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we seal our fate

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All things considered, it really was sort of obvious. 

Hey! Anyone can be a genius in retrospect. Hindsight is 20/20! It’s a lot harder to notice this sort of thing when you’re living in the moment! 

Besides, who can blame him! He'd never written about this facet of Mobei Jun's life before. Not in his drafts, not in his extras, not even in his own mind. Sure, he'd always thought that it would be a fun and spicy easter egg for Mobei Jun to have some kind of cool beast king shapeshifting powers, but it had felt way too self-indulgent. Plus, fitting it in on top of all of Mobei Jun's other OP abilities had felt like trying to force the zipper shut on an ample bosom already bursting its bindings! So that idea, as delicious as it was, had never been more than a passing fantasy in the depths of his own mind. 

He definitely didn't expect it to manifest like this! This isn't even a Chinese myth? And Mobei Jun seems better suited for something more thematically appropriate, like a white tiger, or a silver dragon, or a black wolf...not that he's saying Mobei Jun isn't devastatingly attractive in any form he chooses, haha don't get him wrong here! He's still A-okay with how this all played out. Artistic intention is only a loose template, after all. After a certain point, the will of the story takes on a life of its own! 

Still...considering all the times he'd gotten his hands on Mobei Jun's sealskin, he's sort of shocked that it took him so long to figure it out. 

 



 

With Mobei Jun soaking in the tub to recover faster, Shang Qinghua sheds big, persecuted tears as he turns his attention to the young king's dirtied robes. What is this, huh? Being forced to wait hand and foot upon this spoiled and arrogant demon prince in exchange for his pathetic life had seemed like a much better deal when he wasn't elbow deep in bloody laundry. What a scam! 

He scrubs the robes resentfully, rubbing soap into the bloodstains and letting them soak for a bit as he makes yet another trip up and down the stairs with two more buckets of water for Mobei Jun's bath before returning to his duty as persecuted launderer.

As he's separating the sodden mass of fabric into outer and inner robes, a soaked animal skin drifts free of the confines of one set of inner robes and floats to the surface of the cloudy water. Shang Qinghua frowns at it, turning it over in his hands before realizing that it's not soaked - it's waterproof. Little beads of water stream easily off the surface of the mottled pelt, plinking back into the basin. The fur is relatively clean compared to the rest of Mobei Jun's robes, so Shang Qinghua rubs some soap into the few dirty spots and gives it a quick rinse before draping it to air dry on the rack next to him, turning his attention back to the heavily bloodstained outer robes. 

He’s gotten all the laundry cleaned, patched, and drying when his stomach gives a sad gurgle that's loud enough to echo around the room. Shang Qinghua peeks quickly behind him to see Mobei Jun soaking away in dignified silence. Furtively, he digs out a soggy ration bar from his inner pockets and resigns himself to a hastily gobbled snack for lunch. He’s munching on the bar and thinking wistfully of flavored melon seeds when he hears a great noise of sloshing water from behind him. He turns just in time to watch Mobei Jun heave himself violently out of the tub and stomp towards him. 

Shang Qinghua curls protectively around his food, chewing faster just in case Mobei Jun decides to claim his meager meal too, but all the spoiled young demon lord does is glare at him poisonously, dripping a huge mess onto the floor that Shang Qinghua knows he'll have to clean later. His mind clicks back on and he realizes that 1) Mobei Jun is naked, 2) Mobei Jun is naked, and 3) He obviously wants something from Shang Qinghua. 

Hastily swallowing his last bite and averting his eyes respectfully, he salutes Mobei Jun, hoping his momentary lapse in attention won’t earn him a beating! 

"My king? Is there something this humble servant can assist you with?” 

Mobei Jun continues to glare at him in silence. His cold blue eyes rake over the damp robes around Shang Qinghua. Oh, he wants to get dressed? 

"Ah, my king, many apologies, but everything is still wet -” Mobei Jun snorts contemptuously and stalks toward him, one arm darting out to smack him! Shang Qinghua immediately lets out a pathetic scream, curling into a defensive ball with his hands over his head. It's not this one's fault the robes aren't dry yet!! 

Surprisingly, all Mobei Jun does is snatch the drying animal skin off the rack, stomping back to the tub with much dripping of icy water. How anticlimactic! 

Shang Qinghua eyes the extremely firm and shapely way the demon lord's butt moves as he slips back into the bathtub, the waterproof pelt draped over his shoulders. Weird? If he wasn’t going to get dressed, why take it back to the bath with him at all? 

