appearance as he walked. 

 

Shizun could probably hear the approach, but he was too busy pointing out parts of their garden to a curious Shang Qinghua to turn around immediately for the likes of Ming Fan. Luo Binghe, having spotted his former shixiong out of the corner of his eye, performed a similar snub entirely on purpose. There was something delightful about the way that Ming Fan’s eye twitched every time that Luo Binghe pretended that his approach hadn’t been worth noticing. 

 

One had to enjoy the little things in life, after all. 

 

“Shizun!” Ming Fan called. 

 

Shizun finally turned and straightened to greet Ming Fan warmly enough. More warmly than he deserved, in Luo Binghe’s opinion. He felt somewhat vindicated by the fact that Shang Qinghua, already standing slightly behind Shizun, shuffled to put Shen Qingqiu even more between himself and this clearly untrustworthy stranger. 

 

“Shizun, if we had known you were coming,” Ming Fan was saying now, clearly frustrated, but unable to express it to a peak lord, “if you had sent word ahead, we could have properly prepared your house for your arrival…” 

 

“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Shizun replied. “We’ll only be here for the day, I think.” 

 

Ming Fan’s shoulders and expression drooped slightly in dismay. 

 

“And Binghe will take care of anything to do with the house, as usual,” Shizun continued, gesturing in Luo Binghe’s direction. 

 

He nodded, smiling back at Shizun, preferring it this way. If they let strangers into their house blindly doing whatever they pleased, then everything would be put out of order, and he would have to spend far too long putting everything back to where it should be, and even longer trying to get the smell out. Shizun thought this latter issue was probably a demon thing. Luo Binghe didn't really care what part of his heritage it could be attributed to.

 

Ming Fan’s eye twitched to be reminded that Luo Binghe existed. 

 

Luo Binghe’s pleasant smile widened. 

 

“Only for the day?” Ming Fan said. “There are so many things that could use your attention-” 

 

“Most of which will have to be put off for my scheduled return, coming up soon enough,” Shizun interrupted. “Unless there is a life-or-death emergency? I’m sure that all of our masters have their own tasks well in hand, now that we have firmly established that they do not, in fact, need my permission to breathe or do their own jobs.” 

 

Luo Binghe loved it when Shizun got a little sharp. He also sympathized with the issue of underlings who wouldn’t make a move without a nod of approval, though with demons, most of the trouble tended to be keeping them in line. On this note, he wondered what Sha Hualing was doing now. He would have to have Mobei check in on her and her clan’s workshop, just to make sure that she hadn't concocted a new incurable poison, developed a weapon inspired by the Xin Mo sword, or started a bloody feud for her own amusement. 

 

“Please make it clear to all that I am not available for business today,” Shizun said, and made Ming Fan explicitly promise to do so.

 

Ming Fan made his promise in a very glum fashion. 

 

Shang Qinghua was peering around Shizun slightly, frowning up at Ming Fan. Luo Binghe was beginning to wonder how long it would take his former shixiong to properly notice the seven-year-old peak lord by Shizun’s side. Shang Qinghua wasn’t that small. 

 

It turned out that Ming Fan needed to be told directly, as when he finally asked what had brought Shizun back to the sect before schedule, Shizun had to direct him to notice the child. Even then, there was no immediate recognition. Ming Fan frowned at the child like he couldn’t put his finger on where he had seen them before. 

 

“We need to see Mu Qingfang at his earliest convenience,” Shizun explained, with a hand on Shang Qinghua’s shoulder that the child was already trying to shrug off. “Sometime today, preferably.” 

 

“The Lord of Qian Cao Peak for a new disciple…?” Ming Fan murmured. 

 

Luo Binghe wanted to tell him, but he also wanted to draw this out for as excruciatingly long as possible. It was a difficult decision. Shizun was beginning to look a little exasperated, and let Shang Qinghua wiggle free. 

 

“No, not for a new disciple,” Shizun said. 

 

Finally, something like understanding began to dawn. “Shizun, is that…?” 

 

“This is your Shang-Shishu, yes. A-Yun, this is Ming Fan, one of my head disciples here on Qing Jing Peak. He helps look after things when Binghe and I are away.” 

 

Ming Fan was too shocked for this statement to properly garner an eye twitch. 

 

“I trust that this situation is one that will be kept quiet?” Shizun said pointedly. “Outside of your Mu-Shishu, no one needs to know our business here, save that I will not be answering any questions about it. If people want to assume that we have a new disciple, that's fine.” 

 

Ming Fan nodded, probably because when your teacher said things in that tone of voice, no matter how old you were, you nodded no matter what. 

 

“Thank you. Now, could you send a messenger to Mu-Shidi?” 

 

“At once, Shizun!” 

 

“Oh, and please make sure to convey to him this time that, while the situation is quite important, no one is actively dying. There’s no need to worry him like that again.” 

 

Ming Fan flushed slightly. “Of course, Shizun.” 

 

Something in Ming Fan’s brain must have been incapable of not kissing up to his sect leaders, because after he bowed a proper farewell to Shizun, he also did a strange little twitch, and did a half-bow in the seven-year-old Shang Qinghua’s direction. 

 

“Shishu,” he said. 

 

He fled with as much dignity as he was able. 

 

Though, of course, not before giving Luo Binghe a blind-and-miss-it dirty look. Luo Binghe casually waved back, still smiling pleasantly, just to enjoy how the friendliness put Ming Fan’s back up as he walked away. Ming Fan didn’t seem to have it in him to apologize for their childhood, which was good, because Luo Binghe didn’t know if he had it in him to forgive - just as, in turn, Luo Binghe didn’t have it in him to apologize for everything afterwards to Ming Fan, and Ming Fan would spit on anything he offered. 

 

Shang Qinghua stared after the other man, confused and apparently unimpressed. 

 

Shizun chuckled, then guided Shang Qinghua towards the house. 

 

While Shizun gave a tour of their home, Luo Binghe focused on preparing their house for an afternoon visit: airing it out, cleaning some important surfaces, and even leaving briefly to collect some supplies. Someone had alerted the main Qing Jing kitchens that Shen Qingqiu was visiting, so a small box of select groceries was already waiting for pick-up, and Luo Binghe quickly picked out the other things for lunch, moving seamlessly past the workers as though he was sixteen years old again. They were friendly enough, though most of them gave him a much wider berth than they had when he was a disciple. 

 

Returning to the house, Shizun told him that Mu Qingfang had already sent a response, and would be paying them a visit in an hour or so. 

 

While Luo Binghe cooked, Shizun wandered around the house, listing the things that they would need to bring back to their other home. Shang Qinghua alternated between exploring the house and awkwardly following Shizun around as he paced, getting underfoot, then peeling off again when Shizun urged him to have a look at something specific. 

 

“We’ll need better clothes for A-Yun, of course,” Shizun murmured. “We must have something for our youngest disciples that would fit better than these borrowed clothes… and An Ding must have something suitable somewhere in all their storage space. Oh, we could put him in Qing Jing and An Ding Peak uniforms! That would be so cute…” 

 

Shang Qinghua had pulled several books of the shelf now, flipping them open and frowning at them, possibly due to the lack of pictures. 

 

“We’ll need more dishes and such, of course, it’s ridiculous that we have so few when we also have a fully stocked kitchen. A better hairbrush for A-Yun along with other extra hygiene supplies…? Some more blankets and pillows…? Perhaps some more books? A-Yun, if you see any books that you like, let us know and we can bring them home with us.” 

 

“Okay.” 

 

“I wonder if the sect has any toys around… maybe a day trip to one of the towns along the mountain range is in order. One of them must have something like that…” 

 

Lunch was peaceful enough, though Shizun had some difficulty persuading Shang Qinghua to eat a vegetable he had apparently never seen before. When Shang Qinghua finally tried it, he made a face that probably would have been insulting to Luo Binghe’s skills as a cook if it hadn’t been so funny, and so alarming, as it looked like the child might throw up from sheer force of will not to eat what he had in his mouth. When Shizun wasn’t looking, Shang Qinghua used his utensils to pick the half-chewed food back out of his mouth and back into his bowl. Shang Qinghua then strategically moved these vegetables to an edge of his bowl where Shizun couldn’t see them without learning over the table. 

 

When Shang Qinghua realized that Luo Binghe could see what he was doing, he froze, looking very anxious. Luo Binghe just smiled and said nothing. He had, after all, a great deal of trust to win back after letting go of Shang Qinghua’s hand when flying around the garden. Shizun only noticed the uneaten vegetables at the end of the meal, when Luo Binghe was collecting the bowls to do the dishes. Shizun just sighed and, possibly because Shang Qinghua had already fled the table, said to Luo Binghe, “This round to A-Yun.” 

 

Luo Binghe cleaned up after lunch while Shizun enlisted Shang Qinghua to help him pack, telling him about some of the things they could see while here at the sect. Luo Binghe watched them pack and repressed the urge to take everything out of their hands to pack for him. He would repack everything later, he told himself, after they were already done. 

 

Mu Qingfang, the Lord of Qian Cao Peak, arrived looking curious and preemptively exasperated. He raised his eyebrows at the sight of a young Shang Qinghua, but didn’t gawk, and greeted everyone in a perfunctory fashion. 

 

“I’ve seen stranger things,” Mu Qingfang said, settling his bag down on a table. 

 

Luo Binghe had never been able to tell what this martial uncle thought of him exactly. At some point, Mu Qingfang had apparently made up his mind to essentially ignore the fact that two of his martial siblings were involved with demon lords. Luo Binghe doubted that he would trust the man with his own health, but the man seemed fond of Shen Qingqiu and loyal to his sect. 

 

Shizun performed the introductions between Mu Qingfang and Shang Qinghua, and was the one to explain what had happened. Luo Binghe only spoke up to give some additional information on the artifact, as Shizun hadn’t seen it, and Shang Qinghua didn’t speak at all. It took some persuasion on Shizun’s part, yet again, to convince Shang Qinghua to offer his wrist to Mu Qingfang, and Mu Qingfang couldn’t make a move without Shang Qinghua asking what he was doing. “What are you doing now?” was repeated at least a dozen times. 

 

According to Mu Qingfang, Shang Qinghua was in perfect health for a seven-year-old child. There wasn’t a curse that could be broken here, no active spell sealing away Shang Qinghua’s age and memories, but rather an imprint of magic that had already passed and that apparently put the healer in mind of “loose ends”. As though the strength that age - that time spent cultivating - had brought him had been cleanly stripped away. 

 

“I can’t tell you much more without viewing the object itself,” Mu Qingfang said. “Perhaps, if it’s safe to move, it’s something that Wei-Shixiong could be put-upon to examine.” 

 

“Perhaps,” Shizun said, noncommittally, as Shang Qinghua squirmed. “Patience, please, A-Yun. It’s nearly over. Thank you for being so good for us.” 

 

“Hm,” Mu Qingfang said, sounding surprised. 

 

“What?” 

 

“Oh, nothing. Thank you for your patience. I’m finished.” 

 

Shang Qinghua tugged his wrist away at once. 

 

“What is it?” Shizun repeated. 

 

“I’m hardly given the opportunity to examine Shang-Shixiong very often, but when I have had him as a patient, his cultivation has always been slightly unbalanced,” Mu Qingfang explained. “Not severely enough to be harmful, many people have slight imbalances of some sort of another, but it was a consistent note. For as long as I’ve known him, since we were all disciples, his physical cultivation has lagged slightly behind, compared to his other cultivation, but he’s almost perfectly balanced now.” 

 

“What does that mean?” 

 

“It only seems to prove that it’s not some underlying health condition, but rather a side-effect of his cultivation style and/or the way he laid his foundation,” Mu Qingfang answered. “It’s nothing to be concerned about, Shixiong, only an interesting note.” 

 

“...I see.” 

 

Shizun looked thoughtful. 

 

Luo Binghe wondered if this was a side effect of Shang Qinghua being a world-traveler. It appeared as though Shizun had taken the body of the previous Shen Qingqiu, so perhaps something similar had happened to Shang Qinghua? Mobei-Jun had known Shang Qinghua for a long time - since they were both teenagers, Luo Binghe vaguely remembered, and the math he was doing now seemed to confirm that - and Shizun had said that they had come to this world as adults, so it seemed likely that Shang Qinghua was older than his body. 

 

Was Shizun also older than his body? World-travel seemed like something that would require a great deal of cultivation to achieve, like ascension, but… there was also this Transmigration System controlling everything. Where did the System fit into that narrative? 

 

Mu Qingfang packed up to leave. One of the last things he said to them, low enough that Shang Qinghua could not overhear, was a warning to treat the artifact that had done this with particular care. “Everything that was stripped from Shang Qinghua had to go somewhere,” Mu Qingfang said. “Logically, the most likely place is with this object, which is most likely either containing the stolen strength of years or has already consumed it.” 

 

“The artifact is being investigated within the Demon Realm now,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“I hope you find what you are looking for,” Mu Qingfang replied. “Shixiong, I will have to make a report on this matter to Zhangmen-Shixiong. This is something he should know.” 

 

“Of course,” Shizun agreed, and thanked Mu Qingfang for explaining the situation on their behalf. He extracted another assurance that Mu Qingfang would not allow the situation to become the sect’s latest piece of gossip, even among their other martial siblings, and then finally saw the healer out of their house with a grateful farewell. 

 

Afterwards, Shizun leaned against the door and muttered, “Well, that was a lot of nothing.” 

 

Luo Binghe laughed, which made Shang Qinghua look up from whatever he was poking at now. 

 

“It was something,” Shizun amended. “I should have known this was going to be one of those devices without an easy answer. I did know that. I don’t know what I’m in the least bit surprised. Well, now that that’s over with… A-Yun! Would you like to see some of the sect now?” 

 

Luo Binghe had already mentioned to Shizun that Shang Qinghua couldn’t stay with Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, or else Mobei would throw a fit. Shizun’s first response had been a disinterested, “Would he now?” Though Shizun had then agreed that Shang Qinghua couldn’t stay with the sect, in the interest of both safety and Shang Qinghua’s comfort. Still, the cultivation sect was a beautiful place to visit, and Luo Binghe found himself enjoying the afternoon wandering around, despite keeping one eye out for danger as he always did here. 

 

They found Shang Qinghua the smallest Qing Jing Peak uniform available, and arranged for more clothing and the other supplies on Shizun’s list to be delivered to the house. Ning Yingying found an excuse to stumble upon them here, with Ming Fan stumbling after her, wearing the expression of someone who had done his best to stop her and only been trampled for his efforts. Ming Fan apologized profusely for the interruption. Ning Yingying, grinning, did not. 

 

Shizun was pleased enough to see her, and so was Luo Binghe, who held a fondness for his former shijie due to the length of time they had known each other, if nothing else. Shang Qinghua seemed taken back by her sheer friendliness. 

 

Ning Yingying guessed who Shang Qinghua was immediately, which Luo Binghe thought was very embarrassing for Ming Fan, and declared that he was the cutest child she had ever seen. Which forced Luo Binghe into an unwelcome moment of kinship with Ming Fan, who was clearly also unable to see whatever it was that Ning Yingying and Shizun could see in a small human being uncomfortable at being fawned over, and who noticed that Luo Binghe had noticed this and hated this moment of mutual understanding just as much. 

 

The meeting was brief. Ning Yingying had nothing important to tell them, she had just wanted to say hello, and the temptation of seeing a potential new disciple had been too much for her. Shizun asked her to keep the gossip to herself and she agreed immediately. 

 

“Don’t worry, Shizun! I won’t tell anyone. Especially not Liu-Shijie,” Ning Yingying said, more than a little mischievous.

 

Beside her, Ming Fan looked incredibly confused. 

 

“Please,” Shizun said, exhausted. 

 

After that, they toured Qing Jing Peak. Shang Qinghua continued to be uncooperative about holding Shizun’s hand, so Shizun ended up allowing the child to walk beside them without the connection, agreeing that it would look strange if he was seen holding the hand of a prospective disciple. He still seemed a little disappointed. 

 

“I’ll be happy to hold your hand, Shizun,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

Shizun rolled his eyes, but still linked his arms with Luo Binghe. He couldn’t help the delight that thrummed through him at such a gesture, grinning widely at the forwardness. 

 

“Shizun, what will people say?” 

 

“Ah, well, there goes my reputation,” Shizun replied sarcastically. “This will be the last straw.” 

 

Luo Binghe laughed, surprised, feeling a rush of guilt as well. Shen Qingqiu was perhaps more infamous than famous now, and it wasn’t all Liu Mingyan’s fault. 

 

Shizun’s hand squeezed his arm and they walked together. 

 

The biggest hit with Shang Qinghua on their tour was the sword drills for some of the older disciples, who never hesitated to show off when Shizun was making the rounds, especially when they spotted a child looking very much like a prospective disciple. They stayed there until the drills ended. Most of the disciples bowed respectfully in Shizun’s direction before they departed. A few daring ones waved to Shang Qinghua, though they didn’t seem to recognize him. 

 

Shang Qinghua liked some of the buildings they saw on Qing Jing Peak, especially the most decorative ones, with impressive statues or murals. He was clearly a little bored by most of the gardens they passed, and even complained that most of them looked the same. Shizun noted that this was normal for the patience of a seven-year-old child. 

 

Shang Qinghua liked the ones with water features, however, especially the one with a fish pond, and Luo Binghe had to grab him by the back of his shirt to keep him from falling in while trying to touch one of the fish. The fish came to mouth at the surface, looking for food, and when Shang Qinghua learned that’s what they were doing, he begged to be allowed to feed them so desperately that Luo Binghe was strongly reminded of his adult self. Shizun tried to stay firm, but ended up waving over one of the gardeners to make the arrangements, though not before he told Shang Qinghua off for flinging himself to the ground for no good reason. 

 

The armory on Qing Jing Peak was another big hit with Shang Qinghua. As soon as they walked in, the child’s face lit up, and Shizun immediately said, “Oh, no.” 

 

Despite this, Shang Qinghua was fairly good about not touching anything. Almost good. His little hands snuck out once to touch a staff and once to touch a pedestal displaying a sheathed weapon, and he was snatched back and scolded both times. Luo Binghe was amused, impressed, and a little shocked at how fast Shang Qinghua could be despite the fact that he was being watched the entire time by one immortal master and one demon lord. After Shang Qinghua had proved he could keep his hands to himself, he was allowed to hold a spear with Luo Binghe’s help, and probably would have immediately stabbed the ceiling if he had been allowed to hold it on his own. He seemed disappointed not to be allowed to do this. 

 

Most people knew better than to bother Shizun when he had let it be known that he was busy and not to be considered in residence. They bowed respectfully or called out their greetings, but kept their distance. Some people, unfortunately, considered themselves above these rules, and one of them was Yue Qingyuan, who did admittedly have some rights as sect leader. Luo Binghe didn’t see where it was written that he had to like this. 

 

They met Yue Qingyuan on one of the rainbow bridges. Shizun had seen Shang Qinghua looking longingly towards one, and had agreed that they might walk across one, so long as Shang Qinghua held both Shizun’s hand and Luo Binghe’s hand the entire time. The sect leader had clearly received Mu Qingfang’s report about the situation. Luo Binghe wouldn’t have put it past the sect leader to arrange this accidental meeting. He had come to suspect, in his days as a disciple, that Yue Qingyuan was very good at arranging accidental meetings. When he had tried to voice these suspicions to Shizun, Shizun had only laughed and patted him on the head, and said that he didn’t mind if it was true. He was very fond of Yue Qingyuan and it was difficult not to be jealous. 

 

“A-Yun, was it?” Yue Qingyuan said, smiling kindly, when he was introduced. “Welcome to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, little brother. I hear that you’re only here for a short visit today, but please know that you’re always welcome here. Have you been enjoying yourself?” 

 

Shang Qinghua nodded enthusiastically. Yue Qingyuan laughed, apparently startled by the response, and nodded along patiently as the child clumsily and far too quickly described some of the things they had seen. Luo Binghe would be surprised if Yue Qingyuan had made much real sense of that, but the man didn’t show any confusion. 

 

Instead, the man said, “I see. Did you know that Wan Jian Peak is our peak of swordsmasters? It has an even bigger armory.” 

 

Shang Qinghua looked like all of his dreams had come true. 

 

“Shixiong,” Shizun said, reproachfully. 

 

Yue Qingyuan chuckled, but said, “Please do not hesitate to visit Qian Cao, Wan Jian, Qiong Ding, or any of your martial siblings for assistance in this matter. The resources of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect are with you.” 

 

“We have no need of them yet,” Luo Binghe said, unable to keep quiet. 

 

“Yet,” Yue Qingyuan replied, utterly unintimidated. 

 

The man was incredibly frustrating. 

 

“We know,” Shizun assured the sect leader, giving Luo Binghe a reproachful look now. 

 

Luo Binghe swallowed anything else he had been about to say. He and Shizun had agreed that Shizun would handle his martial siblings. He had to keep to that promise. He had to keep to that promise no matter how frustrating sect leaders or certain war gods were. 

 

Yue Qingyuan ended up bidding them farewell with a request that he be kept updated on the situation, which coming from a sect leader, was not really a request. Shizun agreed readily. He reminded Luo Binghe that it was a courtesy, if nothing else, even though Luo Binghe hadn’t said anything no matter how much he’d wanted to, and then Shizun turned aside to fend up Shang Qinghua’s begging to see Wan Jian Peak’s collection of weaponry. 

 

They didn’t have time to go see Wan Jian Peak if they were going to fly home again. Though Shizun’s most winning argument was that Shang Qinghua had just been complaining that his legs were tired and that he was starting to get hungry. Shizun had to deflect the begging with a vague statement that they could maybe see Wan Jian Peak another day, and he cursed Yue Qingyuan under his breath as they returned to Qing Jing Peak, which made Luo Binghe feel generous towards the world again. 

 

Back at the house, they ate dinner, and Luo Binghe started to close up the house again while Shizun and Shang Qinghua finished packing. It was during this time that he started to feel something buzzing at the back of his mind, like the beginnings of a headache, except it didn’t actually hurt. With everything mostly done and Shizun distracted by picking up books, Luo Binghe sat down for a spot of meditation, and quickly fell into a state that was not sleep, but rather something more like dipping a hand into the surface of the Dream Realm. 

 

The buzzing turned into words, a voice bubbling up from the depths of an immaterial sea. 

 

“You’re late,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“I was busy,” the Elder Dream Demon replied. 

 

Even in this partial dreaming state, Luo Binghe caught the image of swishing purple robes and glittering jewels and a hat so ostentatious that it couldn’t possibly exist in the real world. 

 

“You can’t just call your elders to you with a snap of your fingers, you know, boy,” Meng Mo complained. “I have a life, thank you.” 

 

“You don’t even have a body,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“That doesn’t mean that a fellow can’t have hobbies? Business? Attachments to certain beautiful, ancient demonnesses who have, honestly, aged so finely that they have only become sharper and even more deadly with the ravages of time…” 

 

“I don’t care to hear this.” 

 

“In fact, without a body, certain limitations are removed, and in the figurative hands of a master, the pleasures of the melding minds and souls can go on for days… Weeks, even. Why, several decades ago, oh, there was this one entanglement - just one meeting, mind you, that went on and on and on - that lasted for three wonderful months…” 

 

“I neither need nor want to hear this.” 

 

“Are you certain? It can be pure bliss. Of course, it can also be a nightmare that feels endless, if your partner hasn’t gotten over something that happened a century ago for some reason and twists all their resentment into the mix. Then again, there’s a particular exquisiteness to that painful meeting of hatred and rage that one cannot find anywhere else.” 

 

“Stop or else.” 

 

Luo Binghe felt the impression of a harrumph. 

 

“Young people these days have no respect for the wisdom of their elders trying to pass on some enjoyment of life,” Meng Mo grumbled. “Back when I had a body, orgies were in style for demon lords, and you never know when the fashion is going to come back around. I should have picked a student who could appreciate the pleasures in life! Who could spare a little appreciation for his brilliant teacher only ever trying to look out for him!” 

 

“Maybe you should have,” Luo Binghe replied. 

 

“Maybe I should have!” 

 

“Maybe should have shown more that was worth respecting.” 

 

Meng Mo squawked. “More worth respecting?!” 

 

This, of course, launched a rant filled with a great deal of, “How dare you!” and, “I’ll have you know!” and, “Why did I ever bother with you?” There wasn’t really anything to see, in this waking dream state, but Luo Binghe still received the impression of waving hands and swishing fabric. 

 

Meng Mo was the self-styled Prince of Dreams, and privately, Luo Binghe could admit that the dream demon had earned the title. He had little power of his own, compared to some, but what he could do with a little power was fearsome. The subtle work that he could do with minds and souls was unmatched. He understood certain things on a level that other people, still “chained to the Physical Realm” as the Elder Dream Demon put it, could never fully grasp. 

 

He was also, Luo Binghe had soon realized into his apprenticeship, incredibly bored. The Dream Realm could invent nearly anything. Meng Mo could summon palaces and endless servants to tend to his every whim. He could summon armies and have them fight to the death for his own amusement. He could conjure feasts and lovers and riches and more. 

 

But there was only so much that a mind as clever as Meng Mo’s could get out of such a shallow existence. He could spin illusions of people who would jump off a cliff with a flick of his hand, no matter how he tried to craft them to be willful or disrespectful, these illusions couldn’t pretend to resist their creator’s will for very long. 

 

And everything that Meng Mo could craft lost its edges without a connection to the Physical Realm. Smells and tastes faded. Textures smoothed into nothing and then surfaces dissipated back into dreams. His gleaming palaces became soft around the edges, golden surfaces without any patterns, the hallways bending up into the sky into an endless loop of blurred memory. Great battles became little more than thrashing illusions, unable to mimic the feeling of blood against the skin or the hard knock of a fist across the face. The Elder Dream Demon needed connections to the physical world to survive and to thrive. 

 

All the better if those connections actually challenged him. Argued with him. Disrespected him. He could rant and fuss and play the great victim to his heart’s content, but he would also challenge in return, offering techniques that lunged past cleverness and into insanity, which he couldn’t test himself due to the lack of a body, which he wasn’t interested in having again. Meng Mo wanted a legacy and he wouldn’t be able to bear it if it was weak-willed. 

 

“Boy, why have you summoned me?” Meng Mo demanded. “It can’t only be to insult me and disdain me. At this rate, I’ll expect a great deal of begging if you want my help with getting out of whatever nonsense you’ve landed in now, you wretched little child.” 

 

Luo Binghe pushed the problem of Shang Qinghua’s current state in Meng Mo’s direction. 

 

“Oh,” Meng Mo said. “Hm.” 

 

The impressions of towering rage looking down from an impossibly high staircase vanished at once, replaced with sharp interest. Luo Binghe received the impression of the Elder Dream Demon leaning forward, coming closer to the surface of the Dream Realm, for a better look. 

 

“I haven’t seen something like this in a long time,” Meng Mo said. 

 

“You’ve seen this before?” 

 

“I’ve seen things like this. There’s been so many plants and potions and crystals and weapons and devices over the years, one loses track of the successful ones versus the unsuccessful ones, and perhaps also loses track of them and all their sorry side effects altogether.” 

 

“How helpful.” 

 

“Have a little patience for once, boy, it won’t kill you.” 

 

Meng Mo hummed and harrumphed over Luo Binghe’s memories of dealing with the artifact with Mobei-Jun, of their appointment with Mu Qingfang, and of Shang Qinghua as a child. 

 

“It looks vaguely familiar,” Meng Mo said. “It’s tacky, but I’ve seen things so ugly you wouldn’t believe that anyone would admit to making them or owning them. You’d think people would want to keep their secret to immortality if only not to let it be known they have such bad taste.” 

 

“Do you know it or not?” 

 

“Off the top of my head? No. A return to youth like this isn’t something a demon is likely to do to themselves; it would make them too vulnerable. This human doesn’t appear to have been turned into a particularly tasty treat in this form, so it’s very likely that the human healer guessed correctly, and whatever was ‘taken’ from him was the goal. Age and experience are power in this world, layered over top of each other, year after year.” 

 

“A device to steal and gain power.” 

 

“Or else something to be used against enemies, but there are easier ways to kill someone. A way to gain power or something more sentimental, perhaps, I don’t know,” Meng Mo admitted. “I’ll have to do some investigation into who made it. An artist’s style like that has to be memorable and I know some people who might be able to recognize it.” 

 

“Do that,” Luo Binghe agreed. 

 

He got the impression of a nod, then a pause. 

 

“Damn,” Meng Mo muttered. “I forgot to make you beg for it.” 

 

Luo Binghe knew that the Elder Dream Demon could feel his amusement. Meng Mo was too hooked into the mystery to bother to make him beg for anything now. Between Mobei-Jun’s people investigating, Mu Qingfang investigating, and the Elder Dream Demon looking into it, Luo Binghe hoped that something would turn up. Though he wondered if Shizun preferred his fellow world-traveler like this. 

 

“What’s this?” Meng Mo said. 

 

Luo Binghe moved the thoughts away, but Meng Mo was quick and slippery, and had already caught and pulled the thread. It didn’t help that Luo Binghe had been desperate to ask the Elder Dream Demon what he knew of world-traveling earlier and still intended to ask some questions of Meng Mo now. The thoughts spilled out for Meng Mo and Luo Binghe resentfully thrust the most important ones in the dream demon’s direction. 

 

It said a lot that the Elder Dream Demon was stunned silent. 

 

“Well?” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“I want to say that this explains a lot, but it really doesn’t,” Meng Mo said, sounding a little strained despite the fact that he didn’t have a body. “So many questions… so many, many questions… and no way to ask them without risking the wrath of this… thing.” 

 

“The System.” 

 

“It’s almost dream-demon-like in a way,” Meng Mo mused. “Except it’s clearly not that at all.” 

 

“You’ve never seen anything like this before?” 

 

“I can’t say that I have.” 

 

Luo Binghe wanted to crush something. Set something on fire. Tear something apart with his bare hands. If the Elder Dream Demon didn’t know anything about this being, then it was likely that no one in this world knew about it besides the world-travellers. 

 

“I’m flattered,” Meng Mo said. “It does make some things about your shizun make sense.” 

 

“Like what?” 

 

“Like the fact that his body holds memories that aren’t attached to his mind, though that could fit with any number of things having happened to him, including deviation. Like the fact that parts of his mind seemed blocked off from intruders, which isn’t too unusual with powerful types, but the suddenness with which certain threads disappeared into nothing was a little odd. Hm.” 

 

Luo Binghe could feel the Elder Dream Demon turning the puzzle over and over again. 

 

“And the fact that there’s two of them, that’s interesting. Have you been inside the little one’s dreams yet? No, I can see that you haven’t.” 

 

“Keep out of their minds.” 

 

“What? Oh, yes, yes, fine. You’re just going to take them back to that little nest of wards, aren’t you? I have better things to do than wade through those thorns into a potential death-trap. I’ll go look into this artifact and leave that mess to you, shall I?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Meng Mo fell silent, but he didn’t make any moves to slip away back into the depths of the Dream Realm. He was thinking, rather loudly, and Luo Binghe didn’t like it. 

 

“What?” Luo Binghe demanded. 

 

“This thing you’re trying to avoid by looking through the Dream Realm…” Meng Mo began. “You haven’t caught a whiff of it before in the Dream Realm or the Physical Realm? But now you’ve seen signs of it in both. I wonder why things are coming loose. This thing was involved in events you wanted answers for for a long time, memories that you and your precious shizun both feel very strongly about, so there should have been some sign of it before. Why now?” 

 

Luo Binghe had wondered the same thing. 

 

“Something to think about,” Meng Mo said finally. “Good luck, boy.” 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Mobei-Jun had thought that he was good at waiting. 

 

Most waiting was tied up in survival. He was competent enough at that. Proof of this was that he was now his father’s only living child. It was his duty to wait - to survive - until his father died, so that he could take on the power of his ancestors and become the next king. 

 

Now that his father began to show signs of failing health, survival had become even more difficult, and strangely, waiting on this front had become even easier. He had been waiting all his life for his ascension, and now it seemed more daunting than before, and annoyingly inconvenient with the situation at hand. Suddenly, he could stand to wait a little longer. 

 

He had thought that waiting, when not tied up in survival, was a simple skill. After all, it was in a way the practice of doing nothing, and Mobei-Jun was very good at this. He had often wondered why so many others found it so difficult. He has his whims and his temper, as any demon did, but there was very little in life that he desired so strongly as to lose his temper if it was not delivered to him at once, especially when he was more than capable of entertaining himself and taking what whims he wanted by his own strength. 

 

He had also learned a long time ago that he could not have everything that he wanted in life. Sometimes, it was better just not to want for anything at all. 

 

Where Shang Qinghua fit into the question of waiting… was complicated, as all things surrounding Shang Qinghua were infuriatingly complicated. There was a difference, surely, between impatience and an unwillingness to tolerate poor service. Shang Qinghua’s service seemed invaluable now that the possibility of ascension began to loom, so of course Mobei-Jun needed him to return promptly, as he had often required Shang Qinghua’s prompt attention over the years for other important matters. He had other servants, but it was not the same. 

 

Which was why he stood outside of a humble residence in the Human Realm, waiting for an audience with the Demon Emperor, and finding the wait more difficult than such things usually were. When he thought of all the most recent times that he had been forced to wait for something, none of them had burned quite as persistently as this, but he was not surprised to remember most other waits also somehow involved Luo Binghe. 

 

It had been ten days since he had last seen Shang Qinghua. He had been parted from the human for much longer before - when they had been much younger, he had managed to go without thinking of his unlikely servant for days on end - but this was not the same. 

 

He was certain that Luo Binghe would have informed him if Shang Qinghua had succumbed to ill effects from the artifact. They had been in contact. Mobei-Jun has sent regular missives to keep Luo Binghe informed of the investigation into the artifact, even going so far as to ask after Shang Qinghua when the response to his first missive had not contained any information on the human, which should have been obvious to include. What reason was there to lie? 

 

He had not been pleased by the visit to Cang Qiong, but it was good to know that the human healers thought the child was in good health. He had been disappointed, though hardly surprised, that the cultivation sect had not been able to procure any solutions, much less immediate ones. They did not have Shang Qinghua to ask, after all. He had suggested in his following missive that the sect might withhold a cure in order to extract something from himself, the Demon Emperor, or even Shen Qingqiu, but Luo Binghe had dismissed this possibility. 

 

Mobei-Jun had the results of his servants’ investigation into the artifact that had cursed Shang Qinghua. One would think that Luo Binghe or Shen Qingqiu would be eager to lay their hands on the uncovered providence of the mysterious artifact, but apparently not. 

 

He had arrived shortly after sunset, when the last gasps of light were disappearing over the horizon, and now night had long since fallen. The night was warm by his standards, though Shang Qinghua probably would have called it cool, and there was a breeze rustling through the greenery that made things even colder and more pleasant. The sky was partly clouded, with the bright eye of the waxing moon peering in and out.

 

Finally, the door of the house opened, and Luo Binghe came outside. Unsurprisingly, he looked pleased with himself for having made Mobei-Jun wait. That was unmistakably a pleased walk. 

 

“You know you might have knocked on the door, instead of standing at the edge of our garden and glowering,” Luo Binghe said, with infuriating casualness. “Or rather: arrived on time instead of being early. Shizun has established a bedtime routine for A-Yun, you know.” 

 

“I did not,” Mobei-Jun replied coolly. “I was not told.” 

 

“Hm. Well, now you have been.” Luo Binghe nodded off to the side, taking Mobei-Jun even farther from the house for private conversation, only to say next, “I didn’t know that you could be this annoying, Mobei. Did you get tips from Hualing?” 

 

The day that Mobei-Jun needed Sha Hualing’s advice for anything would be a sorry day indeed. He gave Luo Binghe the look that this “humorous” comment deserved. 

 

Luo Binghe only laughed, as was the prerogative of demon emperors. “How is Hualing? You’ve checked on her, haven’t you? The Demon Realm still stands? You haven’t let the Northern Desert go up in flames due to inattention?” 

 

“She schemes day and night within her workshop against a rival from a western clan. The Demon Realm remains standing without your oversight,” Mobei-Jun answered shortly. 

 

Luo Binghe chuckled again. “Do you know what I appreciate about you, Mobei?” 

 

Mobei-Jun could guess, but didn’t care to do so, especially when so many other demon lords were enamored with the sound of their own voice. His response was immaterial. 

 

“No,” he said. 

 

“You’re so very reliable,” Luo Binghe informed him, and he made the compliment sound like mockery or the cover for a trap. “Reliable and predictable and with a distaste for the demonic tradition of scheming despite everything. You had a peak lord in your pocket and you didn’t even try to have him assassinate anyone important, did you? Or poison half the sect? No, that would be too dishonorable, wouldn’t it?” 

 

Mobei-Jun scowled at the half-demon. It was not so simple as that. 

 

If he wanted to kill a peak lord in their sleep, their lack of vigilance would not be a dishonor to him, in his opinion, but it would not bring him glory, either. Sending Shang Qinghua to do such dirty work would have wastefully risked his servant in any number of ways. He would have sought to do such a deed himself, of course, if it was truly necessary, but he had never had a personal reason to kill a peak lord. He still did not know all their names. 

 

The deed would have been either too difficult or too easy. There were more interesting and rewarding ways of risking his neck on a whim. Such a cowardly kill, missing all the thrills of an open battle if the peak lord did not wake, might have bought him some respect among other demon lords, but of a certain, limiting kind which might have interfered with his path to his father’s throne. He did not wish to pursue the reputation of an assassin for hire. And if he claimed the kill publicly, Cang Qiong Mountain would have likely sought revenge and put a bounty on his head, and all the cultivation world might have followed suit, out of fear of a demon who could thwart all their defenses so easily. His family's enemies might have done the same.

 

Besides, his father would have likely been more impressed and more pleased with the death of a Huan Hua Palace master anyway, since that was the cultivation sect most hated by the Mobei Clan. And if his father was not dismissive of such a feat, then one wretched potential path would have been his whimsical, temperamental father sending him after increasingly dangerous targets, likely at his younger brother’s suggestion, until one of them finally killed him. 

 

Perhaps it was also a distaste for scheming. That was much more his uncle’s territory. 

 

Luo Binghe was still smiling, still amused by Mobei-Jun’s disgruntlement. “You don’t even lie,” he said, looking unseeingly off into the dark distance. “At least, not to anyone but yourself, hm? It’s almost refreshing.” 

 

So this was how it was to be tonight. Mobei-Jun scowled at the mocking half-demon, considered his options, and then kicked Luo Binghe in the guts without warning. 

 

The Demon Emperor fell backwards, skidding across the grass, and when he stopped, burst into wheezing laughter. He pushed himself up again with ease. Luo Binghe’s smile widened viciously as Mobei-Jun dropped his furred cloak to one side to better free his arms. 

 

“No powers in the garden,” Luo Binghe said. “Keep it quiet.” 

 

And then he tackled Mobei-Jun. 

 

It was not a serious fight by any means. In their last, they had also not been trying to kill each other, but they had not pulled their punches. They had not been afraid to cut or claw. They had both been hungry for blood. This was more akin to childish wrestling. 

 

Though it still hurt, Mobei-Jun thought, as Luo Binghe punched him across the face again. Mobei-Jun grabbed Luo Binghe’s next arm and threw him for the third time, releasing some of the frustration of the past week. He wouldn’t have minded if there had been cutting and clawing, but the current aches of Luo Binghe’s grapples and blows would have to do. 

 

There was something freeing in having an opponent of near-equal strength in many ways, who did not wish to kill him, and who did not need to be killed. 

 

Luo Binghe was still dangerous, but he was vocally uninterested in killing Mobei-Jun and potentially throwing the Northern Desert into chaos, even though Mobei-Jun had an uncle and many cousins who would make the Demon Emperor whatever promises he asked of them. Luo Binghe had flippantly said that he didn’t care for these promises. He had said that there was a difference between rage at being beaten by a half-demon and rage at being beaten by a half-demon because said half-demon was incredibly annoying. 

 

Mobei-Jun found that after having been so brutally forced to swallow his own pride, to discriminate against strength based on its origins tasted of weakly grasping for excuses. The fickle demons who considered themselves above all others would find countless reasons that bowing to Luo Binghe was shameful, even if he wasn’t half-human. There was more than one kind of inauspicious match for demon lords in the world. What was the point of punishing the unfortunate children of resented unions when these children could be judged on how - Luo Binghe tried to get Mobei-Jun into a chokehold - fucking annoying they were on their own merits. 

 

In this fight, without the augmentation of Luo Binghe’s considerable human cultivation or even more considerable Heavenly Demon powers, made inaccessible now that he was trying not to disturb his lover, Mobei-Jun actually had the weight and the strength advantage. He was more experienced in unarmed combat. The weight was the most significant. Luo Binghe’s quickness, cleverness, and viciousness could not do much when Mobei-Jun finally pinned him down. 

 

Luo Binghe wheezed, hitting Mobei-Jun’s thigh repeatedly, but the angle was bad and he could not free himself. “Why are you so fucking heavy?!” he gasped. “Fuck!” 

 

Mobei-Jun pressed more of his weight down on the half-demon. 

 

“You bastard!” 

 

Luo Binghe struggled some more, but eventually slumped. Mobei-Jun could feel the heat building underneath the half-demon's skin. He wisely released the Demon Emperor from the pin without waiting for an admission of defeat, sitting back, pulling the other up by the back of his clothes, before the cuts and the claws could begin, which might end with Mobei-Jun being spitefully dismissed without news of Shang Qinghua. 

 

Luo Binghe pulled free of the assistance with a resentful look, but sighed and stretched. 

 

These were the moments that reminded Mobei-Jun how young the Demon Emperor was. They were both children in the eyes of many demon lords who demanded respect without earning it or giving it. If Mobei-Jun had any brothers who had lived, and who had not hated him, then perhaps such bonds would have been similar… 

 

Such things didn’t matter now. It was not to be. 

 

Mobei-Jun and Luo Binghe sat beside each other and surveyed the minor destruction of the grassy meadow. 

 

Luo Binghe sighed again. “Shang Qinghua is fine. He seems happy.” 

 

“...How so?” 

 

Luo Binghe gave him an unnecessarily thoughtful look. “How else? He smiles. He laughs. He plays. Shizun spoils him.” This last part was said with clear envy, but also fondness, presumably for his human lover who could do no wrong in his eyes. “You might not have any experience with human children, but it’s not that difficult to keep one alive. Occupied is another matter.” 

 

“Occupied,” Mobei-Jun repeated. 

 

“Shizun and I have to keep finding things for him to do, so Shizun has been making a schedule and a lesson plan, because ‘routine is good for children’. He’s only out of the way when he’s reading, but Shizun has to help him with most of the books anyway, even though we brought back an entire crate of supplies for junior disciples courtesy of Ning Yingying,” Luo Binghe complained. “He touches everything now. I don’t know why he has to move everything around. He broke a bowl yesterday by accident. A-Yun was more upset about it than Shizun and Shizun was only upset because A-Yun was upset.” 

 

Mobei-Jun still remembered the child as a frightened creature hiding behind Shen Qingqiu, and so had difficulty picturing this liveliness, but… it was good to hear. Luo Binghe’s annoyance did not seem particularly resentful, but rather amused, which was also good. Intruding on a jealous Demon Emperor’s home could have been dangerous. Mobei-Jun had not enjoyed, after such tumultuous revelations, having to trust fully in Shen Qingqiu’s favor. 

 

“I have the providence of the artifact,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“Yes, so your message said,” Luo Binghe answered wryly. “Let’s hear it.” 

 

Mobei-Jun related the results of the investigation. The history followed the usual convoluted and frustrating paths of demonic noble families. The artifact had passed to Mobei-Jun’s relation from an in-law as part of an extravagant and largely useless parade of wedding gifts; it had been passed down to this generous in-law through four different ascensions and it was not clear that any of these prematurely dead predecessors had known the artifact even existed (though, thankfully, the treasurer and his accounts had survived); and it had been originally been surrendered to this in-law’s ancestor by a lesser clan as part of what Shang Qinghua often called “please don’t hurt us” tribute. Eventually, through several more exchanges, in a great stroke of luck or through fervent desperation, Mobei-Jun’s servants had stumbled upon a record of a payment for a matching artifact to someone named as the creator. 

 

“And…?” Luo Binghe asked. “Where is this creator now?” 

 

“...I do not know,” Mobei-Jun admitted. 

 

“How helpful,” Luo Binge said, insincerely. 

 

Mobei-Jun was tempted to kick him again, and the half-demon smirked at him as though he knew it, but then waved his hand as though dismissing any hostility as unwanted. 

 

“That was one of the names the Elder Dream Demon turned up as a potential creator, when he went to go talk to some of his artist friends about it. Though that was one of the names Meng Mo said he was sure couldn’t possibly be the right one,” Luo Binghe said smugly. “He bet his hat on it. I’ll be happy to tell him that he was completely and utterly wrong in his assessment.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not understand the relationship that Luo Binghe had with that parasitic, half-dead if not undead creature. He did not wish to understand it. Dream demons were often pathetic creatures, and yet also insidious and unspeakably dangerous if given any opportunity, so untrustworthy and scheming that even Mobei-Jun’s uncle would not touch them. 

 

Also, It was unofficially forbidden within the Mobei Clan to speak of the one who called himself the Elder Dream Demon, due to some tumultuous romances (even by demonic standards) involving several of Mobei-Jun’s many-greats-aunts, which had failed spectacularly and yet were also possibly somehow still ongoing. Sha Hualing also had at least two elders within her clan who had fallen for this half-dead parasite’s dubious charms. Sha Hualing had, against Mobei-Jun’s will, attempted to explain the passionate affairs to him once. She had not stopped even after Mobei-Jun had thrown her out a window. It was strangely unclear if these romances had begun before or after Meng Mo’s “death” that had not taken. Mobei-Jun did not want it to become clear. Ever. 

 

“My servants are searching for what has become of this person,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“I’ll tell the Elder Dream Demon to look into it as well, as soon as he’s done complaining,” Luo Binghe said. “This is impressive, Mobei. I was half-expecting that nothing would be found about this, but your servants must have been… extremely motivated to travel so far so fast.” 

 

Mobei-Jun, who had personally transported his servants using his own shadowy portals, and who had searched and interrogated alongside his servants when his duties to the Demon Emperor or his clan had not required him elsewhere, said nothing. There was no point. Luo Binghe’s lips twitched with knowing amusement regardless. 

 

“What have you learned of world-traveling?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 

 

Luo Binghe’s smile faded. He was silent at first, before he finally said, “In dreams, I found some of Shizun’s memories of interacting with the being that enables the travel, but Shizun awoke before I could learn much and now he’s suspicious. It was there that day at the conference.” The half-demon’s fingers flexed like claws. The air heated with directionless rage. “It forced Shizun to push me into the Endless Abyss. It has some way of punishing Shizun - threatening him somehow - with my image.” 

 

“It can take physical form?” Mobei-Jun interpreted. 

 

Luo Binghe shook his head, but looked stricken, then said, “I don’t know.” 

 

Mobei-Jun and Luo Binghe sat in thoughtful, helpless silence. Mobei-Jun thought that he might prefer for this being to take a physical form, so that he might be better able to tear it apart with his bare hands if it had laid so much as a finger on his human servant to punish him. There was likely not wisdom in challenging a thing that could move through worlds, but if it could be forced to take physical form, then perhaps it would be weakened… 

 

As though he was thinking along similar lines, Luo Binghe said, “Meng Mo compared it to a dream demon, though he also, helpfully, said it wasn’t similar at all. He pointed out that if it could hide itself so well for so long, why is it only being seen now?” 

 

“Shang Qinghua’s current state of being,” Mobei-Jun guessed. 

 

It was the obvious answer. 

 

It was also a frustratingly unclear answer.