Mobei Jun catches his wandering eyes with a glare holding the force of a punch behind it. Shang Qinghua flinches on instinct and gives him a weak, ingratiating smile. 

"More water,“ Mobei Jun says imperiously. “And clean the outer robe more thoroughly.” He eyes Shang Qinghua coldly. "If you miss even one spot, see what this Mobei Jun will do.” 

Shang Qinghua gnashes his teeth violently even as he puts on an accommodating smile, bowing to Mobei Jun before scurrying back downstairs for more water as commanded. 

Spoiled! This tyrannical young demon lord is really too spoiled!! 


 

 

When Shang Qinghua trudges back to his leisure house at the end of the day, all he’s looking forward to is getting some sleep. Being head disciple is no joke! Sure it’s mostly busywork and a mix bag of dreary, tiresome tasks that demand human attention despite their banal nature, but it’s still a lot! It’s like the xianxia equivalent of every horrible retail job he's ever worked in his life, but with more math involved, and he’s been run ragged ever since his shifu discovered that Shang Qinghua is capable of balancing the books without supervision. The old man has been sending him to the other peaks like a particularly harried rent-a-CPA for any accounting issue that pops up, no matter how small. Shang Qinghua has had to make nice with the archival staff of every peak in order to chase down musty old records and reconcile their awful accounts!

Tedious! Stupid! Waste of time! And it’s obvious that shifu is just throwing the responsibility onto Shang Qinghua’s shoulders so that he doesn’t have to go himself. You know what they say, the nail that sticks out really does get the hammer! He should’ve just kept his head down and stayed unassuming and bland. He would’ve, if he didn’t have a big death flag hanging over him at the mere thought of disobeying the System’s plot-related demands!

Curse you, System! A thousand curses upon you for forcing this old man into a position of actual responsibility! 

He kicks the door shut behind him, makes a beeline to his slightly-lumpy mattress while shedding his outer robes, and collapses facefirst onto the cushions for a much-deserved five full hours of sleep! 

He’s only just closed his eyes when a heavy body collapses onto him from above. 

Shang Qinghua shrieks out loud! He screams like he’s being attacked by a hundred serpents! He scrabbles wildly under the oppressive weight of this obviously-an-assassin, yelling and hitting out blindly with his fists in fright!!

The person crushing him gives a harsh grunt and slaps a cold, heavy hand over his mouth. 

“Be silent.” 

Shang Qinghua freezes in place, his voice disappearing completely in fear. 

It’s Mobei Jun! 

Mobei Jun removes his oppressive hand once he’s sure that Shang Qinghua won’t try and scream again. He grunts again and thankfully, rolls to one side so that he isn’t squashing Shang Qinghua into a disciple-shaped human pancake anymore. 

Shang Qinghua scrambles off the bed to salute hastily and make his respects, feeling deeply resentful at this turn of events. This is obviously Mobei Jun’s idea of a good time, showing up unexpectedly in Shang Qinghua’s chambers at the worst time to torment him, lording over his bed all self-satisfied, demanding information or simply scaring the wits out of Shang Qinghua just for the hell of it! He opens his mouth to greet Mobei Jun when the sight of fresh blood smeared on his king’s face stops him short. 

“My king!” 

“Quiet,” Mobei Jun says. His voice, usually so cool and cutting, is all low and raspy. He sways slightly in place when he sits up and Shang Qinghua has to suppress his gasp of shock, nervously taking in his king's condition with wide eyes. Mobei Jun is clutching some kind of injury on his right side, and it’s very likely that he’s hurt elsewhere in places Shang Qinghua can’t see. There’s blood smeared on his face and another dark line of it oozing stickily from somewhere in his hairline, which is mussed and in obvious disarray. His eyes are slightly hazy, his gaze off-center as he glares at Shang Qinghua in foul temper. 

This isn’t the first time Mobei Jun has done this. 

During the first of these unexpected visits, the imperious and bad-tempered young king had popped into existence in the leisure house while Shang Qinghua was attempting to finish an important correspondence for his Shifu, using his very best calligraphy. Needless to say, the letter was ruined! More importantly, Mobei Jun had been bleeding profusely from his qi qiao, shocking Shang Qinghua nearly to death! He’d snarled threateningly at Shang Qinghua's stammered attempts to help, glowering furiously from his nest in the bed with all the dignity of a wounded polecat. He'd finally suffered Shang Qinghua's assistance with surly and cold-blooded fury, allowing Shang Qinghua to dress and clean his injuries and mend his robes and fetch him tea, and bring him snacks, and - ah the rest isn't important. 