 

Luo Binghe nodded in agreement, then gave Mobei-Jun a sidelong look of consideration. “I’ve seen flashes of A-Yun’s original world through his dreams,” he said. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not think. He lunged for Luo Binghe’s front, but the half-demon was waiting for this and caught Mobei-Jun’s hand before it could take him by the throat. Luo Binghe’s grip was burning, his gaze as well, both in warning, and Mobei-Jun was quickly forced to release his snarl and retract his hand in reluctant apology. Nevertheless, he glared. 

 

“I’ve only been looking,” Luo Binghe said, unrepentant. “I still don’t know if this System can access the Dream Realm. And I don’t want to upset A-Yun.” 

 

Mobei-Jun still frowned, but he sat back. 

 

“His dreams are already quick and unstable, fleeting and many, or else deep and quiet,” Luo Binghe complained, “and all his memories are… childish. I saw as flash of the System from his original conversation with Shizun, but most of what A-Yun remembered in that passing dream was bright colors and his own terror.” 

 

He gave Mobei-Jun a look as though to blame him for this. 

 

“Not that the average person’s memory is anything but unreliable,” Luo Binghe conceded. “It’s difficult to sort through the changing dreams. Everything in A-Yun’s mind is shaped as to be nearly unrecognizable by a vastly different perspective of a world he doesn’t fully know. Mixed in with intense fantasy and fears. It will take time to investigate properly.”  

 

Mobei-Jun didn’t want Luo Binghe in Shang Qinghua’s head at all, much less in a state of frustration and impatience. But what he needed instead was to have Shang Qinghua back, as his adult self, ready to explain himself for all these years of lies. The latter was not an option. The former he had very little say in. 

 

“Do not… touch anything,” Mobei-Jun tried, nevertheless. 

 

Luo Binghe’s look was unimpressed, but also pitying. “When I find something worth mentioning, I’ll let you know,” he said, generous but unyielding. “Meng Mo was right. A-Yun’s body holds none of his adult memories. Not just temporarily disconnected, but not there. He doesn’t seem to know anything useful now anyway.” 

 

It was an unreasonably strong relief that Shang Qinghua currently knew nothing. 

 

The relief was nothing against the stilling realization that Shang Qinghua’s memories were truly gone. Mobei-Jun could only hope that they were elsewhere, retrievable, and not… destroyed. 

 

“He and Shizun just… they don’t talk about it!” Luo Binghe complained next. “I’ve made opportunities for them to talk amongst themselves, and it’s been made clear many times over that A-Yun and Shizun are originally from another world, but they only talk about the differences between them if they talk about it at all. There’s none of the how. There’s none of the why. Shizun probably doesn’t want to frighten A-Yun!” 

 

Mobei-Jun was still arrested by the degree of Shang Qinghua’s absence, but it was not a surprise to him that Shen Qingqiu knew better than to speak of such things too openly. He and Shang Qinghua had both, in their own strange ways, infiltrated a powerful cultivation sect after all. 

 

“I don’t suppose you have any insights into this, Mobei?” Luo Binghe said unhappily. “Any moments that in hindsight provide anything resembling helpful information?” 

 

In the past days, Mobei-Jun had reflected on his relationship with Shang Qinghua at great length. He had second-guessed every action he could remember, significant or otherwise. He had reassessed every offhanded statement for double-meanings. The world felt at once startlingly clear and increasingly clouded, as a thousand little comments fell into patterns that were twisting around him like a trap. Everything was in doubt. 

 

“Shang Qinghua attended your entrance to your sect,” he said, because that was the closest he had to a beginning. “He was anxious and claimed only a busy day supervising this 'entrance test', but this was the first time he had mentioned such things, and he never did again. I counted back the years.” 

 

Luo Binghe said nothing, listening intensely. 

 

“He watched Qing Jing Peak anxiously every year after that. I only suspected that this was the front from which he feared discovery. I suspect… that he knew I would be involved in the conference even before I told him. I did not originally intend to stay long, or to be seen at all, but his behavior was suspicious. Afterwards, he came close to berating me for changing plans and for challenging you. Again, I thought he feared discovery, or had even been discovered, but he insisted afterwards that there was no issue with Shen Qingqiu on this front.” 

 

Now, Mobei-Jun wondered if Shen Qingqiu had known all along that Shang Qinghua was a spy. But something had clearly changed in Shang Qinghua that day, though Mobei-Jun had not known what, and could still not well describe the sudden alighting of interest in the man, which suggested… that the world-travelers had become closer after the bloodshed of the conference… or perhaps found each other for the first time in this world. 

 

“I suspect that he knew you would return from the Endless Abyss,” Mobei-Jun said next. “Though he was surprised at how ‘quickly’ you had managed it. He knew that you would win when you challenged me again. He begged me afterwards not to challenge you again or disrespect you in any way. I assumed that he feared for his life as my servant and a traitor to his sect.” 

 

After the Immortal Alliance Conference, Shang Qinghua had sworn to him that he had not known there was a Heavenly Demon bastard hiding among his sect. Shang Qinghua had lied. His human servant had lied to him that day, Mobei-Jun knew with burning certainty. 

 

“I… suspect that he did not willingly become my servant,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

This… he did not know with certainty, but it felt too true to dismiss, and Luo Binghe’s revelation regarding the Endless Abyss only seemed to make it truer. If Shen Qingqiu had been forced to bend to this System’s whim, then Shang Qinghua surely had as well. 

 

“...Hero of the world,” Luo Binghe murmured. 

 

It took Mobei-Jun a second to remember this phrase. That was what Shen Qingqiu had said to the child Shang Qinghua during his initial explanation, instead of calling Luo Binghe a Heavenly Demon or a Demon Emperor. It was an odd title. 

 

Luo Binghe hummed. “It all turned out well enough for Shang Qinghua, didn’t it? He quietly became the most trusted servant of the Demon Emperor’s most trusted servant.”

 

Shang Qinghua had argued, in his stuttering and pleading way, with Mobei-Jun about the necessity of his place with Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, for Mobei-Jun’s sake, whenever Mobei-Jun had dared to confront him on his apparent divided loyalties. It had made him seem so untrustworthy at times. All the better, it seemed now, to straddle the Human and Demon Realms, and to stay connected to both Luo Binghe and to Shen Qingqiu. 

 

“If things had… gone differently with the sect… with Shizun… and with that sword… perhaps he might have survived where all others would have fallen,” Luo Binghe said darkly. 

 

“...It seems so,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“How much did Shizun know about the future…?” Luo Binghe wondered. 

 

Mobei-Jun could not say. 

 

Luo Binghe lowered his head into his hand, rubbing at his eyes. He looked tired. 

 

“Fuck,” he said. 

 

Mobei-Jun recognized the sentiment. He did not know if it was his place to speak, or if it was wise to speak, but there was no one else here. There was perhaps no one else in the world who knew of such things and could have similar sentiments. 

 

“Shang Qinghua once said of your relationship…” 

 

“...Yes?” 

 

“He said that this was an unexpected ending,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

He had thought at the time that Shang Qinghua had meant that he had not expected Shen Qingqiu to agree to love a half-demon. Shen Qingqiu had pushed Luo Binghe into the Endless Abyss over his demonic heritage. It had seemed that perhaps, despite all of Luo Binghe’s passions, Shen Qingqiu could not or would not allow himself to love him in return. Mobei-Jun had agreed at the time that it seemed somewhat unexpected for Shen Qingqiu to then, despite everything, turn around and fling himself completely at Luo Binghe. 

 

But… Shang Qinghua had used another word besides “unexpected”, hadn’t he? 

 

“Unplanned,” Mobei-Jun said. “He called it unplanned.” 

 

Luo Binghe’s stare was intense. “Unplanned,” he repeated. 

 

“Yes,” Mobei-Jun said, struggling to remember the exact phrasing. “He also said…” 

 

“What?” Luo Binghe said, near a snarl. 

 

“That it was ‘better for it’,” Mobei-Jun answered. “That this ending was better.” 

 

At the time, exhausted and frustrated and thoroughly confused, Mobei-Jun had agreed that Shen Qingqiu accepting Luo Binghe was a better result than the destruction of the world. He had not thought much of Shang Qinghua’s comments at the time. His main concern after the ridiculous series of events had been to lick his wounds and take a long nap. 

 

“He said that Shen Qingqiu deserved a happy ending,” Mobei-Jun recalled. 

 

He did not feel the need to include the fact that Shang Qinghua, also exhausted, had also said, “Probably. After all that shit. Ah, whatever.”

 

Luo Binghe did not need to hear that part. 

 

Luo Binghe’s snarl had disappeared, replaced with wide eyes. He looked very young. He opened his mouth to speak and no sound came out. This time, it was, in a strange way, immensely satisfying to see the half-demon yet again so ruined over Shen Qingqiu. 

 

Luo Binghe quickly hid his face again. He stayed there for some time. 

 

Mobei-Jun looked away, reassured that Luo Binghe, given some certainty of Shen Qingqiu’s happiness with him, would behave favorably towards him and towards Shang Qinghua for the foreseeable future. Probably, as Shang Qinghua liked to say. 

 

When Luo Binghe finally stopped behaving like a shelled creature, sitting up properly and taking a deep breath, he said, “You’re in luck, Mobei.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not react, but he did not like the sound of that. 

 

Luo Binghe looked at him again, with a wry smile. “You’ve been so persistent that I’ve managed to convince Shizun to allow you to visit.” 

 

Mobei-Jun blinked. He could not help the reaction. 

 

Luo Binghe’s smile widened. “A-Yun needs some entertainment, after all, to keep him occupied. And perhaps your presence will convince Shizun to have another talk with him about the necessity of keeping quiet about world travel.” 

 

“...When?” 

 

“Tomorrow will do. An hour or so before midday.” 

 

Mobei-Jun would cancel all his existing appointments at once. “I will be there,” he said. 

 

“Mm. It helped,” Luo Binghe added slyly, “that A-Yun was openly curious about you, now that he’s more comfortable with us. Despite… how he came to our house, A-Yun seemed open to the idea of meeting you again. I think he wants to meet another demon.” 

 

That did not sound like Shang Qinghua. Though, when Mobei-Jun thought about it again, how many times had his cowardly servant found reason to lurk in the corner during special visits or other special events? No, Shang Qinghua had always been a strangely curious coward. 

 

“Do you know what Shizun said when he finally agreed to let you visit?” Luo Binghe asked. 

 

It was a trap of some kind, surely, but Mobei-Jun had no choice but to walk into it. 

 

“No,” he said. 

 

“He said that you’re Shang Qinghua’s favorite,” Luo Binghe drawled. “That you’ve always been his favorite. And that Shang Qinghua has always liked you more than was good for him.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not know what to say to this. 

 

He could not have spoken if he tried. 

 

The world had gone still. 

 

“So, remember to be on your best behavior, Mobei,” Luo Binghe said. “You wouldn’t want Shang Qinghua to change his mind, would you?” 

 


 

Mobei-Jun returned to the house in daylight, standing outside the door, wondering where all the time in between his last visit had gone. It felt as though he had been having one ongoing thought since he had been sent away. He felt markedly unprepared for a meeting that should have required no preparation, which was infuriating, and he almost longed for the interruption of an uprising in the Demon Realm. 

 

He could not recall the last time he had been made to knock on a door for entry, and though he raised his hand to do so, he still did not have to do so. He had perhaps been standing outside the door for too long. The door opened before he could touch it. 

 

The child blinked up at him, surprised and wary. He was better dressed than the last time that Mobei-Jun had seen him: wearing clothes that nearly fit him, with some room to grow, reminiscent in style of his cultivation set, only in light green instead of the colors of his own peak. His hair had been tied back into a ponytail with a green ribbon, instead of being kept up.

 

“Oh,” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

From within the house, Shen Qingqiu sighed. “A-Yun, is that how we greet guests?” 

 

“It could be how we greet guests,” Luo Binghe said, amused. 

 

“It is not,” Shen Qingqiu said firmly. “Go on, A-Yun.” 

 

The child sighed, put-upon, and looked back up at Mobei-Jun. “Hi,” the child said quietly. 

 

“...Hello,” Mobei-Jun replied. 

 

The child then looked back over his shoulder towards Shen Qingqiu, in a silent demand to know whether or not this greeting was good enough. 

 

Shen Qingqiu looked towards the ceiling. “Please let him in, now, A-Yun.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

The child stepped aside and back to allow Mobei-Jun entry, and skipped backwards again when Mobei-Jun actually did so, needing to duck through the doorway. The child had to crane his neck back to look at Mobei-Jun’s face. He was so… small. 

 

“You’re tall,” Shang Qinghua announced, apparently impressed. 

 

“Yes,” Mobei-Jun agreed. 

 

“And heavy,” Luo Binghe muttered from across the room. 

 

Mobei-Jun elected to ignore the Demon Emperor pouting in the kitchen. 

 

“A-Yun, this is Mobei-Jun,” Shen Qingqiu introduced. “He’s one of Binghe’s demon friends and… your friend as well.” 

 

The child said nothing, still staring up at Mobei-Jun. He squinted, dubious. 

 

‘We were just about to eat lunch,” Shen Qingqiu, with admirable politeness, which did not obviously come out as forced. “Won’t you join us?” 

 

Mobei-Jun inclined his head in agreement and came farther inside. 

 

“A-Yun, you need to close the door.” 

 

“Oh!” 

 

Mobei-Jun had attended far more uncomfortable meals in his lifetime, most notably great banquets in which many of the attendees, including his own family members, had attempted to kill him before. This, like the other meals he had seen in this house, was peaceful, casual, and intimate. The child ran back and forth between the kitchen and the table, taking bowls and cups from Luo Binghe and delivering them to Shen Qingqiu. Mobei-Jun was out of place. 

 

The child stopped in front of Mobei-Jun. “Are you going to take off your coat?” he demanded. 

 

Mobei-Jun felt Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu’s eyes upon him. He had the impression that, even if he wanted to keep the coat, the consequences of refusing the child were not worth bearing. Following Shen Qingqiu’s direction, he took the furred coat off and put it aside in another seating area. For some reason, the child followed him, watching, until Shen Qingqiu called him back and everyone to the table. Mobei-Jun went. 

 

Luo Binghe had offered many “friendly warnings” for this visit. “I already told A-Yun that you don’t smile,” the half-demon had said. “But try not to actively frown at him, hm? Don’t scowl.”  Another warning had been not to reach for the child, or to touch him at all. “Shizun is worried that all sorts of horrible things happened in A-Yun’s life before,” Luo Binghe had said as part of this explanation. “I don’t know. I think he just doesn’t like being grabbed by strangers. He’ll hold a hand willingly enough for a while if he’s the one to reach out and take it first.” 

 

So Mobei-Jun sat and let the child move around him, and did his best not to stare. It was much like dealing with the adult Shang Qinghua: sudden moves startled and pretending to ignore him put him at ease. Mobei-Jun was prepared to ignore the child completely. 

 

He was not expecting the child to talk to him directly. 

 

“They said you’re an ice demon,” Shang Qinghua announced, abruptly, during the meal. 

 

“...I am,” Mobei-Jun replied. 

 

“Is it hot where you live?” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not understand this question. “No.” 

 

Shang Qinghua frowned. “But I thought you lived in a desert.” 

 

“That is what it is called.” 

 

“A-Yun, deserts aren’t always hot,” Shen Qingqiu intervened. “It just means that there’s not a lot of water, at least not in a form that’s easy for plants and animals to drink. Even hot deserts can be very cold at night, because there’s nothing that really traps the heat overnight.” 

 

“Oh,” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed and said, “It’s like a desert made of snow.” 

 

“Ohhh.” 

 

“Besides, it’s not all desert,” Shen Qingqiu said. “It’s just one of the most famous parts. There are many areas with water and vegetation suited to the cold.” Shen Qingqiu then looked at Mobei-Jun expectantly. 

 

“...This is true,” Mobei-Jun agreed warily, uncertain of what the human wanted. 

 

“Shizun is right,” Luo Binghe declared. “We have an expert in the northern kingdoms at the table! Mobei should regale us with conversation about his homeland.” 

 

All three of them looked at him expectantly now. 

 

From a Demon Emperor, these sorts of requests were rarely requests. 

 

Thankfully, Mobei-Jun did not have to speak at length. He vaguely described the giant silverwood tree forests, the flowering meadows that surrounded the Summer Palace where the Midnight Sun Festival was held, and the White Sea that crowned the Northern Desert, and then the child was asking question after question about it all. Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe threw in their own questions now and again. The most fascinating topic seemed to be the creatures of the northern kingdoms, of which there were many, most of which Mobei-Jun had at least seen in passing. Shang Qinghua was apparently delighted to learn he had fought some of them.

 

“Have you fought a Fanged Icehorn?” Shang Qinghua demanded. 

 

“Yes,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“Do they really have fangs?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“What about a Sword-Toothed Tiger? Have you fought that?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“Was it scary?” 

 

“Not particularly.” 

 

“What does that mean?” 

 

“No.” 

 

“Really?!” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“But it’s a tiger!” 

 

“They know better than to challenge someone like me,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

Luo Binghe snorted. 

 

“Most animals don’t hunt for fun, A-Yun,” Shen Qingqiu said. “They do it for food. They don’t want to get into a difficult fight for no good reason.” 

 

“Oh,” Shang Qinghua said, apparently disappointed. 

 

“...The icehorns are scary,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“What?” 

 

“They are even larger than the tigers,” Mobei-Jun explained, “and they come in herds. It is a viable tactic for them to attack other creatures on sight to eliminate potential threats.” 

 

Shang Qinghua looked disbelieving. 

 

Luo Binghe looked amused. Shen Qingqiu looked interested. Despite their presence, Mobei-Jun was almost tempted to relate the story of the time he had been chased off by Fanged Icehorns seeking to stomp him to death. He refrained. The child did not need entertainment that badly. 

 

The questions continued until Luo Binghe sighed and said, “I made noodles specially for A-Yun and he’s not eating them? Mobei won’t go anywhere while you eat your lunch, you know.” 

 

The child looked down at his mostly untouched meal, then gobbled it up at impressive speeds. 

 

“Are you tasting that?” Luo Binghe laughed. 

 

“A-Yun, a little slower, please,” Shen Qingqiu chided, but fondly, and even reached over the clean the child’s face for him afterwards. Shen Qingqiu easily fought off the child’s attempts to take the handkerchief for himself. “I know you can do it, but you won’t do it properly.” 

 

“I would!” 

 

“You would not.” 

 

The child pouted afterwards, embarrassed. “How do you know? You don’t let me practice!” 

 

“Practice,” Shen Qingqiu repeated, amused. 

 

“He’s got you there, Shizun,” Luo Binghe said. “Diligence is the root and all that. Come on and practice your cleaning, A-Yun, and help me clear the dishes, hm?” 

 

The child slumped in dismay, but dutifully got up to help. 

 

“Fine! Fine!” he muttered, in a very Shang-Qinghua-like fashion. 

 

Mobei-Jun was left at the table with Shen Qingqiu, while Luo Binghe and the child cleaned. 

 

“...How’s the Demon Realm?” Shen Qingqiu asked, politely. 

 

“...Unchanged,” Mobei-Jun answered. 

 

“Wonderful,” Shen Qingqiu said, and thankfully did not attempt to make further conversation. 

 

The things that Mobei-Jun wanted to ask of the man could not be asked. Who was he really? Where was he from? How did he know that Mobei-Jun was Shang Qinghua’s “favorite”? Mobei-Jun allowed himself to be lost in questions he could not ask, until Shen Qingqiu suddenly looked to one side and laughed. 

 

“A-Yun!” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

Mobei-Jun looked over to the other sitting area. At some point, the child had somehow escaped assisting Luo Binghe with dishes in favor of touching Mobei-Jun’s furred coat. Shang Qinghua looked guilty, but he did not actually remove his hands from the fur. 

 

“Did you get Mobei-Jun to remove his coat just so you could touch it?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. 

 

The child did not answer. Mobei-Jun recognized the expression as when Shang Qinghua was unable to come up with a sufficient lie quickly enough to be believable. 

 

From the other side of the room, Luo Binghe laughed. “Ah, do you like Mobei’s coat, A-Yun?” 

 

The child nodded, digging his hands deeper into the fur. “It’s so cool,” he said. 

 

Shen Qingqiu made an undignified sound between a snort and a cough. 

 

Mobei-Jun had known that Shang Qinghua had some appreciation for his appearance. It was… somewhat embarrassing to be so flattered by a child’s awe. 

 

“Do you want to try it on, A-Yun?” Luo Binghe goaded him. 

 

The child tried to lift the coat and failed, so Mobei-Jun stood up and crossed the room. Shang Qinghua looked up at him warily, but did not cower, nor show any flicker of true fear. He removed his hands so that Mobei-Jun could pick the coat up, and stayed still as Mobei-Jun carefully lowered the coat on top of the child, even raising his arms to hold it. There was no point in trying to fit the child’s small arms through the long sleeves. Mobei-Jun carefully released the weight of the coat. Even though the ends of it lay on the ground, the child still staggered slightly. 

 

“It’s heavy!” the child declared, surprised. 

 

“It’s a lot of fur and fabric,” Shen Qingqiu said, smiling. “And it’s too big for you.” 

 

The child rolled his eyes. “Uh, yeah,” he said. 

 

This did not stop the child from carefully shuffling so that the ends of the coat were not in his way, and slowly beginning to walk around the room, holding the collar of the coat above his head and dragging the end of it across the floor. Mobei-Jun could not bring himself to mind. It was a strange sight, but an amusing one. The child looked very pleased with himself. 

 

Unfortunately, the weight was quickly getting to him. As soon as the child had finished his slow circuit of the room, he dumped the furred coat unceremoniously at Mobei-Jun’s feet. 

 

“A-Yun!” Shen Qingqiu laughed. 

 

The child just looked up at Mobei-Jun and said, “I like your coat, but it’s too heavy.” 

 

Mobei-Jun picked the coat off the floor with ease. “It is not,” he disagreed. 

 

The child looked impressed and envious. “Maybe I’ll grow into it,” he said hopefully. 

 

Across the room, Luo Binghe burst into laughter. 

 

“Maybe,” Shen Qingqiu said, amused, and sipped his tea. 

 


 

Afterwards, Mobei-Jun was invited to join the Demon Emperor’s household on a walk through the woods. “It’s just a light stroll to one of the nearby streams,” Luo Binghe said. “Shizun says exercise is good for A-Yun. We don’t want any more broken dishes, after all.” 

 

The child complained until he realized that Mobei-Jun was joining them instead of leaving. Instead of holding Shen Qingqiu’s hand, he came to walk next to Mobei-Jun, occasionally reaching out to touch the fur of Mobei-Jun’s coat and pull on it slightly. It might have been annoying under other circumstances, but Mobei-Jun found it… strangely reassuring, the reminder that the child was still there and unafraid of him. 

 

Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu watched them at first, but eventually exchanged some private words between them, hidden behind one of Shen Qingqiu’s fans. They ended up walking ahead, arm in arm, leaning into each other, while Mobei-Jun and the child followed. 

 

The child talked at Mobei-Jun in bursts of conversation, leaping from one topic to the next with ease. He wanted to know where Mobei-Jun lived. He wanted to know if Mobei-Jun had more furred coats. He wanted to know if Mobei-Jun had any special powers. He wanted to know what other kinds of demons looked like. He wanted to know what kind of swords these other demons had. He wanted his own flying sword with a gold tassel, but Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t allow it. 

 

“Your sword was left behind at my palace,” Mobei-Jun said. “It is being kept in your rooms.” 

 

The child went wide-eyed, yanking on Mobei-Jun’s coat. “I have a sword?!” 

 

“...Yes?” 

 

“Can I have it?” Shang Qinghua begged.

 

Shen Qingqiu looked over his shoulder. “When you’re older,” he called back, glaring at Mobei-Jun for emphasis.

 

Beside him, Luo Binghe’s shoulders shook with laughter again. 

 

The child’s shoulders slumped in dismay, before he looked up at Mobei-Jun pleadingly. He was clinging to the coat such that Mobei-Jun was likely supporting most of his body weight. 

 

“It is a spiritual weapon,” Mobei-Jun tried. 

 

The child did not look understanding. “It's mine!”

 

“It would not work for you yet.” 

 

“Oh,” Shang Qinghua said, disappointed. “Can I have it just to look at?” 

 

Mobei-Jun doubted that the child would stop at looking. 

 

“No,” he said. 

 

The child frowned up at him and huffed, letting go of his coat to walk on his own again. 

 

Mobei-Jun tried not to miss the easy weight of him.

 

The trail that Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu were leading them on was apparently familiar to all of them, a gentle trail through sloping green woods. The path was not a clear one, however, and soon became more difficult for the child with his short legs. Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu stopped at this point, waiting for them to catch up, clearly having expected the child’s difficulties. 

 

“This is the part where we usually offer to let A-Yun ride on a sword,” Luo Binghe explained. 

 

“I don’t need to be carried,” A-Yun protested, despite visible tiredness. 

 

“But it would be nice, wouldn’t it?” Shen Qingqiu coaxed.  

 

Luo Binghe had a slyer look. “Perhaps A-Yun would like Mobei to carry him?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu looked sharply at his lover. 

 

The child looked wide-eyed again, not having considered this option, which Mobei-Jun had also not realized existed until this moment. “I don’t need to be carried,” the child repeated, though with less conviction than before. 

 

“Of course,” Luo Binghe agreed easily. “But you could ride on Mobei’s back. Didn’t you like riding on my back the other day?” 

 

“He’s wearing a coat,” Shang Qinghua pointed out, as though this was an insurmountable obstacle. 

 

Shen Qingqiu apparently relented to Luo Binghe's mischief and said, “He is wearing a coat again, isn’t he? You’d have to ride on his shoulders and be taller than everyone. You’re quite grown-up, but Mobei-Jun is so tall and so strong that he I bet he could carry you on his shoulders if he tried.” 

 

“Oh, excellent idea, Shizun,” Luo Binghe said.

 

Mobei-Jun apparently did not have a say in being used as a beast of burden. He did not protest. He could almost imagine the agonized howls of his ancestors, countless generations of great demonic kings, as he, in a somewhat stunned state, crouched down so that a half-human Demon Emperor could lift a human child onto his shoulders.

 

The child wasn’t heavy. He was, however, somewhat awkward. He clutched at Mobei-Jun’s head uncomfortably tightly. Mobei-Jun grunted as the child accidentally pulled on his hair, though Shang Qinghua apologized when Shen Qingqiu amusedly admonished him for it. Once Shang Qinghua was well-settled, Mobei-Jun held on to the child’s ankles and slowly stood fully upright once more, and the child gasped in fear and delight. 

 

“You’re so tall!” Shang Qinghua cried. 

 

“So are you!” Luo Binghe agreed, imitating the loudness. 

 

“How’s the air up there, A-Yun?” Shen Qingqiu called. 

 

Mobei-Jun felt the child look down at them. “The… same?” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

Shen Qingqiu laughed. “Good to know.” 

 

They set out again. Mobei-Jun ended up wandering behind Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu again, while the child wiggled to look all around and reached up to touch tree branches. Eventually, the child leaned over slightly, resting against Mobei-Jun’s head. 

 

“It hurt my neck to look up at you,” Shang Qinghua informed him. 

 

“...I apologize,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“I want to be tall.” 

 

Shang Qinghua in his adult form was tall enough for a human, though Shen Qingqiu was taller, and Mobei-Jun found all humans small. Mobei Clan were tall for demons. Mobei-Jun decided not to tell A-Yun that he would not be as tall as he likely hoped to be. 

 

The child hummed, an absent and happy sound. 

 

Mobei-Jun had never seen Shang Qinghua like this before, content and relaxed from one moment to the next. It could be attributed to the happiness of a child who did not know better, one who was being thoroughly doted upon by his caretakers, but… it was not so easy to dismiss this happiness when this child was still clearly Shang Qinghua, with all of the same curiosity and cleverness and interest, only set free of fear for his own life, set free of secrets and schemes. 

 

When they had first met, the happiness of a human traitor had not mattered. Mobei-Jun did not know when his servant’s happiness had come to matter so intensely. 

 

The child then pulled one of Mobei-Jun’s ears. He was gentle, but it was still annoying. 

 

“Do not,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“It’s pointy,” Shang Qinghua said, as though Mobei-Jun might have missed this fact about his own ear. 

 

“Yes. Yours is round.” 

 

Thankfully, the child did not keep pulling on his ears.

 

Unfortunately, it was only a little later that the child reached over and poked carefully at Mobei-Jun’s demonic mark. 

 

“This means you’re a demon,” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“Why is yours blue? Is it because you’re an ice demon? Is that why you're so cold?” 

 

“Yes,” Mobei-Jun said, rather than explain the different types of ice demons. 

 

The child poked at it again. 

 

“Stop.” 

 

The child sighed, but thankfully stopped.

 

After a few more steps, the child realized, annoyed, “You didn’t say please. You’re supposed to say please when you ask for things.” 

 

“...Please,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

The child nodded approvingly, before resting against Mobei-Jun’s head again. Mobei-Jun could not recall Shang Qinghua ever touching him so freely before. It was strange, but he did not mind it as much as he once had. He did not like being grabbed by strangers either. But Shang Qinghua was not a stranger, even in this form, and it was reassuring to keep him safe. 

 

It had been some time since Mobei-Jun had indulged in this kind of peace. 

 

“Are we really friends?” Shang Qinghua asked. 

 

“...Yes,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

The child made a pleased sound, still resting almost possessively against Mobei-Jun’s head. “I wouldn’t hang around if we weren’t friends,” he said confidently. 

 

Mobei-Jun said nothing. He walked onwards. 

 

Chapter Text

 

The stream that they had come to see was a shallow and sluggish path of water. It sparkled, but it was also brown. Luo Binghe helped Shang Qinghua from his perch on Mobei-Jun’s shoulders, and the child spent time hopping from rock to rock as they walked along the muddy bank, as though falling into the water would mean drowning instead of wet feet. Shen Qingqiu complimented the child’s agility and daring, before reminding him to hurry up. 

 

Privately, Mobei-Jun thought that if not for Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu’s presence, the child would have been alarmingly easy prey. 

 

But no monsters stalked these woods. No enemies threatened them. There was nothing in the bright green trees but birds, small and weak creatures that did not care for their presence at all, busy singing to each other on soft winds. A strong blizzard would have ravaged this fragile landscape in a single night. 

 

It seemed strange to Mobei-Jun that a place like this could hope to last. It was like something a dream demon might weave to entrap a fool’s mind. 

 

The child walked back to Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu’s home by himself, at his own insistence, and Mobei-Jun had no reason to be disappointed. The child did, however, occasionally reach out to accept a hand for balance, and once needed to be lifted down a particularly steep hill. Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu’s hands often reached out without the child needing to ask. When the child did reach out first, assistance was never withheld. 

 

By the end of the journey, the child was obviously tired, but smiling proudly, accomplished. As they saw the house again, he brushed past Mobei-Jun’s coat to get ahead, without fear of getting underfoot or otherwise offending. What was a demon lord to a happy child? 

 

The humble home that waited for them seemed… full… even before they walked in the door. Not only because it smelled so strongly of Luo Binghe, Shen Qingqiu, and now the child as well, but now that Mobei-Jun looked, there was… There was a pile of books left on one corner of a table. A toy animal made from cloth had been left in the middle of the floor. Shen Qingqiu had left a robe thrown over a chair, which Luo Binghe snagged with an absent hand as he passed, returning it to their bedroom. There was a significant weight to this house, as though all the layers of protections, woven in so tightly and with such care, had trapped something unbearably warm inside. 

 

Shen Qingqiu insisted on helping the child wash after the outing. Shang Qinghua struggled half-heartedly and pouted whole-heartedly, but his upset evaporated in the face of the snacks Luo Binghe set out for his lover and the child. After eating half the bowl, despite attempting to follow Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu’s conversation about the next meal, Shang Qinghua laid his nodding head down on the table and slowly fell asleep. 

 

The day was still bright, but neither Luo Binghe nor Shen Qingqiu seemed surprised or concerned. When Shang Qinghua started snoring softly, Shen Qingqiu gently picked the sleeping child up and placed him in the small bed in the corner, curtained off from the rest of the room. The human cultivator patted the child’s head fondly. 

 

In the kitchen, Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe continued to banter over dinner in hushed tones, while the child napped obliviously. Mobei-Jun sat still at the dining table and waited for something to ruin such gentle quiet. This place suddenly seemed unnatural. 

 

Unsustainable.

 

Untrustworthy. 

 

He stood abruptly. Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu went silent. 

 

“Mobei,” Luo Binghe said, both a question and a warning. 

 

“I must go,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“Now?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. “Just like that? Why?” 

 

Mobei-Jun said nothing. 

 

He had wasted too much time here already, of course. Even if Luo Binghe pretended otherwise, he was surely only humoring Mobei-Jun’s presence, and to stay here pushing the Demon Emperor’s tolerance was an unnecessary risk. Mobei-Jun also had far better things to do than entertain a human child. He had responsibilities as a prince of the Northern Desert, as a leader of the Mobei Clan, and as a son whose father might finally be dying. 

 

It should have been far beneath him to even spend so much time chasing mysterious artifacts and their equally mysterious creators just for an infuriating human servant with unknowable loyalties. He should not have been dependent on a weak human in the first place. 

 

“You’re just going to leave without saying goodbye?” Shen Qingqiu demanded next, unimpressed by Mobei-Jun’s silence. He even looked towards the small bed in the corner. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not answer, nor follow the man’s gaze. He fixed his eyes on Luo Binghe. 

 

“...Go,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not wait for anything more. He left the room behind in what felt like a single step, and the house behind him with another, and then he was far enough down the humble home’s path that he could throw himself into the grips of a shadowy portal. The howling cold tearing at his face was familiar. As he ripped free of the darkness and into the softer cold of the Northern Desert, he gasped for air, and he could tell himself that it was due to the emptiness of the space between spaces. That was all. 

 


 

Canceling all of his appointments to waste time in the Human Realm was not without its consequences.

 

A visiting lordling from some eastern clan was so offended not to have been greeted personally by the Demon Emperor that he challenged Mobei-Jun to a duel, as annoying as it was welcome, and it took nearly as much effort to knock the arrogant young demon down hard enough that he stayed down as it took not to kill him. 

 

This opened the doors over the next week for every member of Mobei-Jun’s clan hoping to challenge him for his position, reminded and revitalized by their current king’s failing health that they had great ambitions and not much time left in which to accomplish them. Mobei-Jun threw himself headfirst into the violence and did not look back. It was grueling work separating the cousins merely seeking to test his strength as a way to offer their approval of his coming ascension, from the foolish cousins with delusions of grandeur who were ultimately harmless, from the timid cousins who had been forced to challenge him by their overambitious parents with delusions of grandeur, from the cousins who had hated him from the moment he had been born, who found his existence unforgivable, who had gnashed their teeth with every year of survival, and would not stop until they claimed his head by any means necessary. 

 

Mobei-Jun enjoyed the challenge. He did not enjoy having to kill some of his kin. He endeavored to allow every opponent to be dragged away afterwards still breathing - bleeding profusely, bruised beyond recognition, or broken in many places, perhaps, but still breathing - but one of his distant cousins had brought a deadly poison known specially for how it caused excruciating agony, and had nearly succeeded in driving this sorry death into Mobei-Jun’s heart. 

 

He especially did not enjoy his uncle commenting on his having to kill some of his kin. Linguang-Jun smiled at him in such a way that Mobei-Jun could feel the blood clinging to his hands long after he had washed it off. As though they were in any way the same. 

 

Along with the challenges came the assassination attempts, of course, which Mobei-Jun was long-practiced at side-stepping, through the shadows and the walls if necessary. Some of the traps were dangerous enough to the servants and courtiers of various palaces that Mobei-Jun was obligated to set them off. One of the stewards, an older demoness Shang Qinghua had suggested to him for the position, who had been staunchly loyal ever since, had set him to this when she had asked if he wouldn’t mind dealing with the assassins, because they were getting in the way of things.

 

Some of the traps, Mobei-Jun set off just because he could. At one point, he slew nine warriors who had attempted to ambush him, and had only needed to look at the tenth demon for the mercenary to run squealing for his life. That had been immensely gratifying. The loss of one of his robes due to insurmountable bloodstains was not. 

 

These traps from his family were an annoying complication on top of some unrelated ruse to replace valuable servants with face-stealing demons, apparently with the goal of undermining and then usurping Luo Binghe’s power. Mobei-Jun spent two days without sleep, hunting down every intruder that had burrowed their way into this particular palace, which was a bloody and painful process. He slept for nearly a whole day after that, perhaps partly sleeping off the long line of people seeking to kill him before that. 

 

The next day was spent disciplining the guards for failing to recognize and properly contain such schemers, though of course he foremost blamed Sha Hualing for everything. Sha Hualing was still absent from most matters due to her own personal affairs. Usually, sniffing out such spies and assassins was her task, as she found such brutal and insidious hunts to be one of her favorite games. He did not find her lieutenants adequate replacements. 

 

At the end of this second week, one of Mobei-Jun’s servants approached him, though keeping an annoyingly cautious distance from him, to ask if the investigation into a certain artifact and its creator was being called off. After all, Mobei-Jun had suddenly ceased asking for news on an hourly basis and was no longer accompanying them, though he still arranged their transport. Was he no longer interested in finding anything? Was there no longer any valuable point? 

 

Mobei-Jun sent that servant running from the hall, likely fearing for their life, at such a suggestion. The annoyingly cautious distance had been annoyingly appropriate. 

 

The search for the creator of the artifact that had cursed Shang Qinghua continued with far less success than the search for the creator’s name. Finding just one demon should not have been so difficult, except that of course it was. Perhaps, Mobei-Jun thought with wry fury, they might have had better luck beginning to turn over rocks systematically. He did not say this. Some of his more dimwitted servants might have actually done so out of fear. 

 

The study of the artifact itself was not proceeding well. It was not proceeding at all. 

 

Mobei-Jun had entered the vault to consider what was to be done with the puzzle box, to whom to trust the object that might be holding Shang Qinghua’s stolen years, but had ended up staring at the small thing that had ruined a life. He could not tell just by looking at it whether or not Shang Qinghua’s memories were within. He had ended up leaving the room with the artifact untouched, allowing none of the few servants who knew about it to go near it. 

 

It was not all challenges and failed assassinations, nor was it all greetings and reports, for an abyssal beast had pulled itself from one of the seafloor vents and out of the White Sea, alarmingly close to the inlet containing the Mobei Clan’s northmost fortress and its village. Such gluttonous monsters needed to be killed on sight whenever they broke free of the Endless Abyss, it was a familiar business, but this one was large enough that the usual hunting party had nearly been massacred, so the fortress called for Mobei-Jun’s assistance. 

 

The fight was long and hard and satisfyingly bloody. A matter of survival and not of greed. Mobei-Jun was knee-deep in the twisted giant’s guts when Luo Binghe finally summoned him. 

 

Mobei-Jun ignored the Demon Emperor, as the present task took a great deal of his attention, and Luo Binghe inevitably became insistent that Mobei-Jun present himself. As soon as Mobei-Jun was certain that the parts of the massive corpse his people were hauling off weren’t going to rise up and attack on their own, as had happened before, he ripped open a portal and stormed through. He stood before the Demon Emperor, folding his arms across his chest, which squelched unpleasantly with the monster blood he was drenched in. 

 

Luo Binghe looked at him in surprise and mild disgust, until the stench hit him properly, and the half-demon recoiled in horror. “What the fuck?! Mobei, go bathe!” he howled. 

 

So, Mobei-Jun came back to the meadow outside Luo Binghe’s house in the Human Realm a little over an hour later, with still-wet hair and new clothes. It appeared that the Demon Emperor had remained outside all this time, scowling at the blood that Mobei-Jun had dripped on the grass. The Demon Emperor may not have been above getting his hands dirty, but Mobei-Jun was well familiar at this point with his preference for cleanliness. Any consequences due to his impatience was his own fault and Mobei-Jun would not hear otherwise. 

 

Nevertheless, Luo Binghe glared at him. “Enough of this,” the Demon Emperor declared, before his expression turned dangerously friendly. “Mobei, did you know that Shizun had to explain to A-Yun why you left without saying goodbye? A-Yun was so confused. He was almost upset.” 

 

The words struck as words should not have had the weight to do. 

 

“He keeps asking when you’re going to come back and visit again, Mobei.” 

 

Mobei-Jun scowled. “I have been occupied.” 

 

“Mm, so I’ve heard,” Luo Binghe said, having received the reports that Mobei-Jun had been sending regularly, but as though he had read things into them that had not been there. “You’re so dedicated, Mobei. It’s very appreciated.” 

 

Mobei-Jun should have inclined his head, accepting the compliment. He did not. 

 

Instead, he said flatly, “Some say that the new Demon Emperor governs much like the older Demon Emperor. They are pleased to have a ruler as inattentive as Tianlang-Jun.” 

 

Luo Binghe’s smile dropped and his eyes narrowed dangerously. 

 

Mobei-Jun opened a portal in anticipation to take this elsewhere. 

 

He was right to do so. The fight that came from this disrespectful comment was painful, bloody, and exactly what Mobei-Jun had been looking for, even if he had lost by a humiliatingly large margin. His distraction made him sloppy. He had to spend an entire day afterwards bedridden, healing from the worst of the injuries, sleeping to escape everything, at least until Luo Binghe somehow returned with a pot of soup and scowlingly served it up to him whether he liked it or not. 

 

“I told Shizun and A-Yun that you were sick,” Luo Binghe announced, as though he did not also have some lingering bruises on his arms and jaw. “A-Yun helped me make the soup. Mobei wouldn’t want to waste A-Yun’s hard work, would he?” 

 

Mobei-Jun glared at the Demon Emperor, itching to start a new fight he could not win, too exhausted to go through with it. He ate the damn soup. It was good. 

 

“I don’t know what’s going on and I don’t care,” Luo Binghe declared next. 

 

Mobei-Jun was not given a choice about visiting the day after next. Luo Binghe did not leave the Demon Realm in order to make it so, sending servants and demon lords alike into a panic at his sudden appearance, and cowering with his strength and scheming. As they left, Mobei-Jun begrudgingly, inwardly, conceded that perhaps the half-demon was well-served by his dream powers and whatever minions he had gathering and delivering information in that realm. 

 

“Shizun! A-Yun! Look who’s here for a visit!” Luo Binghe called as they arrived. 

 

The house in the Human Realm was… unchanged… but the weight of it did not sit as heavily as the day that Mobei-Jun had fled its warmth. Shen Qingqiu was clearly not pleased to see him, but was not surprised, and remained coolly polite. Mobei-Jun nodded back stiffly. 

 

The child startled at his appearance, rushing across the house so quickly that he stumbled, tripping into Mobei-Jun’s thigh. It was very like Shang Qinghua. At least, until the child smiled up at him, bright-eyed and breathless, as Shang Qinghua had never done. 

 

“You’re back!” the child cried, oblivious to how Mobei-Jun had gone still. Shang Qinghua pushed away from him. “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! Wait, are you still sick?” The child skipped another wary step away from him, squinting up. “They said you were sick. Are you?” 

 

“I wouldn’t bring him here if he was going to get you sick, A-Yun,” Luo Binghe said, while Shen Qingqiu hummed in a way that could not be obviously termed disagreeable. 

 

It was much like the last visit. Mobei-Jun learned that the daily walks had continued, and that the child had learned in a book that there were demonic plants that started fires, and that he had visited the cultivation sect again and that the healer there said he was “in perfect health”, and that Wan Jian was the coolest place ever. The child spoke even more than before, requiring little input from Mobei-Jun, except when it was apparently necessary for him to nod in agreement when the child told him about the swords on Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s smithing peak and said expectantly, “Isn’t that the coolest thing you’ve ever heard?” 

 

At the child’s questioning, Mobei-Jun carefully revealed that he had been… fighting people looking to challenge him for his father’s throne… and dealing with a beast from the Endless Abyss. He felt Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu’s eyes on him very strongly. He was not certain how far the new rule of “for fuck’s sake, Mobei, if you actually end up talking, don’t tell A-Yun you’ve been killing everything you could get your hands on” extended. 

 

Shang Qinghua as an adult had alternatively been horrified by Mobei-Jun’s warrior prowess or gratifyingly awed by it. He might have enjoyed some of the duels Mobei-Jun had won. 

 

Mobei-Jun was saved from the child’s questions by Shen Qingqiu’s declaration that it was such a lovely day outside. “Isn’t it just a lovely day outside, Binghe?” the human cultivator said, and everyone in the house moved as though this was an order to leave the house at once. 

 

After Mobei-Jun had mentioned that he had summoned weapons of ice, the child wanted to see some of his powers, and Mobei-Jun found himself constructing small structures of ice for the child to climb over and slide down. The child wanted his own ice weapons, but they were too cold for him to hold, and Shen Qingqiu forbid it, so he had to settle with demanding Mobei-Jun demonstrate the creation of every weapon that he could think to name in ice. The grass suffered for all these displays, especially under the gleaming weight of the small fortress of ice Mobei-Jun created for the child at Shen Qingqiu’s suggestion, but Luo Binghe did not seem to care. 

 

The child did not want to leave his miniature fortress, even as he shivered while hiding in it. Luo Binghe eventually managed to coax him out with the promise of food, but Shang Qinghua only became more distressed as they left the structures behind, saying, “It’s going to melt.” 

 

“Mobei will just have to come back and make it again,” Luo Binghe said, with all the concern of an emperor with palaces to spare. “Even better than before.” 

 

“Oh,” the child said. “Okay.” 

 


 

And so the days passed like this. The search for the artifact creator continued. Business in the Demon Realm continued. Mobei-Jun’s father’s health continued to decline, or else did not improve, and the whispers of ascension grew louder until it seemed they might as well have been screaming it. And every few days, Mobei-Jun would intrude upon the Human Realm, in order to spend time with the child Shang Qinghua had become, and he would ignore the weight and the warmth of the house pressing down on him. 

 

On the third visit, recalling the way that the child had shivered against the ice, he brought a small coat with a fur collar for Shang Qinghua. The child went wide-eyed and repeated, “This is for me?” several times before he finally seemed to believe it. 

 

Mobei-Jun ignored the way that Luo Binghe was snickering. 

 

“...Did you have that made for him?” Shen Qingqiu asked, apparently genuinely curious, as the child struggled to put the coat on. Shang Qinghua had insisted that he didn’t need help. 

 

“No,” Mobei-Jun answered. “It was mine.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu paused the fluttering of his fan and raised his eyebrows. Mobei-Jun’s first thought was that the human cultivator had learned this condescending expression from his lover, before he realized that it was likely the other way around. 

 

“Yours,” Shen Qingqiu repeated. 

 

The child stopped flailing for a moment and asked, “Who made it for you?” 

 

“...My father,” Mobei-Jun answered. “I killed the creature that the fur belonged to myself.” 

 

It had been in the time period after Mobei-Jun’s abandonment in the Human Realm by his uncle and near-death, which had briefly compelled, given the recent death of Mobei-Jun’s mother, his father to pay him some attention. The attention had faded steadily with time. But for a little while, his father had been proud enough to present many gifts. 

 

The child’s face scrunched up, but he did not seem upset by such a thing. “How old were you?” Shang Qinghua demanded, sounding more confused than distressed. 

 

Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe also looked curious. 

 

“...Five,” Mobei-Jun answered. 

 

The child’s jaw dropped. “Five?!” he cried, and looked down at the coat that he had finally managed to put on. “But it fits me! And I’m seven.” 

 

“Most children of the Mobei Clan are large,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

The child looked him up and down, then said, “I guess that makes sense. Big animals have big babies. Like elephants.” Then he spread his arms wide and said, “It’s kind of heavy! But not as heavy as yours. I like it. It’s so warm I bet I’ll never ever be cold again!” 

 

“It looks good on you, A-Yun,” Shen Qingqiu said. “You’re very handsome.” 

 

The child turned a little red, but his smile widened even more, and he skipped off to get another opinion from Luo Binghe. He even allowed the half-demon to check the fit of the coat and to straighten the fur mussed in the child’s struggles with dressing himself. 