So Shang Qinghua has some idea of what to expect from these midnight pit stops. Still, this is the first time that Shang Qinghua has seen Mobei Jun so heavily wounded. It’s unexpectedly heartwrenching. This is his precious favorite, after all. His personal bias! 

“My king!” he says, quieter, clasping his hands together beseechingly. “Please allow this servant to assist you.” 

Please, my king! Before those bloodstains sink into the embroidered fabric of your robes and become impossible to rinse out! 

Mobei Jun snarls at him but there’s no heat behind it, and when Shang Qinghua edges closer, Mobei Jun allows it without protest. Shang Qinghua makes a detour for the patchwork medical kit he keeps stocked in his closet for just this sort of situation before approaching his king warily, worried that he’ll lash out in his bad mood.   

“My king,” he says hesitantly, opening the box of medical supplies. “Allow this servant to attend to your injuries?”

Mobei Jun makes a deeply displeased sound and begrudgingly starts to disrobe. His movements are stiff, slow, pained. Shang Qinghua only ogles him a little as he undresses, most of his brainpower occupied wondering what kind of enemy his king had fought for him to end up in such a state. He hadn’t spent any time on Mobei Jun’s growing pains during this period of time in PIDW. In fact, Mobei Jun hadn’t even been introduced yet. All the focus was obviously on the scum villain dramatically abusing his poor white lotus disciple. 

He wonders what awful trials this world has cooked up for Mobei Jun in the lack of any canon direction from yours truly. Is Mobei Jun challenging other demonic tribes for better control of the northern lands? Is he fighting oversized monsters in order to prove his strength to his own backstabbing relatives and court members? Shang Qinghua really has no idea and it’s not like Mobei Jun will tell him if he asks, right? 

“An assassination attempt,” Mobei Jun says, practically spitting with anger. 

Shang Qinghua jumps a good foot into the air in fright. Oh shit! Has he been musing out loud again? What a bad habit! He really needs to stop that, it’s definitely going to get him killed someday! 

“Ah, my king obviously prevailed! What kind of small fry could even hope to challenge the great strength of the demon king of the north, huh? Sheer idiocy! My king must have reduced them to shreds!” Shang Qinghua says, quick to pat Mobei Jun’s gently bruised ego. No need to mention how his king came out of the encounter in such a rough state! 

Mobei Jun grunts and finally shrugs out of his last inner robe, peeling the fabric away to reveal his injuries for Shang Qinghua’s inspection. 

Shang Qinghua winces as he surveys the damage. Aish this is really a job for Qian Cao, not An Ding. Just looking at the gruesome injuries clawed across Mobei Jun’s chest and abdomen is sort of making him nauseous. If Mobei Jun weren’t a demon, this would be way beyond Shang Qinghua's meager healing capabilities. Fortunately, Mobei Jun is a demon, and Shang Qinghua is going to do his best, and his king’s plot armor and super-speed demonic healing will definitely kick in to pick up the slack, and this will all be neatly resolved by tomorrow morning! 

He realizes what this means for his plans of sleeping peacefully through the night and nearly bursts into tears on the spot! Why is life so hard, huh? Why does this old man have to suffer like this, huh?! 

Resigning himself to sleeplessness and despair, he starts to sort through the medical supplies, separating out the bandages, salves, poultices and various healing creams he’d pilfered during the course of many standard inventory deliveries to and from Qian Cao Peak. 

Mobei Jun unenthusiastically allows himself to be patched up and thankfully, does not lash out even once. Shang Qinghua, who was expecting to be roundly cuffed about the ears for the sheer insolence of existing in his king’s presence, is unexpectedly grateful. It’s only when Mobei Jun’s head dips heavily for the second time in as many minutes that he realizes that the only reason he’s remained bruise-free so far is probably because Mobei Jun is too tired to beat on him for sport. 

Whatever! He’ll take it! Small mercies are still mercies! He finishes up as quickly as possible, not wanting to test his luck. 

Mobei Jun, now actively drowsing, startles awake when Shang Qinghua clears his throat loudly. He shoots Shang Qinghua a nasty look that could freeze a man solid at twenty paces! Shang Qinghua, who has cultivated a slight tolerance to this kind of look through repeated exposure, only shivers in place, cringing in expectation of his king’s heavy fist. 

“My king!” he cries, covering his head before Mobei Jun can hit him. “This faithful servant is finished! Will my king remain in this humble servant’s meager quarters for the night, or…?” 

Mobei Jun eyes him with disdain. “This Mobei Jun will remain,” he says dismissively, as if it’s an obvious conclusion. 

Peh! ‘This Mobei Jun will remain.’ Why!! My king, go back to your palace! Go back to your luxurious bed with its silken sheets! Why are you stealing this old man’s lumpy mattress and understuffed cushions?! 

Shang Qinghua pastes on a subservient smile and bows deeply. “Ah, of course, of course! My king is obviously welcome to everything this humble servant owns. This one will withdraw to give my king some privacy for the night then.” He starts to sidle away in the direction of his study, already planning to nap on the seat cushion of his writing desk when Mobei Jun’s cold voice freezes him in his tracks. 

“You.”

Ah come on! What now?!  

Shang Qinghua cringes, debating the merits of running very quickly to the other room and having to face his king’s wrath in the morning when he’s fully recovered. He turns around immediately and grins weakly. 

“Yes, my king?” 

Mobei Jun toes the discarded pile of bloody robes at the foot of Shang Qinghua’s bed. “Clean this.” 

Shang Qinghua grits his teeth! This is bullying! Bullying of the highest degree! 

“Ah my king, it’s late...” he hedges. 

Mobei Jun doesn’t even have to say anything. He fixes Shang Qinghua with a look. The ambient temperature drops about ten degrees in two seconds.  

Shang Qinghua yelps and dips hastily into a bow. “Of course! Of course! As my king commands! This servant will get right on it!” He scurries forward and starts to hastily gather the bloody robes from the floor, expertly dodging Mobei Jun’s small kick while retreating. If he weeps a little with fury as he furtively gathers laundry supplies from the storeroom and makes the arduous round trip to gather water, that’s his secret to bear! At the very least, having his own living space means he can do this load of midnight laundry in solitude instead of having to slip into the communal laundry area and risk discovery. One of the (very few) benefits to being head disciple! 

Shang Qinghua sighs as he drops his armful of Mobei Jun’s bloody robes into the water to soak, prodding them until they’re spread out evenly. He gives the closed door leading to the main living area an evil look. Mobei Jun is probably settled all nice and cozy on his bed, curled leisurely into those blankets that he doesn’t even need, rearranging all of Shang Qinghua’s cushions to his liking and squashing them flat! Spoiled! Utterly spoiled! Spoiled beyond compare! 

...and who does he have to blame for that, huh? He shakes his head and sighs again as he squats down over the wooden basin, getting to work scrubbing the blood out. 

 

The moon rises overhead and travels slowly across the night sky, casting long watery shadows through the window as he works steadily, hands moving on autopilot in a mindless rhythm of scrub, dunk, soak, rinse, repeat with only the sound of wet fabric punctuating his aimless thoughts. 

He’s wondering what kind of food will be served for breakfast and whether he has time to take a bath before he has to attend to his morning duties when he notices that the robe currently under his hands is a different texture than the one he was scrubbing before. Frowning, he peers into the rusty water before lifting the fabric to the light to inspect it. 

To his surprise, it’s that same animal skin from the very first time he met his king. What’s it doing here? Why is Mobei Jun hauling it around with him? He didn't really get the chance to look at it closely that first time so he studies it now, turning it in his hands so that the fur catches the soft pale light of the gibbous moon.

It's a nice pelt, the fur a deep silky grey with darker dapples throughout, fading lighter towards the ends. Little beads of water roll off the sides, repelled by some natural property of the fur. He's not sure what animal it comes from, but it's beautifully preserved - so well tanned that it almost feels like the fur and skin of some living creature when Shang Qinghua runs an exploratory hand over it. He turns it around a few more times, admiring the way the short, dense fur sheens where it catches the moonlight before he dunks it back into the washwater for a final rinse, transferring it into a basin of clean water to soak. No idea why Mobei Jun has it on him, but at least it’ll be clean when he wakes up! 

The moon is descending when Shang Qinghua finally finishes getting all the wet laundry onto drying racks. Exhausted, he retreats to his study, curls up with his head pillowed sadly on the seat cushion to his writing desk, and falls asleep instantly. 