 

When Mobei-Jun looked back to Shen Qingqiu, he saw that the man had a somewhat blank expression. While the child was distracted, the human cultivator caught Mobei-Jun’s attention again, raised his eyebrows, and mouthed, “Five?” 

 

Mobei-Jun nodded carefully. 

 

Shen Qingqiu looked between the coat and Mobei-Jun, then mouthed, “How?” 

 

The child was not looking at him directly, so Mobei-Jun, following the human cultivator’s example to keep this conversation silent for whatever reason, raised his hands as though clutching a thick neck, and then jerked them apart. Shen Qingqiu blinked in surprise, as though not having expected Mobei-Jun to have broken the creature’s neck with his bare hands. 

 

“Hm,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

The fourth visit was much like the second and third. The day was hot enough that the child had to be persuaded to leave his new coat behind him, and Mobei-Jun was forced to remove his own coat to set an example. The most memorable thing to happen on the following walk was that the child tripped and skinned his palms, and the child hissed under his breath, in the most Shang-Qinghua-like way he had done anything yet, “Shit! Shit, shit, shit!” 

 

“A-Yun!” Shen Qingqiu gasped. 

 

The human cultivator healed the child’s palms and admonished him lightly for using inappropriate words. Once the child had been sent skipping on his way ahead of them, Shen Qingqiu turned on Luo Binghe and Mobei-Jun, and said that they all had to be more careful with what words they used around the young and impressionable child. 

 

“Shizun,” Luo Binghe said, his voice saturated with both fondness and amusement. “He probably learned that from you.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu frowned in embarrassment, looking away, and did not argue the point. 

 

By the fifth visit, Mobei-Jun had apparently passed a test that he had not been made aware of, and he was sent out with Shang Qinghua on his own, without the supervision of either Luo Binghe or Shen Qingqiu. Shen Qingqiu was obviously worried. Luo Binghe seemed restless, eager for them to leave, even as he reassured his lover that all would be well. 

 

“Everything is going to be fine, right, Mobei?” Luo Binghe demanded. 

 

Mobei-Jun scented the air and gave Luo Binghe a knowing look, but he nodded. 

 

Luo Binghe’s unfriendly smile widened. “Have fun, Mobei! Have fun, A-Yun!” 

 

Shen Qingqiu patted the child on the head one last time, and then they were ushered fully out the doorway, and the door closed behind them. Shang Qinghua and Mobei-Jun looked at each other. The child still had to look quite steeply upwards. 

 

“Come along,” Mobei-Jun said, and they set out together. 

 

Not even ten steps from the house, Mobei-Jun heard a body slammed against the door. This was followed by a moan. Mobei-Jun looked down at the child, who looked up at him, blissfully oblivious with his inferior hearing, and picked up the pace. 

 

They had no particular destination. No particular goal except not to return for at least two hours, preferably longer. Mobei-Jun had even been plied with snacks for the child at his side. They ended up taking the same trail as the first walk Mobei-Jun had accompanied, with the child walking beside him, fingers loosely holding the fur of Mobei-Jun’s coat, chattering about all the cool powers that he wanted when he was a grown-up cultivator. 

 

When they came to the part of the trail that was steep, the child tried to keep up on his own, panting and impossibly slowly. Mobei-Jun picked Shang Qinghua up. As the child shrieked, it occurred to him that he perhaps should have asked first, but, nevertheless, he put the child on his shoulders again. 

 

“Oh, cool,” Shang Qinghua said, and settled properly against him. 

 

The forest here was still too green and too soft, but Mobei-Jun at least saw a small bird of prey, which helped to remember that this place was not completely devoid of harsh realities. Luo Binghe had carved out a gentle place for his human love. It was easier to focus on Shang Qinghua’s hands on his head, the small fingers threading through his hair. It was much easier to focus on the child’s breathing and steady weight and occasional bursts of commentary. 

 

And it all made things a little easier to interrogate the child. 

 

Luo Binghe’s investigation into the world traveling apparently continued at a glacial pace. He was still skirting the edges of Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua’s dreams with a gentle hand, the last that Mobei-Jun had heard. One grim revelation was that it appeared that Shen Qingqiu might be able to summon this “Transmigration System” at will, but also that it could invisibly intrude on the human cultivator’s life and shock him at any moment. It was perhaps always watching. 

 

As Mobei-Jun was not well-versed in such non-physical dealings, his investigation now primarily concerned the child’s treatment at the hands of Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu. The pair doted on the child incessantly. Shang Qinghua behaved as Mobei-Jun suspected that a well-protected and well-spoiled child would. But were they always like this? 

 

Some people only smiled towards children when they knew that others were watching them. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not have to wait long before the child’s chatter circled back to Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu, and the latest trip that the household had taken to the nearest food market. Shang Qinghua had apparently begged to try the offerings of a food stall, only to spit it out into a bush because: “It nearly made me throw up! Like bleeeuuuhhh! It was so gross! It was all squishy and slimy and bitter in my mouth. Just thinking about it now makes me want to go bleeeuuhhh! Do you think I could throw up right now just like that if I wanted to and I tried? I bet I could.” 

 

“Do not,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“Aw.” 

 

“Please do not.” 

 

“Okay,” the child said sadly. “It made Gege laugh at me and say, ‘I told you so.’” 

 

“...Do they treat you well?” 

 

“What?” 

 

“Do you like living with them?” Mobei-Jun rephrased. 

 

The child’s chin settled on top of his head, finger threading deeper into his hair. 

 

“...Yeah,” the child admitted. The quietness of it made the confession sound even more truthful. “Sometimes I like it more than being home.” 

 

“How so?” 

 

Mobei-Jun felt the child shrug against his head. “I don’t know.” 

 

It was a very Shang Qinghua thing to do. 

 

“What do you not like about your home?” Mobei-Jun pressed. 

 

“I don’t know. They yell a lot. At home.” 

 

“At you?” 

 

The child shrugged again, which this time Mobei-Jun interpreted as a yes, if he knew anything at all about Shang Qinghua. “At each other,” the child said instead, before he lowered his voice to a whisper and added, “My neighbor says they’re going to get divorced.” 

 

“I see.” 

 

He had thought much, these past weeks, of Shang Qinghua’s life in another world. It did not please him to learn that his familiar life was unpleasant. The softness of the child’s current situation suited him very well. 

 

“Do your parents yell a lot?” the child asked. 

 

“...No,” Mobei-Jun said. “My parents did not speak to each other if it could be helped.” 

 

“Ever?!” 

 

Mobei-Jun snorted. So it was to his limited memory, at least, which could not place his mother and his father in the same room even once, before his mother had passed. 

 

“They did not live together,” he said instead. 

 

“Wow. Are they divorced?” 

 

“It might have been better if they were.” 

 

The child hummed. “That’s what my neighbor says about my parents.” 

 

“...What about your life now do you like?” 

 

“I like that no one yells ever,” the child said thoughtfully. “I get to talk at the dinner table. Gege asks me questions, except sometimes I’m eating, and I don’t know why he asks so many questions. Wasn’t he right there? And I get to help pick dinner and lunch and breakfast. Not all the time, but that’s fair, because then everyone gets to have their favorite foods sometimes. Mama didn’t let me pick. She just said that I should eat it because there were starving kids who would eat it. Okay, why don’t they eat it, then?” 

 

“Hm.” 

 

“And I get to pick my own clothes, too, but I don’t really like having long hair, because you have to brush it all the time. I want to wear the furry coat more, but it’s heavy and Gege says that it’s too warm most of the time. Do you like my clothes today? Gege says that yellow is the color of my peak, just like how he’s wearing green almost all the time.” 

 

It had been nearly thirty years since Mobei-Jun had seen Shang Qinghua in a disciple uniform for An Ding Peak. Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu had both been looking for his reaction. 

 

“It is a handsome color on you,” Mobei-Jun said, because it was. 

 

The fingers in his hair tightened slightly. “Oh,” the child said, and fell quiet. 

 

“...What about your life now do you not like?” Mobei-Jun tried. 

 

“I wish I could stay up later,” the child said, immediately. “I’m not, like, a baby. I used to stay up later than this all the time and it was fine.” 

 

“I see.” Mobei-Jun elected not to mention the many times that he had caught the adult Shang Qinghua asleep at his desk or in bed past midday because his servant had been “up late”. 

 

“We get up so early! And Bing-Ge gets up even earlier.” 

 

“He is very strange,” Mobei-Jun agreed. 

 

The child sighed. “But his food is good, I guess. I miss television, though.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not know what this was. He realized that it must have been something from Shang Qinghua’s old world when the child stiffened and shut up abruptly. He did not press the matter, nor act as though anything was amiss, and Shang Qinghua relaxed again, as he often did. 

 

They reached the stream and Mobei-Jun set the child down. As the child hopped from rock to rock, he talked about how he liked the swords here. He liked flying, except when he looked down, and when it was too windy, and he wished that he could fly on his own, except that he did want to fall to the ground and go splat! (The child clapped his hands together for emphasis.) He liked monsters and he wanted to see more of them, except he didn’t want to be eaten. He wanted to be a cultivator and start training and become “super strong”, but Shen Qingqiu apparently had said that Shang Qinghua’s most important job at the moment was to be a child. 

 

Shang Qinghua slipped on one of the rocks of the stream, partially underwater and balanced precariously on the other rocks, and shrieked loudly. Mobei-Jun reached out to catch him by the back of his clothes before he could stumble into the single handspan of water and get his small boots wet. It reminded him of animals holding their cubs by the scruff. 

 

“Oh, thanks!” Shang Qinghua said, already wiggling to be let down. “I’m okay now!” 

 

Mobei-Jun let him go and watched him leap forward, as though going twice as fast would somehow undo his stumble. It was extraordinary how little power children had. They were at the utter mercy of all those around them. No control in their own lives. It was a cruel fact of the world that so many children were so utterly dependent on the kindness of their parents. 

 

“Hey, can you freeze the water?” the child demanded. “Could you make a bridge? Could you make a dam? Ohhh, can you make ice swords for me now? Gege doesn’t have to know!” 

 

“No, your hands would get cold,” Mobei-Jun reminded him, but he did freeze parts of the stream for Shang Qinghua’s amusement. They had to occupy themselves somehow. 

 

He made bridges and dams at the child’s direction. He redirected the water flow around a small island of ice upon which the child stood as a self-declared king. He created a reservoir, gathering the water into a growing pond, which then froze over, apparently so the child could try to glide across and immediately fell over. When they were done, Mobei-Jun put Shang Qinghua on his shoulders again, and they smashed the dam, releasing all the gathered water in a huge, destructive rush, riding the wave on a ice float while the child cackled gleefully. 

 

“I want ice powers,” the child sighed, as they finally went back towards the house. It had been four hours, more than enough time for Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu to exercise their passions for each other. All the snacks had been eaten by the child and Shang Qinghua had confessed that he was getting hungry again. 

 

“You have always been impressed by them,” Mobei-Jun agreed, because it was true. Even as an adult, Shang Qinghua had seemed to enjoy Mobei-Jun’s powers, calling them superior to nearly all others, as long as they were not directed towards him. 

 

“They’re so cool,” the child said. 

 

“Yes,” Mobei-Jun agreed wryly. “They are very cold.” 

 

The child giggled, but then insisted, “That’s not funny.” 

 

“You laughed.” 

 

“Because it’s so not funny that it is funny!” 

 

“Hm.” 

 

This child was like a stranger in many ways, Mobei-Jun thought, but they were also still like the Shang Qinghua he knew in many ways. The child was funny, sometimes accidentally, sometimes through sarcastic comments and whining complaints. He was observant and excitable. He was incessantly curious. He was clever and imaginative, especially when it came to the inventive uses of Mobei-Jun’s powers. 

 

Mobei-Jun wondered what the adult Shang Qinghua would have made of all this. 

 

“So you’re going to be king soon?” the child asked, as they walked. “Bing-Ge said to Gege that you were probably going to be the Ice King soon.” 

 

“Lord of the Northern Desert, yes.” 

 

“I thought you were already Mobei-Jun?” 

 

“I will officially become Mobei-Jun when my father passes.” 

 

“Oh. Sorry.” 

 

“What for?” 

 

“Your father? I guess.” 

 

“...Thank you.” 

 

“What about the queen?” 

 

“What?” 

 

“Your mother.” 

 

“She passed a long time ago.” 

 

“Oh. So it’s just you.” 

 

Mobei-Jun elected not to mention the murderous uncle. “I have many cousins,” he said, because the majority of those were not murderous. Only some of them were. 

 

“Oh. I don’t have any of those.” 

 

“...I am sorry.” 

 

“Are you married?” 

 

“What?” 

 

“Gege and Bing-Ge are married. Are you married?” 

 

“No.” 

 

“Do you have a girlfriend?” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not know what this meant exactly. He did not have friends. The closest match that came to mind was Sha Hualing, but he was certain this was not what the child was asking. 

 

“No,” he said, very firmly. 

 

“...Do you have a boyfriend?” 

 

“I do not have any lovers, no,” Mobei-Jun said, guessing this was what the child meant. 

 

“Why not?” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not know how to answer this. Most of the significant relationships in his life, from family members to allies, had ended with someone trying to kill him. Many of the prospective relationships put before him, the alliances offered, had ended with someone trying to kill him. 

 

“I have been busy,” he said, instead. It was not an untrue statement. 

 

“Oh. Maybe when you’re king, then,” the child decided.  

 

“...Perhaps.” 

 

Mobei-Jun envied the child’s inferior sense of smell when they returned to the house, despite and because of the attempts at cleaning up afterwards. Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu both seemed significantly more relaxed than before. Luo Binghe’s hair was completely undone and the front of his shirt was open similar to how Mobei-Jun wore his clothing. Even Shen Qingqiu’s clothing was a little looser than before, his hair tied back with a low ribbon. The child did not appear to know what to make of the dishevelment, if anything. 

 

“Are you done having time alone being married?” the child asked dubiously, stopped at the doorway. “Can we come back inside now?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s face reddened slightly, hands reaching out for a fan that was not there, before he cleared his throat. “Yes, of course. Please, come in, A-Yun. Thank you for… thank you for giving me and Binghe some time to ourselves.” 

 

“You’re welcome,” the child said, still somewhat dubious, but came inside. 

 

Shen Qingqiu beckoned the child over for his inspection, and Shang Qinghua went to him dutifully, though he dragged his feet. Shen Qingqiu straightened the child’s clothing and his hair. There was perhaps some offense to be taken in the way that the human cultivator looked for injuries, but Mobei-Jun had seen Shen Qingqiu perform a similar inspection and finger-grooming after the child had simply dressed himself. 

 

Luo Binghe was in the kitchen, watching, already putting together the next meal. When Mobei-Jun looked at him, he smiled with more smugness than usual. 

 

“I’m fine,” the child insisted. 

 

“Of course you are,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Perhaps I just missed you. Did you have fun on your day out with Mobei-Jun? What were the two of you doing all this time?” 

 

The child described their adventures at the stream, with much hand-waving and enthusiastic sound effects, very much like his adult self. Shen Qingqiu listened indulgently. At Luo Binghe’s insistent wave, Mobei-Jun came inside and settled across from the two humans. 

 

“That sounds very fun,” Shen Qingqiu said, yet again, after it seemed that the child have finally finished. The destruction of their ice dam seemed to have made the biggest impression. “I’m glad that you two had a good time together.” 

 

“Maybe you can do it again sometime!” Luo Binghe said cheerfully. 

 

Shen Qingqiu shot his lover a warning look. 

 

“That would be fun,” the child agreed. “Did you have fun too?” 

 

Luo Binghe laughed. 

 

“...Yes, thank you,” Shen Qingqiu said awkwardly. 

 

“What did you do?” 

 

“Oh, we… talked… about adult things.” 

 

“Oh. That doesn’t sound fun.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat. “It makes more sense when you’re older.” 

 

The child looked disgruntled by this misdirection and muttered with great certainty, “No, it won’t.” 

 

The rest of the evening continued in this gentle way, with Shen Qingqiu pressing the child for more and more information on what the child had done during their time apart. To Mobei-Jun’s great relief, Shang Qinghua did not mention the questioning into his health and happiness, nor did he speak of Mobei-Jun’s parents or his own. The weight and warmth of the house was bearable tonight, if only because Mobei-Jun did not wish to return to more potential challenges due to his looming ascension just yet.

 

In fact, he found himself almost reluctant to leave, despite all that there was yet to do. The household bid him farewells that seemed sincere when he finally stood to leave. 

 

“Don’t miss us too much, Mobei,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

Though the child suddenly interrupted his waving to tug Shen Qingqiu’s sleeve, beckoning the human cultivator down so that he could whisper in his ear, which Mobei-Jun found curious. Unfortunately, Shen Qingqiu flicked up his fan, and with it, a deft yet small privacy spell, muffling any sound. Whatever the child said made Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widen. 

 

“...Really?” Shen Qingqiu said, not quite blocked by his spell. 

 

The child glanced towards Mobei-Jun, then nodded. 

 

“...Hmm,” Shen Qingqiu said, glancing towards Mobei-Jun as well, and snapped away the fan and the privacy spell. He did not share with the room what the child had confessed. 

 

The child hopped up and saw Mobei-Jun to the door. “Can I watch you make one of your portals?” he asked, and Mobei-Jun could not deny him, though he bid the child remain in the doorway to the house while he walked down the path. The shadowy portals were unpleasant to most beings and Mobei-Jun now regretted how thoughtlessly he had transported the child on the day that Shang Qinghua had been cursed. 

 

As Mobei-Jun’s hearing was quite sharp when privacy spells were not interfering, and because the door to the house remained open so that the child could watch him leave, he caught the sound of Luo Binghe muffling laughter from within. It seemed that Shen Qingqiu hadn’t intended to keep what he had been told in confidence to himself after all. 

 

Mobei-Jun had so many things he did not know at this point in time that one more was hardly notable. The person he most wanted answers from was not here. He would likely only have to tempt Luo Binghe into taunting him with the information later, anyway. 

 

The child waved to him again. Mobei-Jun waved back. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

It was soon revealed that the creator of the artifact that had caused so much trouble was dead. They had been dead for years. At this point, the news could not be rightly called a surprise, but it was no less annoying for it. 

 

The servant leading the investigation delivered the news with a wary distance, but Mobei-Jun did not stir from his seat, remaining still as the servant explained that though the original creator had become a recluse in their later years, inquiries had turned up the potential existence of more clients, some partnerships in crafting, at least one rival, and several former apprentices. Perhaps one of the late creator’s connections could be made to serve instead? 

 

Mobei-Jun thought that he wouldn’t get nearly as much satisfaction killing the unfortunate acquaintances or descendants of this late demon, before he realized that the servant meant that one of these connections might be able to consult on the artifact. 

 

He ordered the servant to pursue this new line of inquiry. Then as the servant fled, he stood and tore open a portal to the Human Realm. 

 

“Typical,” Luo Binghe said, when Mobei-Jun told him. 

 

It was the middle of the afternoon, earlier than Mobei-Jun might have visited just to speak with Luo Binghe, and later than he might have arrived if he had been invited to visit the household. He had not wished to take his current temper out on any unfortunate servants or cousins. And no one had tried to assassinate him for a week. He needed to report to Luo Binghe anyway, and if a fight happened to come of their meeting, then it would be welcome. 

 

But the anger that had taken Mobei-Jun was fading, as though a cut had been made in his chest for it, which he did not know how to stop, and his arms could have trembled with the sudden emptiness. The day here was pleasant by human standards and not outlandishly hot by Mobei-Jun’s own. There was a good wind that gave the green landscape a hint of chaos in the rustling of the trees and the growl in the air, but nothing dangerous. If he could not have the adult Shang Qinghua back, there were worse places for the child to be. 

 

He needed Shang Qinghua back, however. He had not realized until this accident that he had never truly expected to become king without him. Ascension waited impatiently. 

 

Luo Binghe seemed deep in thought, even holding a hand against his chin, rubbing a finger along his lips. They were standing at the edge of the path to the house. The child Shang Qinghua was apparently in the middle of a reading and writing lesson with Shen Qingqiu, part of the routine that the human cultivator had established, and they were not to be disturbed. 

 

“Your servants are already out searching again, Mobei?” Luo Binghe said finally. “Following these new trails unearthed at this dead demon’s former place of residence?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

There had been no schematics or instructions. There had not even been a workshop. There had only been the appearance of a simple, secluded life, and some old correspondence, none of which had included any plots against Mobei-Jun or Shang Qinghua. 

 

“Perhaps,” Luo Binghe said, raising his voice, no longer focusing on Mobei-Jun, “this person even had some ancient master who taught them all their skills, who might somehow be clinging to the world despite their incredibly advanced age!” 

 

Ah. The half-demon was talking to the Elder Dream Demon again. This happened occasionally. There was often little to do about it besides wait for the undead parasite to leave again. 

 

“The old bastard is suggesting again - he’s been so grumpy about his inability to find the original creator that he decided the demon was dead last week, so now he’s crowing about being right - that I try some dreaming necromancy technique in order to consult an approximation of the original creator,” Luo Binghe said finally, disdainfully, when he stepped fully out of the Dream Realm. “This technique is of Meng Mo’s own invention, of course.” 

 

“...And what is it?” Mobei-Jun said warily. 

 

Luo Binghe rubbed at his eyes. “It apparently involves taking memories and impressions from the people who knew this person in life, then melding these stolen memories together to create a simulacrum of the late creator in the Dream Realm.” 

 

“That sounds…” Mobei-Jun searched for a suitable word, then said, “Insane.” 

 

“Yes, and the advantage explained to me is that… well, foremost, it’s an option if the person’s soul has been destroyed or is otherwise unreachable… but apparently all these memories should interact in such a way that a false personality and general knowledge base is created, such that the simulacrum can formulate answers to new questions as the original person might have answered them, filling in any gaps between the memories.” 

 

“It would… guess,” Mobei-Jun said, unimpressed. 

 

“I said to the Elder Dream Demon that this sounded ridiculously unreliable when dealing with incredibly specialized and complicated artifacts,” Luo Binghe huffed. “And he said that I was no fun at all and that demons these days had no creativity. And then he said that it couldn’t hurt, except for the tiny possibility that the memory extraction and duplication would go badly, leaving all the donors with irreversible mental and spiritual damage.” 

 

“Why would you not just interrogate these people in the Physical Realm before attempting to take their memories in the Dream Realm?” Mobei-Jun demanded, baffled. 

 

Luo Binghe snorted. “That’s what Shizun said when I told him.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not appreciate this comparison, though it was less annoying than it might have been before this current situation. Of course he and Shen Qingqiu were on the same side, against the undead parasite attached to Luo Binghe. 

 

“I knew Shizun wouldn’t like that kind of thing,” Luo Binghe said, somewhat forlornly, and Mobei-Jun did not want to think about how much Shen Qingqiu’s disapproval had played a part in staying the Demon Emperor’s hand. “Meng Mo hasn’t even done it before! Thankfully, he doesn’t have the power to do that kind of thing on his own, at least not quickly, so he can’t just run off to prove his theories about dreaming necromancy techniques being both possible and useful, instead of chimaeric horrors of stolen, potentially incompatible memories.” 

 

Even Mobei-Jun could not repress a shudder, which made Luo Binghe grin. 

 

“Don’t worry, Mobei. We’ll have to exhaust all other trails and unrelated consultants before I resort to anything like ‘dreaming necromancy’. I do want my house back eventually, and more time alone with Shizun, and I can’t manage the Demon Realm through short visits and through dreams forever, but A-Yun’s company doesn’t inspire that much desperation.” 

 

No, the child’s company made Mobei-Jun’s chest ache sometimes, and sometimes the conversation and the games were a little repetitive, but it was far from unbearable. 

 

They spoke of matters in the Demon Realm from there. However, there was not much of which Luo Binghe was not already aware, so discussions turned towards how some brewing problems might be solved, and then turned again towards simply complaining about them. 

 

Yet another demon clan had sent a large, uninvited delegation to Luo Binghe’s main palace. The delegation contained several beautiful daughters and handsome sons, even one lovelier than the last, hoping that at least one of them might catch Luo Binghe’s eye. Their elders had decided to blame Mobei-Jun for preventing them from seeing the Demon Emperor and interfering with their delusions of matchmaking. Mobei-Jun, having no patience for fools who had decided to hear what they wished when the Demon Emperor had repeatedly announced his intention to only ever take one lover, had informed them that, if anything, he was doing them a favor by not allowing them to present their offensive suits. As these fools apparently could not believe that a human could capture a demon lord’s attention for long, one of the daughters had accused Mobei-Jun of trying to keep Luo Binghe for himself. 

 

Mobei-Jun had done something he could not remember ever having done in a court before: he had laughed in the delegation’s faces. He had not meant to do this. He had not been able to stop himself from doing this. In the end, he had left the delegation in the hands of Luo Binghe’s servants, staggering through a portal to the northern kingdoms for some fresh air. (The perfumes employed by some demons were utterly beyond him.) He had heard this sort of outlandish rumor before, if only because Sha Hualing had forced him to hear it, because she was a menace who delighted in his suffering, but never so directly before. 

 

“...I think I’m offended, Mobei,” Luo Binghe said, still lying on the grass, having been wheezing with laughter at Mobei-Jun’s misfortune only moments ago. He did not seem particularly upset about being offended. His mood was apparently good today, despite everything. 

 

Mobei-Jun was sitting beside him, considering the merits of trying to crush the Demon Emperor again, a position he would not have found himself in prior to the current situation. He was not certain he would have dared before now. 

 

The Demon Emperor’s temper had improved immensely when Shen Qingqiu had returned and finally accepted his suit, but there had been perhaps an even greater shift in Mobei-Jun's relationship with the half-demon after the revelation of the world travel. The shift had continued as room had been made for the child in Luo Binghe’s household. In both of them, it seemed. 

 

There were… many similarities between them, but even if there were not, there was still no one else in all the world who understood the simultaneous impatience for answers and inability to make any sudden movements for fear of the consequences to these humans. 

 

Luo Binghe had all the power that any demon lord could have ever hoped to have, yet he had only ever seemed to want it to win and to keep Shen Qingqiu. And not only that, but to be able to offer happiness. To have Shen Qingqiu stay because he desired to stay. 

 

Mobei-Jun remembered a moment during those long, tense years when Shen Qingqiu had been dead, in which Shang Qinghua had referred to Luo Binghe as, “The man who has everything.” It had not been to the half-demon’s face, of course. It had been a muttered aside, to himself as much as to Mobei-Jun, said in such bitter tones that Mobei-Jun’s servant might as well have instead said, “What do you get for the man who has nothing?” Mobei-Jun had not responded at the time, Shang Qinghua did not seem to know he had been overheard, but the mutter had stayed fixed in the demon lord’s head ever since, reappearing at odd moments. 

 

“Perhaps I should make another announcement,” Luo Binghe mused, sitting up, now with some blades of grass stuck in his curls. “People clearly need the reminder that I won’t tolerate such overtures. It might be more effective if I present them with an alternative target… someone more available… completely unattached… almost as good…” 

 

Mobei-Jun stilled as soon as he understood where this musing was going. 

 

Luo Binghe’s mischievous grin widened. “Mobei, don’t you think that it’s about time that you were married? You’re not getting any younger, you know, and there are all of these eligible young demons and demonesses who would leap at the chance to have second best-” 

 

There was only one sure way to make Luo Binghe stop talking immediately: by violent force. Mobei-Jun tackled the half-demon, who whooped with laughter, and did his best to shove the young and immensely powerful Demon Emperor’s face into the dirt. One could not speak with grass in their mouth, after all. Peaceful negotiation had never been a viable option. 

 

“We’ll set up meetings with matchmakers!” Luo Binghe cackled, proving his slipperiness by refusing to be pinned, even managing to throw Mobei-Jun. “As many as it takes!” 

 

Mobei-Jun grabbed for him again and nearly got kicked in the face for his troubles. On the next kick, he grabbed Luo Binghe’s foot and dragged him across the grass. Somehow, the wily half-demon broke the hold again and was still talking. 

 

“Though of course I can’t have my right-hand man marry just anyone! Mobei will need to marry someone loyal- ah, shit, not the hair! Fuck! Someone to keep him in line! Marriage should be an improving thing, don’t you think, Mobei?! Who knows how many- ow- how many noble demons we’ll have to go through to find someone who can put up with you? For that, maybe we should look closer to home and consider even certain human servants-” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not fully intend what happened next. Rage had been building in his chest without his noticing, until it was suddenly too much to contain, and his hand began to ice over, a thin sheen replacing a great loss of control. The half-demon was too distracted to dodge him completely. His icy fist clipped Luo Binghe’s temple and left a long scratch. 

 

“Mobei, what the-?!” 

 

The sight of blood had a stilling effect, almost as much as Luo Binghe’s apparent genuine surprise. Mobei-Jun froze. The thin layers of ice had broken upon contact and now the shards dripped down into the grass, alongside Luo Binghe’s blood. The scratch was nothing for a demon, but it looked worse than it was. 

 

A part of Mobei-Jun was jubilant, for this was what happened when people ran their mouths about things that they did not understand. Another part of him was wary, for it was not wise to draw a Demon Emperor’s blood without his permission. It had not been that type of fight. This internal disruption of his focus allowed his attention to be drawn away at the sound of a small gasp, and then the rapid patter of a heartbeat, and then he felt entirely hollow at the sight of a child, who was standing frozen between the house and their fight. 

 

Luo Binghe followed his gaze, still clutching at his forehead. “Fuck,” he said. 

 

Shang Qinghua was wide-eyed and shaking. The door to the house was slightly ajar and Mobei-Jun did not know when it had opened, but it was flung open now so that Shen Qingqiu could come flying out, calling, “A-Yun! Don’t slip out like… that…” 

 

In this moment, Mobei-Jun could not think of a worse position to be in than kneeling in the grass beside Luo Binghe, with the half-demon’s blood still on his knuckles. 

 

Luo Binghe stood up, raising his palms in a calming gesture, but they also had blood on them. “Shizun, it’s fine! A-Yun, it’s fine! It was an accident! Only an accident! The bleeding has already stopped, see? I just need a… a washcloth and a healing kiss, and it will be all better again.” 

 

Contrary to Luo Binghe’s reassurance, the child started crying. Shen Qingqiu rushed forward again and pulled the child around, and was soon dabbing at the child’s tears with his sleeve while the child feebly tried to push him away. The child did not seem able to articulate why he was crying, even shouting, “I don’t knooooow!” when Shen Qingqiu persisted in asking what he found so distressing. Shen Qingqiu’s comfort only seemed to make the tears worse. 

 

While the child was occupied rubbing his face into his hands and his sleeves, Shen Qingqiu glared over the child’s shoulder. “Binghe, didn’t you just say that your injury should be cleaned up?” he said coolly. 

 

“Ah… yes, Shizun…” 

 

The human cultivator was glaring at Mobei-Jun when he spoke, however, and Mobei-Jun foresaw his invitation to visit this humble home being very shortly, very permanently revoked. Mobei-Jun would almost be grateful now for the order to go. But his free hand did not seem to wish to move to rip open a portal, tainted by frost and specks of blood as it was. 

 

And then Shen Qingqiu said, “Mobei, you should go help him.” 

 


 

Luo Binghe did not require any assistance with the injury and likely would not have accepted it if offered, but Mobei-Jun stood dutifully by as the half-demon cleaned himself. He dutifully cleaned his own hands as well. Shen Qingqiu had taken Shang Qinghua into the main bedroom of the house and the child slowly seemed to be calming down. 

 

“-demons are very tough,” Shen Qingqiu was saying in the other room. “It may look scary, but it’s all just fun and games, really. It really was just an accident. Binghe is fine. He was having fun with his friend and it got a little out of hand. Just a little too rough. It won’t happen again.” 

 

The Demon Emperor was now slouched pitifully against the main kitchen table, looking prepared to swear off all violence. Mobei-Jun hoped no desperate promises would be drawn from either of them, for the only way to keep such a promise in the Demon Realm would be to die. 

 

Yet another pitiful but surprisingly loud sniffle came from the child. 

 

“It’s like practice-fighting in martial arts,” Shen Qingqiu murmured, straining the limits of demonic hearing, especially when he was apparently rubbing the child’s back to comfort him. “Or like… like Pokémon creatures. Battling is fun for them.” 

 

Mobei-Jun and Luo Binghe both frowned. 

 

Luo Binghe looked at Mobei-Jun and whispered, “What are Pokémon?” 

 

Mobei-Jun shrugged, presuming them to be creatures from the humans’ original world for the human cultivator to use them as an example for the child. Though, admittedly, Shen Qingqiu knew an impressive amount about monsters, even rare and extinct ones, and could have decided to make this a focus of the child’s education. 

 

“Ah, here you are,” Shen Qingqiu said warmly. “All done crying, hm?” 

 

“Sorry, sorry,” the child said, as he had said many times now, which every time was somehow worse than the tears. “I don’t want to cry! This is stupid!” 

 

“It’s not silly to be upset because you thought that Binghe and your friend were hurting each other,” Shen Qingqiu said gently. “You know, I bet they’re even more embarrassed than you are! Because you caught them being so silly when they’re supposed to be all grown up! You’ll have to promise not to tease them too much over this, A-Yun.” 

 

When the child was finally forced out of the bedroom by Shen Qingqiu, Luo Binghe and Mobei-Jun were made to apologize, to each other and to Shang Qinghua for scaring him. At least they were not made to bow their heads to the floor. 

 

“I am sorry, I did not mean to hurt you,” Mobei-Jun said, following Luo Binghe’s example. This was a lie, but it somehow, simultaneously, felt true. “A-Yun, I did not mean to frighten you. I am sorry,” he said, and was not at all surprised to find that it was true. 

 

“...Okay,” Shang Qinghua said. Then said, “What were you fighting about?” 

 

Luo Binghe bent forward and held a hand to his mouth, hiding his lips from Mobei-Jun, only to whisper quite loudly, “I was teasing Mobei about something.” 

 

“What?” 

 

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” Luo Binghe said, and even winked. 

 

That made Shang Qinghua scowl at him. 

 

“See, we’re all friends here,” Shen Qingqiu intervened. “And, look, Binghe has already healed his injury! It looked worse than it was, didn’t it? It practically washed away with the water.”  

 

“But Shizun has yet to kiss it better.” 

 

“What?” 

 

“I said that all it needed was cleaning and a healing kiss, didn’t I?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu stared, then closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, a flush rising in his cheeks. “...Really?” he demanded. Nevertheless, with only a little more eyelash-fluttering from the Demon Emperor, Shen Qingqiu bestowed a kiss upon his lover’s forehead, and then immediately rolled his eyes. “Isn’t it about time that Binghe get started on dinner?” 

 

It was, if Mobei-Jun understood the routine that had been established in this household for the child’s sake, a little early for this. However, Luo Binghe did not argue with his lover. 

 

Mobei-Jun was ordered to stay for the meal, presumably to keep from giving the child the impression that there had been anything serious to the fight earlier. Mobei-Jun was also ordered to help with the meal, presumably to give the child the impression that he and Luo Binghe were still very close, and capable of interacting without violence. Given that Luo Binghe did not like to cede control in the kitchen and did not trust Mobei-Jun to meet his standards, this mostly consisted of taking off his coat, then handing over or holding things, or occasionally stirring, and Mobei-Jun almost regretted not having spent any time cultivating culinary skills. He had seen Luo Binghe give the child far less condescending instructions in these matters. 

 

Shang Qinghua was quieter than usual, his head ducking occasionally in recalled embarrassment, looking frequently at Luo Binghe and Mobei-Jun, even as he tried to read or talk about something else. It was a good thing that he did not look at Shen Qingqiu so often, for the human cultivator sent Mobei-Jun - and even Luo Binghe, once - several disapproving looks over the course of the evening. He said nothing to Mobei-Jun directly. 

 

Mobei-Jun was hardly in a conversational mood himself. This worked. 

 

After the meal, Shang Qinghua nearly reached out to touch Luo Binghe’s forehead, where the scratch had been, before he caught himself. “Demons really are tough,” he said, embarrassed and admiring, upon realizing that he had everyone’s attention. 

 

“Much tougher than humans,” Shen Qingqiu agreed. “That sort of thing is very different for them.” 

 

Mobei-Jun had already known this. The words should not have had so much weight. 

 

He was expecting Shen Qingqiu to initiate a private discussion at some point, but the human cultivator never approached him. After night had fallen, and the dreaded bedtime was upon them once again, Mobei-Jun said his farewells to the household and then exited the house to wait for Luo Binghe to join him. He was tempted to leave, damn the commands of a Demon Emperor, if he was not concerned about the half-demon tracking him down and making whatever was to happen next a thousand times worse. 

 

He still could hear Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe’s low conversation inside. A stolen moment while the child was practicing nightly hygiene with a great deal of sighing and stomping. 

 

“Shizun… I’m sorry.” 

 

“There’s nothing to be sorry for. It was an accident.” 

 

“I should have stopped it. I should have kept that sort of thing away-” 

 

“Away from the house?” 

 

“...I shouldn’t be violent like that. It won’t happen again.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed. “Look, I… I know that these things really are different for demons. I know that you and Mobei-Jun fight sometimes… for fun and for training and so on. And that you enjoy it. I don’t want to tell you to stop something you enjoy that’s… essentially harmless.” 

 

“I could stop-” 

 

“You don’t have to stop just because it makes me- We’re part of a martial cultivation sect, Binghe, it’s… really not that different from disciples sparring on Qing Jing, is it? …It’s not very different at all from disciples sparring on Bai Zhan. At least this wasn’t with swords.”  

 

Luo Binghe laughed softly. 

 

“Just… just be careful,” Shen Qingqiu said quietly. “I don’t ever want to find out if either of you can or can’t regrow limbs or an eye or something, but… I don’t want you to have to pretend that you aren’t half-demon for my sake. I like all of you. I want you to be happy, too.” 

 

“Shizun…” 

 

“But don’t do that where A-Yun can see it, all right?” 

 

“Yes, yes, of course,” Luo Binghe said, his voice saturated with fondness again. 

 

“Although maybe you two can have a pretend spar to help convince him that everything is just fine between you. I think that he would really like that. Although it’s certainly not going to slow down the requests to start his cultivation journey right now despite the healer’s advice.” 

 

“Ah, no. That would definitely make it worse.” 

 

“Undoubtedly.” 

 

There was a brief silence, punctuated only by the faint sounds of the child’s movements. 

 

“You should go talk to Mobei-Jun,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

“Right,” Luo Binghe agreed, and did not appear to make any movements. 

 

“See if you can get him to really understand… how soft humans are.” 

 

“Mm.” 

 

“Preferably without fighting on our lawn, but… if you must…” 

 

Luo Binghe laughed again. “We’ll be careful.” 

 

“...Good,” Shen Qingqiu said, then sighed again, fondly this time. “What would I do without you?” he said, the quietest statement he had made yet. 

 

“...Put A-Yun to bed?” Luo Binghe suggested. 

 

Shen Qingqiu chuckled. 

 

Mobei-Jun moved away from the house and shortly heard Luo Binghe’s footsteps, and only turned to look at the half-demon when Luo Binghe came up next to him. They walked away from the house together. Mobei-Jun was half-expecting a sudden blow from the Demon Emperor, even though the house was still in sight. He did not know if he was meant to dodge or if it would be best, if it would be deserved, to let it happen. 

 

But Luo Binghe did not attack him. Luo Binghe said nothing at first, even when the house disappeared from sight, leaving them to the gentle night of this peaceful landscape. 

 

It left Mobei-Jun with the urge to explain himself. Not necessarily an unfamiliar feeling, but not one often acted upon. He never seemed to have the words to do so. He was not even certain that there were words with which to do so. There was often little point in trying. 

 

“Mobei…” Luo Binghe said finally. “Do you regret the way you have treated Shang Qinghua?” He did not stop walking. He gave Mobei-Jun a sidelong look, rather than a direct one. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not look at Luo Binghe directly either, focusing on the darkness ahead. 

 

“Yes,” he said. 

 

If it had been anyone else asking the question, he might not have answered. 

 

“Why did you treat him poorly in the beginning?” Luo Binghe asked next. 

 

“...Ignorance,” Mobei-Jun answered. 

 

It was the easy answer. 

 

Mobei-Jun had enough difficulty relating to weak demons, especially those who weren’t ice demons of some type or another, and Shang Qinghua was the first human with whom he had spent any significant amount of time. He had been under the impression that human cultivators augmented themselves to have the strength and toughness equal to some of the most powerful demons. That their bodies changed to be like demons. Cang Qiong Mountain Sect was well-known and Shang Qinghua had soon become one of their leaders. Mobei-Jun still did not fully understand how soft humans were or how their cultivation strengthened them. 

 

He had… eventually come to realize how demonic physicality meant vastly different things to Shang Qinghua. He had deferred to his human servant’s weakness and dislike for these things. Mobei-Jun had strength enough for Shang Qinghua to be cowardly. 

 

Luo Binghe said nothing. 

 

“...Fear,” Mobei-Jun admitted. 

 

Once upon a time, Shang Qinghua had been a stranger. He had been too familiar, too cloying, invading Mobei-Jun’s space and clinging. No one had tried to touch Mobei-Jun like that in years without it being a plot to kill him or seduce him. The human stranger never shut up, but he would also never tell Mobei-Jun what he truly wanted from him, and Mobei-Jun had expected a scheme to kill him or use him for power. He had expected to need to kill the human eventually. Shang Qinghua’s loyalty had not been meant to last all these years. 

 

It had made him angry and distrustful, even as he had come to trust in Shang Qinghua. Even when he had eventually realized that he trusted in Shang Qinghua more than anyone else. 

 

“I did not know what he wanted,” Mobei-Jun said. “I still do not know what he wants.” 

 

And now this accident… now the revelation of the world travel… everything only became more complicated. Did it mean what he suspected it meant that he was Shang Qinghua’s favorite? 

 

“You hardly made it clear that Shang Qinghua could tell you what he wanted,” Luo Binghe remarked, with lightness at odds to the bite of his words. “I’ve been trying to make it clear to Shizun that I’m worthy of his fears and doubts and concerns about the future. I think I might be trying for the rest of our lives…” 

 

The half-demon did not seem particularly upset by this concept. Wistful, perhaps. 

 

“Especially with this thing in the way now,” Luo Binghe muttered next. 

 

Yes, there it was. Things surely would have been far easier without the world travel. 

 

“...How?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 

 

“How do I try? Being prepared to hear things that I don’t want to hear,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

Mobei-Jun knew he was not good at this. 

 

“But if I hear them, then I can do better,” Luo Binghe added. “If I allowed myself to sink into the things that I’ve done… if I let Shizun sink into the things that he’s done… then we would be miserable. ‘We don’t have to be only the mistakes we’ve made,’ Shizun said. It’s in the reparation that we’re moving forward. We can’t forget, but we can try to forgive.” 

 

“Shang Qinghua is in no state to forgive anything.” 

 

“...No,” Luo Binghe agreed. “He doesn’t need to know any of that right now. He wouldn’t be able to understand. It wouldn’t be kind to A-Yun to do that.” 

 

The child would never look at Mobei-Jun the same way again. 

 

“I said to Shizun that I didn’t know if I could be kind again…” Luo Binghe commented. “I can pretend to be. Is it real? If I measure every movement? Shizun said it was real to A-Yun. Shizun said it was real to him. It’s… becoming easier now… to be kind without thinking about it.” 

 

Luo Binghe waved a hand, beginning to lead Mobei-Jun around, back towards the house. “I do like A-Yun, more than I was expecting. I still can’t say I like sharing Shizun all the time and it’s tiring to have to be so patient… but Shizun will miss A-Yun when this is over… and I think that I will as well. The world is made something different through the eyes of a child…” 

 

He sounded somewhat wistful again. 

 

Mobei-Jun could not imagine being wistful for the days of his childhood. 

 

As though he had heard this, Luo Binghe said, “You’ve never been kind ever, have you, Mobei?” He didn’t even look at Mobei-Jun this time. “Your life has never seen it.” 

 

“...No.” 

 

In this moment, Mobei-Jun hated his upbringing with a fierceness that could consume him if he allowed it to do so. He hated his mother for having died. He hated his father for his absence, but he also hated his father for dying now. It was humiliating to envy this kind of weakness, it was pointless, but… for a moment… he wished for a life where he could have been soft. 

 

But what was the point of blaming his father and his uncle for their failures? They were demons and he was a demon. What was the point of blaming them for not showing and teaching human kindness? So that he could claim nothing of his life now was his own fault? 

 

Blaming them would not bring Shang Qinghua back. 

 

“My father is going to die,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

Luo Binghe did not offer him condolences. He had already known this. The fact that Mobei-Jun would become king was one of the reasons that Luo Binghe had not originally killed him. 

 

“And…?” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“There will be an ascension. A ritual.” 

 

“I heard.” 

 

Mobei-Jun had vague memories of Luo Binghe questioning him about the amount of power that he had and when he would have more. He also would not have put it past the half-demon to find out more through the Dream Realm. Or Sha Hualing to gossip. 

 

“My uncle may interfere,” he said. 

 

It felt dangerous to say even this. Why advertise to outsiders that the ascension ritual could be interfered with? Mobei-Jun wondered if all those who would admonish him for revealing this much had ever felt as alone as he did. As he had since Shang Qinghua had been cursed. 

 

Luo Binghe raised his eyebrows expectantly. “And?” he said again. 

 

“When it became apparent to me that Shang Qinghua was… important,” Mobei-Jun tried, “it was… important not to allow his value… as a person… be known.” 

 

As a servant, little more than a tool in Mobei-Jun’s possession, Shang Qinghua was beneath the notice of most rivals and enemies. It was beneath the dignity of these demons to target a human servant. Even as he had become more comfortable under Luo Binghe’s protection, and he had allowed some of his fondness to show, Mobei-Jun had still not brought Shang Qinghua to any palace where his uncle might be. Linguang-Jun would have found a way to destroy Shang Qinghua out of spite, if he knew that Mobei-Jun truly cared. 

 

Power was shifting now in the Northern Desert. Finally. 

 

“If I do not become king, I will not be able to… make reparations,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

Luo Binghe’s expectant expression remained. 

 

Mobei-Jun felt that it would not help him here to mention that, at another point in time, he had also downplayed Shang Qinghua’s importance out of concern that a vengeful Demon Emperor might take offense to the fact that Mobei-Jun possessed a living peak lord of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect and the Demon Emperor did not. At one point, Sha Hualing had very nearly made the comparison, and Mobei-Jun’s heart had stilled in his chest. 

 

But that was then. This was now. 

 

Luo Binghe sighed. “Listening to you try to ask for help is painful,” he said. “Yes, I’ll oversee your ascension. Shizun already asked about the event in passing and if I was going to do anything about it anyway when he heard that your father was dying. I suppose that it would reflect poorly on me if I lost my most valuable servant like this. And also, A-Yun would be sad.” 

 

Mobei-Jun’s heart beat too strongly in relief. “...Thank you.” 

 

“You’re welcome,” Luo Binghe said wryly. “Just be prepared to make those reparations.” 

 

They spent the remainder of their walk in comfortable silence. When the house came back into view, the lights were off, which meant that the bedtime routine was likely complete. Luo Binghe did not dismiss Mobei-Jun immediately and Mobei-Jun did not feel the need to dismiss himself just yet, so he accompanied Luo Binghe all the way up to the door. 

 

When he pulled away to leave, Luo Binghe looked at him expectantly. 

 

Mobei-Jun looked back, confused. 

 

“Mobei, you left your coat inside,” Luo Binghe whispered, amused. 

 

“Ah.” 

 

“A-Yun has probably stolen it for his bed, but maybe not.” The half-demon opened the front door and waved for Mobei-Jun to follow him inside on silent feet. Mobei-Jun did not need to retrieve this coat, but he followed regardless into the warm darkness. 

 

Only for Luo Binghe to freeze only a few steps in. Mobei-Jun could hear Shen Qingqiu moving softly around the bedroom, but the door between the rooms was closed, and none of the sounds were strange or alarming. Mobei-Jun instead followed Luo Binghe’s gaze through the darkness of the main room towards the corner where the child’s bed was. A strange blue light was peeking around the makeshift curtain.

 

The glow was emanating from a floating tablet. Words floated across the tablet, too small for Mobei-Jun to read at this distance. It resembled some type of spell. It took a small hand rising from the bed, flicking across the tablet surface, dismissing the words so that new words could appear, for Mobei-Jun to match this sight to Luo Binghe’s description of the Transmigration System. 

 

It was hovering over Shang Qinghua. Shang Qinghua was interacting with it, reading the words, dismissing them, pressing on a word to make new words appear. It looked as though Shang Qinghua was controlling the spell. 

 

Luo Binghe carefully unfroze and took a silent step closer. Then another. 

 

“A-Yun, are you sure that you don’t want me to brush your hair again before you go to sleep? I know it’s in a ponytail, but the last time, your hair was so tangled in the morning.” 

 

At the sound of Shen Qingqiu’s voice, the child hastily jabbed at the glowing tablet several times, before it winked out of existence as though it had never been there. Shang Qinghua pulled his blankets over his head as though this was a suitable way to pretend he was sleeping. 

 

“A-Yun?” Shen Qingqiu hadn’t come out of the bedroom yet, but his footsteps now turned towards the door. “Did you hear me? I know you aren’t asleep yet.” 

 

Luo Binghe whirled on his heel and nearly tackled Mobei-Jun in order to get them both back out the front door before Shen Qingqiu could come out. Once they were out, Luo Binghe turned on his heel again and pretended to be in the motion of opening the front door. He did so just in time for Shen Qingqiu to open the bedroom door and see him. 

 

“Binghe…?” 

 

“Just… getting Mobei’s coat, Shizun.” 

 

“Oh, yes. It’s on the chair there.” 

 

“Thank you.” 

 

Shang Qinghua sat up in his small bed in order to wave at Mobei-Jun again, with the hand that had just a moment ago been touching a spell from or else the physical form of a being that could travel between worlds. Somewhat helplessly, Mobei-Jun waved back. 

 

Luo Binghe returned Mobei-Jun’s coat to him. They nearly fumbled it between them. Luo Binghe stepped outside again and mostly closed the front door behind him, just so that he could take in a deep breath and exchange a wide-eyed look with Mobei-Jun at the realization that Shang Qinghua could also summon and dismiss the Transmigration System at will. Even now. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Shen Qingqiu couldn't say he had expected much of anything about his current life, but he couldn't say he didn't like it. Temporary guardianship of his fellow transmigrator would have sounded like a nightmare to him, not so long ago, but A-Yun was really very sweet, certainly a handful but not too troublesome, and his presence putting everyone on their best behavior had unexpectedly seemed to have forced some changes for the better. 

 

Even Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had been a child once. 

 

Before this, Shen Qingqiu had never imagined enjoying Mobei-Jun’s company. The ice demon was hardly a scintillating conversationalist now, but he wasn’t as expressionless as he had first appeared to be. He was even funny, sometimes, in his own strange way. 

 

For example: A-Yun was a big fan of calling things “cool”. (Shen Qingqiu probably should have put a stop to this, but A-Yun had immediately forgotten his warnings about it not being a common term in this world, and he had been a little too relieved that A-Yun was excited about things rather than cowering in a corner. Anyway, it was too late now.) A-Yun sought to share most “super cool” things with Mobei-Jun, his “best friend”, as though seeking the ice demon’s approval. 

 

In the beginning, Mobei-Jun had most often nodded vaguely to everything that A-Yun said, which was an intelligent move regardless of whether or not he understood the babble. Now, Mobei-Jun was more likely to nod and say, “Yes, very cold,” which would make A-Yun giggle or roll his eyes and say, “That’s not how you say it!” Or else Mobei-Jun would disagree by saying, “No, it is not cool. The object is only warm,” to more giggles and eye-rolling. 

 

It had taken Shen Qingqiu a few observed interactions to realize that Mobei-Jun was purposefully messing with A-Yun with these terrible jokes, which were very much like the silliness Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe engaged in around A-Yun. 

 

Mobei-Jun watched them all with such intense focus (when he wasn’t napping, at least, and even then, Shen Qingqiu suspected he was still listening to them), and when prodded to move, did so with equally intense carefulness. He was… learning. 

 

The ice demon’s childhood had clearly been… well, there was no easier way of putting it… Mobei-Jun’s life was really fucked up. 

 

Binghe had laughed very hard when Shen Qingqiu had put it like this the other day. They had been in bed together, in hindsight Binghe had been beginning to make some amorous advances, but Shen Qingqiu’s abrupt statement had caused him to collapse into laughter instead. 

 

Binghe was laughing a lot more now. Shen Qingqiu liked that part of things very much. He didn’t remember seeing ever Binghe laugh so much, even when he had been a (in hindsight, with all honesty, slightly spoiled) disciple. Binghe had been so eager for approval then. So horrified by every slip-up despite all assurances. It was nice to see him more relaxed these days. 

 

Even though having Mobei-Jun in their house had at first felt like… having a tiger hang around. Lurking. Watching intently. Like the only thing keeping this monstrous tiger from not trying to eat any of them was that it didn’t feel like eating in that particular moment. 

 

Except there was Binghe. So, sometimes it was like having two tigers hanging around, and one of them might spring across the table to tackle the other at any moment. 

 

Could a person rightly blame a tiger for being a tiger? 

 

You couldn’t rightly expect such a powerful predator to be docile like a housecat. You couldn’t expect a tiger to know how terrible its strength was in comparison to others, even in the unlikely event that it was trying to be gentle or playful, probably shortly before it would try to eat you anyway. And this tiger had been neglected and spoiled in turns, betrayed and hunted, and had once somewhat casually mentioned his absent, kingly father beating him as a child to test his strength (not in A-Yun’s hearing, at least, thank fucking goodness). 

 

Except that these demons weren’t tigers. They were men. They knew better. If they somehow didn’t know better, then they could learn better, and certain ice demons had honestly had more than enough time to learn better already. Nurture excused nothing, even if it did explain it. 

 

Shen Qingqiu really didn’t know what to think about the fighting, sometimes, but most of the time, it really didn’t seem too far out of the ordinary for martially-inclined cultivators. He was coming around to it. He liked the fact that Binghe liked it. It was kind of cute, sometimes, to see two grown demons puffing up and swiping at each other like children. 

 

Binghe wasn’t nearly as good at hiding it as he liked to think he was. It was suspicious enough when he came back with slightly mussed hair or clothing, with a bounce or slink in his step depending on the outcome, but sometimes he came back from his outings even neater than before, or in completely different clothing, which he usually didn’t bother with if he’d only been engaging in non-violent manual labor or if he’d gotten into a scuffle he wanted to tell Shen Qingqiu about. If Binghe was ever passing up an opportunity to show off or be doted upon, he’d surely been up to no good. Binghe had behaved exactly the same way once upon a time as a disciple, getting into secret fights with those Bai Zhan Peak knuckleheads, trying to cover it up so intently that he was accidentally telling on himself. 

 

It was probably good for Binghe to have a… demon friend of near-equal strength. He’d confessed recently that Mobei-Jun was fun to tease and occasionally interesting to talk to, and that the ice demon desperately needed help figuring out his own relationship with Shang Qinghua, especially since Shang Qinghua was in no state to help with that. 

 

Shen Qingqiu hoped that Airplane Bro appreciated the things that they did for him. 

 

Besides, as Shen Qingqiu had made the mistake of revealing when Binghe had asked again if Shen Qingqiu wanted him to stop the fighting, Shen Qingqiu didn’t actually think Mobei-Jun could win against Luo Binghe in a serious fight. Mobei-Jun was tough, and there was always the chance the ice demon would get lucky or something, but he was no protagonist, and even if Luo Binghe was missing centuries-worth of power-ups from Proud Immortal Demon Way, Mobei-Jun was also missing those, including his most significant one: his ascension to king. 

 

Binghe had gotten very smug about this, strutting everywhere for the next few days, very nearly insufferable. Confidence was an unfairly good look on him. The next time that he’d come back from some punch-up with Mobei-Jun… well… it was a good thing that he’d tackled Shen Qingqiu first, so that Shen Qingqiu hadn’t gone through the embarrassment of doing so in his own desperate fit, overwhelmed by the sheer handsomeness of his husband. 

 

Just thinking about it made Shen Qingqiu’s face heat up. He fanned himself hastily. What had he been thinking about again? Shit, he’d been going somewhere with this. 

 

Anyway, as nice as life was right now, it wasn’t exactly sustainable. Finding a solution to Shang Qinghua’s de-aging was taking longer than all of them had hoped, and A-Yun couldn’t keep sleeping in a corner forever. Children deserved their own rooms if possible. 

 

A-Yun also wanted to learn cultivation, and he was clever enough and observant enough that Shen Qingqiu was a little worried that the sneaky child would figure something out on his own. On their most recent visit to Cang Qiong, Mu Qingfang had voiced some concerns about Shang Qinghua’s development. A-Yun was perfectly healthy and growing as a young boy should, which should have been good, but Mu Qingfang didn’t know what this would mean should A-Yun regain his lost years. The loss had originally been a clean cut, he’d said, and now A-Yun’s “cut stems” were growing back and the cut was becoming… messy. What if the old experiences clashed with these new experiences instead of reintegrating cleanly? 

 

So… no real cultivation lessons for A-Yun… for now. Hopefully, they wouldn’t be needed! Shang Qinghua would become himself again no problem! No qi deviations here! 

 

Shen Qingqiu was still thinking about this when he decided to get up from his late afternoon nap. He, Binghe, and A-Yun had had an early morning today, flying off to take a nature walk and picnic somewhere a little farther than home, a lakeshore with good bird-spotting. Unfortunately, Shen Qingqiu had given himself a slight headache doing so much squinting around in the bright sunlight across a glittering lake, so Binghe had urged him to get some rest upon returning home. A-Yun had been urged to do the same and Shen Qingqiu wondered if he’d actually done so. 

 

A-Yun was curled up in his little bed when Shen Qingqiu came out of the main bedroom. Where was Binghe? Oh, Binghe was apparently reading across the room. 

 

Wait. 

 

Shen Qingqiu did a double-take. A-Yun wasn’t asleep. A-Yun was lazily playing with a Transmigration System window, scrolling through menus. Which was horrifying, of course, but… Shen Qingqiu couldn’t scream about it because Binghe was right here! 

 

And… Binghe was looking at the System window over the edge of his book. Binghe was frowning thoughtfully. He was following A-Yun’s hand, which would have been bad enough even if Binghe couldn’t actually see anything, but Shen Qingqiu could… he could swear that Binghe was following the lines of text on the System window as well as A-Yun’s movements. 

 

Shen Qingqiu didn’t know what to do. He wasn’t sure he could have done anything even if he had known what to do in this impossible situation. It was so alarming he couldn’t feel anything. It was possible that his heartbeat had just stopped on him. 

 

Oh, no, there it was again. Ouch. That was good. 

 

Binghe noticed him first. He went wide-eyed and jerked in the way that suggested he’d been simultaneously skimming the surface of the Dream Realm again. 

 

A-Yun’s head snapped around at Binghe’s sudden movement, and the child hastily closed the System window. It took him a couple jabs. Then A-Yun followed Binghe’s gaze and snapped his head around to look at Shen Qingqiu, wide-eyed and guilty, as only a child caught doing something that he knew he shouldn’t have been doing could be. 

 

Shen Qingqiu had asked A-Yun regularly if the System had ever popped up again to bother him. A-Yun had said, “No.” Shen Qingqiu had reassured A-Yun that he would help with the System if it came up again, so A-Yun should come to him right away. A-Yun had said, “Okay, I will.” The little liar. Even a small Shang Qinghua was still Shang fucking Qinghua! 

 

And Binghe… 

 

“You can see that,” Shen Qingqiu said. “You could see that.” 

 

His knees trembled underneath him. His head was spinning. His breath was short. 

 

Binghe didn’t disagree. His expression was turning from wide-eyed to blank, like a disciple trying to come up with the lie that would get him in the least amount of trouble. Except that wasn’t the situation at all, was it? It was so much worse. 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s legs gave out from underneath him. He reached for the bedroom doorway and missed, and so he sat down on the floor in an undignified heap and put his head in his hands instead. 

 

“Shizun!” 

 

Binghe was by his side in an instant, his voice cracking with alarm, pulling Shen Qingqiu’s shaking hands away from his face again. Binghe’s stare was intense, searching, and his grip was tight as though he thought that Shen Qingqiu might fly away at any moment. It kind of felt like that was a potential threat. 

 

But the System didn’t reappear. It didn’t pop up in a blaze of red alerts and emotionless warnings. Shen Qingqiu didn’t know what to do with its silence. 

 

He and Binghe stared at each other, holding on. 

 

“Shizun… are you… all right?” 

 

“Fine,” Shen Qingqiu said faintly. Miraculously, it seemed to be true, at least for the moment. “I’m just… surprised. I’m just very… very… surprised.” 

 

“I didn’t press any buttons!” A-Yun blurted out. He was sitting up in his little bed, wringing his blankets in his hands. “I was only looking! I didn’t press anything! I didn’t do anything! I promise!” 

 

He looked so worried, so Shen Qingqiu reflexively said, “It’s all right,” even though it felt like the furthest damn thing from all right. He wanted to interrogate the child immediately, to shake this troublesome transmigrator by the front of his disciple uniform and scream, but he was the adult here, so he wasn’t allowed to have any temper tantrums. It was unfair like that. 

 

Besides, Binghe was still sitting in front of him, with his unique spiritual-demonic energy hanging over all of them, sharp and prickly like a sword drawn and held at the ready. Like Shen Qingqiu, he kept checking all around them, looking for something or someone that wasn’t there. 

 

So, Shen Qingqiu gripped his husband’s hands tightly and said, with a reasonable amount of barely restrained panic in his opinion, “How can you see that? Why aren’t you-? Why didn’t you-? How long have you been able to see that?!” 

 

“...Only recently. A few days,” Binghe admitted. 

 

“Days? How…?” Shen Qingqiu took in a sharp breath as Binghe’s too-calm answer sunk in, and he demanded instead, “How… long have you known about the System?” 

 

“Since A-Yun came to us… and he and Shizun talked about traveling between worlds,” Binghe said, with the slowness of someone choosing every word with painstaking care, wincing like he could hear the painful thudding of Shen Qingqiu’s heart. Maybe he could. “Mobei was eavesdropping on you and A-Yun. I told him not to, Shizun, I really tried to stop him, but then we overheard… some unexpected revelations.” 

 

“Revelations… Revelations!” It was like a light had turned on inside Shen Qingqiu’s head. “System, show me the details of the ‘Revelations’ purchase!” 

 

He wasn’t sure that it would work. It had been Shang Qinghua’s purchase, after all. Shen Qingqiu had tried to interrogate the System on his fellow transmigrator’s past before, as soon as he had realized another transmigrator was also fucking things up in this world, shortly after the disastrous Immortal Alliance Conference and the Endless Abyss, but that had been enragingly unsuccessful. The System had all but said directly that if he wanted to know things about Shang Qinghua, he was going to have to talk to Shang Qinghua! Ridiculous! 

 

But finally, a System window popped up beside him, in more familiar colors than the layout that A-Yun had been playing with. Binghe startled, his energy turning sharper and even heavier. Shen Qingqiu nearly flinched at the sight of it himself, despite being the one to call it, but instead held Binghe’s hands in a lightly restraining grip. 

 

The window said: 

 

“Story Completion Extra: Revelations! 

 

Break the fourth wall! This epilogue-only feature allows all users to reveal their otherworldly origins to N.P.C.s without consequences. Purchased by the primary user. 

 

Permissions List: Luo Binghe (Protagonist), Mobei-Jun.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu read it once. Then again. And again. And… well… it didn’t change no matter how many times he read it. He couldn’t put a name to all the feelings welling up inside his chest, but they all made him want to put his head back into his hands, so he did. Unfortunately, Binghe didn’t let go of them, so he was pressing his face into his husband’s fingers, and it wasn’t exactly comfortable. He persevered regardless. 

 

“Shizun…?” Binghe said. He had been reading the System window beside Shen Qingqiu. 

 

“It was so expensive because it was giving A-Yun the option to tell you,” Shen Qingqiu moaned. “Shit, I’m an idiot. When did that get on the table? So, so stupid! Oh, if that damn author knew about this possibility, I’m going to strang-” 

 

A-Yun was here, he remembered, so he hastily took in a deep breath instead. It didn’t really help. But with a few more, he managed to lift his head again. 

 

“A-Yun, is… is that what your System says about it, too?” 

 

“I think so?” A-Yun said, squinting at Shen Qingqiu’s System window. Then he called, “System?” 

 

The window that A-Yun had been playing with popped back up again. Both Shen Qingqiu and Binghe leaned back at its appearance, not quite a startle, but A-Yun was already flipping through menus like it was second nature to him. Once he landed on the right page, he put his hand on the side of the window and swiveled it around towards them, saying, “See? Look!” 

 

Shen Qingqiu and Binghe both leaned back even more now, away from the window being pushed in their faces. Shen Qingqiu hadn’t… known that you could do that? No one had told A-Yun that you couldn’t do that, so the child hadn’t known not to try. 

 

The “Revelations” feature details here were the same as the details floating in Shen Qingqiu’s window just off to the side, except A-Yun’s feature was nestled in a list of them. The “Revelations” feature was a different color to the others. Purchased and active. But one of the greyed-out features listed, just above it said, “Return Home.” Shen Qingqiu’s eyes widened as he read the details of that story completion extra. 

 

A-Yun was looking at them nervously. “Ah…? Sorry. Sorry, sorry, sorry!” 

 

“It’s… fine. A-Yun, I didn’t know that you… knew how to access the Transmigration System,” Shen Qingqiu said, pushing through his shock. “I didn’t know that you could do that. I didn’t think that you knew you could do that.” 

 

“Oh, I had… a dream?” 

 

“A dream,” Shen Qingqiu repeated. 

 

A-Yun shrugged. 

 

Shen Qingqiu looked at Binghe. 

 

Binghe looked back at him and said nothing, which was as good as a confirmation. 

 

Shen Qingqiu hadn’t had any significantly strange dreams since that first one, the one that had woken him up. Some few dreams briefly touching on the System had followed over the next few weeks, but only in passing, the exact scenes hardly worth remembering, the unconscious worries evaporating again in the daylight. He’d thought something was wrong, perhaps, but… Binghe hadn’t said anything… and Shen Qingqiu hadn’t wanted to have that conversation if he didn’t have to have it, especially when he hadn’t known what the conversation might be. 

 

The System was supposed to obscure its presence even in the Dream Realm! What had he been supposed to say to Binghe with the System always editing its existence out of everything?! He hadn’t known that the System had… stopped doing that. 

 

“I… didn’t know how to learn more about any of this with this… System… listening in,” Binghe said, still so painstakingly careful, still watching both of the floating windows like he was considering how to take them apart. “When you spoke to A-Yun about it, that first time, you seemed… concerned about its influence and… any consequences.” 

 

Well, that was a nice way of saying, “You seemed absolutely fucking terrified.” 

 

“System, close window,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

Thankfully, the window blinked away, or, well, his window did. Shang Qinghua’s window remained. Still displaying the details of the “Revelations” purchase. Still displaying the details of the unpurchased “Return Home” feature. No, Shen Qingqiu couldn’t give Binghe his full attention, as much as his husband deserved it, with that hanging there. 

 

“A-Yun… you… really haven’t purchased anything else, have you?” 

 

The child shook his head quickly. “No!” 

 

“Really?” 

 

“No! I didn’t spend any points! I promise I didn’t!” 

 

“There… must have been something you wanted in there,” Shen Qingqiu said, simultaneously thinking about all the screaming he was going to do at Shang Qinghua if his fellow transmigrator had had a System feature marketplace this entire fucking time. “You weren’t… tempted?” 

 

A-Yun’s guilty look returned in force, but he shook his head determinedly. 

 

“...How many points do you have?” 

 

A-Yun told him. It was more than enough for another feature. 

 

“Shizun,” Binghe said again, after Shen Qingqiu’s pause had gone on for too long. 

 

He took in a deep breath. “A-Yun, why did you… start playing with the System?” 

 

The child shrugged, which was not good enough. 

 

“A-Yun!” 

 

“I don’t know!” A-Yun cried. 

 

“How can you not know?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. “Why did you ignore what I told you?” 

 

“I don’t know!” 

 

“You just started pressing button without even think-” 

 

“I don’t know! I don’t know! I don’t know!” A-Yun shouted, getting louder with every word. 

 

Shen Qingqiu took in a deep, ragged breath, and it took everything in his power not to use it to scream. He almost did. He was at least going to tell A-Yun to stop screaming! But then Binghe squeezed his hands and let go of one of them, so he could better turn to face the child. 

 

“A-Yun,” Binghe said gently. 

 

“I don’t know! Leave me alooooone!” Oh, A-Yun was crying now. He rubbed his cheeks furiously, getting rid of the tears, but that just seemed to make them come faster. “I don’t knooooow!” 

 

“That’s fine,” Binghe said easily. 

 

A-Yun glared at Binghe disbelievingly. His face was getting all red. 

 

They sat there for a while, watching A-Yun struggle to stop crying. Binghe had a handkerchief on his person, but A-Yun rejected it, so Binghe left it sitting on the floor between them. He and Shen Qingqiu held hands. Shen Qingqiu’s chest felt sharp and hollow. His eyes stung. 

 

He hadn’t really entertained fantasies of a revelation like this. He’d thought about them, certainly, in passing, during moments of great stress, how wonderful it might be to shout out the truth: that he hadn’t always been Shen Qingqiu. That, in some cases, he also hadn’t particularly wanted to be doing what he’d done! But the fantasies collapsed as soon as he was confronted with the question of, “And then what?” Because who liked fantasizing about anger and sadness and possibly, worst-case scenario, being murdered for being an imposter?  

 

So, no, he’d never imagined it happening like this: sitting awkwardly on the floor. 

 

He kept on thinking to himself, “Binghe is being really calm about this.” And then he would think, “Probably because he’s apparently known about this for weeks,” which made him want to pass out in the same way that computers crashed. 

 

Binghe ended up making them all tea. It had least got them all off the floor. Shen Qingqiu forced himself to drink it. It was nice. With a little encouragement from Binghe, even A-Yun drank it, looking between sullenness and embarrassment, now slumped over the table. 

 

Shen Qingqiu took a deep breath and said, “A-Yun, I am… sorry for shouting at you. I was very worried. The System is not a toy. It’s not… safe.” 

 

A-Yun curled up on himself a little more. Shen Qingqiu didn’t know what this meant, besides, presumably, that the child did not accept his apology. And then, A-Yun mumbled something. Binghe stiffened slightly, so his demonic hearing must have caught some of it, but Shen Qingqiu had no such luck. He bit down on a flare of annoyance. 

 

“Pardon me, A-Yun. I didn’t hear that…?” 

 

The child didn’t even look at him. He somehow hunched in on himself even more, though he was still tracing the edges of his teacup with his fingers. And then he said, in the quietest voice that Shen Qingqiu had ever heard, “Are you going to make me go home?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s heart turned inside out then. At least, that’s what it felt like. 

 

“Oh,” he said. “Oh, no.” 

 

A-Yun lifted his head enough to peek at them both. 

 

Shen Qingqiu cleared his throat, but his voice was still strained as he said, “No, we’re… not going to make you go home, A-Yun. You can stay here as long as you like. I… still don’t want you playing with the System, but we’re not going to… kick you out… or anything like that.” He couldn’t even imagine throwing a child out to fend for himself without feeling ill. 

 

“Oh,” A-Yun said, and then sniffled again. “Okay.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu wondered if it would be too much to sweep A-Yun up into his arms. Probably. He forced himself to stay still, while the child went back to avoiding eye-contact with both of them and wiping his nose on his sleeve. Shen Qingqiu was still holding Binghe’s hand, at least, still wondering how Binghe’s was managing to appear even remotely calm through any of this. The prickle of Binghe’s energy didn’t feel particularly calm, as quiet as it was. 

 

He felt embarrassingly adrift when Binghe let go of his hand to make dinner. He folded his hands in his lap and tried not to float or sink away anywhere, more successful at this than coming up with what to say to Binghe! A thousand apologies were on the tip of his tongue, bitten back if only because he didn’t think he’d be able to stop if he started, and he was probably supposed to explain all of this somehow. The one thing he knew for certain was that he didn’t want to collapse into a heap of panicked transmigrator in front of A-Yun. 

 

He was supposed to be a role model! 

 

He winced, unable to have that thought without feeling like an idiot. He should have interrogated the System ages ago! But he’d been so distracted by A-Yun at the time! And then Binghe and Mobei-Jun hadn’t said anything! And Shen Qingqiu didn’t like the System hanging around himself, much less anywhere near A-Yun, so why would he invite it back to cause more trouble?! 

 

He had to bite back words that weren’t appropriate to say in front of A-Yun. The child already knew them, of course, but Shen Qingqiu was supposed to be a fucking role model. 

 

So, instead, he asked about what A-Yun had been doing with the System and how long he’d been playing with it. Not very long, thankfully. A couple weeks ago had been the first time A-Yun had dared and it had taken some time to work up the courage to try again. A-Yun hadn’t actually had much time unsupervised, so he’d only been reading through the various menus, apparently, like the Systems settings page. 

 

“What fucking settings page?!” Shen Qingqiu thought. If this wasn’t another epilogue-only addition, Shang Qinghua better watch out when he was the right age again. 

 

“Oh?” he said. 

 

It turned out that this was why A-Yun’s window had been a different color. Apparently, you could change the front that the Transmigration System used. The uselessness of this feature was somewhere between relieving and utterly infuriating. Nevertheless, Shen Qingqiu nearly begged A-Yun not to touch anything, even these supposedly harmless settings. 

 

Dinner seemed to improve A-Yun’s mood again. Shen Qingqiu didn’t really taste it. It was simpler fare than he vaguely remembered Binghe originally planning for today, but Shen Qingqiu could hardly blame him for that. They held hands on the table while they ate, like a promise. 

 

“So, this means Bing-Ge and Mobei can know things, right?” A-Yun asked. “The System says we’re allowed to tell them things about trans- transmi- transmigration, right? It’s okay?” 

 

“It seems so,” Shen Qingqiu agreed weakly. 

 

“Oh, good,” A-Yun decided, before he paused. “What if Mobei… doesn’t like it?” 

 

“He already knows,” Binghe said. 

 

“Oh, right.” A-Yun thought about this. “Does he not like it?” 

 

“He’s fine with it,” Binghe said, with the confidence of someone who could order Mobei-Jun to be fine with it. Or maybe the confidence of someone who had already ordered Mobei-Jun to be fine with it. Who had been talking about this with Mobei-Jun all this time… 

 

A-Yun didn’t seem to fully understand the gravity of the revelation that Binghe knew. That it was fine for Binghe to know. It was a relief to him, more than anything else, a minor worry among whatever went on inside that little head of his. Which was good! Shen Qingqiu didn’t want the child to worry about these things. Also, it made it easier to put A-Yun to bed for the night. 

 

Unfortunately, Shen Qingqiu wasn’t having such an easy time putting A-Yun to bed, because he didn’t trust this lying little sneak not to pop open a System window as soon as he was unsupervised again. He made A-Yun promise him twice not to touch the System again. He stressed that the buttons might not do what they said they would do and that they were dangerous and so on and so forth, and he suspected that A-Yun wasn’t really listening to him properly, that all his worries and warnings were going in one ear and right out the other one. Why were children allowed to nod if they weren’t actually paying attention?! 

 

It made him want to scream again, but Binghe guided him into the bedroom, and left the door wide open. His goodnight to A-Yun included a warning that they would be watching him. 

 

And then, finally, they were alone. Mostly. A small spell to quiet their conversation to prevent A-Yun from eavesdropping meant that they were essentially alone. Which meant that Shen Qingqiu was probably supposed to face Binghe and confess everything, instead of what he actually did, which was sit down on their bed and put his face in his hands again. 

 

He felt Binghe sit down beside him. The warmth of him. That buzz of restless energy. 

 

“...I can’t believe that you knew ,” Shen Qingqiu mumbled. “For weeks.” 

 

“You told A-Yun that you weren’t allowed to tell anyone,” Binghe said quietly. “I didn’t… I don’t know what this Transmigration System is. It was invisible… and powerful… and watching you… and Shizun, you were scared of it. What was I supposed to do?!” 

 

Shen Qingqiu looked up. Binghe’s expression in front of A-Yun had gone from blank to friendly, calm and reassuring, and now it had cracked down the middle. Shen Qingqiu flung himself towards his husband just in time for Binghe to sob into his shoulder, and then they were falling onto the bed together in a mess of grasping hands and escaping tears. Binghe’s back shuddered under his hands. His neck and hair were getting wet. Shen Qingqiu’s eyes prickled with sympathetic tears as Binghe cried like he’d spent weeks holding it in. 

 

As soon as he could find it in himself to speak again, Shen Qingqiu was babbling reassurances without really knowing what he was saying. “I’m here,” he thought he said. “I’m here and I’m fine and I’m not going anywhere. Everything is going to be all right. Nothing is taking me away. I’m staying. I’m staying. I’m staying here with you.” 

 

“Why did you come to this world?” Binghe asked him, after the worst of it had passed, while they lay entwined in their bed. He must have been holding these questions inside for so long now. “Why did you leave yours?” 

 

“I… I didn’t mean to.” 

 

“What?” 

 

“It was… an accident,” Shen Qingqiu confessed. “For both of us. Both me and Shang Qinghua. We… didn’t mean to come here. We didn’t even really know that we could come here… that this world was a… real place we could go. The System… brought us here.” 

 

“Oh.” Binghe sighed in understanding. “You were lying to A-Yun.” 

 

“...I didn’t want to scare him.” 

 

“I wondered how much of what you told him was true.” 

 

“I… most of it. I just… left a lot out.” 

 

“Shizun… what is the truth?” Binghe pushed himself up onto one elbow, so that he could look directly into Shen Qingqiu’s eyes, pleading and demanding all at once. Desperate and all out of patience. And why wouldn’t he be? Didn’t he of all people deserve it? 

 

“It’s complicated,” Shen Qingqiu said, and then hastily reached out to comfort Binghe. “No, it’s… I’ll tell you. I… I can tell you now, but… it’s complicated.” 

 

“I’m listening.” 

 

“I know, it’s just… I don’t know how to explain this.” Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help an inappropriate sputter, almost like laughter. “I never thought I’d get to explain this.” Binghe lifted his other hand from Shen Qingqiu’s side to his cheek, and Shen Qingqiu reached up to hold it. “I’ll try,” he promised. “Just… let me think.” 

 

Binghe apparently knew everything that he had told A-Yun. That he and Shang Qinghua were originally from a different world without magic or demons or spiritual energy. 

 

“In my original world,” Shen Qingqiu began slowly, thrilled and terrified saying this much already, “there was… a book. A very… very long book. Not very well known, honestly, in the grand scheme of things, and not particularly well-written. An adventure story, really. It… I think it says something about how much free time I had that I read all of it anyway.” 

 

Binghe was frowning slightly, trying to connect this to what little he knew, and something about this made Shen Qingqiu smile slightly. It was all so ridiculous, wasn’t it? 

 

“It was infuriating, really, it had a lot of potential and some bits of it were actually remarkably good, but the author threw it all away for- that’s not the point. The point is that… I… passed away in my sleep, I believe-” 

 

Binghe went still. “What?” 

 

“It was… by accident. Nothing nefarious, just… stupid and unlucky.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu had learned by now that sometimes there was only so much he could say in this moments. Sometimes, Binghe needed to listen to his heartbeat, to listen to his breaths, for a little while until he regained himself. Shen Qingqiu could only… hold on and desperately regret those five years of absence. All those mistakes he’d made that Binghe had paid for. 

 

When he could continue, he said, “I woke up as Shen Qingqiu… who was… a character in the novel I had just been reading. In the world of the novel I had just been reading.” 

 

He was expecting some sort of reaction to that, but Binghe just stared at him. 

 

“...Someone in your world wrote a book about this one?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu closed his eyes and nearly sputtered with laughter again. “Oh… it’s… not really clear what the exact arrangement is? But… I think it’s more like… someone or something took the book that I was reading and made into a real world… or took a real world and shaped it to be like the story? It’s… I don’t know… I try not to think about it, really.” 

 

“...Hero of the world,” Binghe mumbled. 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s head thudded in his chest. “Oh, you… heard that…” he said. 

 

“Shizun… open your eyes…” It took a little effort, but Shen Qingqiu managed it, and Binghe’s frown was still only one of thoughtfulness. “Shizun, the story was about me?” 

 

“Yes, it was your story. From your time at Cang Qiong Mountain Sect to… a long way into your future as the Demon Emperor, honestly, but the later stuff was all pretty repetitive…” 

 

“Unplanned.” 

 

“What?” 

 

“Mobei said that Shang Qinghua once said that ‘this ending’ was ‘unplanned’.” 

 

Now Shen Qingqiu stared at Binghe. “...That loose-lipped bastard,” he said, somehow utterly unsurprised that Shang Qinghua had been bad at hiding the fact that he was a transmigrator from everyone. If Mobei-Jun had actually known that transmigrators existed from the beginning, Shang Qinghua probably would have been caught out immediately. 

 

Binghe huffed, but pressed his point. “Things didn’t go as… the System? Things didn’t go as the System planned them, did they? The story wasn’t meant to go this way.” 

 

“...No.” 

 

“If the original Shen Qingqiu had stayed…” 

 

Shen Qingqiu stiffened slightly, unable to help it. “You… figured that part out already?” 

 

Binghe gave him a look that could only be called fond. His eyes were soft and the slight upturn of his lips was fascinating. “Shizun, you know that everyone said it was like you woke up from your ‘qi deviation’ a completely different person, don’t you?” 

 

“Well, yes… but…” 

 

“You told Shang Qinghua that he came into this world earlier than you did. That the personal name of your ‘character’ was Shen Jiu, but that no one called him that anymore, and that your personal name was Shen Yuan.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu startled to hear his own name. It had been… years. 

 

“Oh, you… heard that, too,” he said weakly. 

 

Binghe was still smiling down at him, still a little strained, but that was both of them right now. “Shen Yuan,” he repeated, and Shen Qingqiu thought that his heart was going to give out at this rate, even before Binghe pressed their foreheads together and said, “A-Yuan.” 

 

“...Binghe,” he managed. 

 

“Mm?” 

 

“Sometimes I think you’re too clever for your own good.” 

 

Binghe chuckled. 

 

They held each other for a while, again, before Shen Qingqiu confessed, “I wouldn’t have chosen to be Shen Qingqiu if I’d had… a choice in the matter. As you’ve… already guessed… the planned ending for him wasn’t… good.” 

 

Binghe held him tightly. Almost too tightly, but Binghe obviously forced himself to relaxed before his grip became painful, though he couldn’t keep the roiling of his energy under control. 

 

“I killed you,” he whispered. 

 

Shen Qingqiu didn’t answer. He couldn’t. 

 

“I saw it,” Binghe continued hoarsely. “In your dream, I saw… what I did to you.” 

 

“Oh.” 

 

“Is that why you ran? Why you were always running from me? I saw the System in your dream about the Abyss. It made you do it. And you thought… you thought I’d kill you for it. You thought I was going to kill you for it, didn’t you? I knew it!” 

 

Binghe had already cried so many tears tonight. How did he have so many left? How did this Shen Qingqiu have any left? There ought to have been a limit on them. 

 

“I should have found another way,” Shen Qingqiu said hoarsely, while Binghe clung to him, face buried in his chest. “I… the System wanted to follow the story in the beginning, but… I’d broken the character locks, I should have found a way around what it wanted. I should have done- done something. I kept on hoping that- that it wouldn’t really- that it could all be avoided- I just ignored it and you paid for it because I chose to save my own skin!” 

 

He should have caught Shang Qinghua out as a fellow transmigrator earlier! He should have prepared a plant body earlier and taken Shen Qingqiu out of the story! But he just… hadn’t been the sort of person brave enough to sacrifice themselves for someone they loved. Instead, he’d ended up hurting Binghe again and again and again… 

 

“Everything fell apart after the Abyss. The System stopped trying to follow the story because everything had changed too much… and then there were things that weren’t even in the original story that I read… like Tianlang-Jun and Zhuzhi-Lang…” 

 

“You thought I’d kill you.” 

 

“I pushed you into the Abyss! And I didn’t-! I didn’t have a good reason for it! I always knew that you were a Heavenly Demon, even before we met. I couldn’t tell you the truth and you deserved the truth instead of even more lies, but I couldn’t give it to you-! Shang Qinghua said that I should have begged at your feet for forgiveness…” 

 

Binghe made a choking sound. 

 

“But… I was too scared,” Shen Qingqiu confessed again. “How could you ever forgive something like the Abyss? How could I ask you to forgive that?!"

 

“I would have,” Binghe insisted, clutching at him almost desperately, even though neither of them were going anywhere. “Shizun, I would have. If you’d said anything, I would have. I did.”  

 

Shen Qingqiu nodded, but he couldn’t seem to make himself stop talking now. “I thought it would be better if I stopped being Shen Qingqiu. I wouldn’t have to pay for all his crimes. I thought the System wouldn’t be able to make me do anything else. It wouldn’t be able to make me hurt you again, but… that happened anyway. I made so many mistakes…” 

 

“It’s not making you do anything now, is it? Shizun, is it?” 

 

“No, it’s… it’s not. I… thought it was done. I hoped it was done.” 

 

“But…?” 

 

“I don’t know. It says the story is over, now that everything has been so changed, but… I don’t really know what that means. I hope… I hope it is. Shang Qinghua… he seemed to think that the System’s interference was over for good.” 

 

“Can it… can it be fought?” 

 

“I don’t- I don’t know.” 

 

Binghe looked as though he was going to do his best to try to kill the System. The prospect terrified Shen Qingqiu, which Binghe must have seen, because his dark expression was swept away at once. Instead, he asked, “The System said that Shang Qinghua was the ‘primary user’. He came to this world first. Does he know? Does he know more about the System?” 

 

“I don’t know,” Shen Qingqiu said again, with new and greater sympathy for A-Yun’s reaction when faced with any kind of interrogation. “He… might? He said it had never given him any help and I think he hated it just as much as I did, so maybe he doesn’t know anything.” 

 

Who was Shen Qingqiu to say? He apparently couldn’t tell when the young Shang Qinghua was lying to him! And the older Shang Qinghua was so much worse. 

 

“...Shizun, who is Shang Qinghua to you?” Binghe looked like the question had been weighing on him for some time. “Mobei said he thought that you and Shang Qinghua found each other after the Immortal Alliance Conference. I suspected the same thing.” 

 

“You’re too clever,” Shen Qingqiu mumbled. “Yes, that was… when we met.” 

 

“And who is he? Who is he to you?” 

 

“He’s…” Shen Qingqiu flopped one hand around weakly. 

 

Binghe watched the gesture. His lips quirked slightly and he said, “Shishu does do that, yes.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu huffed. “He wasn’t anyone to me! He’s just… the only other transmigrator here… the only other person from… from my original world. He’d been here longer - transmigrated in as an infant - and into the role of Shang Qinghua, which was almost as bad as being Shen Qingqiu, so it made sense to try and work together. Share our knowledge. You’d think he’d remember more considering…” 

 

“Considering?” 

 

“He’s the author!” 

 

Binghe stared, and then said, “He’s what?” 

 

“He’s the author! He wrote the story! All twenty million words of it!” 

 

“He wrote the story for the System-?” 

 

“No, no, he wrote it for money. It was just supposed to be a story! He didn’t know about the System or that transmigration was really possible when he wrote it. He was stupid and unlucky, too, I think. I’ve listened to him complain about the lack of control so many times that I don’t think he’s lying about that. He might as well be just another unfortunate reader.” 

 

Binghe was still wide-eyed. Shen Qingqiu felt bad about ranting to him like that. There were surely better ways to break the news that the person originally and accidentally in control of your world’s fate had been Shang Qinghua. 

 

“If… if you’ve ever heard him call himself a god when he’s talking to himself, that’s… that’s why,” Shen Qingqiu explained, but that felt even more awkward. Especially when this self-proclaimed god had been turned into a child and was sleeping in the other room. Shen Qingqiu had gone through some strange feelings recently about those times that Shang Qinghua had offhandedly referred to himself as the protagonist’s “father”. 

 

“I haven’t… heard him say that,” Binghe said slowly. 

 

“Oh, well, maybe he’s more careful around you than he’s apparently been around Mobei-Jun.” 

 

“Mobei is pretty good at acting deaf or feigning sleep,” Binghe admitted. “He's too big to be so good at hanging around in the background. And… Mobei is… Shang Qinghua’s… is Shang Yun’s favorite character from the story he wrote?” 

 

“I don’t know what his original last name is. It’s probably not Shang. I didn’t know any part of his original name until all this! He wrote under a… terrible pen name. But, yes, Mobei-Jun was apparently his favorite character for some reason, so… the original Shang Qinghua was supposed to betray and be killed by Mobei-Jun, you know? I don’t know where things started to change for them. Shang Qinghua never talks about it properly.” 

 

Binghe stared some more, before he muttered, “That sounds like another problem for Mobei-Jun to deal with,” which Shen Qingqiu found himself agreeing with wholeheartedly. 

 

He and Binghe held each other in peaceful silence for a moment. 

 

Then Binghe said, “Who was your favorite character?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu blinked. “What?” 

 

Binghe’s lips quirked slightly again. “Did Sh- Did A-Yuan have a favorite character?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu nearly startled again, just barely controlling himself, but he couldn’t do anything to stop the flush of heat that came to his face. Was Binghe going to throw that name around all the time now? That didn’t seem like it was going to be good for his poor heart. 

 

“Is that really the most important question you can think of right now?!” Shen Qingqiu demanded. 

 

Binghe smiled. It was a beautiful smile, even with his eyes still red from the tears. “No, but I have too many important questions to come up with anything else right now,” he said. “Shizun, who was your favorite? Am I your favorite?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu closed his eyes and muttered, “You really have to ask?” 

 

Binghe laughed. Shen Qingqiu felt it against his face. 

 

“Of course you’re my favorite,” he said. 

 

He could feel Binghe’s smugness. It was a nice change from the guarded fear. 

 

“You’re my favorite, too,” Binghe told him, because he was shameless. 

 

And wonderful, of course. 

 

Shen Qingqiu enjoyed Binghe’s affection until he thought that he might melt from it, and then he made a great effort to pull back slightly, clear his throat, and say, “What about all those other questions?”

 

“...I think they can wait a little longer.” 

 

There was a lot to talk about. It was late and they were tired, and things would probably wait until the morning. Shen Qingqiu felt relief, but also… how was he supposed to go to sleep like this? Shouldn’t they try to get it all over with? Shen Qingqiu wanted to know what Binghe would... what Binghe would do when he finally knew everything.

 

“You deserve answers.” 

 

Binghe thought about this, then said, “Would you go back to your original world?” 

 

Oh, never mind, Shen Qingqiu already regretted pressing the issue.

 

“I don’t… think I can.” 

 

“If you could.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu swallowed dryly. He didn’t like thinking about this. He couldn’t, so why did he have to think about it? Binghe was looking at him so expectedly. He deserved to be told what he probably wanted to hear. He also deserved honesty, after everything. 

 

“I wish I could visit,”Shen Qingqiu said finally. “Not forever. I’d want to come back here. There are some things I miss, but… this is my life now… and it’s a good one, unplanned as it is.” 

 

Binghe smiled again. “I saw… I saw people in your dream…” 

 

“Oh. Yes. My family.” 

 

“Were you… married? Did you have children? I saw a girl…” 

 

“What? No!” Shen Qingqiu said hastily. “No, that was probably my sister! My parents, my older brothers, and my younger sister!” What a relief it was to admit just this much information! Such simple facts! “I wasn’t married. I definitely didn’t have any children. I wasn’t nearly old enough for children.” 

 

“How old were you?” 

 

“Oh… ah…” 

 

Shen Qingqiu was quiet for too long, because Binghe said, “Shizun, you don’t have to tell me if it’s too painful.” He was clearly trying to be graceful about it, but he wasn’t managing it very well, instead looking desperately curious, on the verge of a pout if he wasn’t told. 

 

“It’s not… painful… exactly? I’m at peace with what happened,” Shen Qingqiu assured him. “It’s just… it’s just a little embarrassing? I…” He licked his lips. “I transmigrated in when Shen Qingqiu was already a peak lord, but… I… in my original world, when I transmigrated, I was… younger than that. I was…” He closed his eyes and forced out, “Twenty.” 

 

Just barely twenty, really, but it counted! 

 

Binghe was silent. When Shen Qingqiu couldn’t take it anymore, he opened his eyes again, and saw that Binghe was smiling at him again. 

 

“Twenty,” Binghe repeated. 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s face was burning, but he managed to resist the urge to smother it in the nearest pillow. “Twenty,” he repeated. It was a perfectly normal age to be! And it was many years behind him now, anyway! He had nothing to be embarrassed about, really! 

 

“Shizun,” Binghe said, almost wondrously. “Are we essentially the same age?” 

 

“No,” Shen Qingqiu said, before he remembered his… absence and reluctantly supposed that probably counted. Binghe had aged five years without him. “I… think I’m still slightly older,” he insisted. “Everyone thinks I’m much older than you, anyway, so…” He trailed off, realizing that he didn’t actually have a point. 

 

Binghe laughed and pressed their foreheads together again. 

 

“I did my best to be a peak lord!” Shen Qingqiu said. “I had to figure it out as I went!” 

 

Binghe kissed him, but he was still laughing, so it was a mess. 

 

And it was wonderful, of course. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Shizun kept looking at him as though he was surprised that Binghe was still here. Pleasantly surprised, smiling hopefully back when Binghe smiled at him, but still uncertain whether or not Binghe would still be there the next time he looked. Shizun looked a lot. 

 

It broke Binghe’s heart all over again every time. 

 

He and Shizun - Shen Qingqiu, Shen Yuan - had spoken at length since they had discovered that the Transmigration System was no longer forbidding the truth being told. Shen Qingqiu was resigned to its presence, too relieved by its apathy. Binghe was still furious about the fact that the System could apparently not be permanently removed. He still had many questions surrounding this thing’s origins and purpose, and he was not yet ready to be at peace with the fact that they might never be answered, not unless Shang Qinghua had been hiding more power than any of them had ever suspected. 

 

What was all of his own power worth, Binghe kept thinking, if he couldn’t have what he wanted? If he couldn’t make sure that no one could ever take anything from him again? 

 

He didn’t enjoy having these kinds of thoughts again. He’d been having them ever since finding out about the world travel - about the transmigration - and sometimes they were just so loud. They made his hand twitch for a sword that had burned him to hold. 

 

When the thoughts became too much, he looked at Shizun again. 

 

Maybe they were both looking a lot. 

 

Right now, Shizun was reading some adventure story aloud, clearly amused by its childish contents. They had picked it up during their last trip to the market. Shizun had flipped it open and started reading while Binghe had been teaching A-Yun how to haggle over vegetables - Shang Qinghua was, unsurprisingly, a natural at it - and Shizun’s reading speed had quickly started to annoy the bookseller. When Binghe had asked if he’d wanted it, Shizun had said, “It’s not very good,” and, “We have plenty of books at home,” and, “I think I already know how it’s going to end,” while looking at the book longingly, and so it had come home with them to join the stacks. 

 

Shang Qinghua was tucked against Shizun’s side, playing absentmindedly with some toy animals while he listened to the story. It looked like the toy animals were violently murdering each other again. One of the toy animals was apparently begging to mercy to no avail. 