---


Very very early the next morning, Mobei Jun bursts violently into the study, reducing the door to splinters with the force of his entry. 

Shang Qinghua screams halfheartedly, too tired to manage the spirit for a full-throated yell even as Mobei Jun grabs him by the collar of his inner robes and hauls him into the air. 

"Where is it?!" he demands, his roar rattling the rafters. Shang Qinghua hears the fabric of his robes creak warningly as he flails in midair, held up only by Mobei Jun’s fist. 

“What?! What? Where’s what, my king?!” he cries, disoriented, confused, and generally terrified. 

Mobei Jun snarls and shakes him angrily. Shang Qinghua can feel his brain rattling about in his skull like a ricocheting pinball. My king, you’re going to give this old man a head injury like this! He starts to wail openly, begging for mercy and pleading ignorance! How is this servant supposed to help if he doesn't know what you're looking for, my king?! 

Mobei Jun drops him abruptly and stalks over to the other room where his robes are laid out, flat and drying. Shang Qinghua picks himself up from the floor, holding his spinning head in his hands and feeling like a much-abused sack of rice. Good to see that Mobei Jun is back to his usual cold-hearted and overbearing self!

He watches dizzily as Mobei Jun yanks his robes off the drying racks. They're still sort of soggy, but he doesn't seem to care, shrugging angrily into them without even checking to see how clean they are! When he’s fully dressed in his damp robes, he whirls and gives Shang Qinghua an especially vicious glare before stepping back into a shadowy portal and disappearing very anticlimactically from the leisure house without another word. 

Shang Qinghua waits a few beats to make sure he’s really gone before hauling himself shakily to his feet. He looks at the wreckage of his study door, the overturned mess of drying racks and upended laundry equipment in his bathing area, and heaves a great sigh. This old man’s life is hard enough already! No need to add to it with unnecessary difficulties like this, my king! 

He sets about righting the overturned drying racks and picking up the scattered supplies from the tile floor, folding them against the wall and wondering how he’s going to explain the very obvious person-shaped hole in what’s left of the study door. 

In the mess, he completely forgets about the animal skin that was mixed up in his king’s robes. 

 





After the plot points have wrapped up all nicely with Bingmei finding eternal happiness nestled in the arms and between the legs of one single man, Shang Qinghua thinks that maybe he’ll finally get a little bit of much-needed downtime.

...

He was wrong! 


Not only does he have to go through an incredibly harrowing ordeal involving Mobei Jun’s ascension ceremony, one (1) murderous uncle, and a month of self-imposed isolation leading to a close call with death by impalation, but he doesn’t even get any extra PTO out of it!! 

(The month he spent wandering penniless, friendless, hungry, and in deep existential agony does not count as a vacation.)

Does he at least get to relax a little, limited to light clerical duties while his leg recovers and he works off the trauma of nearly being killed multiple times? No!! He does not! Because Luo Binghe, in the process of obtaining his happy ending, has abandoned his responsibilities and duties as sovereign of the demon realm in favor of his perpetual honeymoon with Shen Qingqiu! 

Well, not abandoned abandoned. He delegated his duties before he left. This means he dumped them all onto the broad, sexy shoulders of his most loyal subordinate, Mobei Jun!

Not to say that Mobei Jun can't handle it. But with Shang Qinghua now returned to the northern palace, Mobei Jun does some delegating too, which means the majority of the administrative work now falls squarely onto the skinny, overworked shoulders of one Shang Qinghua. 

Please, my king! This old man is still recovering! This master still has a broken leg! He hasn't been this overworked since he first made head disciple...

And on top of that, Mobei Jun is acting strange! Shang Qinghua had really thought that his king was joking (as much as someone like Mobei Jun can joke…) when he talked about making noodles. Really, even the idea is ridiculous! Mobei Jun, a proud and arrogant demon king, puttering away in the kitchen with apron and kitchen mitts on, diligently tending the fire, slaving over a bowl of hand-pulled noodles for someone like Shang Qinghua? Pfft! The mental image is completely incongruous with reality! 

He thoughtfully does not consider how Luo Binghe is someone else who fits this paradoxical image perfectly and puts it out of his mind. This meant he was shocked and slightly terrified, reacting with a hysterical scream when Mobei Jun arrived in his small bedroom at midnight in a dramatic whirl of shadow, producing a chalky, lukewarm, completely inedible bowl of noodles that made Shang Qinghua shed actual tears as he choked it down!