 

When Shizun reached the end of the page and flipped it, he glanced up at Binghe again in the pause, and his smile widened, his eyes crinkling as though to share a joke about this story that Binghe hadn’t been paying enough attention to catch. Then he returned to his reading. 

 

Binghe flexed his fingers, picked up his cleaning cloth again, and went back to work. He couldn’t destroy this Transmigration System. Yet. He could, however, do his best to get rid of this dried sauce stain that Shizun and Shang Qinghua had managed to leave on the table. It was, as Shizun might say, a “more productive” use of his time than just glowering. 

 

Shizun was still here. Shizun - Shen Qingqiu, Shen Yuan - had no intention of leaving him. Shizun had chosen to love him back, as a man rather than just a teacher, as soon as he had fully realized that Binghe loved him and he was allowed to love Binghe back. And Shizun had loved him before that, even knowing that their future was doomed in the System’s plans, hoping despite everything that he wouldn’t have to go through with it if he kept choosing to be kind. 

 

Binghe scrubbed a little more viciously, reminded of what his husband had said about an Out-of-Character Lock. Even then Shizun had given him medicine! Shizun had admitted that his motivation at first had been to get on a future Demon Emperor’s good side (and to avoid getting on the Transmigration System’s bad side), but in the same breath, he had admitted that he had thought Binghe was the cutest little disciple he’d ever seen. He had muttered that he really hadn’t been expecting Binghe to be so cute! And so pitifully real… 

 

“I liked the character already,” Shizun had said, one hand on Binghe’s cheek, the other curled in embarrassment. “And then I liked the real you so much more than that.” 

 

There was a feeling somewhere between triumph and terror at the idea that he and Shen Qingqiu hadn’t been destined for each other but had happened anyway, or maybe that they had been destined for each other and they had happened despite worlds and realities and best-laid plans in their way. It didn’t matter. What happened was that the love of his life was here because he wanted to be, despite all of Binghe’s many mistakes. 

 

A familiar burst of cold, dark energy against the house’s protections interrupted his cleaning, like a knocking at the door. Binghe paused and turned to look at the door, though Mobei would of course be at the end of the path, and he could not see the ice demon through the walls. 

 

He considered going out to greet Mobei, or perhaps leaving him to wait for a while, but Shang Qinghua suddenly sat up and threw his toy animals to the floor. “Mobei is here!” 

 

Shizun looked towards the ceiling, sighed, and then bookmarked his page. “A-Yun, put your boots on before you go running outside,” he said, and didn’t even bother to look up as the child changed directions with such haste that he fell over. 

 

“I’m fine!” Shang Qinghua cried, and pushed himself up to grab his boots. 

 

Binghe wasn’t sure how he felt about the fact that Shang Qinghua, knowing they were expecting a visit but unable to sense Mobei’s arrival himself, was sharp enough to have been watching for Binghe’s reaction to Mobei’s arrival. The child had done this sort of clever thing a few times now, but never so obviously. Shang Qinghua was too excited for subtlety today. 

 

“A-Yun, your boots are on the wrong feet,” Shizun said mildly. 

 

“Shit!” 

 

Shizun sighed. 

 

“Sorry! Sorry, sorry, sorry!” 

 

All offers of help were rebuffed, but the struggle didn’t go on too much longer, and then Shang Qinghua was bolting outside to greet an ice demon widely feared across the realms, probably to ask him to go play at the stream again or something. 

 

“He forgot to close the door again,” Shizun noted, unsurprised. He put the book aside, picked the toy animals off the floor, and then got to his feet at a more sedate pace. He was smiling softly as he posed the toys together on the table. “But getting him to put shoes on first is an overall accomplishment for all of us… if I do say so myself, and, honestly? I do. Small steps.” 

 

Binghe moved across the house to meet Shen Qingqiu, took him in his arms, and kissed him. 

 

“I love you,” Binghe said. 

 

His husband stared at him, wide-eyed and slightly pink, apparently at a loss for words. He looked off to the side, regathering himself, and Binghe held him even tighter. 

 

“I love you,” Binghe said. 

 

Because he did. So much. Names and faces didn’t matter. 

 

Shizun became even more flustered, even squirming a little, which would fluster him even more to point out. Still, he quickly regathered himself, and forcefully, a little clumsily, returned Binghe’s embrace. “I love you, too,” he said, quiet but determined. 

 

Binghe enjoyed the warmth of the affection. The experience of everything he had ever wanted was slightly dampened by the stress of everything else, but only slightly. 

 

“...You really could have anyone you wanted,” Shizun murmured, after a while. He didn’t sound confused or saddened by the prospect this time, though, only fond. Perhaps still embarrassed by his own emotions. “It’s hard to believe that I could be so lucky.” 

 

“Mm, I feel the same way,” Binghe replied, immediately. 

 

Shizun laughed softly. 

 

It was true that being the Demon Emperor attracted a great deal of unwanted attention, but he didn’t think that all those people were as captivated by him, rather than what they could potentially get out of him, as his husband seemed to think they were. It was sometimes frustrating and sometimes very flattering to be thought so irresistible. Binghe felt the same way about his husband in that regard as well. 

 

Shizun leaned back enough to play with Binghe’s collar, not meeting his eyes, and Binghe waited for his husband to pull his thoughts together. 

 

“I think… one of the reasons I was so… blind,” Shen Qingqiu said slowly, still fond, “was that you were- the character was involved with so many women. There was nothing about any interest in men. It wasn’t… widely accepted in my world.” 

 

That made Binghe feel sad for the younger version of his husband, though a petty part of him remained hideously grateful that Shen Yuan has no past lovers to make him jealous. As well as gleeful to the point of wanting to shout his happiness that he was also his husband’s first love, as his husband had been his. It was an exercise in restraint. 

 

“You could have had any number of accomplished beauties for wives,” Shizun murmured.

 

“I have a beauty for a husband, but I would like him even if he had another face,” Binghe might have answered, except he got distracted. Shizun had mentioned before that Binghe had been married in the story, but it was only now that Binghe considered the plural. 

 

“Wives?” Binghe repeated. “Wives?” 

 

Shizun’s brow furrowed, though he tried to smile back. “Yes…?” 

 

More than one of something he didn’t want went past “alarming” and into “terrifying”. 

 

Shizun must have seen this, because his expression shifted into realization, and then he laughed at Binghe’s alarm at the prospect of a harem. Shizun clearly didn’t want to be laughing, trying to smother his amusement, but also clearly couldn’t help himself. 

 

“Shizun,” Binghe whined, leaning his forehead against his husband’s, glad at least that Shizun was no longer apologetic about changing the course of his life and could laugh over it. “That’s too many. I don’t even want one wife.” 

 

“I know! I know!” Shizun said, still laughing. “I believe you. I do.” 

 

“Good. Because the only person who would have been happy about that situation is the Elder Dream Demon,” Binghe muttered, “and I don’t care what he has to say about it.” 

 

Meng Mo regularly bemoaned the fact that Binghe didn’t have a harem, in the same way that he bemoaned Binghe’s disinterest in large-scale orgies and wife-stealing and any number of traditionally lecherous demon lord activities. He called Binghe “boring” and “unsociable” and “prudish” for it. Binghe’s latest retort was to call the Elder Dream Demon “old-fashioned” and “unoriginal” and (courtesy of A-Yun) “uncool”. Meng Mo squawked at the last one. 

 

Meng Mo didn’t seem to fully understand what “uncool” meant. (To be undeservedly generous to the dream demon, neither did Binghe, as the term was apparently decided by the changeable opinions of a seven-year-old child and, sometimes, when A-Yun allowed it, Binghe’s husband.) But the confusion only seemed to make the term unfathomably more insulting to the Elder Dream Demon. Meng Mo didn’t care for the new and nonsensical opinions of the young folk, he insisted, while obviously caring immensely. 

 

Shizun was smiling at Binghe, probably still laughing a little on the inside. It was a really good look on him. “Some of the marriages weren’t that bad,” he insisted, patting Binghe’s chest in a reassuring fashion. 

 

Binghe wouldn’t have minded if his husband ever wanted to grope him just for the sake of it, but this was nice, too. 

 

Binghe almost wanted to ask how many marriages there had been, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He didn’t really care. None of them were real. Still, the curiosity was just strong enough for him to ask, “Was Ning Yingying one of them? In your story?” 

 

Shizun blinked at him, smile fading. “Yes, she was…” 

 

“I’m guessing looking back on how Shizun behaved around her,” Binghe said firmly. “I don’t have any interest in my shijie like that. She knows that.” 

 

“Oh.” Shizun looked faintly embarrassed again. “Well, I wanted you to be happy…” 

 

Binghe kissed him again. “I am happy. Was Liu Mingyan one of them?” 

 

“Well… yes. Obviously.” 

 

“Can I tell her brother that?” 

 

Shizun laughed. “Don’t torment your shishu.” 

 

“Fine,” Binghe sighed. “So, my shijies… and Sha Hualing? Shizun reacted to both Liu-Shijie and Sha Hualing when the demons came to Qiong Ding Peak.” 

 

“Yes, her as well.” 

 

“That sounds… dangerous,” Binghe decided, knowing how jealous and competitive his general could be. She liked power and she didn’t like sharing, but maybe Ning-Shijie and Liu-Shijie had been calming influences? What a mess! “Is that all of them? Did I get all of them?” 

 

Shizun coughed, then said, “All of the important ones,” which meant no. 

 

“That’s still far too many,” Binghe decided, and kissed his husband again. “This is better.” 

 

His husband smiled at him, grip tightening on Binghe’s collar. “It is,” he agreed. ““It wasn’t… a happy story. Or a… kind one. I like this one better, too.” 

 

They couldn’t hold on to each other forever, as tempting as it was, they had a guest to deal with. They separated. Binghe would have gone outside at once, but Shang Qinghua had made such a mess while putting on his boots, and it made sense to straighten it quickly. 

 

Shizun looked outside and paused. “Hm,” he said. 

 

Binghe returned to his husband’s side and followed Shen Qingqiu’s gaze. Outside, Mobei was holding Shang Qinghua upside down, dangling him from the ankle in one hand. It should have been alarming, but Shang Qinghua was shrieking with laughter while he flailed. Mobei slowly turned around, spinning the child, and Shang Qinghua screeched. 

 

“We should probably put a stop to that,” Binghe said. 

 

“Probably,” Shizun agreed mildly. 

 

“I’ll go put a stop to that.” 

 

“Thank you.” 

 


 

Shang Qinghua was terribly disappointed to be put right side up and on the ground again, and Mobei seemed a little disappointed as well, in his own way. Nevertheless, they both came inside so that Mobei could greet Shen Qingqiu properly. He wasn’t as stiff about it as he had once been. Neither was Shizun, welcoming him inside. 

 

Mobei hadn’t had much of a reaction to everything that Luo Binghe had learned about the Transmigration System, when Binghe had told him, the day after Shen Qingqiu had discovered they knew. Binghe knew the ice demon well enough now to have seen that Mobei was relieved that they could talk about the Transmigration System without retaliation, that the Transmigration System considered the “story” over and was issuing no more orders, and that A-Yun seemed more in control of this Transmigration System than the Transmigration System was of him. But Mobei had barely done more than blink when Binghe had revealed that Shang Qinghua had potentially written this world into being and could very well be considered akin to a fallen god. 

 

“...Ah,” Mobei had said, and nothing else. As though this staggering revelation about the potential origins of their world, or at least the hands molding the recent history of the world that they knew, made certain things make sense to him. 

 

“That’s it?” Binghe had demanded. 

 

Mobei had looked him directly in the eyes and then, with a shrug that he had undoubtedly picked up either as a gesture from Shang Qinghua over their decades of acquaintance or from his weeks of recent acquaintance with A-Yun, said, “Yes.” 

 

It had been incredibly disappointing. Mobei had shown the most surprise over the fact that Shen Qingqiu had discovered Binghe’s spying by just walking in at the wrong moment. To borrow a phrase that Shizun occasionally muttered under his breath and A-Yun wasn’t supposed to know (but used anyway when he thought Shizun couldn’t hear him): that asshole. 

 

With some time to think about it, Binghe had the feeling that Mobei just… didn’t really care. He presumably had his own swirling thoughts on the matter, matching up decades of carefully noted interactions with this new information, but… it didn’t really matter yet, because he couldn’t talk to Shang Qinghua about it. Mobei couldn’t do anything with this information, not anymore than he had been able to do anything about the other information, and so all Binghe had really gotten from that conversation was a thoughtful scowl and a deeper silence than usual. 

 

Mobei’s father had also finally died and tomorrow Mobei would begin his ascension, receiving more power than most scheming demons could ever hope to obtain. Most demon lords would have been giddy with joy or shaking with paranoia - or, according to Meng Mo’s laments, indulging in hedonistic depravities the likes of a lovesick snob like Binghe could never even imagine (Binghe didn’t want to imagine any of the demon lords he’d met so much as naked), in egotistical celebration of themselves. Instead, the ascendant Mobei-Jun was stiffly thanking Shen Qingqiu for his condolences and congratulations, while allowing a seven-year-old human child to try and climb up the back of his furred coat. 

 

Shang Qinghua was… almost succeeding, grabbing clumsy fistfuls of fur. Shizun couldn’t see what Shang Qinghua was doing through the wall of Mobei, but he must have sensed that the child was up to no good.

 

“A-Yun, what are you doing back there?” 

 

“Nothing,” Shang Qinghua said immediately, still trying to pull himself up using his feeble arm strength.

 

Mobei then crouched slightly and reached around his back with one arm, managing to get a hand underneath the child’s ass and boosting him up. Shang Qinghua hastily grabbed onto higher fur and ended up with his elbows over one of Mobei’s shoulders, one foot balanced on Mobei’s other hand, which had come around back as well to offer support, while the other leg dangled. His expression was triumphant as Mobei straightened.

 

“Yes!” 

 

Shizun looked wearily at Shang Qinghua, who could now look back at him. And, if Mobei-Jun’s height counted, was now taller than Shen Qingqiu. 

 

“Can we go out and play? Shang Qinghua asked, looking between all the adults in the room. 

 

“...If you like,” Shizun sighed. “Just remember that dinner is early today.” He looked at Mobei for a response to this (“I know, I know, I know!” Shang Qinghua chanted) and only relaxed when Mobei nodded in acknowledgement. “Very well, off you go, then.” 

 

“Yesssss!” Shang Qinghua said again, tugging on the fur of the coat like they were reins, and then kicked Mobei in the back with his free leg. It clearly wasn’t cruel, just excited and forgetful, and while not as gentle as it should have been, it was nothing to a demon. “Let’s go!” 

 

Mobei didn’t flinch or grunt. He also didn’t move. Shang Qinghua looked at Mobei in confusion. Mobei raised an eyebrow. It took a few seconds, but then the child huffed at him. 

 

“...Please?” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

Mobei nodded and walked out of the house still carrying the child in this odd way, needing as always to duck slightly in the doorway. He nodded at Shizun and at Binghe as he passed. He also didn’t close the door behind him, so Binghe could hear the beginnings of Shang Qinghua’s general chatter, which was apparently starting on the subject of man-eating plants today and would almost surely be on a completely different subject by the end of the path. He wondered how Mobei was putting up with that directly next to his ear, but maybe he liked it. 

 

“He doesn’t seem… happy,” Shizun noted, “but he doesn’t seem sad, either.” 

 

It seemed that Mobei intended to spend his last day before his ascension acting as though it was any other day - at least, one belonging to the past few months. He went out to play with Shang Qinghua. He returned to join them for dinner, mostly listening as others talked, and helped Binghe clean the dishes afterwards upon request, though this latter part was done with a faint sneer of reluctance. (Binghe maintained that it was good for his fellow demon lord. It was also unreasonably amusing to enforce.) Then he sat on Shang Qinghua’s other side as Shizun picked up his book to continue reading aloud, and he managed to sit there while Shang Qinghua’s hands played with his coat, when such peacefulness had once set him running. 

 

When it came time to put Shang Qinghua to bed, the child was incredibly uncooperative. He dragged his feet. He got distracted. He had a sudden question about something completely unrelated. He “forgot” what he had just been asked to do in favor of sticking close to Mobei’s side, knowing that both Mobei and Binghe would be leaving for the Demon Realm for seven days and nights as soon as he was settled in bed. 

 

Binghe had lost track of the number of times that Shang Qinghua, as soon as he had learned that there would be a trip to the Demon Realm, had been told that he wasn’t allowed to come. No, Shizun had said, not even if he promised to behave. Not even if he didn’t touch anything and only watched. Not even if he wore his furry coat to stay warm. 

 

“A-Yun,” Shizun sighed. “It’s time to go to bed.” 

 

Shang Qinghua huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. “It’s not fair.” 

 

“It’s not safe for children,” Shizun corrected. “They’ll be back home again soon enough.” 

 

The delaying tactics only stopped when Mobei knelt down in front of Shang Qinghua to say his goodbyes, which made it difficult for the child to wiggle away. Shang Qinghua begrudgingly returned the goodbyes and said, “Good luck becoming king.” 

 

“Thank you,” Mobei replied. 

 

“...Are we still going to be friends after you’re king?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“...Cool,” Shang Qinghua decided, quietly.

 

Only Binghe and his husband put Shang Qinghua to bed, while Mobei left the house entirely to wait outside. Shizun had been watching Shang Qinghua very closely these past few days, or else having Binghe watch very closely, in order to prevent any further System use. While Binghe was in the Demon Realm, it would be easiest for Shizun to keep an eye on the child if they were sleeping in the same room, and the easiest way to do that was to share the bed. Shang Qinghua had agreed to the idea with a shrug. Shizun had been relieved by the lack of argument, though he had also sighed and admitted to Binghe that he wasn’t looking forward to accidentally getting kicked in the head during Shang Qinghua’s nightly, unconscious acrobatics. 

 

“You’re coming back in seven days, right?” Shang Qinghua asked again. He didn’t sound doubtful or worried, exactly, but he wasn’t meeting Binghe’s eyes as he asked the question. He had claimed that he totally understood the concept of business trips. He wasn’t a baby. 

 

“Yes, of course,” Binghe said. “I’m just helping Mobei.” 

 

“Because his shitty father is dead.” 

 

Binghe snorted, then cleared his throat. “A-Yun, where did you hear that?” 

 

Shang Qinghua shrugged and muttered, “Sorry.” He glanced in Shizun’s direction, however, and Shizun was apparently, suddenly, too deeply engrossed in changing clothes to look over. 

 

“Shizun, I love you,” Binghe thought. 

 

“You know-” 

 

“It’s rude. I know. Sorry.” 

 

“It’s not what we say in these sorts of situations,” Binghe agreed, as Shizun would have said if he wasn’t busy being embarrassed about A-Yun eavesdropping on him, doing his best not to smile and probably failing. “Even if he was not good, Mobei is still sad about it.” 

 

“Why?” 

 

“Why what?” 

 

Shang Qinghua made a frustrated noise, flapping a hand vaguely. “Why’s he sad about it if his father wasn’t good?” 

 

“Good question,” was probably not the sort of answer that Shizun would want him to say in this situation. Binghe thought of Tianlang-Jun, but… thinking about that man mostly made him angry, rather than sad. He wondered if the anger would ever cool down enough to be sad about that relationship. As far as Binghe was concerned, he’d been an orphan from the moment his adoptive mother had passed away. 

 

“Maybe he’s sad because his father wasn’t any good,” Binghe suggested. 

 

Shang Qinghua hummed thoughtfully, tugging at the blanket. “And now he can’t say sorry to make it better because he’s gone. He’s never ever going to be any good if he’s dead.” 

 

“...No,” Binghe agreed, somewhat surprised by this conclusion. 

 

“That’s sad,” Shang Qinghua decided. 

 

“Yes. It is.” 

 

He still wasn’t happy about their leaving, and he still wasn’t asleep when Binghe finally left, but Shang Qinghua seemed ultimately resigned to his fate of non-participation. 

 

Binghe was tempted to drag his feet like a child, when it came time for him to go. He was tempted to make excuses and distractions, to complain and to cry and maybe even to stomp his foot dramatically. This would be his and Shizun’s longest parting since they had come together. What if something happened? What about everything that had just happened? Just the thought of being parted made Binghe long to curl up in bed with his husband for seven days instead, or at least for one hour longer, instead of leaving early enough to go drag Sha Hualing out of her workshop in her father’s palace to make sure that someone was watching the Demon Realm while he made sure that Mobei didn’t die. 

 

“Responsibilities are responsibilities, and we’re the adults in this house, so we have the responsibilities,” Shizun said, pragmatically and unenthusiastic about it, and Binghe’s misery felt a little better with company. Then his husband said, quietly and much more heartfelt, “I’ll miss you. I think I miss you already. Is that ridiculous?” 

 

“No,” Binghe said, and kissed him once as a goodbye. Once more for luck. And then a third time, just because he wanted to, and Shizun was laughing as he pushed Binghe out of the door. 

 

“I'll be here when you get back,” Shizun promised.

 

Binghe did his best to believe him.

 


 

The underground temple for the ascension was beautiful and frightening. It seemed that a part of Luo Binghe was still and would always be the young boy who had grown up in a poor human village, in the humblest of homes, out of place in every palace that he entered. 

 

This one was worse than most: a massive stone structure with long halls, towering columns, and distant ceilings, with every surface completely covered in thick sheets of ice that had been intricately carved into scenes from the Mobei Clan’s history, which were filled with monstrous beasts and violent battles. Though the ice murals on the floors had least been covered in another thick and completely transparent sheet of ice, so Binghe didn’t have to feel the faces of Mobei’s ancestors under his feet as he stepped on them. The eyes of the figures had apparently been carved in such a way as to follow them as they walked through the temple, so that a million icy eyes watched them from every angle. 

 

Apparently the ice was replaced and the carvings changed for every ascension. The work on these carvings had started after Mobei’s father’s ascension, and it would start again once Mobei had ascended. Lifetimes had clearly been spent here. It was spectacular, even by the opulent standards of the Demon Realm, and there was probably nothing else like it in all the world. 

 

Despite the temple being underground, a cave that had been made into a palace over generations, it was just as bright as the snowfields outside, if not brighter. The intricate ice carvings of the ceiling had apparently been set up in such a way as to catch and reflect the sunlight. Mobei almost seemed out of place here, in his dark clothing, with his dark and unappreciative expression, with his dark powers that were shared by none of his kin. 

 

“...Excited?” Binghe asked him. 

 

“I have been waiting for this day all my life,” Mobei answered, without looking at him. 

 

Binghe didn’t have any real expressions to work with, but Mobei’s demonic energy seemed to be at once tightly held and a violently swirling promise of death at the touch. “Is that a yes or a no?” Binghe asked him. “Or is it both?” 

 

Mobei glared at him and said nothing. So, it was both. 

 

It was funny, in a way, Binghe thought, that Mobei had been waiting for this all his life, and now seemed to just want it over with.

 

“Why aren’t there any guards?” Binghe asked. “Are you supposed to do this alone?” 

 

There had been some black-robed attendants as they had entered, bowing to the ascendant Mobei-Jun, but the spiritual caretakers of the Mobei Clan had… fled. Binghe was fairly certain they had been fleeing with as much dignity as they were able. 

 

“No, there is no requirement that I ascend alone,” Mobei answered, “but I could not trust any guards or clan members not to have been corrupted by my uncle.” 

 

“Ah.” 

 

Mobei titled his head thoughtfully, then added, “In the early history of my clan, those present at the ascensions were most often devoured or otherwise destroyed by the ascended Mobei-Jun.” 

 

Binghe looked at him. 

 

Mobei’s expression was entirely serious. 

 

“Are you fucking with me?” Binghe asked, because it seemed likely. 

 

“No,” Mobei said, still possibly lying. 

 

Then Binghe passed an ice carving depicting a lot of devouring going on, and looking around, noticed that it seemed to be a pervasive theme in Mobei’s clan history. 

 

“Ah,” Binghe said again. 

 

In the innermost chamber of the temple, the ice carvings peeled away. The steps up to the final dais, the platform where Mobei’s father’s body lay, the walls and columns behind, it was all unmarked stone. The stone was mostly smooth, though cracked in some places. 

 

Binghe had met Mobei’s father in passing, but mostly they had passed each other on their own business, dealing through Mobei if at all. He remembered a more formidable figure, distant and cold. The body before them seemed… frailer. It especially didn’t seem fitting for the cruel actions described in the pieces of his past Mobei had offered recently, when Mobei was so big and so powerful, while illness had clearly taken its toll on his father. Though Binghe knew all too well that people did not need to look monstrous to do monstrous things. 

 

Staring at the body brought a sickly feeling to Binghe’s chest, very like unease, though it took him some time to notice it and put a name to it. The cold here did not bother him, with his spiritual and demonic energy burning defiantly against it. The worst of the carvings had been left in the previous hall, and they were not so disturbing as to truly bother him. He didn’t understand it until he wondered, fleetingly, what Shizun and Shang Qinghua were doing, and suddenly he remembered Shen Qingqiu lying still and cold… dead and gone forever… 

 

Binghe stiffened, inhaling sharply, and then cast that thought aside immediately. The memory didn’t want to go. He held it apart from him, took a deep breath, and realized that he very much did not want to spend the next seven days in the company of a corpse. 

 

“...What?” Mobei demanded. 

 

Binghe turned to keep Mobei’s father’s body out of his line of sight. His hand was aching again, he flexed it slowly and mindfully, feeling the absence of a sword that had burned him. 

 

“What?” Mobei repeated. 

 

“Bad memories,” Binghe muttered. “What sort of demon lord can’t handle this sort of thing?” He sat down on the floor and posed himself for meditation. “You’re supposed to start some sort of observance now, aren’t you? I’m going to spend time in the Dream Realm.” 

 

“...Do you want to… talk?” Mobei asked, so unenthusiastically that Binghe nearly laughed. 

 

“No,” Binghe said. “Just… start this already. I want to go home.” 

 

Mobei did not push him and instead knelt before his father’s body to wait. He had informed Binghe that no one could preempt his ascension now that the time for challenges was considered over and done, no one could leap forward and consume the power before he did, at risk of bringing down some ancestral curse and family disapproval, but they could attack at some point of vulnerability during the ascension, corrupt the flow of power, and kill him directly afterwards. The most danger lay in the transition between two points. Or else directly afterwards when the power was settling and he allowed himself to be complacent. 

 

So, they waited. 

 

Binghe did not go far as he moved between waking and dreaming, reaching out to the Dream Realm as a man might skim his fingers along the surface of the water. 

 

The temple attendants moved to a half-circle watchtowers atop cliffs in the surrounding desert, looking down on the cave entrance from a long distance, settling in to wait for the emergence of a new Mobei-Jun. Few of them were sleeping and Binghe could feel little from the ones who were not while he moved through the Dream Realm. The awake ones were like shadows moving above an agitated surface, he could count them, guard against sudden movements, unless he wanted to use a surge of power to reach out and drag them under the water, which could be dangerous as well as difficult. Others came to join the attendants, guards and other members of the Mobei Clan at Binghe’s guess, determined to bear witness as well. The energy was high among them. Binghe felt flickers of too many emotions to name. 

 

He didn’t fail to notice a new arrival that made all the others stir, the chaos even pulling some of the napping or meditating watchers out of the Dream Realm’s water to join the surprise. The new presence didn’t stop at any of the places where others had gathered. It came closer and closer to the temple, pausing at the doorstep, and then moving inside with burning intent, much too awake and too powerful for Binghe to attack from the Dream Realm as he was now. 

 

Binghe pulled out of his half-dreaming state and stood up. 

 

He heard Mobei stir behind him. 

 

“It’s him,” Binghe said. 

 

It didn’t take long for Mobei’s uncle to show his face. Binghe didn’t know the man well, as he had not known Mobei’s father, for Linguang-Jun had stayed closer to home in the northern kingdoms. While preparing for the ascension, the Elder Dream Demon had whispered to Binghe that rumor had it that Linguang-Jun had originally hoped that Binghe would kill his nephew in the “inevitable self-destruction” of all Heavenly Demons. Linguang-Jun was immensely furious, Meng Mo had said gleefully, that his nephew and the young Demon Emperor hadn’t killed each other. 

 

When Linguang-Jun walked into the room, Binghe’s first thought was that this ice demon also wasn’t quite as formidable as his vague memories and recent imaginations had promised. He was tall, as all ice demons of the Mobei Clan were tall, but… his nephew was taller and much broader. He was elegant, probably considered handsome and wearing it as someone who knew it, dressed in more flowing blues than blacks, with his dark hair threaded through with silver streaks. Linguang-Jun smiled and Binghe suddenly found that he hated this man. 

 

“Greetings, Demon Emperor,” Linguang-Jun said, sounding very sincere. “Nephew.” 

 

“Uncle,” Mobei answered flatly. 

 

Binghe said nothing. 

 

Linguang-Jun waited pointedly and only looked amused as the silence went on. “Nephew, I see that your observance has already started. It is an honor that the Demon Emperor himself has exited his seclusion to show support for your ascension, but I wonder if you have truly considered what it means to allow another demon lord witness such an event…?” 

 

“Yes,” Mobei said. “I have.” 

 

Linguang-Jun’s smile turned politely disbelieving and he came forward, skirting ever so slightly around Binghe. “This is not who I would have expected to join you for this event, though then again… I did hear that a certain servant of yours has been absent in recent months, when he has spent so many years hugging your shadow. What happened to him, nephew?” 

 

Mobei was still kneeling in front of his father’s body. Binghe had come to know him better recently, and so he noticed the way that Mobei’s expression tightened at his uncle’s approach, the way that his shoulders tensed in a slight hunch and the hands on his lap clenched. 

 

He also noticed the way that Linguang-Jun’s smile widened, ever so slightly. 

 

Binghe hadn’t known that Mobei could look… small… in this way. 

 

He found that he didn’t care for it at all. 

 

He thought back to his own ascension to Demon Emperor, a long and bloody climb, and the way that certain demons would talk, when they thought they had him in their power. The way that certain demon lords had tried to make him pay respects to them, to make him stand and be insulted, before they would let him speak to them. The ways that they had tried to hurt him, for the fun of it, and how they had tried to kill him, when they realized he would not let them hurt him for any reason without a fight. He hadn’t cared for that, either, and he had let those demon lords know and regret it. 

 

His patience, it seemed, had only worsened with age. 

 

Before they had come here, Binghe had asked, “What do you want me to do with your uncle if he shows up?” 

 

And after a long pause, Mobei had answered, “Don’t kill him. If you can.” 

 

Not killing him didn’t mean that Binghe had to allow him to talk, especially not about Shang Qinghua, and nor did he have to allow Linguang-Jun to reach out and touch his nephew’s shoulder as he was doing now.

 

Mobei didn't have to allow it, though Binghe understood why Mobei seemed unable to stop it.

 

Not killing Mobei's uncle also didn’t mean that Binghe had to warn the ice demon before he lunged across the temple’s innermost room, drawing the sword he had brought, and stabbed Linguang-Jun through the wrist with it, before he could lay a finger on the unmoving Mobei. 

 

Linguang-Jun howled with pain. He clawed at Binghe with an icy attack, but Binghe was already aflame with his own spiritual-demonic energy, and so the attack seemed to slide off him. Binghe didn’t stop after having stabbed the ice demon, pushing Linguang-Jun backwards, until he could slam Mobei’s uncle against the wall. Until he could pin him there and snarl up in his face.  

 

“Don’t touch him.” 

 

“You wretched little freak!” Linguang-Jun snarled back, wild-eyed and writhing. He was taller than Binghe, and so larger as well, but still unable to push back against all the weight and fire of a Heavenly Demon. “How dare you-?! I didn’t touch him!” 

 

Binghe pressed down harder and said, “You tried.” 

 

Perhaps he should have given warning, at least, but then he thought about little A-Yun being left at the mercy of a man like this, and he wanted to feel even more blood on his hands. He thought about Mobei, who at five years old had been as big as Shang Qinghua now and had sharp claws capable of killing small beasts, but who had still been a child when he had been left in the Human Realm because of his uncle, and Binghe wanted to break bones. 

 

It was a little shocking, almost, to realize just how much he cared about Mobei. It was something to think about later.

 

“You filthy, feral, half-breed thing,” Linguang-Jun spat. “Release me!” 

 

Suddenly, in this moment, Linguang-Jun was every man who had ever spat on Binghe or his mother, always looking down on them. He was every man who had turned up his nose when she was sick and who had thrown Binghe out onto the streets afterwards to die somewhere else. It was hard to say how close Linguang-Jun came to death in that moment.

 

Allow Linguang-Jun to say his piece? One more word and Binghe was going to rip out his tongue. His patience for this pathetic man had burned up before they had even met. 

 

But then Mobei said, “Release him.” 

 

So Binghe paused and, when he managed to summon his voice again, said, “Are you sure?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“...Really?” Binghe said, a little plaintively. 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Binghe pulled back, pulling the sword from Lingang-Jun’s wrist. The ice demon had already iced it over to stop the bleeding and needed to so again as he stumbled free, glaring at Binghe for making him bleed. For being in his way. For existing. 

 

“Leave, Uncle,” Mobei said. 

 

Linguang-Jun sneered at him and opened his mouth, but Binghe raised his bloody sword again, and Linguang-Jun’s mouth snapped shut. His expression somehow turned even more hateful. Binghe hoped that the ice demon would lunge, he wanted Linguang-Jun to attack him, but instead Mobei’s uncle straightened and left the temple’s innermost chamber, his head held high as though it was his own idea to leave. He dripped blood as he left. 

 

It was disappointing. It was a relief. 

 

Binghe stood by the doors to the temple’s innermost chamber to make sure that Linguang-Jun truly did leave. He apparently did. Binghe was certain that this only meant that Linguang-Jun would seek to kill his nephew later, in some sly and underhanded way, as Mobei had confessed he suspected that his uncle had done to his father. 

 

“...Thank you,” Mobei said, when Linguang-Jun was gone. 

 

“You’re welcome,” Binghe said, and regarded the mess with more regret now that he realized he couldn’t call someone to clean it. He refused to clean up Linguang-Jun’s spilled blood himself, no matter how much it would itch at him, and he settled away from the blood to clean his sword instead, again oriented in such a way to keep the body out of his line of sight. 

 

Before they had come here, Binghe had also asked, “Why don’t you want me to kill your uncle?” 

 

And Mobei had eventually answered, “I want to be better than him.” 

 

Unfortunately, it was perhaps the only answer that Binghe could actually respect, even if he also thought it was a little stupid. 

 

However, he hoped that Linguang-Jun remembered that Binghe didn't care about keeping him alive.

 

“It’s a good thing that we didn’t bring A-Yun,” Binghe said, after he was done with his sword, and Mobei had still not said anything else. “Because if your uncle had so much as looked at A-Yun or Shizun, I would have killed him.”

 

If Linguang-Jun ever did, Binghe wouldn't let him go again.

 

“Mm,” Mobei agreed. 

 

There was no way that Mobei’s uncle would be able to find Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua to take revenge. No one knew where Binghe’s home in the Human Realm was except for Mobei and Meng Mo, and the Elder Dream Demon had been tasked with watching the location until Binghe returned, able to contact Binghe in an instant, and given enough extra power to drag any intruders into the Dream Realm kicking and screaming, locking them into a waking dream that would leave their bodies in a state like sleep paralysis. Mobei-Jun had even moved the artifact that had cursed Shang Qinghua someplace even safer.

 

Linguang-Jun couldn't attack Binghe's Demon Realm holdings and Sha Hualing without angering Jiuzhong-Jun, and Sha Hualing herself, of course, which wasn't something to take lightly. And if Mobei's uncle wanted to attack Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, then he would have to face Yue Qingyuan and Liu Qingge, who were… ugh… more than strong enough to trouble him. 

 

“It was his mistake trusting in my politeness allowing him to play his tricks,” Binghe added bitterly. “In my respect for tradition and my elders. If I had listened to what other people said I was supposed to do, I would be dead.” 

 

Mobei said nothing, so Binghe glanced at him, and noticed a peculiar expression. 

 

“What?” Binghe asked. 

 

“...You sound like Shang Qinghua,” Mobei said. 

 

Binghe didn’t know what to make of this. It looked like Mobei didn’t either. 

 

“Hm,” Binghe said finally.

 


 

Binghe remained on his guard, but Linguang-Jun did not return. Perhaps he was seeking healing. Perhaps he was telling anyone who would listen that the Demon Emperor had attacked him unprovoked. Perhaps the pathetic man who had tried to kill a child time and time again was already scheming ways to take his revenge. 

 

The ascension continued, the days passed them in their meditative trances, while power gathering around Mobei and the body of his father. 

 

Binghe couldn’t say he hadn’t thought about interfering in Mobei’s ascension. When they had first met, and he had first learned about the way that the power of Mobei-Jun was passed down, he had considered how he might stop it or steal it or corrupt it, to ensure that Mobei could never seriously compete against him. But he didn’t have any plans now, nor any real interest in betraying him. 

 

He… trusted Mobei not to use this power against him. It was an uncomfortable feeling. Binghe consoled himself with the less sentimental reassurance that he would probably be able to defeat Mobei in life-or-death combat regardless and Mobei knew it. 

 

Binghe spent most of his time moving in and out of the Dream Realm. He watched the Mobei Clan members who were still gathering to watch the cave entrance. He checked on Sha Hualing and the state of things in the rest of the Demon Realm, and with the servants, some who were dream demons and some who were not, who watched such things for him. He spoke with the Elder Dream Demon, who was disappointed to report that no assassins had come to Binghe’s home, and had also apparently been wondering, given Binghe’s fondness for his cursed shishu, if Binghe had given any thought to a legacy for his own bloodline. 

 

Binghe strongly ignored these indirect questions.

 

In turn, Meng Mo kept refusing to take the hint. 

 

And, of course, Binghe spoke with his husband, when Shen Qingqiu was asleep and dreaming. It was difficult to reach him from this distance, from the far side of the Demon Realm, but the Elder Dream Demon had taught Binghe how to twist the Dream Realm just so to manage it. Shen Qingqiu sent his love, every time, assured him that there had been nothing worrying from the Transmigration System, and also relayed the messages that Shang Qinghua missed him, and Mobei, and also especially Binghe’s cooking. Binghe missed it with such ferocity that it felt like an open wound in his chest.

 

The final part of the ascension was, in Binghe’s personal opinion, slightly disgusting. It was, at least, over soon enough, though he didn’t think he’d be able to look at Mobei and not think about it for some time. 

 

The power with which Mobei was forced to grapple for control after it was complete was impressive, bringing down a cold so deep that it burned and summoning writhing shadows that turned the temple’s brilliance dark. When Mobei’s control slipped, even just for a moment, it cracked some of the ice carvings of the temple, all those frozen ancestors and their foes who had apparently contributed to the power. It would have dealt damage to Binghe as well, if he had not been powerful enough to defend himself against it and prepared for it, in part because Mobei had called out a warning to him. 

 

When it was all over for good, at least according to Mobei, they were both sitting on the floor of the temple’s innermost room. Well, Binghe was sitting, and Mobei was somewhere between that and sprawled on the floor. All of the nearest ice carvings had been destroyed. They were both disheveled, as though they had been fighting, which was not true but also could not be said to be incorrect. Linguang-Jun’s blood was still on the floor, now several days old. 

 

Mobei was panting, exhausted, still struggling slightly with the immense power of his ancestors. 

 

“...Do you feel like a king yet?” Binghe asked him tiredly. 

 

Mobei tried to sit up properly, and then tried again, and had to give up after the third time with a painful grunt. It was very pitiful. After enough time had passed that Binghe assumed Mobei hadn’t heard the question, Mobei finally said, “No.” 

 

Binghe snorted and confessed, “Me neither.” 



Chapter Text

 

Mobei-Jun was a king and he did not feel like one. 

 

He still trembled with more power than he had ever had, but it did not feel like his own to control. A storming sea had taken the place of his heart, the boiling waves battering against his ribs, the knifelike wind howling through his lungs and up his throat. He was burning. His skin was melting and his skull was shaking and it felt as though he was going to die. 

 

And beyond that pain, there was… an emptiness inside him. 

 

“Hey, Mobei, get your shit together,” Luo Binghe said, and the Demon Emperor smacked him with his sheathed sword again. “I want to go home sooner rather than later.” 

 

Mobei-Jun gave in to temptation and growled at him, but he also took a deep breath and wrestled the power of his ancestors back under some measure of control. When every single one of his bones felt like they were pulling apart, like they were slowly cracking, it was not easy. Luo Binghe tapped his head with the sheathed sword again, twice. It did not help. 

 

Mobei-Jun’s father had not prepared him for this. Perhaps this was because his father had not truly expected to die, assuming that his immense strength would carry him through, or perhaps that Linguang-Jun would not go through with his scheme, if there had been some scheme behind the illness as Mobei-Jun suspected. Perhaps Mobei-Jun’s father had not expected this son to be the one to succeed him. Perhaps… as seemed the most likely explanation… he simply had not cared enough to see to it. 

 

It was no more worth thinking about his late father’s behavior than it was the behavior of the abyssal beasts in the White Sea. It was what it was. It changed nothing. 

 

The Mobei Clan had scholars, spiritual leaders, and temple attendants, however, to make up for his father’s neglect. There had been many kings before this Mobei-Jun and their ascensions had been duly recorded in the appropriate materials for that age, and some of these kings had even personally recorded the details of their ascension. So, Mobei-Jun had not been completely unprepared, even if this preparation did not now feel like enough. 

 

Thankfully, there were no immediate celebrations planned for him afterwards. Historically, even after the age of men had come upon them, it had not been uncommon for a newly ascended king to go on a rampage to destroy their enemies, now that they had the power to do so, or a long hunt to slay and devour every monster they encountered. Even if the newly ascended king did not partake in such bloody revelry, the official banquets often waited until it was certain that the new king would not shatter under the weight of the ancestral power and thus incite another battle among the clan for the right to consume the failed king. It would have been wise for the newly ascended kings to also wait until their control was such that they could celebrate without accidentally breaking everything around them, but many of them insisted. 

 

Mobei-Jun was always glad to put off any social obligations. He felt prepared to kill so that he might sleep uninterrupted for a month, until this pain went away and his body was his own again. He was also glad that he was only exhausted and ill-tempered, instead of being one of the ones to become frenzied with bloodlust or bloodthirst, if only because Luo Binghe likely would not have let him live any wild behavior down for the rest of their lives. 

 

He and Luo Binghe slowly exited the temple together. Moving was unpleasant, painful in a different way, but the effort of it shifted his focus to something besides self-pity. His body parts still spasmed, occasionally, and his left arm went temporarily numb for no apparent reason for a few minutes, such that when he touched it with his right hand, his left arm did not feel it. 

 

He also heard a whispering, fading in and out, at the edges of his hearing. There were the shapes of words in there, but the sounds did not reveal themselves more distinctly than that. He could hear nothing but the wind. He could hear Luo Binghe’s heartbeat. He could hear nothing over his own heartbeat. Nor over the unforgiving brightness of the snowfields. He knew that this disorientation was meant to wear off in time, as the power settled, and was certain that if it did not do so sooner rather than later, he would go mad with the chaotic sensation. 

 

Once they were outside, Mobei-Jun attempted to call on his power, to release it on purpose, and summon a single ice arrow. Instead, the air in front of him exploded, sending large, splintered chunks of ice in every direction. Mobei-Jun slowly, carefully, lowered his hand again. 

 

“...This is making me want to fight you,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

Mobei-Jun looked at him, but Luo Binghe made no moves to honestly do so. Mobei-Jun considered the idea, imagining how he might settle his ancestors’ power against his own skills in order to defeat the Demon Emperor. They would destroy everything around them. The clan members who had witnessed the ascension were specks on the horizon, but it did not seem far enough to escape the great power raging inside him now, especially not if it was turned against the full, fiery might of a Heavenly Demon. It sounded… tempting. 

 

Luo Binghe sighed. “Shizun would be so upset if I came home with any injuries.” 

 

Mobei-Jun retracted the power as best he could, disappointed and annoyed, but understanding the point. He did not have enough control for such a thing yet. They would undoubtedly cause each other significant harm, possibly even deadly harm. 

 

“Another time,” Luo Binghe decided. 

 

Mobei-Jun nodded, then carefully reached out to call a portal, a small one, as though cutting a cut with nothing more than his fingernail. The shadows leaped up and burst apart. Their explosion cracked open the ground in front of him with a sound like thunder and snow fell in. Mobei-Jun carefully lowered his hand again. 

 

“We’re walking,” Luo Binghe decided. 

 

Mobei-Jun nodded again. 

 

They did not have to walk far, as members of the Mobei Clan who had witnessed the ascension came to meet them halfway. Some of the witnesses fled, of course, without speaking to him, likely having hoped for different results. Perhaps to report the bad news of his survival to rivals who had not personally attended. Some were also possibly wary of a rampage, which was reasonable. Many more clamored forward, eager to greet a new king and remind him of their loyalty, regardless of whatever fear or resentment they held in their hearts. 

 

Where had they been when he had been nothing? 

 

He truly did not know what he had been expecting from these moments. That he would feel more satisfied with himself, perhaps, triumphant, looking and moving forward with certainty. Ideally, his uncle would have died a long time ago, perhaps a genuine accident on a completely unrelated hunt, so that Mobei-Jun would not have had to deal with him when it finally came time to ascend. He had not allowed himself to think too deeply on such things. Fantasy was a waste of time, and the future was so delicate, it had sometimes seemed that to look at it was to risk it all. 

 

Shang Qinghua should have been here. He did not know when exactly Shang Qinghua had become a necessary part of the scene in his imagination. What role he had supposed that his human servant would play in his ascension had changed time and time again, but Shang Qinghua presence had only become more and more certain, until any made-up tasks had slipped away as unimportant compared to the fact that the man would be there. 

 

And once Mobei-Jun was king, in these imaginings, he could finally… he would have the power to think of the future, to face it directly, to have it for his own. 

 

Shang Qinghua had come to him when he had been nothing to the clan members coming to greet him now, when he had been a disfavored oddity who had slipped Linguang-Jun’s rage through sheer luck. Now, according to recent revelations, it appeared that Shang Qinghua had always known that Mobei-Jun’s fortunes would change. 

 

Though Luo Binghe had said that Shen Qingqiu had confessed that they had never had any control over the future, once they had come to this world they had not known to be real, and their knowledge of the future had become useless after the events of the Immortal Alliance Conference. Luo Binghe had said that Mobei-Jun and Shang Qinghua’s life now was not what had been written. He had refused to tell Mobei-Jun what had been originally intended, with such strange solemnity that Mobei-Jun had not pushed, despite the frustration of anything of Shang Qinghua being kept from him by the Demon Emperor. 

 

“It is between you and Shang Qinghua, when he returns,” Luo Binghe had said. One more thing that could not be fully confronted until Shang Qinghua could answer for all his secrets. 

 

Among these things Mobei-Jun did not want to discuss with Luo Binghe, Mobei-Jun also still did not know what to make of the fact that Shang Qinghua was perhaps the god of this world. An ordinary man, according to Shen Qingqiu, turned the unwilling scribe of this world’s fate, abandoned into his own creation. It made a disturbing amount of sense. It also meant that Shang Qinghua had made him what he was in every sense, in two different lifetimes, and of all the world he had inadvertently shaped, Shang Qinghua had chosen him as his favorite. 

 

What did it mean to be the favorite of a fallen god? 

 

He might have been wrong, but Mobei-Jun felt certain enough that Shang Qinghua had not been hiding godly powers from all of them as Luo Binghe had offhandedly suggested as a possibility, once he had calmed himself and looked back on their years together. Shang Qinghua had never been particularly good at hiding his unusual knowledge of the world, spilling half-remembered secrets he never should have known every time that he stumbled, dodging future battles before they had even been set in motion. Shang Qinghua could be lazy and self-indulgent when it came to his personal pleasures. He complained often and at length when he did not get his way, though often under his breath. If had secretly been in possession of godly powers all these years, he undoubtedly would have been unable to resist the temptation to flee unpleasant situations, such as the cold of the northern kingdoms, and to spoil himself with small delights. 

 

Mobei-Jun remembered how when the servants put out a basket of a certain fruit from the southern kingdoms, if Shang Qinghua spent any time in the room, he could empty the basket by himself within hours. Sometimes, it seemed, without even noticing he’d done it. The child Shang Qinghua was much the same way. Some things apparently did not change. 

 

Shang Qinghua had much to answer for when he returned, but… so did Mobei-Jun. Many things would need to change between them. No more secrets. No more unsaid things. 

 

Thankfully, Mobei-Jun did not need to speak with all the clan members who came to greet him, speaking foremost with the leaders among them. He gave orders to some of his servants on the arrangements to be made for the next events. They did not argue with him, perhaps afraid to become an example of what became of those who displeased the new king. Some were apparently confused by the absence of both rampage and revelry, waiting for the blow to come, for Mobei-Jun’s control over himself to break, but Mobei-Jun did not see the point of taking out his pain and his new power out on any of them. He was not his father. Nor his uncle. 

 

Luo Binghe’s presence was perhaps a boon here. Mobei-Jun had not told anyone of his clan that he intended to bring the Demon Emperor to his ascension, instead arriving with Luo Binghe by his side, and many of them were wary of the Heavenly Demon. Most of these clan members must have seen Linguang-Jun’s flight from the temple. 

 

Mobei-Jun sent the clan members on their way, so that he and Luo Binghe could make their way to the nearest palace by themselves. Mobei-Jun attempted to master portals as they went, motivated in part of the tour of the northern kingdoms he would have to take when he was more settled as king, for he had been hoping to have much shorter journeys than his ancestors. He did not have much patience for traditional travel. The idea of not being able to escape a distant relative’s feast in his honor at a moment’s notice? A wretched thought. 

 

“You’re probably going to have to kill your uncle eventually, you know,” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“I know,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

It was not sentimentality that had spared his uncle, for he felt no love for his father’s only brother, but nor was it purely a wish not to have to kill his kin. He knew it was inevitable that he would have to kill Linguang-Jun, unless he wished to be killed by him, which Mobei-Jun very much did not. But there was satisfaction in not doing what his uncle had expected him to do, to not do what his uncle would have done in the same position, and in having ruined any potential plans by not not being as alone as Linguang-Jun had attempted to make him. This way forced his uncle to witness his survival and ascension, to seethe with the knowledge that his hated nephew had won, and to have the entire clan know that Mobei-Jun had survived and spared him. 

 

This encounter had not changed Linguang-Jun, though perhaps his uncle would try to pretend that it had as part of some scheme, and Mobei-Jun would have to watch out for the next attempt on his life. His uncle was more cunning and more charismatic than he was, still well-liked among many in their clan, and thrived on revenge and resentment. But for now, his uncle’s humiliation was sweet. Luo Binghe had not even allowed Linguang-Jun to speak. 

 

“Well, as long as you know that,” Luo Binghe said, sounding disturbingly like Shen Qingqiu. 

 

The pain continued, ebbing and flowing, and as Mobei-Jun mastered his own body again, he thought of what Shang Qinghua would have made of this. If he had not been cursed, if none of this had ever happened, would he have been proud that the king he had chosen had come so far? …Would he have been afraid of what the future would bring, with neither of them fully understanding his value to Mobei-Jun? 

 

The child Shang Qinghua had become would be pleased, but… it was not the same. 

 

Luo Binghe stopped walking abruptly. Mobei-Jun turned to look and saw that the half-demon had taken on the now familiar distant frown of someone whose attention had been pulled into the Dream Realm. Tension spread through Mobei-Jun, making the pain of his settling power worse. Had something happened? What had happened? 

 

Luo Binghe came back to himself and said, “Sha Hualing wants to see us.” 

 

“Us?” Mobei-Jun repeated. 

 

If there had been some attack, surely Sha Hualing would have said so to Luo Binghe and Luo Binghe would have said so to him. But Luo Binghe’s expression did not make it seem as though this was one of Sha Hualing’s more harmless whims, a simple desire to see Mobei-Jun now that he had ascended. It sounded as though Luo Binghe intended to answer her call. 

 

“It’s about Shang Qinghua. It’s about the thing that cursed him.” 

 


 

Mobei-Jun ripped through space to take them to where Sha Hualing waited. The shadows tried to tear at their flesh, where not so long ago they had seemed to recognize him as their master, and if either Mobei-Jun or Luo Binghe had been weaker demons, they might have been lost. 

 

Instead, they fell gracelessly out of the portal, somewhere nearer to the ceiling than the floor. Mobei-Jun landed facedown on the floor and cracked it. Luo Binghe shot out of the portal at an impressive speed and bounced off a gilded column, denting it, but managed to stumblingly land on his feet. Mobei-Jun stomped down on his envy as he heaved himself up. 

 

Sha Hualing was watching them, wide-eyed, lips pursed, with her hands on her hips. She was a small thing, more than half Mobei-Jun’s height and less than half of Mobei-Jun’s size, but she had a way of looking down on him despite being almost half his age. She didn’t say anything. With the way that she smiled, she didn’t have to say anything, but this was Sha Hualing, and no Sha Clan demon had ever let that stop them. 

 

“Do not,” Mobei-Jun snarled at her. 

 

“Don’t what?” Sha Hualing said, smiling even wider. “How did your ascension go, Mobei? You look… rough.” 

 

Luo Binghe stepped in before Mobei-Jun could lose his temper and his palace could lose any more of its structural integrity. “It went fine,” he said coolly. 

 

Sha Hualing leaned back again, and Mobei-Jun finally noticed that she appeared slightly disheveled herself, as though dragged directly out of one of her clan’s wicked workrooms. Her braids had the frazzled look of having been done several days ago and left that way, and she was not wearing the usual amount of jewelry, with none on her hands or arms below the elbow. She had a greenish smear across one cheek, near the jaw, presumably from some experiment. 

 

“What?” she said. 

 

Luo Binghe tapped the spot on his face where the smear was. 

 

“Oh.” Sha Hualing reached up and dragged her hand across her face, transferring most of the smear to her fingers so that she could squint at it. “It’s either face paint or poison,” she told them, before she brought her stained fingers up to her mouth, sniffed, and then licked them. 

 

Mobei-Jun did not have the patience to be shocked. In front of him, Luo Binghe recoiled slightly, though perhaps because his sense of cleanliness was deeply offended by the reckless act. 

 

“It’s poison,” Sha Hualing declared confidently. 

 

If only Sha Clan demons could be so easily killed. If only. 

 

Luo Binghe apparently decided to ignore Sha Hualing’s antics and demanded, “What’s this about the artifact? Meng Mo said that you had uncovered important information on its construction, even though I don’t recall either of us telling you of its existence.” 

 

Sha Hualing did not look cowed, only flipping her hand back over her shoulder. “And that was your mistake, because if you had told me directly instead of my having to interrogate one of Mobei’s servants, then I could have given you its schematics months ago.” 

 

Mobei-Jun moved forward without thinking, without his own permission, stopped only by Luo Binghe’s arm shooting out to restrain him. “You built that thing?!” 

 

Sha Hualing had taken a gratifying skip backwards, but now scoffed. “Of course not! That thing is older than I am! And maybe if I had built it, then it would actually work.” 

 

“And what does that mean?!” 

 

Luo Binghe’s other hand landed solidly against Mobei-Jun’s chest, knocking the breath out of him, if not the desperate rage. “Why don’t we discuss this somewhere besides an entrance hall where anyone can listen in on our conversation?” the Demon Emperor suggested quietly, in a tone of voice that made it clear it was not a suggestion. 

 

A glance around revealed a handful of palace servants, lingering at the edges of the entrance hall, who scampered away as soon as Mobei-Jun laid eyes on them. He acquiesced begrudgingly, but at least he did not roll his eyes, unlike Sha Hualing. Luo Binghe did not need to physically drag Mobei-Jun to a more private meeting room, but he did so anyway, with Sha Hualing following behind them, making childish faces at Mobei-Jun simply because she could, until Mobei-Jun simply refused to look at her any longer. 

 

Sha Hualing directed them to the room she had taken over as a workroom while “watching over” the palace, where the schematics for the artifact and several old journals were already spread across a large table. The room was a mess. Luo Binghe frowned at a green spill on the floor, which matched the poisonous smear lingering on Sha Hualing’s cheek. 

 

Sha Hualing waved her hand over the table. “You know, I could have told you about this ages ago if you’d just asked me,” she said. 

 

Mobei-Jun and Luo Binghe exchanged a look, neither of them conceding fault. 

 

Mobei-Jun looked back at Sha Hualing. “Talk,” he demanded. 

 

Sha Hualing’s clan had made many foul things, but they had not created the artifact that had cursed Shang Qinghua. Mobei-Jun’s servants had already made inquiries and been informed that the creator of the artifact had not been associated with Sha Hualing’s clan, but rather a rival, and no one had dared to disturb Sha Hualing herself, while she was busy creating new wicked weapons, to ask what she knew. Sha Hualing only knew about the artifact because her mother had somehow been gifted the creator’s plans and journals concerning the device. 

 

“She was never one of his official apprentices, but after he went into seclusion, he allowed her to take a great deal of his old research and other things,” Sha Hualing said with a shrug, “because she was the only one who actually bothered to try and steal them or kill him for them.” 

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Mobei-Jun saw Luo Binghe make a brief expression of disbelief, most likely due to his human upbringing in which such things were more rarely done. 

 

The answers Mobei-Jun and his servants had been searching for for months had apparently been buried at the bottom of a locked chest in one of Sha Hualing’s storerooms, unread for years until Sha Hualing had recently rifled through her mother’s old belongings while researching for her own experiments. Sha Hualing had been mildly interested in the complexity of the artifact’s design, but had originally tossed the journals aside halfway through, as they had not been relevant to her own project and the “cursed” artifact had, as she had already said, been a failure in the eyes of its late creator. She had read them thoroughly these past few days. 

 

“He was trying to recreate the Faces of Dawn and Dusk, or something like them,” Sha Hualing said, as though Mobei-Jun was supposed to know what those were. “Something that could take and give youth and power, but he couldn’t figure it out. The artifact takes a person’s power in the form of years, including their memories, so you could at least use it on an enemy rather than yourself, I suppose? But then you can’t take the power without also taking on the years.” 

 

Sha Hualing explained that if a person opened the puzzle box again to take on the stolen power, then they would also age the number of years that had been stolen, which was considered immensely undesirable. And as the creator had been unable to separate the stolen power from the stolen years, the power was not “clean”, but rather full of personal impurities. The stolen power would be difficult for another person to consume, perhaps even completely incompatible with the person attempting to absorb it, which would cause great spiritual and physical damage to the person attempting to take on the stolen power. 

 

“Most of the experiment subjects died,” Sha Hualing reported, waving her hand over the old journals again. “Some of them suddenly, some of them eventually, all of them painfully.” 

 

So, the artifact had been unable to transfer stolen power, and Sha Hualing next revealed that it had also been unable to at least weaken many enemies by turning them young and powerless once more. The artifact had been constructed to contain the stolen power until it was opened again for the consumption of said power, and so it could not contain more than one person’s power at a time. The creator of the artifact had worked on the possibility of destroying or dispersing the stolen power, without having another person consuming it, but they had not been able to manage this before they had run out of time or interest. 

 

The failed device had been sold to the creator’s patron at the time, as a curiosity, in case they managed to find a use for it. In time, the artifact had come into Mobei-Jun’s possession, through the path of gifts and offerings and tribute that Mobei-Jun’s servants had followed to find the creator. The creator had never revisited the project before their death. 

 

“In his journals - he was really bitter about having failed, this device was, I think, his fourth try at creating something like this, and it was a commission, so I don’t think he ever really wanted to do it in the first place -  he suggested that the demon lord he gave it to could use it to raise one of his children a second time, if he got it wrong the first time,” Sha Hualing recounted, amused. “Or that his patron could potentially trick a rival into using it, obviously.” 

 

Mobei-Jun found nothing about any of this amusing. It was all he could do to keep the power inside him from lashing out at Sha Hualing for daring to smirk over any of this. Thankfully, he did not have to force himself to speak, as Luo Binghe did it for him. 

 

“Are you saying that if we have Shang Qinghua open the artifact again, it’ll undo what was done to him?” the Demon Emperor demanded, faintly disbelieving. 

 

Could it really be that easy? 

 

Sha Hualing’s eyes widened. “Ohhh, that’s who touched it? Mobei’s servant was frustratingly tight-lipped about the whole thing.” She gave Mobei-Jun a look somewhere between sympathy and amusement. “I thought I heard something about Mobei’s favorite servant being absent recently, too busy in the Human Realm to come around, but he’s a child now? Cute.” 

 

Mobei-Jun had to close his eyes to focus on not destroying everything around him. 

 

“Will opening the artifact again work?” Luo Binghe pressed. 

 

“No.” 

 

“What? Why not?” 

 

“Because he’s a child now? It’s good that you didn’t do that, because if you had, you probably would have killed him,” Sha Hualing said slowly, as though that made the words make more sense. “Trying to open the device to return the stolen power always killed people.” 

 

“You said that was because the stolen power was incompatible with the people trying to consume it for themselves,” Luo Binghe countered. “This is Shang Qinghua’s own power. Why would returning his own power and years to him kill him?” 

 

“Because he’s a child now! Children can’t manage the input!” 

 

“Explain.” 

 

“Look at him!” 

 

Mobei-Jun opened his eyes to Sha Hualing jabbing an accusing finger towards him. 

 

“He just ate his father’s power and he’s struggling with it! Even though the Mobei Clan has their special temples and their special secret rituals to prepare the body and cleanse the power properly! And the transfer of power spread across days to make sure it doesn’t kill him! He was prepared for it! He was strong enough among demons before it!” 

 

“Children are too weak to take the power back,” Luo Binghe realized. 

 

Sha Hualing rolled her eyes again. “That’s what I said! Mobei’s human servant might not have even started cultivating yet, right? By the time the victims get enough of their memories back, the chaos of the transfer is too much, and a deviation has begun. A fatal deviation. They tried this on both humans and demons, and cultivators always got the worst of it, pushing beyond natural weak human powers like they do.” 

 

“So what is the solution?” Luo Binghe demanded. 

 

“I don’t know. Wait.” 

 

“What?” 

 

“Wait! The creator of this device never figured out a solution before he threw up his hands, but he theorized that waiting for the victim to reach a point where they could manage the input again would work, if they remained stable. Teach Mobei’s little human how to cultivate again, let him grow up a little, and let him take his power and years back when he can take it back in without it killing him. He was a peak lord, wasn’t he? It should only take, what, ten to twenty years or so?” 

 

Mobei-Jun lost his grip on his power. The floor beneath his feet cracked. The walls shook. The temperature of the room dropped sharply, as though a portal to the space between spaces had opened inside him. Sha Hualing skipped several steps backwards. 

 

“What?” he said hoarsely. 

 

Luo Binghe’s hand landed on Mobei-Jun’s shoulder. 

 

“Is this a joke?” the Demon Emperor demanded. 

 

Sha Hualing was still giving Mobei-Jun a wary look, then frowned as she saw her breath cloud in front of her, rubbing her hands up and down her bare arms. “No? Why would this be a joke? Unless you want to set off one of those deviations, you need to wait until Mobei’s human servant is old enough to take in that kind of power and control it again. Otherwise, he’ll die.” 

 


 

The entire world was breaking apart. 

 

Mobei-Jun lost track of what happened next. 

 

Sha Hualing said, “I think that I should go now,” and Luo Binghe said some things back to her, and she said some things back to him, but the only thing that Mobei-Jun heard was Luo Binghe saying afterwards, “Mobei, keep it together,” and, “Mobei, come on.” 

 

When Mobei-Jun came back to himself, he was in a different room in the palace, apparently some kind of training room. Sha Hualing was gone. Luo Binghe was the only one there, sitting across from him, with his sword resting across his lap. Mobei-Jun was sitting on the floor. They were both sitting on the floor. It had a thin layer of frost spreading across it. 

 

“Twenty years,” Mobei-Jun repeated. 

 

Luo Binghe looked up from the floor and said, “Ten to twenty years, yes.” 

 

Mobei-Jun couldn’t wait twenty years. Except that he could wait twenty years, of course. He already had. He just didn’t want to wait twenty years. He had waited so long already. He had been waiting long before he had even known that he was waiting to have Shang Qinghua. 

 

“There must be another way to make Shang Qinghua into himself again,” Luo Binghe said. “Sha Hualing has the schematics and the journals for the artifact. Meng Mo and I can look at them. Shizun can look at them. If necessary,  I can take them back to Cang Qiong so that Mu Qingfang and Wei Qingwei can look at them. We’ll find something that won’t risk killing A-Yun.” 

 

“...And if you don’t?” Mobei-Jun demanded. 

 

Luo Binghe stared back at him evenly, then said, “Then we wait.” 

 

Words should not have had the power to hurt so much. Luo Binghe could undoubtedly feel the painful tremble of Mobei-Jun’s power, but he did not flinch in the face of it. 

 

“A-Yun will continue to live with me and Shizun,” Luo Binghe said slowly. “I don’t think that Shizun would have it any other way. We’ll build a bigger house and A-Yun will learn how to cultivate. Maybe he’ll even go back to Cang Qiong again. And someday, when he’s older, we’ll tell him how to get his memories back, if he wants to take that risk..” 

 

“...And if he doesn’t?” 

 

“Then he doesn’t.” 

 

That hurt even more. Mobei-Jun could barely breathe. 

 

Luo Binghe’s stare did not waver. “How badly do you need Shang Qinghua back, Mobei?” 

 

More than anything, so it felt in this moment, but… that was not true. 

 

He did not need Shang Qinghua. 

 

Shang Qinghua was an often useful servant, and a loyal one, but he was not irreplaceable in many of his roles of service. His unnatural knowledge and cunning schemes would be missed, but they were not necessary. Mobei-Jun had many servants before his ascension, and now as king, he had many more, and his kingdom was secure. He had fought and bled all his life to become king. He did not need Shang Qinghua to do it well. 

 

Shang Qinghua had saved his life before, but Mobei-Jun’s life was not in immediate danger now. He was prepared for many of his uncle’s and his rivals’ schemes. He had the power of his ancestors and the support of a Demon Emperor. He had risen far beyond what he had been when Shang Qinghua had first found him and bound them together. 

 

He would live without Shang Qinghua at his side. 

 

He wanted Shang Qinghua back. 

 

The man did not need to be useful to him. No, Mobei-Jun was far more in Shang Qinghua’s debt, finally able to protect them both and provide a lifetime of luxury in return, if the man so wished. He wanted to speak to Shang Qinghua, to explain and to listen, to understand and be understood, to forgive and be forgiven. If Shang Qinghua would allow it. 

 

But… Mobei-Jun had learned a long time ago that he could not have everything that he wanted. 

 

“Mobei…?” Luo Binghe said. 

 

“I will wait,” Mobei-Jun said hoarsely. 

 

It hurt even more to say it. 

 

Perhaps in ten years, between a Demon Emperor and a peak lord of Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, the child called “A-Yun” would have grown up into a strong enough cultivator to safely handle the return of the memories, the years, and the power that had been stolen from him. Perhaps twenty years would be better, to be certain that the risk of deviation was minimal. 

 

Or perhaps the young Shang Qinghua - if that young man took the name of Shang Qinghua again, perhaps he would be given a different name, to suit the different person he had become - would choose not to retake the memories. Perhaps he would prefer his new life. Perhaps he would feel as though nothing was missing and that he would be happier not knowing what it had been like to be Shang Houhua, the lowly disciple who had saved Mobei-Jun’s life, or the man from another world who had become a fallen god. 

 

If Shang Qinghua never returned, then… so be it. 

 

Let him be happy, instead. 

 

“I will wait,” Mobei-Jun repeated. “It is not worth the risk.” 

 

Luo Binghe looked surprised, at first, before his expression turned pitying. That hurt as well. Mobei-Jun looked away and closed his eyes, unable to bear it, and focused on breathing through the pain of finally having everything he had ever wanted, except the person he loved. 

 

Chapter Text

When Binghe had come home from the ascension and shared what Sha Hualing had said about the device that had caused all of this trouble, one of the first things he’d said afterwards was: “Shizun, we have to find a way to fix Shang Qinghua before Mobei wanders into one of his shitty uncle’s death traps because he’s too sad to see straight.”

 

Shen Qingqiu understood where his husband was coming from. Not that Mobei-Jun actually made particularly expressive faces or was, as far as Shen Qingqiu knew, even able to cry, but the ice demon’s upset was visible in every stiff line of his body when he came to visit, in his slowness to respond to any of them, and in the absence of the softness and warmth that had slowly been growing in the shelter of this place. 

 

After his ascension, Mobei-Jun’s presence had become a little weightier, his power more noticeable underneath his skin, but he acted as though he was… helpless. All because it now seemed that Shang Qinghua would not be returning for a long, long time, if ever. Had there ever been a more miserable king? 

 

Even little A-Yun noticed, his rambunctious attempts at play and chatter met with solemn, painfully careful gentleness. “...Are you still sad about your father?” he asked. 

 

Mobei-Jun didn’t answer at first. He and A-Yun were sitting together in the main room of the house, with A-Yun’s books and toys scattered around them, brought over in an attempt to share all the things the child had done in his best friend’s absence. 

 

“Yes,” Mobei-Jun said finally. 

 

“Oh,” A-Yun said, disappointed. “When will you not be sad anymore?” 

 

“A-Yun!” Shen Qingqiu scolded immediately. 

 

The child’s shoulders immediately went up, realizing that he had asked a question that could be considered very rude, but Mobei-Jun patted him on the back several times in a reassuring manner and A-Yun relaxed again. 

 

Shen Qingqiu still felt that he ought to have stepped forward and explained why the question was inappropriate, but Binghe’s hand landed on his shoulder. His husband’s expression suggested that he thought this was not their conversation to interrupt, which was… perhaps true… but A-Yun was so young and the subject was so delicate and Mobei-Jun was just so… demonic, sometimes. Even if he was being perfectly gentle now. 

 

“The hurt will become more bearable in time,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“Oh, okay,” A-Yun said. 

 

Probably because, Shen Qingqiu guessed, “in time” had more likely translated as “in a week or so” for him. The child had no concept of the changing shape of the years ahead of them all. He had no concept of all the years he had lost. 

 

Shen Qingqiu wasn’t even sure that A-Yun had encountered grief before. A-Yun occasionally seemed to miss his parents now, though the occasional comments he made about them certainly didn’t suggest any closeness between any of them. Even if they hadn’t been good parents, Shen Qingqiu sometimes wondered what would happen when A-Yun finally realized that this wasn’t just some fun vacation and that he might honestly never see his family again. 

 

Shen Qingqiu still didn’t know what to make of the “Return Home” feature waiting inside A-Yun’s Transmigration System. If only the real Shang Qinghua was here so that Shen Qingqiu could shake some real answers out of the other transmigrator! 

 

The farewells when Mobei-Jun’s visit ended were subdued on all sides. A-Yun didn’t know yet what was happening, they hadn’t explained any of Sha Hualing’s revelations to him, but he was clearly taking cues from the adults all around him, and so apparently decided after Mobei-Jun left to become even louder and more demanding of attention. 

 

Shen Qingqiu was immeasurably grateful for Binghe’s willingness to humor this. His husband distracted the child by having A-Yun help him plan what they were going to eat for the next week, which devolved into a conversation on Mobei-Jun’s favorite foods (neither A-Yun nor Binghe knew what these were, never having thought to ask, so they had to guess based on rather absurd reasonings), which would hopefully make the ice demon “happy again”. Though, of course, A-Yun still had difficulty choosing between Mobei-Jun’s assumed favorite foods and his own. The ideal solution in A-Yun’s mind seemed to be Binghe and Shen Qingqiu sacrificing eating all of their favorite foods for the foreseeable future instead.

 

The idea that Shen Qingqiu was now supposed to spend at least the next ten years helping to raise his friend was terrifying. He didn’t see any other options, of course, for he certainly wasn’t about to leave A-Yun in anyone else’s care, especially with Shang Qinghua’s complicated past even before one counted the transmigration issue. But it had been far easier to feel calm and patient about the whole situation when he had thought that it would only be temporary. 

 

He was doing his best, he didn’t think he was doing badly, but he hardly felt ready to raise a child. Binghe was doing wonderfully, honestly, but he had very obviously only put up with this at the beginning for Shen Qingqiu’s sake and because of the transmigration revelations. Pulling themselves together for the sake of a child had been surprisingly good for them in some ways, but they had plenty of other issues, and many things that they had both been putting off so that they could care for Shang Qinghua. They had lost the basic ability even to share private conversations and private affections in their own home. 

 

Shen Qingqiu had books he’d been meaning to read, trips he’d been meaning to take, cultivation techniques he’d been meaning to practice, and business for Qing Jing Peak he’d been meaning to write, indefinitely abandoned so that he could spend hours upon hours of each day making sure that A-Yun was fed, clean, healthy, entertained, and well-educated. It was exhausting not to have time or space that was wholly his own. And he was still expected back at Qing Jing Peak when his embarrassingly extensive honeymoon ended. 

 

Binghe could manage some aspects of the Demon Realm through servants like Mobei-Jun, through short visits using Mobei-Jun’s powers, and through the Elder Dream Demon and other dream demon servants, but that would only go so far. They had originally been going to spend some time in the Demon Realm together, so that Shen Qingqiu could see the other half, arguably the far greater half, of his husband’s life. So that they could find balance together. 

 

So much for that! 

 

If A-Yun remained a permanent fixture of their life… they would need a bigger house. They would need more furniture and clothes and other household items than they had slowly been accumulating for the child. They would need to make room for him at Qing Jing Peak somehow, and in the Demon Realm, and would likely have to go through the impossibly difficult process of finding trustworthy caregivers and proper tutors. Yue Qingyuan was currently managing the issue of An Ding Peak and would need to be informed of the permanent loss of one of their peak lords. They would need to make A-Yun’s place with them clear to him. 

 

Which meant that they would have to discuss what A-Yun’s place with them actually was. Unless they chose to hide him away, which would come with difficulties and downsides, even if they didn’t parade him in front of the world, A-Yun would be known as a ward of the Demon Emperor, which would be dangerous. They were guardians now, but would the child come to see them as his fathers? Did either of them want to be fathers to A-Yun? 

 

Shen Qingqiu went to bed that night with a headache, glad at least to have Binghe’s arms around him again. Their marriage felt far too new to bring children into it permanently. They had never properly discussed having children at all, actually. This wasn’t just a ridiculously long babysitting job anymore and now every worry he’d shoved aside for later was crashing down. 

 

“It’s going to be okay,” Binghe whispered. 

 

“If I end up having to explain to Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky what sex is, then I am going to scream,” Shen Qingqiu muttered. “We’re going to have to talk to him about puberty. If he ever gets married, we’re going to have to stand in as his parents at his wedding.” 

 

Binghe snorted and said jokingly, “Shizun, I can afford to pay for a wedding. It’s fine.” 

 

“That’s not the problem and you know it.” 

 

Those were the least of the big questions that came with parenthood. How was Shen Qingqiu supposed to explain matters of life, the universe, and everything? That was complicated enough without the Transmigration System making it worse! 

 

And what if A-Yun went through a rebellious phase as a teenager? It was stressful enough keeping a constant eye out for further System use now! What if he got upset because he wasn’t allowed to go out with friends, and screamed, “You’re not my real parents!” and bought the “Return Home” feature before they could stop him? They didn’t know what that actually did! The feature summary had been very vague! What if A-Yun ended up back in their original world, still without his memories of being Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky, and couldn’t come back after they had come to see him as a son?! 

 

Binghe pulled him across the bed and held him even more tightly, rubbing a hand up and down Shen Qingqiu’s side. “Shizun, you’re worrying really loudly.” 

 

“I’m worrying at a perfectly reasonable volume.” 

 

“It’s fine. I’m going to figure out a way to fix it. Sha Hualing gave me everything she has on the artifact. The Elder Dream Demon is looking at it now. There must be some way to filter the return of A-Yun’s years… some way to control the returning power and prevent deviation.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu rubbed at his face, exhausted despite not having actually done anything today. “Like Heavenly Demon Blood?” he said thoughtlessly. 

 

He didn’t really like thinking about it, given everything, but it was probably one of the most OP substances in Proud Immortal Demon Way. It was high time for Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky’s endless plot devices to come back and fix what they had broken for once. 

 

Binghe went still, his hand frozen on Shen Qingqiu’s hip. 

 

“What?” Shen Qingqiu asked. 

 

“Shizun, that might actually work.” 

 


 

A-Yun was obviously greatly frustrated by how, after the ascension, things had not returned to “normal”. They had spoiled him with attention, rather shamelessly, and the difference was noticeable as their unsustainable situation, the presentation of an idyllic version of the Proud Immortal Demon Way world, inevitably began to break down. 

 

Mobei-Jun had only visited the once, for he had many duties to attend to as a new king, including the extensive traditional celebrations that Shen Qingqiu and Binghe might have been fully attending if they didn’t have a seven-year-old human child to look after. Shen Qingqiu knew that none of them were in any real state to enjoy one, but he could admit that he was also a little miffed at having to miss a once-in-a-lifetime demon party. Binghe had to make a few appearances at the festivities out of obligation, to show that Mobei-Jun had the Demon Emperor’s favor, and apologized profusely to his husband every time. 

 

When Binghe wasn’t “babysitting Mobei”, he still wasn’t at home or available as much as he had been before. If Binghe wasn’t dealing with the shifts of power Mobei-Jun’s ascension had made in the Demon Realm, he was out consulting on the problem of the device that had cursed Shang Qinghua with the likes of Sha Hualing, her father Jiuzhong-Jun and some Sha Clan elders, Mobei Clan elders who were not at all pleased to be sharing secrets of their ascension ritual with the Demon Emperor even if their new king was ordering them to do it, and the Elder Dream Demon. Or else with Mu Qingfang of Qian Cao Peak, Wei Qingwei of Wan Jian Peak, and even people like Wang Qingjie of Ku Xing Peak. 

 

After all, Mu Qingfang had few equals as a healer, Wei Qingwei was a craftsman as well as a swordsman, and Ku Xing Peak’s ascetic practices involved the creation or purification of spiritual items. Though none of them were particularly favorable towards demons or Shang Qinghua, Yue Qingyuan had made it clear to everyone that he expected perfectly civil cooperation and also? The sect leader expected results. 

 

Apparently, their sect leader had had enough of dealing with a headless An Ding Peak and the prospect of having to pick a replacement peak lord out of its mess did not bring him joy. Which Shen Qingqiu might have guessed in hindsight, given how Yue Qingyuan had taken Shang Qinghua back into the sect even after everything that had happened. 

 

Shen Qingqiu and A-Yun could accompany Binghe back to Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, but they would have to excuse and entertain themselves during these discussions, so as not to distract anyone or distress A-Yun. It might have been faster to have everyone in the same room, but the peak lords would not go to the Demon Realm, Sha Hualing wasn’t welcome on the mountain for obvious reasons, and no one could communicate with Meng Mo except Binghe to begin with, so Binghe was stuck playing the constant intermediary between their arguments. 

 

Binghe insisted that it was fine and it would be worth it. And also that he was taking a great deal of solace and pleasure in having Sha Hualing “babysit” the “heartbroken” Mobei-Jun in his absence, apparently to great displeasure from both Sha Hualing and Mobei-Jun. 

 

They had explained, gently, without going into much detail, to A-Yun that Binghe was searching for a way to make him all grown up again, but A-Yun was unsurprisingly unenthusiastic about it. Even the once-alluring prospect of being a powerful cultivator and having his own flying sword and being able to go on adventures with Mobei-Jun only received a begrudging shrug. 

 

Shen Qingqiu strove to keep the child distracted, but there was only so much that he could do. He was more surprised than he should have been when A-Yun’s upset finally culminated into a screaming temper tantrum, with bowls being smashed on the floor because A-Yun wanted to eat Binghe’s cooking and nothing else (Shen Qingqiu felt the same way, but come on, he’d put work into that meal, and if he didn’t get to shove any bowls off the table like a disgruntled cat, then no one did), which then turned into heartbreakingly violent sobbing about Mobei-Jun not wanting to be friends with him anymore. Any attempts at offering a comforting hug or a calming drink of water resulted in vicious hitting and kicking in refusal, at least for the first half-hour, before A-Yun finally crawled into Shen Qingqiu’s lap and Shen Qingqiu nearly immediately gave up on not using his sleeves to wipe up snot. 

 

It was the result of months of complicated, pent-up feelings about the child’s unique situation, Shen Qingqiu assumed, all coming out at once. 

 

They were on Qing Jing Peak at the time of this breakdown, almost a month after Mobei-Jun’s ascension, and thankfully, Binghe returned to the Bamboo House before too long. Shen Qingqiu’s husband was giddy with success, calling, “Shizun, we’ve got it!” Only for his expression to immediately drop at the sight of the mess they had made of his clean house and the tear-stained faces. (So maybe Shen Qingqiu had done some sympathetic crying while A-Yun howled into the front of his robes! So what?) 

 

Binghe’s appearance set off A-Yun all over again, just when he’d finally been calming down, and this time, A-Yun cried so hard that he threw up. Twice. Which he clearly found humiliating, which upset him all over again. But between Shen Qingqiu and his husband, the vomit was cleaned up, they managed to get A-Yun to drink some water, they gave him a bath, Shen Qingqiu swapped out his once-elegant peak lord robes for something without snot or vomit, and Binghe made them a new meal, quick and simple and hopefully unlikely to cause more vomiting. Then they put A-Yun to bed between them, still hiccuping slightly, before he finally fell asleep. 

 

Shen Qingqiu put his face into a soft pillow and groaned. But softly, of course, as not to wake A-Yun. He had never felt less prepared to be the full-time guardian of a confused and vulnerable child. Ten more years of this sort of thing? He wouldn’t last ten more days of this! 

 

He was tempted to just fall asleep then and there, to get his rest where he could find it, but Binghe had said something very important, hadn’t he? Shen Qingqiu reluctantly rolled out of bed so that he and his husband could have an adult conversation in the other room, which ended up being an adult conversation during a shared bath, which might have been sexy under other circumstances, but was in this case was mostly to get rid of the lingering feeling of vomit and snot, even though they had both already cleaned all of that off and up. 

 

A harem protagonist’s formidable sexual prowess… defeated by parenthood. 

 

Shen Qingqiu reminded himself that he was honestly grateful for a solution to Shang Qinghua’s curse for other reasons besides time alone with his husband, like having his own friend back and Binghe’s friendship with Mobei-Jun and sect management and whatever. It was just a little distressing to look at his handsome husband, naked, dripping with water, and feel little more than the urge to go to bed, though preferably using said handsome husband as a pillow. 

 

Binghe was clearly exhausted, but still excited to share the news that “everyone” (Mu Qingfang and Meng Mo and Sha Hualing and Wei Qingwei) had agreed that they had a solution. They had run lots of tests and Mu Qingfang wanted to run even more tests (which Sha Hualing and Meng Mo had both deemed “boring” of the healer), but now that they were sure that they understood how the artifact actually worked, through a careful combination of Qian Cao Peak healing techniques, Heavenly Demon blood, and demonic dreaming techniques, it looked like they would be able to control the return of Shang Qinghua’s lost power, years, and memories on his behalf. Shang Qinghua might have to work on his own cultivation afterwards, he would go through a recovery period, but Binghe was certain they could prevent a serious deviation. 

 

It almost seemed too easy. It also seemed about fucking time. 

 

“...How much longer…?” Shen Qingqiu asked. 

 

“Until Mu Qingfang and Meng Mo are both fully satisfied with my control,” Binghe answered. “They’ll both be helping, but most of it will be on me. I could probably do it now, but we want to be sure. I’ll have to… control A-Yun… but… he can be asleep through it, at least.” 

 

It was like heart surgery, Shen Qingqiu told himself. Under ordinary circumstances, if you stabbed someone in the chest, it was bad. But sometimes… sometimes it wasn’t. He said as much to Binghe, which made his husband laugh, then lean against him. Somehow, they ended up with Binghe’s head against Shen Qingqiu’s chest while Shen Qingqiu held him. 

 

“This will be a good thing,” Shen Qingqiu told him. 

 

Binghe had so much power and he used it so carefully now, at least around Shen Qingqiu and A-Yun and even Mobei-Jun, having burned and been burned before. This Demon Emperor’s heart was just as soft as the day they had met. Softer than anyone else was allowed to see. 

 

“If you don’t want to do this, if you don’t feel like you can or like you should do something like this…” Shen Qingqiu added slowly, “then you don’t have to do it. It’s a lot to ask: to hold someone’s life in your hands. If you want to wait until you’re ready, then we can wait. I know you want our house back, but…” 

 

Binghe huffed again. “I do like A-Yun. I do.”  

 

“I know. I know. I like A-Yun, but I still want our house back.” 

 

“I didn’t pay enough attention to Shang Qinghua before. I didn’t like him,” Binghe admitted. “But I didn’t even like Mobei very much either. I… I didn’t like anyone very much.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu hummed, stroking his husband’s hair. 

 

“...I still don’t like most people very much,” Binghe said, even more quietly. “Except you.” 

 

“Mm.” 

 

That was fine. Shen Qingqiu liked some people, but he disliked plenty of people, and he didn’t like most people either, in the sense that he didn’t know most people well enough to actively dislike them. And Binghe was his favorite person, too. 

 

“I can’t trust them. They always want something. Or they hate me.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s hand faltered before it continued stroking his husband’s hair. Binghe’s tone was slightly bitter, but he didn’t really sound very upset about it. It was just a fact to him. 

 

“...Not that I haven’t given them reason to hate me. Some of them are even good reasons. It didn’t matter after- it didn’t matter before. If they were going to hate me anyway, for being human or for being a demon, then I might as well give them other reasons to hate me. Real reasons.” 

 

“Hush,” Shen Qingqiu said, heart swelling with regret, and kissed Binghe’s temple. “I never… I never hated you. I love you. Things are different now.” 

 

Binghe sighed. “I know. I love you. I’m trying to make things different now,” he agreed. “I have you. And A-Yun, now. And Mobei. And Meng Mo and Sha Hualing, in their own ways, when they’re not being annoying on purpose, or accidentally. And even people like Mu Qingfang and Wei Qingwei aren’t too bad. Did you know that Wei Qingwei actually likes Shang Qinghua?” 

 

“Really?” 

 

Wei Qingwei had been very friendly when they had visited Wan Jian Peak and all its weapons on display, several times in the past month, as part of Shen Qingqiu’s attempts to distract A-Yun. The Wan Jian Peak Lord was a generally good-humored sort of person. But there was a difference between being kind to an innocent child and actually liking Shang Qinghua. 

 

“They knew each other as disciples, even if they weren’t friends, and Shang Qinghua has really good connections for materials from the Demon Realm. Wei-Shishu also said that he doesn’t care about demons, but he can’t abide a mystery. Mu-Shishu is very dutiful and harder to read. But I think he might be jealous of my blood.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu snorted. “Really?” 

 

“Really,” Binghe said, and Shen Qingqiu felt his grin before it faded again. “I’m… I’m going to do this. I can do this. I want to do this. Mobei needs Shang Qinghua back. I want answers about this Transmigration System. And too many things could happen to A-Yun if he stays like this.” 

 

“He’s going to find a way to play with the Transmigration System again,” Shen Qingqiu moaned in agreement. “I’m watching him all the time now, but I know it won’t be enough.” 

 

“I was thinking about Mobei’s shitty uncle.” 

 

“That too.” 

 

There were a lot of feelings to sort through, but the foremost one, Shen Qingqiu decided, was relief. They would manage, if they ended up waiting for A-Yun to grow up after all, but… it was alarming, thinking about how A-Yun might be hurt while they “managed” and made their inevitable mistakes. And Shen Qingqiu was looking forward to seeing Shang Qinghua again. 

 

“I’m going to miss A-Yun,” Binghe said, before Shen Qingqiu could say it. 

 

“Mm.” 

 

“It was nice… revisiting childish things.” 

 

“It was, wasn’t it?” 

 


 

A week after Binghe had declared they’d finally found the solution, after Mu Qingfang and Meng Mo had both decided that they were ready to go through with the procedure, Shen Qingqiu and his husband carefully broke the news of it to A-Yun, doing their best to explain the idea in light, child-friendly terms. Nevertheless, A-Yun wanted to go through with this as much as any seven-year-old wanted to go through major surgery, which was to say: not at all. 

 

“But what if I don’t want to be all grown up?” A-Yun demanded. 

 

“It’s…” Shen Qingqiu fumbled. “Well, why not?” 

 

He was more surprised than he should have been; he could feel his heart sinking. He really didn’t want to have to do this against A-Yun’s will. For Binghe to have to do this against A-Yun’s will. Should they do this against A-Yun’s will? Surely, if given the choice, Shang Qinghua in his right state of mind would choose to be an adult again. 

 

“I don’t want to,” A-Yun repeated stubbornly. 

 

“Yes, but why don’t you want to be all grown up again, A-Yun?” 

 

“I don’t want to!” 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed. This was getting nowhere fast. 

 

It was reasonable to be afraid. This was an experimental, invasive, and dangerous medical procedure, with a non-zero risk of permanent damage or even death, no matter how confident the experts involved were. They hadn’t mentioned these parts to A-Yun, of course, but it must have still seemed very scary to him. 

 

“It’s going to be fine,” Shen Qingqiu said soothingly. “Binghe will help you through it. And Doctor Mu. You know Doctor Mu. You’ve been to so many check-ups with him. He’s nice, isn’t he?” 

 

A-Yun glared, unwilling to concede even that much. 

 

“Don’t you want to be tall?” Binghe asked, cajolingly. Shen Qingqiu gave his husband an uncertain look, but Binghe was too busy smiling at A-Yun, who was still unreceptive. 

 

“No!” 

 

“I thought that you wanted to be as tall as Mobei.” 

 

“No! I don’t want to be big anymore!” 

 

“Good, because you’re not going to be,” Shen Qingqiu thought tiredly. Shang Qinghua wasn’t short, exactly, but he was shorter than both of them - and Mobei-Jun, of course, but it wasn’t hard to be shorter than Mobei-Jun. 

 

With a little more gentle poking and some careful prodding, A-Yun finally wailed, “I don’t want to be all grown up! I don’t want things to change again! Stop changing things!” 

 

“Oh,” Binghe said. 

 

“Nothing is going to change,” Shen Qingqiu tried. 

 

“Yes, it will!” 

 

“No, it won’t. Everything important will be the same!” 

 

A-Yun gave him a surprisingly venomous look. “That’s what you said about Mobei becoming king! And now he’s always too busy even though he said we’d still be friends!” 

 

“Mobei is still your friend,” Binghe said. “I can call him here if you really want.”

 

“No!” A-Yun looked alarmed, rather than excited by the prospect. There were tears at the edges of his eyes again and he was quite red-faced, so Shen Qingqiu wondered if the child was worried about Mobei-Jun seeing him in his upset state. “I want… I want to visit him.” 

 

“He lives with a lot of other demons, remember?” Binghe said. “And they’re not nice to children like we are. But when you’re big again, you can go with him anywhere you like. When you used to be all grown up, Mobei took you everywhere with him.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu reached out to nudge his husband. The goal was to manipulate the child into doing what they wanted, yes, so they didn’t have to drag him into it kicking and screaming, which sounded so slimy when he thought about it that way, but Binghe was maybe laying on the manipulation a little too hard. A-Yun’s little face was all screwed up in miserable indecision now. His hands were trembling in his lap. He was definitely going to cry again. 

 

Comforting A-Yun from there  was an exercise in breaking Shen Qingqiu’s own heart, it seemed. The worst part of it was perhaps when A-Yun mumbled, “But what if I like being small?” 

 

It stirred up old, half-forgotten memories for Shen Qingqiu. How frustrating it was to be a child! To have everyone around you act as though you were incomplete, as though you were not a whole person already, with your own valuable thoughts and feelings and experiences! To A-Yun, it must have seemed as though they didn’t want him - that they were choosing someone else over him - that he might cease to exist for all he knew. 

 

“When you’re all grown up, you’ll still be you,” Shen Qingqiu told him, near the end of it, with A-Yun’s head on his lap and his hands in the child’s hair, and Binghe’s hand moving up and down along A-Yun’s back. “You’ll know new things and you’ll have more experiences. You’ll be able to do things you couldn’t do before. You’ll have things you’ll be glad you did and things you wish that you had done instead, but you’ll still be you. In the same way that you’ll still be you tomorrow. Just a little bigger. Just a little wiser. But still you… still A-Yun… and still our friend.” 

 

A little later, at the very end of their talk with A-Yun, Binghe added, almost jokingly, “And if you really don’t like being all grown up again, then you can always undo it later.” Probably because he was confident that Shang Qinghua would never willingly choose to be a child again. 

 

Shen Qingqiu nudged his husband again, then sighed and marveled at the fact that he now lived in a world where that could actually happen. It had better not, though. 

 


 

They never managed to get A-Yun’s agreement, only his apparent acceptance that growing up was happening whether he liked it or not. Shen Qingqiu and his husband resolved to keep a closer eye on the child than ever, in case he did something rash, especially in regards to the Transmigration System. Shen Qingqiu didn’t think he’d sleep tonight anyway. 

 

Tomorrow, Binghe would use his dream powers to lull A-Yun into a deep sleep, then he, Mu Qingfang, and Meng Mo would activate the artifact and control the flow of return of everything Shang Qinghua had lost. Shen Qingqiu wouldn’t be able to be in the room. He might get in the way or be too distracting with his distress. The fewer energies in the room, the better. 

 

“Mobei-Jun’s distress would be even worse,” Shen Qingqiu mused aloud, as they prepared for bed on Qing Jing Peak. A-Yun was already asleep in the other room. “Especially after his ascension. He’s still adjusting, isn’t he?” 

 

A strange expression flashed across Binghe’s face. There and gone. 

 

“...Binghe.” 

 

“What, Shizun?” 

 

“You told Mobei-Jun this was happening, didn’t you?” 

 

“Of course, Shizun.” 

 

“Binghe.” 

 

“It’s like Shizun said, he’d only worry. It’ll be a happy surprise.” 

 

“What if something happens?! He needs to know!” 

 

Binghe made a face with striking resemblance to A-Yun confronted with a vegetable that he didn’t want to eat. It reminded Shen Qingqiu of his husband’s days as a disciple, as well, of course, and it would have been cute, if he wasn’t pouting about something so serious. “Shizun, it’s too late to go out now. It’s too late to tell him.” 

 

Whatever face Shen Qingqiu made in response must have gotten through, because Binghe sighed and said, “Fine, I’ll go tell him. I didn’t want him to panic about it not being worth the risk. What if he’s still too sad to think straight?” Binghe got to his feet and started preparing for another midnight chat with Mobei-Jun, dragging his feet, yet again resembling A-Yun being told to do something he didn’t want to do. “I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t sure that it would work!” 

 

“I know,” Shen Qingqiu said soothingly. “But Mobei-Jun still needs to know this is happening. He needs to have… the opportunity to speak to A-Yun beforehand.” 

 

Binghe groaned. “He’s going to be stupid about it.” 

 

“You don’t know that.” 

 

Binghe paused in putting his boots back on and gave Shen Qingqiu a look. 

 

“...Maybe tell him somewhere where it doesn’t matter if you break things,” Shen Qingqiu allowed. 

 

“That’s the plan,” Binghe grunted. 