And that wasn't the end of it either! He continues to appear out of nowhere to present Shang Qinghua with absolutely terrible bowls of noodles, staring with an odd and frightening intensity until Shang Qinghua starts eating. Casually dropping packages into Shang Qinghua's lap that run the range from items of clothing to ancient gem-encrusted demonic artifacts rivaling the entire net worth of An Ding Peak! He remains unusually attentive, to the point where Shang Qinghua sometimes has the odd feeling that his king is following him through the hallways. He’s taken to randomly sitting in while Shang Qinghua is doing paperwork, doing nothing, saying nothing, simply watching him work in chilling silence until Shang Qinghua starts sweating from the tense and overbearing atmosphere! Finally, there was that one time where he could’ve sworn that he woke up to Mobei Jun sitting at his bedside, but he’d done a double take, still groggy and half-asleep, and there was nobody there?

In short, weird! It’s all so weird! Why are you being so strangely sticky, my king?

And then, as if bringing Shang Qinghua to his ascension ceremony wasn’t nearly the cause of both their deaths, Mobei Jun insists on dragging him to meetings he really shouldn't be attending! Like this extremely tense negotiation with some upstart demon clan claiming to represent the Yinhai water demons of the northern black sea. 

My king! Did you learn nothing from your disaster of an ascension ceremony? Didn’t you receive a very instructive lesson on the dangers of bringing the wrong person to highly-charged political situations rife with imminent combat?! 

Shang Qinghua shivers weakly, huddling into the thick fur lining of the cloak that Mobei Jun had given him and trying not to sniffle too loudly. The meeting area for this truce is a hotly-contested bay that marks the border between the northern desertlands and the territory of the Yinhai demon clan. The dark water on the Mobei side of the divide is completely frozen over into a sheet of mottled ice a foot and a half thick. All the participants are arrayed on the slate-grey surface in a tense standoff as the freezing ocean wind howls wildly around them, whipping hair into faces, pinging off the shining tips of spears and halberds. 

A riveting scene! Incredibly dramatic! 

Also incredibly fucking uncomfortable for any poor human who might have been dragged along. The unrelenting wind chill drops the already-freezing temperature to a level of numbing cold that makes Shang Qinghua feel like he’s going to lose his toes. Plus, the tension here is as thick as a five-tier wedding cake! 

The opposing demons are arrayed threateningly across the divide, armed to the teeth and bristling with barely-contained menace in comparison to Mobei Jun’s small diplomatic party, which consists of Shang Qinghua, Mobei Jun’s minister of trade, and a convoy of guards. The water demons don’t look like they’re here for peaceful truce talks! They definitely don’t look like they’re going to lay their weapons down and kindly acquiesce to leaving Mobei Jun’s merchants alone! 

He glances despairingly at Mobei Jun, who stands next to him at the head of their convoy, looking extremely regal and very dignified indeed. The arctic wind ruffles the heavy fur of his cloak and swirls his hair in dramatic snapping trails across his chest and shoulders, making him look darkly handsome and coldly menacing. An icy and arrogant beauty only amplified by the stark wilderness of the dramatic seascape around them! 

Ah, he’s getting distracted. Back to the matter at hand.

My king! Why did you bring this servant with you? The only thing this master can contribute to the situation is to become a convenient hostage!  

Mobei Jun, uncaring of his despairing internal dialogue, motions to begin the negotiations. 

---


As expected with most demon negotiations, hostilities break out.

Shang Qinghua and Mobei Jun’s minister of trade are in the process of trying to work out some kind of deal that doesn’t involve the other demons killing and robbing their merchant caravans when the opposing party’s leader slams his weapon into the ice, obviously at the limit of his patience. 

“Enough of this!” he shouts, gesturing violently with his oversized mace in a way that makes Shang Qinghua skitter immediately back to the safety of Mobei Jun’s side. “You Mobei clan demons, always thinking you have the right to trample over others.” He gestures expansively at the frozen peninsula around them. “Negotiations? What negotiations! This bay isn’t even yours by rights and you have the audacity to march your people through it and try to haggle with us for its use?! Anything the black water touches has always belonged to the Yinhai clan! You Mobei clan need to learn your place!” 

Shang Qinghua winces. Ah, fish uncle, you had better sit back down! Sure, the Yinhai clan likes to claim that whatever the water touches is their territory, but they’ve been unable to beat back the Mobei clan for generations now! Why bring up this moldy old drama and stir up trouble for both clans with this whole murdering-the-merchants business? What bad faith negotiations! 