 

As far as Shen Qingqiu was told, it went well enough. No one died. No one even broke any limbs. Binghe limped back out of a portal several hours later, after midnight, bruised and only bleeding slightly, grumbling about Mobei-Jun not having any faith in him. It sounded as though Binghe had been right about Mobei-Jun not wanting to take any risk with Shang Qinghua’s life at first, but that Binghe had eventually fought and argued Mobei-Jun into acceptance, if not agreement. 

 

Nevertheless, Mobei-Jun would not be visiting. 

 

“...Why not?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. 

 

Binghe shrugged. “He didn't say. It’s not his Shang Qinghua. He doesn't want to frighten A-Yun. It won’t make a difference in whether or not it works. His control isn’t good enough not to blow up Qian Cao Peak out of fear that it won't work. He's having too many emotions to move. Who knows with him, Shizun.” 

 

Which was fair enough. 

 


 

They woke up the next morning and the day was good, though a little overcast, with a chance at rain. Breakfast was a little quiet, but not completely miserable. Shen Qingqiu wondered if A-Yun had forgotten what was happening today. He didn’t enjoy reminding A-Yun that they were going to Qian Cao Peak today and watching the child’s face fall. 

 

Mu Qingfang was waiting for them when they got to Qian Cao Peak, along with Wei Qingwei and Yue Qingyuan, even though the Wan Jian Peak Lord wasn’t participating and neither was the sect leader. Wei Qingwei greeted A-Yun with a friendly smile and a fist-bump, which had apparently been shared and learned over the course of one of A-Yun’s appointments this past month in the search for a solution to the curse. 

 

“Hey, shidi, you should come around and visit Wan Jian Peak after you’re done,” Wei Qingwei said. “You can see where we make all the swords this time.” 

 

A-Yun finally brightened and agreed. Shen Qingqiu felt that he should have realized that it might comfort A-Yun to talk more decisively and specifically about the things that they might do afterwards. He smiled gratefully towards Wei Qingwei. And then towards Yue Qingyuan, of course, for allowing all of this, and Yue Qingyuan smiled back at him. 

 

There was only one hiccup along the way towards the procedure, which was Liu Qingge dropping out of the sky all of a sudden, straight off the road and apparently needing to speak to Mu Qingfang about something, ignoring Mu Qingfang’s head disciple appearing out of nowhere after him, shouting and waving in an effort to stop him. The Bai Zhan War God came up short to encounter an unusual crowd, frowning at all of them in confusion. 

 

“Liu-Shidi,” Shen Qingqiu greeted. “Back from a mission?” 

 

Liu Qingge nodded, still ignoring Mu Qingfang’s head disciple putting her hands on her knees and wheezing such behind him. She gave Mu Qingfang an apologetic look and he forgave her with a wave of his hand. It was Liu Qingge, after all, what was she really supposed to do? 

 

Yue Qingyuan stepped forward graciously to handle things. “Liu-Shidi, I’m afraid that you’ve interrupted something important, but perhaps I can be of assistance…?” 

 

Liu Qingge rudely leaned around their sect leader, still squinting at the child standing between and even holding hands with Shen Qingqiu and his husband. A-Yun happened to be wearing an An Ding disciple uniform today. His hair was even in a style that wasn’t too different to how he’d worn his hair as an adult, so maybe…  

 

“...Is that Shang Qinghua?” Liu Qingge demanded disbelievingly. 

 

“Yes?” Yue Qingyuan said. 

 

“Really?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Liu Qingge wrinkled his nose and said, “When did that happen?” 

 

Even Yue Qingyuan didn’t have an immediate answer to that. Shen Qingqiu knew that the Bai Zhan War God was frequently gone on long missions and didn’t care much for sect politics or logistics, not even for the gossip the rest of the cultivation sect seemed to thrive on, and maybe Shen Qingqiu and his friend had been a little distant since Shen Qingqiu’s marriage, but… 

 

“Really?!” Shen Qingqiu demanded. 

 

Besides him, Binghe threw back his head and cackled. He laughed so hard that he needed to double-over to breathe, completely ignoring Liu Qingge’s dirty look and Shen Qingqiu’s look of exasperation. He didn’t really stop laughing until Yue Qingyuan stepped in again to firmly lead Liu Qingge away, taking Wei Qingwei, who was also chuckling to himself, and Mu Qingfang’s grateful head disciple with them. 

 

“Unbelievable,” Shen Qingqiu muttered, as they continued on their way. 

 

There were no other interruptions. Shen Qingqiu found himself almost wishing for one as they reached the place where Mu Qingfang had set things up for the procedure, then as he distracted A-Yun with conversation about all his favorite weapons on Wan Jian Peak while Binghe used his dream techniques to pull the child into sleep, so that A-Yun ended up nodding off mid-sentence and falling asleep against Shen Qingqiu’s side. He said his goodbyes to his husband and to Mu Qingfang, then stepped outside, so as not to get in their way. 

 

How strange it was for the world to behave no differently despite what was going to happen. 

 

Mu Qingfang’s head disciple appeared to show Shen Qingqiu to a nearby pavilion they had set up as a waiting room. It was nice, despite the grayness of the sky or perhaps because of it, but Shen Qingqiu was in no mood to appreciate it. He looked out onto the beautiful gardens of Qian Cao Peak and saw none of it. It felt as though his heart was going up and down, up and down, up into the sky only to splat onto the ground.

 

He wasn’t really surprised when he felt a familiar, cold rush of demonic energy and a shadowy portal opened up quite close beside him, and Mobei-Jun stepped through. Shen Qingqiu knew that Binghe had told the ice demon that his presence might disrupt the procedure. He was prepared to remind Mobei-Jun of this, but instead, Mobei-Jun sat down beside him like he intended to stay there no matter who told him to move. He didn’t say anything. 

 

He looked as though he hadn’t slept. 

 

Shen Qingqiu looked away again, understanding, and waved at Mu Qingfang’s gawking head disciple on the other side of the garden to let her know that it was all right. She scurried off anyway, probably to go tell Yue Qingyuan about this, which was fine. Mobei-Jun didn’t react to her at all, still looking off into nothing. 

 

Together, they waited. 

 

A little over an hour later, Mu Qingfang’s head disciple came back, and both Shen Qingqiu and Mobei-Jun were on their feet before she could speak. 

 

“It worked,” she said. 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Shen Qingqiu went alone to see Shang Qinghua. 

 

He had asked, politely and directly, if Mobei-Jun intended on accompanying him, but Mu Qingfang’s head disciple had then informed them that Shang Qinghua was still unconscious and was in a somewhat delicate state. So, Mobei-Jun, with his expression as carefully blank as it had ever been, had decided that he would not go to see Shang Qinghua after all. Shen Qingqiu had felt a frisson of empathy for his husband, in trying to get this stiff ice demon to melt in any way. 

 

“You can’t be serious,” Shen Qingqiu had said. “You won’t see him? Now?” 

 

Mobei-Jun had stared back at him, so utterly out of place in this pavilion in one of Qian Cao Peak’s relaxing gardens, and had said, “My presence is unnecessary. I will see Shang Qingua when he asks to see me.” Before fleeing into thin air in a burst of cold shadow. 

 

Shen Qingqiu couldn’t decide if this was admirable or cowardly. It was probably for the best. Thoughtful and respectful, even. But he didn’t have the time to dwell overmuch on the complexities of Mobei-Jun and Shang Qinghua’s strange relationship now, needing to see for himself the state of his husband and of his friend, and so he instead thought, “I’m going to tell Binghe,” at the empty air where Mobei-Jun had been, before going on his way. 

 

Mobei-Jun had shown up, if a little late. That was… something. 

 

Mu Qingfang was still there when Shen Qingqiu arrived and nodded to him in greeting, the bulk of his focus on the man lying still on the bed, with one hand holding Shang Qinghua’s wrist and the other hand resting over Shang Qinghua’s middle. Binghe was sitting on Shang Qinghua’s other side, also with one hand on a wrist, the other over Shang Qinghua’s heart. 

 

“Just making sure that everything is settling into place and then staying there, Shizun,” Binghe said, his brow furrowed in concentration, also unable to look over. “A-Yun- Shang Qinghua is doing well.” 

 

It certainly appeared that way. Shang Qinghua was a grown man again, looking the same as the day Shen Qingqiu had first realized there was another transmigrator, except for the… Qian Cao patient robes, the loose hair, and the usually expressive face relaxed for once in his forced sleep, of course. 

 

A-Yun was visible in Shang Qinghua’s face at once. His features had lengthened and become more square, his body had obviously become much taller and much wider, and a child’s soft skin had been replaced by a great deal more body hair and the strong, callused hands of a cultivator. Though Shen Qingqiu was missing all the stages in between, and he still had no idea what the man who had written as Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had looked like in their original world, he could see how A-Yun had become Shang Qinghua. 

 

“Shang-Shixiong will need to be monitored and stabilized until he wakes and can regulate himself, at which point I will need to examine him again,” Mu Qingfang reported, when he was finally satisfied with whatever he had been doing. He announced that he intended to leave Shang Qinghua in Binghe’s capable hands until then and warned them both that Shang Qinghua would most likely be disoriented upon waking. 

 

Shen Qingqiu thanked his shidi and complimented his skill as a healer, which was only polite, and which Mu Qingfang took as his due, though the healer also again complimented Binghe’s own skills with his blood. Binghe was right, Shen Qingqiu thought amusedly, Mu Qingfang was a little envious. 

 

As Mu Qingfang made to leave them, a new question occurred. 

 

“Will he remember?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “Will he remember being a child again?” 

 

“Yes, he should, though, again, he may be disoriented at first, as everything settles,” Mu Qingfang answered. “My focus was on preventing and reversing deviation, as the years returned to him in moments. I am glad that you didn’t seek to have him seriously cultivate again, as attempting to settle his original foundation over a new one would have been an additional difficulty. Memories, as I understand it, are more flexible.” 

 

Binghe nodded, still focused on Shang Qinghua. “There’s no reason he shouldn’t remember, Shizun, but he’ll probably wake up with a headache. The memories might feel as though they happened yesterday or as though they happened a long time ago.” 

 

“Oh,” Shen Qingqiu said. “That’s… good. Thank you.” 

 

He didn’t know what he would do if Shang Qinghua forgot all of this, if the other transmigrator woke up and acted as though none of this had ever happened. 

 

As Mu Qingfang excused himself, Shen Qingqiu sat down beside Shang Qinghua, opposite Binghe. Embarrassingly, even now, a part of him expected A-Yun to appear from somewhere; he still wanted to draw that child onto his lap and hold him reassuringly, after such a harrowing procedure, no matter how well he knew the child was gone. Instead, he could only hold Shang Qinghua’s other wrist and wonder what would happen now. 

 

“It’s going to be all right, Shizun,” Binghe said, smiling at him. 

 

Shen Qingqiu smiled back. “I know.” 

 

“I haven’t taken the blood out yet, but I will when this is done.” 

 

“I know,” Shen Qingqiu said again, and reached across to place his other hand against his husband’s cheek. Binghe looked pleased, but tired, and Shen Qingqiu wanted to wrap him up into his arms as well. “Thank you for doing this. All of this. You never cease to amaze me, you know that? This is a good thing that you did.” 

 

Binghe huffed, but leaned into Shen Qingqiu’s touch, even closing his eyes briefly. “I hope it feels that way, eventually,” he muttered. “Ah, Shizun, one of Mu-Shishu’s disciples came to say that Mobei made an appearance after all. Is that right? I thought that I felt the chill of him hanging around.” 

 

“We kept each other company while we were waiting for news, but then after we were told that it worked, he said that he’ll wait until Shang Qinghua asks for him. Then he ran away.” 

 

“...Typical,” Binghe said, amused. 

 


 

After a few more hours, Binghe decided that he had done all that he reasonably could for Shang Qinghua, conceding to Shen Qingqiu’s point that it was wiser to lie down and have a short nap rather than to continue and potentially make any mistakes. They had a Qian Cao disciple bring a sleeping mat into the room and Shen Qingqiu monitored Shang Qinghua’s condition while his brilliant, thoroughly exhausted husband napped. 

 

It wasn’t until the next day that Shang Qinghua finally woke up. Binghe wasn’t in the room at the time, though he was close nearby, fetching some more food for them. As the enforced sleep had been lifted, Shang Qinghua had become a much more fidgety sleeper, even mumbling nonsense to himself a few times, though his tossing and turning was not quite as energetic as A-Yun’s incredible full-body rotations had been. Shen Qingqiu was a little surprised to look up during the newest bout of shifting and see Shang Qinghua’s fluttering eyes finally open fully. Awake at last. 

 

It took time for Shang Qinghua to focus on him, reminding Shen Qingqiu of nothing more than a bleary A-Yun coming out of an interrupted nap. Shang Qinghua’s spiritual energy felt slightly agitated, the flow of it not as smooth as it should have been, but not dangerously so, so Shen Qingqiu didn’t call out for anyone yet. Instead, he watched as Shang Qinghua clearly recognized him, jerking slightly in Shen Qingqiu’s grip, and then as realization slowly dawned on the man. 

 

Shang Qinghua’s mouth opened and closed several times. A noticeable pink flush was traveling up the other transmigrator’s neck and spreading through his face. 

 

“...Are you blushing?” Shen Qingqiu demanded incredulously. 

 

“Bro, shut up,” Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky said hoarsely. He dropped his head back down again and covered his blushing face with his other hand, trying and failing to tug his wrist out of Shen Qingqiu’s grip. 

 

In the same situation, Shen Qingqiu would also be horribly embarrassed, he would probably never be able to show his face again, honestly, so he didn’t think any less of the other man for it. Still, Shen Qingqiu hadn’t even known that this author of all people could blush. 

 

Shang Qinghua dragged his hand up and down his face several times, almost clawing at it, then groaned deeply. “My head feels like shit. Ow. Ow, ow, ow.” 

 

“That’s what happens when you get yourself de-aged by a mysterious, unfinished artifact and need experimental medical procedures to fix it,” Shen Qingqiu said with a sniff, and dutifully reached for some of the pain medication that Mu Qingfang had left them. “I’m told that your memories may be confused for a while, but that focused meditation should help. Now, stop moaning and let me help you.” 

 

Shang Qinghua accepted his help with more wariness than was warranted. Shen Qingqiu called a Qian Cao disciple to send for Mu Qingfang, and for Binghe, though his husband was most likely already on his way back with food. 

 

“You need to eat,” Shen Qingqiu said to Shang Qinghua, after explaining where Binghe was. “You may also be feeling nauseated, but you still need to eat. Something simple to start with, I think, but Binghe was looking into getting some of your favorites for later.” He barely managed to keep from adding, “If you’re well-behaved.” 

 

Shang Qinghua squinted at him, his brow furrowed deeply. He was silent for so long that Shen Qingqiu could only assume he was trying to sort through his memories of being A-Yun again. The pink flush was still lingering on his face. 

 

“What?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. 

 

“Is this what you did to the protagonist, bro?” 

 

“What?” 

 

Shang Qinghua flapped his other hand, trying and failing to illustrate something. “Is this what you did to the protagonist? You saw that piteous, unloved, orphaned disciple and just took him home with you and fucking smothered him like that?” 

 

“What?!” 

 

“You just crushed him with affection and no fucking mercy?” 

 

“That is not what happened!” 

 

Shen Qingqiu would never have dared to be so affectionate to the teenage protagonist (fourteen years old to this transmigrator’s… ugh… secretly only twenty years old) when they had first met. He hadn’t wanted to be, at first, so lost and so focused on survival. He had only tried to be as kind as he could be. The true fondness for Binghe as a person rather than a character had developed over time, creeping up to break Shen Qingqiu’s heart into pieces when he had hurt that boy so terribly at the Immortal Alliance Conference. 

 

Shang Qinghua just snorted. “Bro, no fucking wonder the original Proud Immortal Demon Way went out the window. No fucking wonder.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu glared at him, though he also wanted to glare at himself, however that could be done. How could he have forgotten that Shang Qinghua was like this?! All of his previous built-up tolerance must have escaped him during A-Yun’s much more innocent stay. 

 

“I’m sorry, did you want us to leave you in the tender care of Mobei-Jun instead? Or perhaps here with Cang Qiong?” 

 

The other transmigrator made an acceptably unenthusiastic grimace. 

 

“Exactly,” Shen Qingqiu said. “Be a little grateful.” 

 

“Sure, sure. Thank you, father.” 

 

“Wh- N- You-!” 

 

This must have been what it felt like to have a heart attack. Shang Qinghua was smirking at him! Shameless and suggestive and knowingly infuriating and… very much like A-Yun, brimming with mischief and… uncertainty on how any mischief would be received. 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed. “Don’t make it weird.” 

 

“It’s already weird,” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

“Don’t make it weirder!” 

 

“Yes, father. Forgive me, father.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu was seriously considering using his grip on Shang Qinghua’s wrist to make the other man hit himself in the face with his own hand - it was childish, sure, but it would be so satisfying - but he was interrupted by someone clearing their throat behind him. Shang Qinghua looked first and any amusement immediately dropped off his face. 

 

Binghe was standing in the doorway, holding two different trays of food, his lips pressed together like he was trying not to smile too strongly. “Shizun, I brought food.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu straightened. “Thank you, Binghe.” 

 

“I’m so glad to see that A-Yun is finally awake,” Binghe said, as he entered and apologetically put the food to one side, casting a quick heating spell to keep their meals warm. “The healers will be here to check on A-Yun very soon. It may be better to eat afterwards, without interruption, but as Shizun says, a little patience won’t hurt us.” 

 

And then Binghe patted Shang Qinghua fondly on the head and sat down beside him, still ruffling the other transmigrator’s hair. His smile widened, too friendly not to be purposefully fucking with Shang Qinghua, at least a little bit. 

 

Shang Qinghua didn’t seem to know how to react to this. 

 

Binghe’s grin widened further. Honestly, Shen Qingqiu loved his husband so much. 

 

“...I’m having very strange feelings about this,” Shang Qinghua said, still with Binghe’s hand on his head. He said it to both of them. Or perhaps to no one in particular.  

 

“Me, too,” Binghe told him, and removed his hand. 

 

Shang Qinghua got over his shock enough to be anxious again. “So, ah, you… you know all about… everything now, huh?” He gave Shen Qingqiu a desperate look, as though begging him to disagree with whatever his jumbled memories said, and then looked distressed when Shen Qingqiu only raised his eyebrows. “How… how much… everything?” 

 

“I know that this world may have originated for or been shaped to fit a story that you wrote in another world,” Binghe informed him. “And that I was the ‘hero’ of this story, which is thankfully no longer being followed.” 

 

“Ah. That’s… that’s cool.” 

 

“The coolest,” Binghe agreed solemnly. 

 

Shang Qinghua’s face screwed up even more. 

 

Shen Qingqiu couldn’t help it. He snorted, which made Binghe grin again. 

 

They had to stop there, because Mu Qingfang arrived to examine Shang Qinghua’s health yet again and to lecture him about his recovery, which involved ensuring that Shang Qinghua could regulate his own spiritual energy instead of needing anyone to do it for him. Which he could, thankfully. Binghe took out the Heavenly Demon blood under Mu Qingfang’s watchful eye and Shang Qinghua’s panicked gaze. 

 

It was a relief to hear confirmed yet again that Shang Qinghua was fine and would continue to be fine, as long as he did not neglect the exercises being prescribed. Shen Qingqiu made a mental note to make certain that the prescribed exercises were not neglected. It was his duty as a shixiong to make such reminders, wasn’t it? 

 

“Aren’t you going to thank Mu-Shishu for his invaluable assistance?” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

Shang Qinghua gave him a disbelieving look. “I- I was getting to it!” he sputtered. Then he sighed and said, with unnecessarily exaggerated gratitude, “Thank you for your invaluable assistance, Mu-Shishu.” 

 

Mu Qingfang seemed amused as he prepared to leave again. “You are welcome, Shang-Shixiong. Perhaps in your gratitude, during your recovery from this ordeal,  you will finally find it within your memory to find this special demonic flower that you told me about so many years ago.” 

 

“Aha ha, yeah, maybe,” Shang Qinghua said noncommittally. 

 

When Mu Qingfang left, Shen Qingqiu turned to the other transmigrator for an explanation. Shang Qinghua looked uncertainly towards Binghe at first, then shrugged. 

 

“Miracle cure that I vaguely remembered from the story and mentioned to Mu Qingfang, like, thirty years ago now…? Twenty-five-ish years ago? Neutralizes or purges the effects of most substances that target a person’s cultivation… or something like that. Only I can’t remember where it grows, only that it stinks, so I can’t prove that it actually exists. We were disciples. He’s never let me forget it.” 

 

It was an effective reminder of just how long the other transmigrator had been in this world. It also tugged on Shen Qingqiu’s own memories of Proud Immortal Demon Way and of his scholarly efforts in this lifetime, being the Lord of Qing Jing Peak. . 

 

“Do you mean Spiny Corpse Flowers? Don’t those grow high up on the Green Cliffs somewhere in the north-east of the Demon Realm?” 

 

Shang Qinghua stared at him, then closed his eyes and said, “Seriously?!” 

 

“If you’d asked me for help before, I could have told you earlier.” 

 

Shang Qinghua said something under his breath and with his teeth clenched. 

 

“What was that?” 

 

“Oh, nothing! Nothing at all!” 

 

“Mmhmm.” 

 

“Time to eat!” Binghe declared, looking very amused again. 

 

He served them a very casual meal, with one tray across Shang Qinghua’s lap, and the two of them holding their own bowls at his bedside. It took everything in Shen Qingqiu’s power to refrain from telling Shang Qinghua not to pick at his food. It also reminded Shen Qingqiu of some of the picnics they had taken over the course of A-Yun’s stay with them. The last one had been over a month ago now, in Mobei-Jun’s company, along one of their walking trails by their home. 

 

Maybe they would still need to build a bigger house, Shen Qingqiu realized. He and Binghe enjoyed its current coziness very much, as a newlywed couple, but if this experience had taught him anything, it was that it would be very beneficial to have a guest room. They could use it as an office or a library when it wasn’t occupied. 

 

“...Did you involve Wei Qingwei in this, too?” Shang Qinghua ventured, apparently confirming some more of his recent memories. 

 

“Yes, he was very helpful,” Shen Qingqiu said. “You’ll need to thank him as well.” 

 

Shang Qinghua ignored him and groaned. “That opportunistic asshole! Why did you involve him?! Don’t believe that smiling face! He’s going to hold this over my head forever! He’s going to want ore from the Demon Realm’s western kingdoms or something now. Do you know how expensive that is, bro?” 

 

“Not really.” 

 

“Uuuuuggggghhhhh.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu gave up on restraining himself. “Eat your food before it gets cold.” 

 

“I don’t even want to know what’s happened to An Ding Peak.” 

 

“It’s still standing,” Binghe volunteered, smiling. 

 

“Tell Zhangmen-Shixiong that I died.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s smile fell off his face, unprepared for the sudden coldness in his chest at the thought that had been plaguing him for weeks before this procedure. “That’s not funny. Don’t make jokes about that.” 

 

Shang Qinghua frowned at him. “Sorry,” he muttered. 

 

They focused on eating from there. Shang Qinghua’s appetite was good as soon as he stopped talking; Shen Qingqiu supposed that growing so many years at once would probably leave a person ravenous. Binghe collected their bowls and handed the trays off to one of the Qian Cao disciples, before returning to Shang Qinghua’s side. 

 

“...Are you… are you just going to stay here?” Shang Qinghua asked them. 

 

Shen Qingqiu blinked at him. “Do you want us to go?” 

 

“Ah, well, I mean… I don’t know?” Shang Qinghua laughed, but it didn’t sound very nice, though the pink flush was back. “Bro, let’s be real, haven’t you gotten more than a little sick of me by now? We just spent- oh, holy shit, I was cockblocking you so fucking hard, wasn’t I?” He looked terribly anxious again with this realization, glancing at the protagonist like he feared retribution. 

 

Binghe just looked between their faces, then started laughing. 

 

Shen Qingqiu felt a flush of heat threatening his own face. “Perhaps,” he said, deciding to ignore his cackling husband. He didn’t think Binghe had ever heard the term before, but it wasn’t hard to guess what it meant. “That’s neither here nor there.” 

 

“I mean, it’s a little here and there,” Shang Qinghua muttered. “Shit.” 

 

“We have other things to talk about!” Shen Qingqiu reminded everyone, louder than was probably necessary. “There are far more important things to talk about!” 

 

“They can’t wait until later?” Shang Qinghua asked. “I mean, it’s kind of cruel to corner someone in his sickbed like this. Didn’t you hear all those things Mu Qingfang said? I have a lot of meditating to do to screw my head back on correctly, and I’m aching all over, so it’s a miracle that I’m not delirious, really, and so there’s no way that I could possibly have a constructive conversation in my current super exhausted state.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu gave his fellow transmigrator his most unimpressed look. “If I was holding a fan right now, I would smack you on the head with it.” 

 

“Ah, well, arguably, that’s child abuse.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed. “If you don’t want to talk to us right now, then you don’t have to talk to us right now, whether or not you’re hurting,” he said. “If you want to talk to just me first, or just to Binghe first, or to Mobei-Jun first, then that can happen, too, but you’re not in trouble. Not any real trouble, anyway. Is it so difficult to believe that I’m here right now just because I care about what happens to you?” 

 

Oh, that last part had come out more strained than he’d meant to say it. Shang Qinghua looked so hurtfully surprised. Binghe looked so painfully sympathetic. 

 

“Shizun…” his husband said. 

 

Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had been Peerless Cucumber’s senior in transmigration, and he was also much older than Shen Yuan’s lifetime and his life as Shen Qingqiu combined, and Shen Qingqiu didn’t honestly know what he would have done or what he could have done if Shang Qinghua had ever needed his help with anything, back when everything had constantly felt as though it was falling apart around him. But surely the past few months were proof of something! Transmigrators had to stick together! 

 

“Just… don’t… don’t take the ‘Return Home’ feature just yet,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

He wasn’t ready for that. He didn’t know if he would ever be ready for it, with the way he was feeling right now, but it would be so much worse if Shang Qinghua just vanished on them without warning! How could they possibly explain that to Mobei-Jun?! 

 

Shang Qinghua looked away, his hands pulling anxiously at each other. 

 

“...You knew about that offering already, didn’t you?” Binghe asked, calmly. “About the possibility you could go back to your original world?” 

 

Shang Qinghua gave Binghe another anxious look, more distraught now, then sighed. “Yeah. I, ah, I got the option for that after the System decided that the story was over. Happy ending. Good enough. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, because as I’m sure you were told, the original ending wasn’t… ah… good.” 

 

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Shen Qingqiu demanded. 

 

Shang Qinghua looked at Binghe again. “Aha, uh, how?” 

 

“Shizun, we were a little busy,” Binghe allowed. 

 

“Still,” Shen Qingqiu said, even though he saw the point being made. 

 

“Bro, what was I supposed to do?” Shang Qinghua demanded. “I wasn’t expecting any of that! Much less to get any offers like that! You’d just gotten a good ending for yourself! How was I supposed to jump in there and say, ‘Hey, I know you’re blissfully happy now, but have you checked your System messages about an opportunity to abandon your life in this world? Not sure if it’s real or a total scam, though!’” 

 

“...It would have put a damper on things,” Shen Qingqiu admitted. 

 

There was no way that he would have been able to hide his shock and upset from Binghe, and without the “Revelations” feature that A-Yun had purchased accidentally, he wouldn’t even have been able to talk freely about it. 

 

“...Do you have that feature?” Shang Qinghua asked. 

 

“No,” Shen Qingqiu answered. 

 

“Oh. Huh.” 

 

“Do you want to return to your original world?” Binghe asked. 

 

Shen Qingqiu’s heart skipped a beat at the question, even though he’d already answered it, but his husband was focused on the other transmigrator in the room. Shang Qinghua still seemed a little perturbed to be addressed directly by the protagonist. It was, Shen Qingqiu could admit, a little strange to see Binghe and an adult Shang Qinghua interact at all, when Shang Qinghua had generally striven to avoid exactly that. 

 

“Ah, well, ah… I don’t know if it would actually work,” Shang Qinghua said. “I definitely don’t want to end up being reborn as an infant again, if that’s how it works.” 

 

“Once was enough?” Binghe asked. 

 

Shang Qinghua laughed. “Aha, yeah. I didn’t really get my memories of a past life until later, but it was still a pretty bad experience. Don’t recommend it. Don’t want to take my chances. And besides, even if that’s not how it works, and I’m me again, it’s not like I really have anything waiting for me back there…” 

 

It was a terribly sad thing to say. Shen Qingqiu was incredibly relieved to hear it. 

 

“It’s just that… before all of… this happened, I wasn’t so sure that I had anything worth staying for here, either,” Shang Qinghua added, which was ten times worse and not at all relieving to hear. He wasn’t meeting anyone’s eyes now, staring at his wringing hands. “So, you know, I mean, I was kind of thinking, ‘Why not?’ Right?” 

 

“But you’re not now, are you?” Shen Qingqiu said numbly. 

 

Shang Qinghua shrugged. “Bro, aha, if half of what I remember right now is true, I kind of just want to die from embarrassment right now, so I’ll get back to you on that. Can we… can we just pretend the whole last, uh, whatever that was… never happened?” 

 

“No.” 

 

“Are you sure?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“I’m pretty sure that there’s a plant for that.” 

 

“No, there isn’t. I don’t remember it,” Shen Qingqiu lied firmly. There were, in fact, several different plants for such contrived amnesia storylines, and other unquestionable artifacts like the one that had de-aged Shang Qinghua, and the Elder Dream Demon could almost certainly do something like that upon request. 

 

Binghe snorted, then when Shen Qingqiu looked at him, made a gesture of surrender. “Ah, if Shizun says that it’s so, then it must be so. Forgive this humble disciple.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu didn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused. 

 

Shang Qinghua closed his eyes and sighed. “Ahhh, I guess I’ll just have to live with it until the next time I do something humiliating and want to crawl into a hole over that, instead.” 

 

“Good,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

He lived the exact same way, unfortunately. As he gained more life experience, he came to understand that it was more or less how everyone lived, if they had any sense of shame whatsoever. Airplane Shooting Towards The Sky had been much better at hiding it before. Or maybe Shen Qingqiu was much better at noticing it. 

 

“You’re so good for my ego, bro. Really,” Shang Qinghua muttered. 

 

For all his sarcasm and other chatter, Shang Qinghua really did look tired to Shen Qingqiu’s eyes, especially with his eyes closed like this, like he might drift off to sleep at any moment. For a minute, it was beginning to look like he was doing exactly that, before he forced his eyes open again. Blinking rapidly, as though to get the tiredness out. So much like A-Yun had done when he was resisting an afternoon nap. 

 

“Go to sleep,” Shen Qingqiu told him. “We’ll be here when you wake up.” 

 

“Ah, but see? The sooner I go to sleep, the sooner I have to get up again! The sooner I have to do all sorts of cultivation exercises and answer all sorts of questions and fix whatever mess good ol’ Zhangmen-Shixiong and my disciples made of my peak, plus whatever mess my king’s been making in the…” 

 

Shang Qinghua trailed off and didn’t continue. 

 

“You’re still recovering,” Shen Qingqiu said, uncertain how to address the ice demon who wasn’t in the room. “There’s no need for you to jump straight back into work like that.” 

 

“I’m having Sha Hualing watch over him, if that helps,” Binghe volunteered, with the amusement of someone who knew that it would not really help at all. “Yes, he’s king now. Don’t worry, he’s doing a good job of it, and I stabbed his shitty uncle through the arm during his ascension as a warning. Everything is under control.” 

 

“Oh. Great,” Shang Qinghua said faintly. “That’s great.” 

 

“He came to wait with me, while you were being aged-up again,” Shen Qingqiu said gently, “but he left again because he’s waiting until you’re ready. I’m sure that he’ll be here the moment you call for him.” 

 

“...Never? Does never sound good?” 

 

“It doesn’t have to be right now, but I’m sure he’d like to see for himself that you’re well, even if you’re not ready to have a serious conversation right away. It sounds like you two also have a lot to talk about.” 

 

“Never sounds amazing, really.” 

 

“He wants to apologize,” Binghe said bluntly. 

 

Shang Qinghua stopped moaning to himself and stared. “What?” 

 

“He wants to apologize for the way that he’s treated you and to make it up to you, now that he’s king,” Binghe said. “He missed you. It took him too long to figure it out properly, but he’s worked it out now. Mostly.” 

 

Shang Qinghua stared some more. “Really…?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Shang Qinghua kept acting as though this was shocking news, or maybe he was thinking back to being a small child indulged by the formidable ice demon, now that he was getting confirmation it was real and not all some strange dream. He didn’t look as though he believed this. Shen Qingqiu felt a little incredulous, but… not unsympathetic. 

 

“If I’m not the original Shen Qingqiu, then you’re not the original Shang Qinghua,” he pointed out. “Things are different in this world. I’m not the only one who managed to change up his original ending.” 

 

“Sure, but I’m… uhhh… not you.” 

 

“I don’t think Mobei-Jun would like Shang Qinghua nearly as much if he was me,” Shen Qingqiu said dryly, which at least made Binghe chuckle again. More solemnly, Shen Qingqiu said, “I think you would be surprised, at what a little kindness can do, early on.” 

 

Shang Qinghua still looked uncertain, even a little cornered. 

 

“You really don’t have to talk to him right now. As tempting as it is to try and solve everything all at once, any dragging people anywhere kicking and screaming can wait at least a few days. He is busy with family affairs after that ascension.” 

 

“Yeah, I… I can’t believe I missed that.” 

 

“He’s not that busy,” Binghe objected, “but Mobei probably doesn’t feel ready to see you yet, either, and he can distract himself until he’s called for. Just a little while ago, he was still resigning himself to never seeing you as Shang Qinghua ever again. Did you know that he didn’t think he would ever have to ascend without you by his side?” 

 

Whatever Shang Qinghua had been about to say died in his throat at that revelation. He was staring at his hands again, which were still moving, albeit slowly, still aimlessly pulling at each other. Shen Qingqiu hesitated at first, then laid a hand on top of them. 

 

“But don’t wait too long, hm?” he said softly, smiling. “Or we’ll have to do something. It’s a parent’s prerogative to interfere in these things for their child’s well-being, isn’t it?” 

 

Shang Qinghua laughed, a little hoarsely. “Bro, please don’t.” 

 

It was so tempting to bring up how, as a child again, Shang Qinghua had confessed that he intended to marry Mobei-Jun when he grew up. Shen Qingqiu was endlessly amused by how much this author’s tastes hadn’t changed. Though, upon questioning, A-Yun’s main reason for wanting to marry Mobei-Jun was apparently because he had wanted Mobei-Jun to live with them and he knew that married people lived together. Maybe Shen Qingqiu would mention it after Shang Qinghua and Mobei-Jun had finally talked properly. 

 

“Then behave,” Shen Qingqiu said, but teasingly. “I… I know… I know that we’ve had our disagreements, our… unkindness, but you did help me many times, regardless, and I don’t have many people in this world with whom I can be truly honest. We told A-Yun- we told you that nothing was going to change, which was… well…” 

 

“A lie?” Shang Qinghua suggested. 

 

“A little one, just to comfort him. To comfort you. I assume that you don’t want to continue sleeping in a made-up bed in our house, for example.” 

 

“Aha, not really.” 

 

“I do consider you a friend,” Shen Qingqiu said directly. It was difficult to say, so awkward coming out of his mouth, but there was no other good way to say it. He didn’t want to be misunderstood. “I would… miss you… if you left. I was glad to help you through this. Glad for your company. You have nothing to be embarrassed about from your time as a child again, you know. Everyone was a child once. And besides, there’s nothing wrong with anyone being a little childish again sometimes.” 

 

“...Thanks,” Shang Qinghua said quietly. “That, ah, just… thanks, bro.” 

 


 

The next day, they helped Shang Qinghua move from Qian Cao Peak back to his Leisure House on An Ding Peak. Shang Qinghua protested this, saying things like, “I can walk, bro! Look at me walking just fine!” But he didn’t really try to make them go away. 

 

Shen Qingqiu said, “Yes, very good walking, A-Yun,” and Shang Qinghua turned slightly pink again, before he started muttering about people being right about overbearing parents. 

 

“Next thing I know, you’re going to be bragging about having a peak lord for a son before turning around to berate me for not becoming sect leader,” Shang Qinghua said. It sounded like he was joking, but he didn’t seem entirely sure about it. “Bro, if you ever try to compare me to Yue Qingyuan or Liu Qingge or something, I can’t be held responsible for whatever I do next. I’m warning you now.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu rolled his eyes. 

 

“Don’t worry. If A-Yun ever starts emulating Shibo or Shishu in any way, then he’s getting disowned,” Luo Binghe said jokingly. 

 

Shen Qingqiu gave his husband a look and Binghe only grinned. He was still pleased with himself for fixing Shang Qinghua’s situation. He had also continued to be nothing but friendly towards the other transmigrator, albeit in a slightly more distant and teasing way than he had been with the child Shang Qinghua had been, apparently with an entirely new view on his servant’s servant. Though Shen Qingqiu knew that his husband’s patience when it came to pressing for information had to be wearing thin. 

 

Shang Qinghua’s place of residence had remained locked-up in his absence, just as he’d left it, and Shang Qinghua confessed as he opened the door that he usually didn’t let anyone inside, not even to clean. “I mean, can you imagine if one of my disciples stumbled on Mobei-Jun taking a nap in here or something?” 

 

“That would be… bad,” Shen Qingqiu ventured. 

 

Instead of saying, “Why the fuck would Mobei-Jun be taking a nap at CANG QIONG MOUNTAIN SECT?” Or, “Did that happen… often?” Or, “HOW is your relationship with him so bad if it was good enough for him to be SLEEPING OVER?!” Or, “If you were hooking up with him this whole time, I’ll smack you.” He exchanged another look with Binghe and understood that his husband was having very similar questions. 

 

Thankfully, Shang Qinghua’s house was not the completely unlivable mess that Shen Qingqiu had been worrying that it might be. It was still messy, of course, but in a clean sort of way? The floor was clear and the clutter was kept to things like stacks of books and paper on tables and shelves, or some robes thrown over a chair that had probably become “the clothes-holding chair”, or a half-full basket of folded laundry resting next to the bedroom door that must have been done and delivered by An Ding disciples but never put away. There was a kitchen area, but the only things in it were a neat stack of opened containers of various snacks purchasable in some of the towns down the mountain, a tray of empty dishes that must have been brought from the An Ding kitchens and had yet to be returned, and some empty plant pots.  

 

It was… cozy? No one had been here for months, but a lived-in feeling lingered nevertheless, and it kind of smelled that way, too. Shen Qingqiu felt relieved, but then he glanced at Binghe and saw his husband’s barely restrained upset at the state of things, and coughed with laughter when Binghe marched over to the nearest shuttered window and threw it open, then did the same with all the others to let more fresh air in. 

 

Shang Qinghua watched this with a bemused expression as the Demon Emperor picked up the half-full laundry basket and started collecting the robes thrown over the chair. “Ah, you… really don’t need to do that?” 

 

“Oh, is A-Yun going to do his part to clear space for guests?” Binghe said, continuing to throw robes over the top of the basket. He paused when he got to the bottom of the pile and picked up a dark coat with shimmering blue embroidery that was much too large for Shang Qinghua, then looked at the other transmigrator with raised eyebrows. 

 

“Aha, so that’s where that went,” Shang Qinghua said. “It must have gotten mixed in when I was doing laundry…?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu didn’t want to know. He also did. This was ridiculous. 

 

It was amusing to see how quickly some accosted An Ding disciples jumped when Binghe bid them to bring him some cleaning supplies. He was still technically their shixiong, so arguably they were only being dutiful and respectful, but Shen Qingqiu assumed that the Demon Emperor aspect had no small part in their speed. Upon delivery, they tried to stick their noses into their peak lord’s house, and were visibly disappointed to see that it was entirely normal, before Binghe shooed them off again. 

 

Shen Qingqiu contributed mostly by carrying lost items to their proper places and sorting Shang Qinghua’s overflowing bookshelf (some of it was material related to An Ding trade, some of it was a random assortment of nonfiction, and the rest was fiction in a great range of quality that Shen Qingqiu talked himself out of smuggling out up his sleeve knowing that he could come back and borrow it later), while Binghe did things like dust every surface and attack some of the cobwebs in the upper corners with a broomstick. Shang Qinghua had just come from Qian Cao Peak, so he contributed mostly by telling them where things went, and offering shrugs or half-hearted explanations as to why he lived like this. 

 

“It’s not like anyone ever comes over,” Shang Qinghua complained. “I don’t have guests. It’s not that bad! I don’t even leave food or drink around or anything! I learned my lesson about safe workspaces when I d- transmigrated!” 

 

“Mhm. Why do you have plant pots full of dry dirt in your kitchen?” 

 

“Oh, well, ah, my plants died after I… had to leave Cang Qiong, and I haven’t gotten around to replacing them since coming back. Even my cactus died! Poor little Demon Cactus Bro. He was the last one standing even before I got kicked out.” 

 

There was apparently nothing in Shang Qinghua’s house that was secret, and very little that could be considered especially personal. He admitted to having already decluttered and deep-cleaned fairly recently, after returning to the sect. “You know, since my house got totally ransacked after I left, anyway,” Shang Qinghua said nonchalantly, as though Shen Qingqiu should have known that this had happened, which he hadn’t, although it made perfect sense when he thought about it for a moment. 

 

Anyway, it meant that Shen Qingqiu could talk his husband out of scrubbing every surface in the house (which could be very difficult when Binghe got into one of these moods), now that they had cleared enough space for Shang Qinghua’s sitting area to be treated as a sitting area. Binghe reluctantly stopped and used Shang Qinghua’s kitchen area to miraculously produce tea for all of them instead. 

 

Shen Qingqiu chatted with Shang Qinghua about general sect business for a little while, before Shang Qinghua finally said, “Aha, I appreciate the concern, bro, but… there is no way you care that much about whatever Zui Xian Peak is complaining about.” 

 

“I could,” Shen Qingqiu said. “I don’t, but I could.” 

 

“So, ah, are you really just here to clean my house? Or do I ever get to know what serious things you two actually want to talk to me about? Or do I get to keep sitting here in blissful, nerve-wracking ignorance like this?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu exchanged a look with his husband, who had been very patient. 

 

“It’s about this Transmigration System,” Binghe said to Shang Qinghua. 

 

“Ah. Right.” 

 

“What can you tell us about it?” 

 

“Not… much?” 

 

Shen Qingqiu hadn’t really allowed himself to foster any hopes, but he was still a little disappointed when Shang Qinghua insisted that he didn’t know where the System came from, whether or not it had created this world or simply co-opted it, or what motivations it had, if any, by taking them to this world and pushing them through a version of the Proud Immortal Demon Way story. He seemed convinced that it would probably leave them alone now that they had reached “a conclusion that satisfied both transmigrators”. 

 

“...You felt satisfied by this ending?” Shen Qingqiu asked, somewhat bemused. He mostly only remembered this author expressing disgruntlement over his changes, though he also remembered disgruntlement over not having any godlike powers. 

 

Shang Qinghua shrugged again. “As an ending to Luo Binghe’s story? Sure. It’s not like the original ending was that great and the story… ah… yeah, I know, it should have ended years earlier, probably, but it kept producing money for me, so…!” He wasn’t meeting their eyes again, as he admitted, “I mean, aha, I can’t say that I really enjoyed watching you… either of you… be that unhappy… or dead, even temporarily, so, yeah, I was satisfied enough by this ending. Your happy ending is my happy ending, bro.” 

 

It might have been a very touching sentiment, if the man hadn’t professed to considering the “Return Home” feature, with all its possible consequences, because he didn’t think he really had anything worth staying for. Shen Qingqiu remembered, in the immediate aftermath of the “story’s end”, in between all his complaints, Shang Qinghua saying he was just glad it was over. This was at least a slightly nicer way of saying that. 

 

“Why did this Transmigration System allow you to reveal the world-travel after all this time?” Binghe asked next. “Shizun suggested that it was… ‘post-canon bonus content’?” 

 

Shang Qinghua blinked at him. “Yeah, that’s… never not going to be weird to hear you say. Ah, I think he’s right? I think it came up as an option because… I know you were eavesdropping… but I think it might have popped up as an option if I had tried to tell someone about transmigration? It’s the first time that kind of situation has come up since ‘the story ended’. Damn, I would have been fucked if it hadn’t. I mentioned television to Mobei-Jun.” 

 

“You did what?” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

“He mentioned that,” Binghe said, unfairly unsurprised. “He didn’t know what it was. Shizun, A-Yun just mentioned that he missed it from his home.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu rubbed his temple, then sighed, and decided that there was no point in worrying about it now. If Shang Qinghua wanted to explain television to Mobei-Jun at some point, then he was welcome to do that. “Well, I’m glad that this happened and that we can talk about these things now.” 

 

“It’s really something,” Shang Qinghua agreed vaguely. 

 

He apologized to the both of them for not having all the answers, which seemed very heartfelt. Before he immediately went on to point out that if he had at any point had all the answers to the transmigration experience, he would have done things way differently. Which was a fair point, but a conversation for another time, possibly with wine. 

 

“Are… are we good?” Shang Qinghua asked hopefully. 

 

“...No,” Binghe said, which made both of them freeze. “Oh, that sounded bad, didn’t it?” He smiled reassuringly. “We’re good, Qinghua, but I have more questions. I want to see more of your System, how it works, what it’s capable of doing, and I would appreciate your help with that. But… that investigation doesn’t have to be now.” 

 

“Okay,” Shang Qinghua said, high-pitched. “Yeah, okay, we can do that.” 

 

That wasn’t so surprising, actually. Shen Qingqiu had already gone through parts of his System with his husband watching, which had been extremely discomforting but also not that bad, and it made sense that this ambitious protagonist wasn’t done yet. He wasn’t looking forward to it, but he couldn’t blame Binghe for his curiosity. 

 

“...There just… might not be too much to find…?” Shang Qinghua said. “Which isn’t a no! It’s not a no! It’s just… I wrote this world and I don’t get all the answers, so, you know, you may… have to prepare yourself for a little bit of… disappointment?” 

 

Saying this sort of thing to a demon lord under ordinary circumstances, as far as Shen Qingqiu knew of other demon lords, usually ended in some maiming at minimum. If this had been said to the original protagonist of Proud Immortal Demon Way, who never had to compromise on anything, then it probably would have ended in death. In this world, Shen Qingqiu’s husband chuckled at their concerned looks. 

 

“I still think there’s more to uncover,” Binghe insisted, “but I’ll keep that in mind.” 

 

“That’s good,” Shang Qinghua said, uncertainly. 

 

Binghe expression turned… fond. Yes, that was fondness, Shen Qingqiu was sure of it. 

 

“I haven’t paid enough attention to you,” Binghe said. 

 

“I, ah, liked it that way,” Shang Qinghua replied. “It’s fine.” 

 

Binghe’s smile widened. “I liked getting to know A-Yun, but I still don’t know much about Shang Qinghua, which is a shame. Now that we’re both in a place for it, maybe we can get to know each other properly.” 

 

Shang Qinghua was stunned into silence. 

 

“Maybe we’ll even become friends,” Binghe suggested brightly, his eyes dancing. “Shizun says that I could use more of them.” 

 

“I didn’t say it like that,” Shen Qingqiu protested. 

 

Binghe ignored him, still smiling at Shang Qinghua. “What do you think?” 

 

Shang Qinghua coughed, looked around wildly, and then shrugged and flapped his hands and said, “Maybe! I mean, why not? I guess…” 

 

Binghe nodded. “Friendships have been built on stranger things.” 

 

“I can’t think of any, but… probably?” 

 

“I’m friends with Mobei, too,” Binghe added. “So, now that only leaves Shizun and Mobei to become true friends as well! What do you think, Shizun?” 

 

“I think you’re having too much fun teasing us,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

“Maybe,” Binghe admitted. “It’s very fun.” 

 


 

Binghe had thoughtfully brought groceries to Shang Qinghua’s house, as one did with a loved one who was not well, and had then put the food aside to go on his rampaging cleaning spree. Once this ridiculous Demon Emperor had made certain that the kitchen area met his bare minimum of standards, which were much higher than anyone else in this house, he set about preparing lunch for them. 

 

Shang Qinghua remained a little stunned by everything that was happening to him, especially the protagonist treating him like a good friend, which was very understandable! Shen Qingqiu respected the other transmigrator’s surprise and confusion. Binghe could be very intense when he had decided on these things. 

 

Shen Qingqiu was proud of his husband. There was a… detectable level of performance to Binghe’s interactions with Shang Qinghua, an awkwardness only visible to a discerning eye, but it was so very similar to how Binghe had treated A-Yun at the very beginning, and Shen Qingqiu had seen how that practiced kindness had melted into genuine fondness. He couldn’t undo anything that had happened to Binghe, but he could be here for his husband now, he could answer all his questions, and offer encouragement as Binghe tried to move away from the Endless Abyss and all the horrors he had found there. 

 

“Hey, Gege.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu sighed and then raised his eyebrows at Shang Qinghua. “What?” 

 

Shang Qinghua’s mischievous smile faded a little, as he said, “Just… ah… letting you know that I’m not going to take the ‘Return Home’ feature, at least… not right now? Not without telling you and talking about it, at least. But also, probably not ever? Hopefully not ever? I mean, it depends how things go from here, but it’s going pretty well, so…” 

 

That was a relief to hear. It was also still sad. 

 

“What… what about your parents?” Shen Qingqiu asked. “Forgive me, you of course don’t have to talk about them if you don’t want to, it’s just… you spoke of them as a child…” 

 

“Ah, right, hm.” Shang Qinghua glanced towards Binghe, who looked up, definitely able to hear them, and sighed. “Most children would, right? But, ah, no, we’re not close. At all. We all ended up with very separate lives. They finally got divorced and then both got remarried, and got new families out of it, too.” 

 

“Oh,” Shen Qingqiu said. 

 

“My father married this woman who was… eh… too young for him, probably, and he had his do-over children. Then my mother married this man who already had children, which was fun for me, in that it wasn’t really fun at all. I’m pretty sure that my mother’s husband was cheating on her and she was ignoring it; I know my father’s wife cheated on him at least once, but I never checked back in on that mess to figure out if they ever got officially divorced. I think he had a girlfriend again? Bro, come on, don’t look at me like that.” 

 

“How am I looking at you?” Shen Qingqiu protested. 

 

“My childhood wasn’t that shitty.” 

 

This wasn’t much of a recommendation. 

 

“It was just…” Shang Qinghua waved a hand to illustrate something unknown. “I grew up. I got out. Went my own way, instead of having to listen to my parents talk about how the divorce was so great for everyone, while simultaneously watching their second marriages fail, too.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu tried to keep from looking at Shang Qinghua “like that”. He probably wasn’t succeeding at all. 

 

Even worse, while looking off into nothingness, Shang Qinghua added, “If it had been shittier, maybe I’d have a better reason to be angry about it.” 

 

Shen Qingqiu could… understand that. The desire to have something happen - something more spectacular, something inarguable, something that would draw everyone’s sympathy without question - to you to justify your inescapable unhappiness. 

 

“Anyway, bro, the whole thing was years and years ago for me. So, it doesn’t matter anymore, really. It shouldn’t matter that much at all. But it just sort of fucking… stays there, you know? With years and years layered on top. I could try tearing pieces off myself to get at it and stir all that shit up, and it still wouldn’t work.” 

 

This was making Shen Qingqiu want to apologize for his own childhood being very decent, even quite good, but that would hardly help anyone here. He also wanted to gather both Shang Qinghua and Binghe up into his arms, like that would stop the world from getting in, and undo everything that had happened to them. It wouldn’t, but he could try. 

 

Instead, Shen Qingqiu said, “Just because it could have been worse doesn’t mean it was fine. You deserved better than that.” 

 

Shang Qinghua didn’t seem to know what to do with this statement at first, then he said, “You know, out of the three different childhoods I remember going through now, this most recent one may have been the shortest, but it was definitely the best.” 

 

“I’m glad,” Shen Qingqiu said, meaning it completely. 

 

After a pause, Shang Qinghua added, “I don’t want to do another one, though.” 

 

“That’s reasonable,” Shen Qingqiu said, while Binghe laughed. 

 

Chapter Text

 

Mobei-Jun had not been unaware that Luo Binghe had been seeking a solution to Shang Qinghua’s curse, now that Sha Hualing’s schematics were in hand, but he had not allowed himself to hope. There had been little room for it against the shock of Shang Qinghua’s absence stretching ahead of him indefinitely. He had so many responsibilities as king. So many greedy and hateful eyes upon him as he went through the motions of duty. In his shock, the best that he had been able to do for Shang Qinghua was stay alive. 

 

And now Shang Qinghua was back. All the information from their searching had come together, all of Luo Binghe’s immense power and cunning and connections had been put to work, and almost as suddenly as the artifact had taken Shang Qinghua, Luo Binghe had miraculously returned him, unharmed, as promised. 

 

Mobei-Jun had been unable to find a solution on his own. He had been unable to even muster faith in an alternative solution to waiting. When Luo Binghe had told him of these transformation plans, he had not wanted the Demon Emperor to go through with them, terrified of the risk. He had been unable to stop Luo Binghe from going forward with his plans regardless. At every turn, it seemed that Mobei-Jun had failed Shang Qinghua, and so how could he demand to see the man now? 

 

But these were cowardly thoughts. Recent failures did not matter so much. The painful truth of it was this; how could he face Shang Qinghua knowing that he had failed this man, who had saved his life and given him everything and trusted him with nothing of his origins, long before any of this had happened? 

 

It was Luo Binghe who called for him first, a few days after the transformation, for another meeting at night, this time in one of the gardens of Shen Qingqiu’s peak. The Demon Emperor did not bother to ask Mobei-Jun his reasons for not forcing his presence on Shang Qinghua. The half-demon looked at him as though he already knew everything written on Mobei-Jun’s heart. He undoubtedly did. Mobei-Jun did not need to utter any new words when he had already bared so much of himself, willingly and otherwise. 

 

Nevertheless, he could not hold himself back. 

 

“How is he?” 

 

Luo Binghe smiled as though Mobei-Jun had thrown a bloody heart at his feet. “Qinghua is very well, Mobei. Slightly disoriented by how things have changed around him, but he remembers everything that happened to him when he was a child again.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not know what this meant for him. He had endeavored to be kind to the child Shang Qinghua had become, to be the friend the child named him despite their differences, and he had even enjoyed it, but children were not the best judges of character. Some afternoons of play could not undo all the years that had come before. 

 

“He’s occupied with business on An Ding Peak at the moment,” Luo Binghe continued, “in much the same way that Mobei is occupied with business in the Northern Desert. So responsible. So dutiful. So conveniently full of excuses.” 

 

Mobei-Jun did not rise to the extremely obvious bait. 

 

Luo Binghe’s smile widened nevertheless. “Perhaps it’s that Qinghua is equally anxious not to make any missteps. After all, Mobei has always been his favorite.” 

 

This was already known. It should not have had as much effect on Mobei-Jun’s chest as it always did. Favorite. Did it mean all he hoped it did? 

 

“I hope Mobei is prepared to make all those reparations now.” 

 

Mobei-Jun managed to nod, though this was a lie. He would do whatever was necessary, of course, but the preparations he had managed felt woefully insufficient. 

 

“Has a meeting been set?” 

 

Luo Binghe sighed. “Not yet. Shizun says we must allow these things to happen in their own time. Ah, but don’t almost make a face, Mobei! Shizun also says that if our A-Yun keeps pacing around and making him nervous, too, then fuck that, we’re going to take matters into our own hands. As the concerned parental figures, of course.” 

 

Mobei-Jun was nearly twice Luo Binghe’s age. He had thought that Shang Qinghua was of a similar age, but world travel may have made the man even older. Mobei-Jun did not know how old this Shen Qingqiu truly was, but given the world travel, he supposed that it was possible that the human was the oldest of all of them. Regardless, Mobei-Jun already had to pay his respects to Luo Binghe as Demon Emperor, and he did not relish the idea of furthermore having to pay his respects to the man as any kind of father figure to Shang Qinghua. 

 

Luo Binghe grinned again, unbearable, far too amused with himself. 

 

“Have you called me here only to make fun?” Mobei-Jun demanded, unfortunately sounding more exasperated than angry. He was pathetically grateful for even these scraps of news that Luo Binghe was throwing at him. 

 

“Of course,” Luo Binghe said.  

 

Mobei-Jun nodded solemnly. “I see. I will make myself comfortable, then, and provide an easier target,” he said, gesturing towards the tiled ground of the garden. 

 

Luo Binghe laughed. “Mobei, my husband is waiting in bed for me! And, for the first time in several months, there’s no child sleeping between us, or a need to stay half-awake to monitor a child. There are so many other fun things I could be doing right now besides making fun of such an easy target.” He sighed his laughter away and added, “I could also just be sleeping again. That shouldn’t sound so fun, but it does.” 

 

Mobei-Jun conceded this point. Luo Binghe had already complained to him at length about how the child Shang Qinghua needed attention even while he was sleeping, and the occasional night wanderings, and how Shen Qingqiu had also occasionally gotten out of bed just to watch the child sleep. At first, Mobei-Jun had thought this sounded ridiculous and unnecessary. After all, the child was weak and could be picked up by one hand. How difficult could it be to put a child to bed and tell him to stay there? He had said as much to the Demon Emperor. 

 

And then Luo Binghe had welcomed him to help put the child Shang Qinghua to bed on one occasion, and, unsurprisingly in hindsight, the child had not stayed down. He would not close his eyes. He would not stop attempting to make conversation. True force could not be applied to someone so small and weak and wide-eyed. The child had also wiggled. 

 

“Mobei,” Luo Binghe said, speaking more directly, “I really called you here to check on your wellbeing. You didn’t look so well when I scraped you off the floor after telling you what was going to happen. And Shizun said you ran away from him.” 

 

“I did not.” 

 

“I also called you here to scold you for running away like that. It’s rude. Consider yourself scolded, even though Shizun also thinks you probably made the right decision, recollecting yourself and allowing Shang Qinghua to choose the pace.” 

 

“This is unnecessary.” 

 

“Oh, no, no, no! This is what friends do for one another, isn’t it?” 

 

“...I am honored by the Demon Emperor’s unnecessary interference.” 

 

Luo Binghe laughed again, softer than before. “Ah, Mobei, it’s very tempting to try and fix things for you, but I can’t say the things Qinghua wants to hear. Even Shizun isn’t sure what exactly Qinghua wants to hear from you.” 

 

“...Nor do I,” Mobei-Jun admitted. 

 

He had never been one for words. Thus the insufficient preparations. 

 

“Then… allow me to offer some friendly advice,” Luo Binghe said, and Mobei-Jun wondered if the vaguely threatening undertone was intentional. Probably. “Advice from someone who has been in an embarrassingly similar situation. Qinghua has professed to Shizun that he has never known exactly what you wanted from him. Tell him what you want.” 

 

“I will not make demands of him,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

He had more power than Shang Qinghua, no matter how much power the man had over him, and he had seen too many demon lords hold their power over the decisions of others. His father, foremost. Linguang-Jun had not hated without reason. 

 

The idea of Shang Qinghua acquiescing to his desires out of fear was unbearable. Just the thought made his chest ache. It would be far easier if Shang Qinghua would finally make demands of him. Shang Qinghua would be well within his rights to demand painful or humiliating reparations. Mobei-Jun was determined that any requests would be granted. He would swallow his pride. So what if his ancestors would howl with embarrassment? They were dead. 

 

“Then don’t make demands as you tell him,” Luo Binghe said sharply. “But enough time has been wasted on secrets and schemes, hasn’t it? Shizun and Qinghua both believed that our stories would end a certain way. Their visions of that future blinded them to things directly in front of them. You must show him that there is no reason to be afraid of the future, even if your desires are not met, and tell him what you have to offer him. Let him see that he has nothing to fear from simply speaking with you.” 

 

“How did they think things would end?” 

 

“It doesn’t matter now.” 

 

Mobei-Jun disagreed. Shang Qinghua’s reactions to mistakes in Mobei-Jun’s presence, even the most inconsequential misstep, had originally and even, occasionally, recently been met with overblown reactions, begging for forgiveness in such a way that could be even more annoying than the initial offense. What had Shang Qinghua imagined their ending to be? What had Shang Qinghua hoped their ending would be instead? Mobei-Jun was desperate to know. 

 

If Luo Binghe would not say it now, then it must have been bad. Shen Qingqiu had clearly expected retribution for pushing Luo Binghe into the Endless Abyss, which he had apparently been forced to do, to the point where the human cultivator had self-destructed and acquired an alternate body, presumably to escape death or a fate worse than it. 

 

Did Shang Qinghua fear a similar ending…? 

 

Luo Binghe sighed. “If you want to know so badly, Mobei, I’m not the person to ask.” 

 

Mobei-Jun disagreed. If Luo Binghe knew, then that made him the person to ask. But there was no point in pressing. The Demon Emperor had made up his mind. Or else his husband had made up his mind and the Demon Emperor didn’t dare go against him. 

 

Luo Binghe frowned at Mobei-Jun’s discontent, then said, “Shizun and I have made it clear that he can say no to whatever you offer him. That he has a place here no matter how things go between you. Oh, hm, that’s an interesting expression. Don’t worry, Mobei, we’ve also reminded him that you don’t want to hurt him or anything like that. He knows that.” 

 

“...Good,” Mobei-Jun managed. 

 

Luo Binghe tilted his head. “It’s just that I don’t know if he really believes it yet.” 

 

Mobei-Jun said nothing. He could not. 

 

Luo Binghe looked away and, in lower tones, said, “It took Shizun time to believe it, too. It took time for me to believe that Shizun wanted to be here.” 

 

Any resentment that Mobei-Jun had been feeling towards the man drained away. The Demon Emperor looked young and lonely like this, under the moonlight, and so different from the bloodthirsty, wild-eyed creature who had crawled his way out of the Endless Abyss. Luo Binghe had lost his human softness, but had regained it again, and he was still the most powerful demon lord in the world. He was also the only one Mobei-Jun had ever seen be happy. 

 

Luo Binghe cleared his throat. “Qinghua is well. He’ll call for you soon enough, probably, whenever he works up the courage or when Shizun puts his foot down. And when he does…? Don’t assume he knows anything that you know.” 

 

Mobei-Jun nodded. 

 

“Oh, and don’t fuck it up, speaking as one of A-Yun’s fathers here.” 

 

Mobei-Jun inhaled deeply. “...How long will this persist?” 

 

Luo Binghe grinned. “As long as it keeps being funny.” 

 

Mobei-Jun glared. 

 

“For me, of course,” Luo Binghe added. 

 

Mobei-Jun knew that he could not start a satisfying fight with the Demon Emperor at Cang Qiong Mountain Sect, especially not on Qing Jing Peak, especially not when he was still coming into his new powers, especially not when he did not want to cause Shang Qinghua any fear or garner Shen Qingqiu’s disapproval, but he could certainly be tempted. 

 


 

Shang Qinghua called for Mobei-Jun a full two weeks after his transformation. Luo Binghe had given Mobei-Jun forewarning of the chosen date some days before, so that Mobei-Jun could steel himself to the greatly missed feeling of having Shang Qinghua reach out to him again, finally, and clear the day for their meeting in advance. Mobei-Jun did not answer the call right away, however, instead forcing himself to count to fifty in the private rooms where he had been lounging, before finally standing up and ripping open a portal to An Ding Peak. 

 

The man was pacing in the private garden attached to his home, stopping abruptly when Mobei-Jun stepped out of the shadows. Mobei-Jun could feel the ripple of some privacy spells encircling them. That familiar glow of Shang Qinghua’s subtle power, also greatly missed. 

 

Shang Qinghua looked… like himself. He was wearing some of the An Ding Peak Lord robes he often wore for daily business, golden and practical, but had apparently rolled up his sleeves out of absentmindedness or anxiety. Likewise, his hair was up, except for the strands framing his face that he inevitably tugged free over the course of a day. A human was still so fragile compared to an ice demon, but in comparison to the child, this man looked solid and strong. Mobei-Jun wanted to reach out and touch him, to ascertain that he was real. He could see traces of the child, features that had become broader and longer and more square, but he liked this face and all its lines of experience better. 

 

“My king!” Shang Qinghua smiled at him, though it didn’t reach his eyes, and he sounded slightly breathless. “Ah, thank you for coming! Please, forgive me, my king, I’ve been so confused and preoccupied with getting An Ding back in order since returning to myself. So, forgive me, I really didn’t mean to keep you waiting like this-!”

 

“Forgiven,” Mobei-Jun said, immediately.

 

Shang Qinghua blinked. “Ah… what?”

 

“It is forgiven.”

 

Shang Qinghua looked no less confused. “...Thank you, my king.” 

 

It was good to hear his voice again, to see his hands making familiar motions as he spoke, to be remembered again; Mobei-Jun felt as though he would forgive Shang Qinghua anything in this moment. Shang Qinghua appeared to flounder, however, now that Mobei-Jun had interrupted his usual apologies. 

 

“So, ah, you’re king now.” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“Congratulations…? I mean, I recalled that your father’s health was slipping, but I still didn’t think it was going to happen so soon. Shen Qingqiu and Luo Binghe threw everything off like that…” 

 

“They do that,” Mobei-Jun agreed. 

 

Shang Qinghua snorted, then appeared surprised at himself for it. “Ahhh, I was so upset that I missed it, when I was… small, even though I didn’t even know what I was missing. Luo Binghe got to go, but I had to stay home, and that was just too unfair. But if Linguang-Jun was there, then I’m glad that I didn’t get to go.” 

 

“It would have been dangerous.” 

 

“Aha, yeah. No place for a little me in the middle of that.” 

 

In a world with such dangers as Linguang-Jun, it would perhaps have been unwise to have brought even the adult Shang Qinghua. The ascension had burned up Mobei-Jun’s control, such that he was still rebuilding it even now, piece by piece, and he burned again to even think of that ancestral power accidentally lashing out at this man. 

 

“Nevertheless, you were missed,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

Shang Qinghua did not appear to know what to do with sincerity, looking away and flexing his hands several times, before he cleared his throat. “...Thank you, my king. Your ascension- your ascension really suits you.” 

 

Mobei-Jun had spent far too many hours since the ascension receiving much more fawning compliments than that, some from those with great estimations of their own importance, but something so simple from Shang Qinghua affected him more than everything else combined. He straightened slightly, flush with pride, endeavoring to appear kingly. 

 

“It is thanks to your support.” 

 

However much he still wanted Shang Qinghua to fully explain himself in his own words - who he truly was, where he had come from, why he had done what he had done, how Mobei-Jun could possibly be his favorite - this was true. No one else had been at his side for so long. No one else had served him so well. 

 

“You’re welcome…?” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

Mobei-Jun nodded. 

 

And then they stared at each other, uncertain. This was not how Mobei-Jun had imagined their reunion. It could have been worse, obviously, but there was still time yet. 

 

The private gardens of the An Ding Peak Lord were not particularly impressive, but were nevertheless well-kept by Shang Qinghua’s disciples. It was secluded and well-shaded by the surrounding trees and the largest boulders, so it was at least cool. The most prominent feature was a stone bench for contemplation among the rocks. Mobei-Jun had never spent any time here before, he was not comfortable here, but that did not matter. 

 

He took in a deep breath and said, “I had once thought that my ascension would change everything. But it has not.” 

 

Shang Qinghua straightened slightly, listening intently. 

 

“I remain myself,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

It was a constant struggle. Some days, he woke up disoriented from shapeless dreams, moving on ancient instincts, shaking with the accumulated power underneath his skin. Sometimes, his temper burned such that he could not breathe with rage, but he could not tell if the lighting spark had been his own. The control he had regathered threatened to slip between his fingers. The power resettled and it ached down to his bones. 

 

Some nights, he thought he could hear storms calling him from across the Northern Desert, or else he longed for the icy grips of the White Sea on his skin. Once, he had felt a pull like that of an abyssal vent, a twisted form of gravity, like the unspeakable depths of the Endless Abyss itself were at his fingertips if only he would reach out to it. 

 

And still, despite everything, he remained himself. 

 

“I had once thought that I would have everything that I wanted, once I became king,” Mobei-Jun confessed. “I did not know what I wanted.” 

 

“...And now?” Shang Qinghua asked. 

 

“I should reward my most loyal servant, to whom I owe everything.” 

 

“Ah, thank you, my king.” 

 

“Whom I… trust and value above all others.” 

 

Shang Qinghua’s eyes went wide. “What?” 

 

“I trust you,” Mobei-Jun repeated. “I value your presence.” 

 

Shang Qinghua stared at him and did not look complimented. He looked, if anything, insulted, growing more and more upset, until he finally threw up his hands. “Then why didn’t you tell me?!” he cried. “Why didn’t you show it and act like this before, huh? It doesn’t count if I don’t know!” 

 

Even Mobei-Jun had not fully understood. It absolved him of nothing. He had thought before this situation that his attachment to a human was humiliatingly obvious, but apparently not to the only person who should have mattered most. 

 

“I am sorry,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“Oh? Are you?” 

 

“Yes. I have wronged you. Unforgivably.” 

 

“Yes! Thank you for noticing!” Shang Qinghua cried sarcastically. 

 

“You are not a demon.” 

 

“Oh, I’m not?!” 

 

“I should have treated you differently, when I came to realize that your loyalty was genuine,” Mobei-Jun continued stiffly, determined to get this out, so that he could sooner flee from Shang Qinghua’s rightful anger and rejection, and take his own growing frustration and pain out on some bloodthirsty monster with his bare hands. This rejection was not unexpected. “I have both rewards and reparations to make for your service.” 

 

“Great.” 

 

“What I want does not matter in the face of these mistakes, but…” 

 

“But?” 

 

“I want you.” 

 

“...What?” 

 

“WHAT?!” Shang Qinghua yelled suddenly, very, very loudly. 

 

Mobei-Jun paused. He did not think that this rejection needed to be drawn out. 

 

Shang Qinghua flapped his hands frantically, appearing wild-eyed. “No! No, no, no! What the fuck are you saying? …My king? My king, what is this?” 

 

Mobei-Jun wanted to crawl into an abyss before repeating himself. “Isn’t it obvious?” 

 

“No!” 

 

How was he supposed to make himself clearer than this? 

 

“I love you,” Mobei-Jun said flatly. 

 

Shang Qinghua stared at him, then said, “What?” 

 

“Can you hear me?” Mobei-Jun demanded. “Are you deaf?” 

 

“I can hear you saying things that-!” Shang Qinghua made a sound of frustration and pulled at his own hair. “What’s happening? This is- this isn’t supposed to happen!” 

 

Now Mobei-Jun stared at Shang Qinghua. 

 

“It’s been like this ever since I grew back up again, my king. This whole thing feels like some weird dream, things keep happening to me, but I’m not waking up. Why would someone like you be in love with me? Why would you even like me? Did- did someone put you up to this?!” 

 

Mobei-Jun reared back, but not from distress. The most prevalent feeling in his chest was anger. Again. “Who else am I meant to love?” he demanded. 

 

Shang Qinghua’s mouth remained open, without an answer. 

 

“Who else has saved my life time and time again? Who else has given me shelter and medicine and advice?! Even when he could ill-afford it? Who else has given me loyalty when I had nothing? When I was nothing? When I did nothing to deserve it?! Who else but you? I have never known any Shang Qinghua but you!” 

 

That Mobei-Jun loved this man did not make him any less infuriating. 

 

“But… this world… it shaped itself around me,” Shang Qinghua said weakly, “it might… it might still be shaping itself around me… and what I want… after what happened to Shen Qingqiu. It can’t… What if this isn’t really you?” 

 

“There is no me without you, regardless!” Mobei-Jun snapped. “Everything I have now, I owe to you! To your efforts in this world! You are inescapable! There is no part of my life you have not touched! To attempt to remove you would be to destroy myself.” 

 

Shang Qinghua’s mouth dropped open again. “You can’t just say that!” 

 

“When else has this world shaped itself around your desires?” Mobei-Jun demanded. “If this world delivered you the things that you wanted just because you wanted them, you would have no reason to complain so much about it!” 

 

“Hey, I have good reason to- wait, shit, that’s… a good point? Is it? Shit.” 

 

“What was the original ending to your story?” 

 

“What?” 

 

“You have held my life in your hands time and time again, but you only ever beg from me for your own life! What is it that you fear from me?” 

 

“I- I really don’t- That’s not relevant now!” 

 

“Isn’t it?!” 

 

“It’s not! It’s obviously not going to happen now, so just forget it-!” 

 

“No!” Mobei-Jun snapped. He could not forget the past years any more than Shang Qinghua could, and to have Shang Qinghua attempt to brush them off as nothing burned at him. “You expected me to kill you!” 

 

Shang Qinghua flinched backwards. “Ah, shit, they told you? Those assholes.” 

 

“I was only told that the ending was bad,” Mobei-Jun answered. His heart stilled in his chest to see in Shang Qinghua’s tense shoulders and averted eyes that he was right. “It was not difficult to guess. Based on your behavior. And Shen Qingqiu’s.” 

 

“...I just confirmed it?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Shang Qinghua’s shoulders slumped. “Aw, shit.” 

 

“If you thought it was your fate to be killed by me, why did you save my life?!” Mobei-Jun demanded, furious at the recklessness of it. “What kind of fool-?! If you had done nothing, I would have died! Why didn’t you?!” 

 

Shang Qinghua gapes at him. “Are you saying I should have killed you?!” 

 

“And you would have escaped your fate!” Mobei-Jun snapped. 

 

“It’s not like I didn’t think about it!” Shang Qinghua shouted back. “Believe me, I thought about it! The System was just going to let me do it, too! If I’d killed an ice demon, the son of Mobei-Jun, I probably could have bought some damn respect from my shitty martial siblings for once! I could have cut off that storyline then and there! I should have done it! If I’d been smart, I would have done it!” 

 

“Yes! You would have!” Mobei-Jun yelled. 

 

“What?!” Shang Qinghua shrieked. “Don’t agree with me!” 

 

“So why didn’t you?!” 

 

“It doesn’t matter now!” 

 

“Yes, it does! You changed my life that day!” Mobei-Jun told him. “You saved my life and you ruined me! And you have never truthfully told me why!” 

 

“Because I didn’t want to! You were just some fucking kid! And I was just some fucking kid! Again! And I knew how shitty your life had been because of me and I didn’t want this ending for you?! For my favorite character?! Everything about this transmigration had sucked so badly and I didn’t have anything for myself in this stupid fucking world and I just… I wanted… I didn’t want to, why can’t that be enough?!” 

 

Mobei-Jun found that he was having difficulty breathing. 

 

Shang Qinghua was slightly red in the face, with tears at the edges of his eyes, and he apparently wasn’t done. He had never yelled at Mobei-Jun like this before. “Not that you didn’t try to make me change my mind, huh?! You treated me like shit! For years! First because you didn’t trust me and resented me! And then why? Because you couldn’t let anyone think I mattered?! That you weren’t ten- no, a hundred levels above me?!” 

 

“I wronged you,” Mobei-Jun repeated stiffly. “Unforgivably.” 

 

“No shit! You call that love?!” 

 

“It wasn’t- It was not love in the beginning!”

 

“Obviously!” 

 

“I did not know what to do with you! You were impossible!”

 

“Me?!” Shang Qinghua cried, offended. 

 

“I do not know when it became love!” Mobei-Jun roared, over his interruption. “I did not allow myself to think about such things with you!” 

 

“Oh, because I was so far below you?! 

 

“Because I could not have it! I could not have you! Or anyone!” 

 

“What? Oh, fuck, your uncle-” 

 

“When would I have seen love?!” Mobei-Jun demanded of the man in front of him. “When would I have ever seen a love that does not hurt?!” 

 

He had seen pairings made for power, for lust, out of sheer spite, and few of them that did not have ugly or miserable ends. The best one could seem to hope for from marriage was separate, dutiful, indifferent lives. Humiliatingly, now, one of the better examples Mobei-Jun had seen of a kind love, a happy life, was Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu. 

 

Shang Qinghua sputtered. “That’s- that still doesn’t excuse it!” 

 

“No, it doesn’t,” Mobei-Jun agreed. “But I am a demon, Shang Qinghua. I am not human!” 

 

“I know that! Believe me: I know, I know, I know!” 

 

“I was not raised among humans! Soft and coddled and bloodless! I do not know their ways! I do not know how to be kind or gentle. I am not like Luo Binghe.” 

 

“I don’t want you to be?!” 

 

“To hear the likes of Sha Hualing speak of me, I was barely raised among demons! Every instinct that I have regarding you is wrong! Everything I have known to do for us is wrong!” 

 

“Then you could have listened to me!” 

 

“I know! I am listening now! So stop asking me for your life! Stop asking simply to remain my servant! I gave you your life to you when we met, as you gave me mine, and I will never go back on my word! So tell me when I wrong you! For I find myself king at last and all I want is to serve you for the rest of my life!” 

 

Shang Qinghua gaped at him again. 

 

“...I do not know how to love you well,” Mobei-Jun said, hoarsely. “I do not even know how to be a friend to you. I would listen, now, if you would tell me.” 

 

“You’re… you’re really serious?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Shang Qinghua still looked disbelieving, taking some steps in one direction, and then in the other, before settling into place again. “You’re not just being nice to me because Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu are making you… or anything?” 

 

“No,” Mobei-Jun answered, annoyed and offended. “Why would they do such a thing?” 

 

“I don’t know! I just… I don’t know what’s going on anymore! You were so nice to me as a kid?! You know about transmigration now?! You love me?! What the fuck is this? Seriously, why don’t you give a shit about transmigration?! Or the fact I wrote this world?!” 

 

“I do.” 

 

“What?” 

 

“I care immensely,” Mobei-Jun bit out. It made him furious to think that he had not noticed more, that Shang Qinghua had not trusted him with more, that Shang Qinghua had not been able to be truthful with him under the mysterious System’s power, that Shang Qinghua might travel to another world again. “But I care more for you.” 

 

Shang Qinghua’s mouth opened and closed several times, before he said. “I’m not really a god or anything. I don’t have any special powers, besides knowing lots of things I shouldn’t, and Shen Qingqiu is better at that than I am, since it’s been so long for me…” 

 

“I know,” Mobei-Jun assured him, though he was still angry, so it came out as such. “If you had such powers, things would be different; you would not complain as much as you do.” 

 

“That’s… okay, that’s true, again,” Shang Qinghua muttered. “Don’t come for a man like this.” 

 

“I do not want you for your power-” 

 

“What power?” 

 

“-or lack thereof.” 

 

“Ah, ouch.” 

 

“Nor for your usefulness to me,” Mobei-Jun added. 

 

For Shang Qinghua’s advice based on his secret knowledge had saved him time and time again, but it had not always been good. Sometimes the information had been incomplete or else entirely incorrect. He did forget things. He did dangerous, foolish, or simply inconvenient things without informing Mobei-Jun, sometimes both before and after the fact. He did occasionally need saving from situations of his own making. 

 

“If you would explain your origins, truthfully, I would listen,” Mobei-Jun said. “I want to know. But I do not need to know. You chose me when I had very little power-” 

 

“Sure, but I knew that you would-” 

 

“You could have killed me. And I cannot see how I would have achieved what I have now without you. You chose me.” Mobei-Jun could not articulate how much this meant to him. “It… has made me feel more than a vessel for my ancestors’ power. That there can be more to this life than simply survival and waiting.” 

 

Shang Qinghua still looked disbelieving, though also slightly flushed. “This is… this is…” He cleared his throat and waved his hands. “My king, what exactly do you expect to happen now? The two of us get some happy little house in the Human Realm together? Really?” 

 

“No,” Mobei-Jun said, perhaps too quickly. 

 

It was not bad to visit such a place, but he was a king, and he could not picture daily life in such peaceful seclusion. Even Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu would return to spending the majority of their time between the Demon Realm and Cang Qiong Mountain Sect soon. 

 

“If you would wish for one…” 

 

“No!” Shang Qinghua said, also quickly. “No, ah, I don’t think that would work out.” 

 

Mobei-Jun didn’t know whether to be relieved or dismayed. 

 

“I mean, I kind of hate most chores? And, honestly, I think we’d get bored…” 

 

“I would court you,” Mobei-Jun offered up instead. “If you would allow it.” 

 

“Court me.” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

Shang Qinghua’s flush was getting deeper, as he laughed to himself. “Court me! Okay! Sure! Fine! And then what? My king, what if we’re not compatible? What if something goes horribly wrong? What if you get sick of me?” 

 

“I will not-” 

 

“What if I get sick of you?!” 

 

Mobei-Jun’s heart lurched within his chest. Whatever expression he made had Shang Qinghua freeze, before hastily apologizing. 

 

“Sorry! Ah, you’re beautiful and strong and so high above me, of course, but that just means that things probably won’t work out in the end! What if emotions are just running high because of this whole fucked-up situation? How do I know that Shen Qingqiu is going to keep being nice to me? That Cang Qiong Mountain Sect won’t throw me out again? That Luo Binghe isn’t going to screw me over someday?!” 

 

They could never know for certain. Not truly. 

 

“What about the System?! Sure, it’s quiet now, and it says things are done. This whole situation was never supposed to happen! I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it saved my ass with a bonus feature to break the fourth wall because we're in post-canon now!” 

 

Mobei-Jun was having difficulty following this, but he did not interrupt.

 

“But Luo Binghe isn’t done with it and how am I meant to just… trust that this isn’t going to blow up in my face?” Shang Qinghua demanded. “How do I know that you won’t start resenting me? How do I know that I won’t start resenting you? It could happen! Nothing lasts forever! Things are going to change on us no matter what we do and we’ll change with it and then what?” 

 

“Is it not worth trying?” Mobei-Jun asked. “Are things only worthwhile because they last?” 

 

Mobei-Jun was but one demon in a long line of proud demon kings. He knew that great kings had tried to hold onto their kingdoms forever and that none in history had ever managed it. There had been Heavenly Demons before Luo Binghe, he knew, greater emperors still, and none of them had succeeded in keeping their empires forever. 

 

“I have never seen a love that lasts,” Mobei-Jun admitted. “But we have lasted this far, thanks to your efforts. You have been more loyal than I have ever deserved.” He took a step closer. “I would have you, for as long as you would have me.” 

 

Shang Qinghua didn’t step forward, but he didn’t take a step back. “None of your shitty relatives will stand for you to court a human in any way, especially not your shitty uncle.” 

 

“Not at all of them.” Some of them wouldn’t care. 

 

“Ah, right, that totally makes up for the ones who are totally going to try and murder me,” Shang Qinghua muttered, not sounding particularly scared of these murderous demons, and he was speaking as though he intended to accept. 

 

That was something. 

 

It might have been everything. It felt like everything. 

 

All these things that Shang Qinghua had confessed did not sound like rejection. One might almost dare to hope.

 

Mobei-Jun took another step forward. “I will stop them. I do not care what they think.” 

 

“Sure.” 

 

“You are my favorite,” Mobei-Jun insisted. “You have always been. No one else matters.” 

 

Shang Qinghua was flushed again, but he did not relent. “You’re really going to happily put up with all the demon lords who are going to look down on you for your poor taste?” 

 

“Not happily,” Mobei-Jun said. “They will be welcome to repeat whatever ignorant and incorrect comments they make to the Demon Emperor.” 

 

Shang Qinghua laughed, caught off-guard. “What? You’re just going to sic Luo Binghe on anyone who talks shit?” 

 

“Yes.” 

 

“Ah, I guess that might work.” 

 

“Perhaps Luo Binghe and I will make any naysayers regret their words together,” Mobei-Jun added, and sought to recall some of the phrasing used by Luo Binghe and Shen Qingqiu when sending him off to “babysit” the child Shang Qinghua. “I understand now that friendships require such bonding activities as maintenance.” 

 

Shang Qinghua laughed again. “Sure, sure, what greater form of friendship is there than tearing other people’s shitty opinions to shreds together, I guess?” 

 

They had gotten closer together now, close enough to touch. It had been Shang Qinghua to take the last step. The man had to tilt his head back to meet Mobei-Jun’s eyes. He was still smiling slightly, mischievously, and still flushed in the face. It was not an expression Mobei-Jun had ever seen on Shang Qinghua before. It made his chest burn. 

 

“Ah, what the fuck, I deserve this much, don’t I?” Shang Qinghua muttered. 

 

“What?” 

 

“My king, bend down here.” 

 

“Why?” Mobei-Jun asked, as he did so anyway. 

 

Perhaps he had become too accustomed to humoring the child Shang Qinghua’s small stature and every wish. He had, if he was being honest with himself, become accustomed to humoring most of Shang Qinghua’s wishes even before that. 

 

As an answer, Shang Qinghua reached up, took him by the front of the robes, and kissed him. Mobei-Jun had somehow not been expecting this. After everything he had done so unforgivably wrong, not knowing how to treat a human or an ally or a friend, a part of him had been expecting that Shang Qinghua would not wish to ever touch him again. 

 

Shang Qinghua’s lips were warm. The hand sneaking inside the front of Mobei-Jun’s robes to rest clever fingers on his collarbone was hot. The fire in Mobei-Jun’s chest roared to life. He wanted to grab Shang Qinghua up into his arms, but did not know how to touch him, did not want to make him stop, and so his hands hovered over the man’s hip and face, as he closed his eyes and kissed back from this awkward angle. 

 

The kiss intensified and it was… wet. And uncoordinated, probably because the angle really wasn’t good. Mobei-Jun was too surprised. Too uncertain. They kept trying, but the experience didn’t improve much. Those clever fingers were working their way up to his neck, and it was distracting in a hot way, but the other hand was tugging at his clothes, distracting in a bad way. It was Shang Qinghua, so Mobei-Jun enjoyed it regardless, but it was also annoying. 

 

Shang Qinghua broke off the kiss, breathing heavily, staring at him with wide eyes, and then demanded, “Are we bad at this?” 

 

Mobei-Jun tilted his head, attempting to stretch his neck, and Shang Qinghua looked at Mobei-Jun’s hands, refraining from touching him. Shang Qinghua gave him a strange look, then took a slight step to one side, his hip bumping into Mobei-Jun’s hand. Mobei-Jun allowed his other hand to finally rest carefully against Shang Qinghua’s face. 

 

It lasted only a few seconds, before Shang Qinghua surged forward to kiss him again. Thrilled by the contact, unable to think due to the heat, eager to have more of Shang Qinghua, their coordination did not improve. If anything, it was worse the second time around. 

 

“Hang on! Hang on!” Shang Qinghua laughed, disbelieving and distressed. “Are we honestly bad at this? Fuck, I think we’re really bad at this. After all this time, we’re bad at this?” 

 

Mobei-Jun agreed. It was not ideal. 

 

“Ohhh, Shen Qingqiu can never hear about this,” Shang Qinghua moaned. “Do you know how many jokes they were making this morning about weddings?! Taking advantage of a poor child’s trust in them like villains. They think they’re so fucking clever but they’re not subtle! Unbearable! Like they have any room to talk! We can do better than this, can’t we? We have to do better than this! I deserve it. Come on!” 

 

Shang Qinghua was pushing Mobei-Jun backwards, with impressive strength, and Mobei-Jun went confusedly, still unable to think clearly with one of Shang Qinghua’s hands inside his clothes and still groping his chest. The back of his legs hit a stone bench. He sat down heavily and Shang Qinghua looked down at him, expression smug, which looked… very good on him. 

 

Then Shang Qinghua’s expression turned awed. He was still flushed. It was very gratifying, until Shang Qinghua declared, “My king, you’re too handsome to not be good at this.” 

 

“It takes two,” Mobei-Jun retorted, annoyed. 

 

Too much of his past experience had ended in assassination attempts or other power grabs! What was Shang Qinghua’s excuse? Except, thinking of Shang Qinghua with anyone else made him furious, the burning in his chest turning uglier, and his grip on Shang Qinghua’s hip tightened with it. He released his grip again immediately, determined to be careful, except Shang Qinghua’s gaze turned even hotter still. 

 

And then Shang Qinghua crawled into his lap and started kissing him again. The angle was much, much better this time. Mobei-Jun replaced his hands with less care than he had originally promised he would take if Shang Qinghua ever allowed his touch again. 

 

The kiss was still embarrassingly uncoordinated, due to mutual enthusiasm and lingering uncertainty. 

 

“We’ll have to just… put in the practice time, I guess,” Shang Qinghua said, breathless. “My king, do you know how long I’ve been thinking about this?” 

 

Mobei-Jun was caught up in a vision of Shang Qinghua kissing him like this years ago and… he could not tell himself that he would have reacted well, as the man deserved, but… he did not think that he would have been unable to resist taking him to bed. The shame of being so enthralled by a human had no true grip on him now, so he carefully allowed one of his hands to stroke one of Shang Qinghua’s surprisingly strong thighs. 

 

“I have had dreams about your hands,” Mobei-Jun admitted. “And your mouth.” 

 

Shang Qinghua’s flush deepened again. “Oh?” he said, high-pitched. “For how long?” 

 

“...Longer than you would think.” 

 

Shang Qinghua grinned helplessly. “I’ve, ah, I’ve had dreams, too.” 

 

Mobei-Jun glanced down at the hand that was still groping his chest, then raised his eyebrows at Shang Qinghua, and felt his own lips turning up at the ridiculousness of it all, in answer to Shang Qinghua’s happiness. “Oh?” he repeated. 

 

Shang Qinghua stared, then raised a hand, hesitated, and then poked at the edge of Mobei-Jun’s smile. “Ah, that’s not fair. That’s really, really not fair.” 

 

Mobei-Jun kissed him again. It was apparently difficult to kiss while smiling like this, especially when Shang Qinghua laughed, but it wasn’t bad at all. 

 

“Qinghua.” 

 

“Mm?” 

 

“Mm, Qinghua, we must stop.” 

 

“Ah, probably,” Shang Qinghua murmured, kissing him again.  

 

As much as a part of Mobei-Jun, certain parts of Mobei-Jun, wanted to have sex with Shang Qinghua on a stone bench on An Ding Peak, he would not let his lust control him. Embarrassingly, he was not certain that he had enough control over his new powers to allow for such uncomfortable antics. He explained this to Shang Qinghua, apologetically. 

 

“Fuck, that’s really hot,” Shang Qinghua decided. 

 

But the man did slide off Mobei-Jun’s lap, however reluctantly, and leaned against Mobei-Jun’s side instead. He was still flushed. A little while into their recovery, Shang Qinghua hid his face against Mobei-Jun’s side, closing his eyes. Mobei-Jun rested a hand, palm-up, on his own thigh, and Shang Qinghua placed his own hand upon it. 

 

“...Is this real?” Shang Qinghua said. 

 

That helped to cool the fire in Mobei-Jun’s chest. “Yes.” 

 

“Everything still kind of feels like a dream. Everyone is being too nice to me.” Shang Qinghua sighed. “Isn’t it a rule that when things are this good, it won’t last?” 

 

So it had been in Mobei-Jun’s experience. This felt almost like a dream to him as well. 

 

“...Then we will wait until I have proved to you that this is true,” Mobei-Jun said. 

 

“Sure, it’s just… we were just yelling at each other?” 

 

Mobei-Jun had told himself that he wouldn’t yell, before he had come here, that he would remain calm in order not to frighten Shang Qinghua, and he was ashamed and unsurprised that he had failed. He was a little unsurprised that Shang Qinghua had shouted back at him. 

 

“...I feel very strongly for you.” 

 

Shang Qinghua chuckled. 

 

“I liked the yelling,” Mobei-Jun added. 

 

“What? Really?” 

 

Mobei-Jun had not enjoyed having all his faults thrown in his face, of course, but… “I want to know what you want. I want to know when you are angry at me. I want you to speak freely, without fear.” 

 

Shang Qinghua was quiet for a long time, then said, “Ah, yeah, I’m…” 

 

Mobei-Jun waited. 

 

“I’m still angry at you,” Shang Qinghua whispered, and didn’t move against Mobei-Jun’s side, as though expecting some kind of retaliation. “My king,” he added. 

 

The fires in Mobei-Jun’s chest flickered out, leaving nothing but smoke in the wind. “I am still angry at myself,” he answered, better remembering some of the preparation he had done for this reunion. “For how I have wronged you. For the secrets you were forced to keep. It is… not your fault you did not tell me before.” 

 

“...I probably could have found a way. I mean, looking back.” 

 

“I could have found a way to do better by the one person who has remained steadfast by my side,” Mobei-Jun replied. “And I did not. The past cannot be changed now.” 

 

“But we’ve got the whole future ahead of us, huh?” 

 

“Yes, if you allow it.” 

 

Shang Qinghua huffed, entwining their hands again and again, before he said quietly. “I’ve always been too willing to take a chance when you’re concerned, my king.” 

 

Mobei-Jun’s heart swelled in his chest and it took considerable effort to pull his power back under his control. He felt as though he might be able to conquer the Demon Realm himself now, though upon mastering himself again, it gave way to trepidation. He could not allow himself to be complacent with this second chance. He could not be too proud. 

 

“...I will not give you cause to regret it.” 

 

Shang Qinghua squeezed his hand. 

 

There was much to learn and Shang Qinghua’s own advice was not always good. Mobei-Jun would have to consult Luo Binghe, and perhaps Shen Qingqiu as well, on the best way forward from here, much to his chagrin. For Shang Qinghua, he would endure that particular humiliation. 

 

Shang Qinghua must have been thinking along similar lines, because he sighed, and said, “Can we stay like this for a little while, my king? Shen Qingqiu is definitely going to pounce on me as soon as we separate. He worries too much. Sure, he looked after me when I was a kid again, it was good, I’m grateful, bro, but I’m more than twice his age!” 

 

“...How old are you?” 

 

“Oh, ah, counting this world and the last one? Sss-sixty-something? I think? No, seventy-something, now. He didn’t tell me how old he really is, but I’m pretty sure that this Qingqiu is barely older than Binghe. I’m old enough to be his father!” 

 

“Hm.” 

 

“...I don’t really feel that age, though. This life feels separate to that one. Our original world is pretty hazy for me now, honestly, more like something I read in a book in this world than something that really happened to me.” Shang Qinghua sighed again. “It’s kind of weird to have childhood memories so close to the surface right now. I was reborn into this world. My original childhood’s memories in my second childhood’s body… so weird.” 

 

It did sound like a strange experience. It was also nice to have Shang Qinghua speaking to him like this, sharing these things with him freely, even if Mobei-Jun did not fully understand them. 

 

Understanding, Mobei-Jun hoped, would come with time. He would draw out Shang Qinghua’s secrets. He would unravel the mistakes and misunderstandings between them. He would master himself, his anger, and his strength. He would show the man that he was not dreaming and that these changes were real. The future was unknown, and nothing would last forever, but they would try, and it would be enough. 

 

“You were a cute child,” Mobei-Jun told the man. 

 

Shang Qinghua laughed. “Aha, thanks. You were… you were really nice to me.” 

 

“You deserved that and more.” 

 

“...Thanks.” Shang Qinghua fell silent for several long moments, as they sat together and watched the sunlight filtering through the leaves, as Shang Qinghua held their palms together as though to compare the size of their hands. “So did you, my king,” he said quietly. 

 

Mobei-Jun’s chest was full of feeling, too twisted and complicated to name, in turns warm and in turns cold. He wanted to say that it did not matter now. That it was in the past. But was it? These things did not always fade with time; sometimes, they only transformed. But he would give the likes of his father and his uncle no grip on him now. It was not too late to change. To do better than he had been raised to do.

 

“Thank you,” he said.