Mobei Jun seems to agree because he snorts coolly. “Rights? What rights do you have without the strength to back it? Has the Yinhai clan become so weak that it must rely on old superstitions to hold its territories?” He tilts his head mockingly. “The route remains Mobei territory. You will allow the traders through untouched. There will be no further warning.”

Very cool, my king! No recycled monologues for Mobei Jun, just straight fire! Uh - straight ice!! 

The other demon is incensed by Mobei Jun’s declaration, swelling slowly like a pufferfish with sheer fury. “Yinhai Jun won’t stand for this!” he roars, his delegation seething behind him and shouting agreement like good little mob members. 

Shang Qinghua snorts. As if Yinhai Jun even knows who this rando is. He doesn’t even look like he’s from the Yinhai branch family, much less part of the actual Yinhai clan!  

Mobei Jun obviously thinks the same from the derisive once-over he gives the other demon before turning away, casually dismissive. 

Because this is how every two-bit, 40 IQ villain works in this world, the water demon lets out a furious roar, raises his morningstar, and mounts a running charge at Mobei Jun’s back.

Shang Qinghua wishes he had some melon seeds for this! He loves getting to see his king take down these uppity small fry! Hopefully it’ll be interesting if Mobei Jun feels like playing with his food a little! 

Mobei Jun doesn’t even turn around, flicking several spears of dark ice over his shoulder. The water demon ducks low to the ground to avoid them and then inexplicably, he veers off course and slams his mace into the thick gray ice a good twenty feet short of the Mobei convoy. 

Shang Qinghua nearly laughs out loud! What terrible aim! 

Then, an ominous crack as loud as a gunshot snaps through the air. 

Shang Qinghua looks down right as a great crack zigzags through the thick ice between his legs, radiating outward from the furrow created by the mace. He looks up, down, back up. This seems...like an unreasonably large crack for such a small impact? This ice is like...a foot thick, frozen solid by the Mobei clan’s ice powers. It shouldn’t crack so easily?

Mobei Jun is turning back around, sensing something amiss when the water demon grins and leaps into the air again, weapon held aloft, bringing it crashing down once again onto the thick ice. 

This time, all hell breaks loose. 

A vast explosion of dark water bursts up through the ice, an enormous geyser at least a story tall breaching the surface in a monstrous rift! The ice all around the eruption heaves upwards, following the sudden expansion of water before collapsing back, crashing heavily down onto the rapidly-cracking ice sheet around them, breaking it apart with great concussive impacts! 

Even as Shang Qinghua screams and dodges for his life, he can see dark threads of demonic energy racing through the floes, moving with the black water to compromise the integrity of the ice sheet underfoot, weakening it! 

More dark water fountains up over the gray ice, moving like it has a life of its own, fracturing the great expanse of solid ice into tenuous floating chunks in the black sea. Some of the guards and Mobei Jun’s minister of trade are closer to the landward side of the bay, and they take off at a dead run across the shattering ice sheet, jumping from floe to floe, leaping from the shrinking sea ice into the shallows as the pieces grow too small to support their weight, scrambling to bedraggled safety on the shoreline. 

This leaves Shang Qinghua, Mobei Jun, and a few of the guards stranded on the rapidly-thinning floes of ice in the middle of the bay. Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, the dark water around them starts to churn and roar, forming what is obviously some kind of huge whirlpool. The remaining ice floes begin to spiral, picking up speed as the whirlpool’s current catches them, sending them whirling around each other like the world's most awful teacups ride! Inevitably, they start to crash together, sending the hapless occupants flying into the dark water. 

Shang Qinghua wants to scream!!

This was an ambush! A setup! A total trap! And they literally walked into it, across it, and over it!! This obvious manipulation of black water can only mean an actual member of the Yinhai clan is here, pulling the strings from under the surface! Who knew that no-name rando actually had someone legit backing him?! 

It’s then that Shang Qinghua notices that all the members of the water demon’s company are conspicuously absent. Where...? Ah. Fuck. That’s right, they’re water demons. They probably dove in the moment everything exploded, and they’re definitely all waiting underwater now, ready to kill anyone who falls in.

“My king!” he cries, hurriedly unsheathing his sword and jumping on, leaving a large space behind him for Mobei Jun. “There’s no shame in retreat! Let’s get out of here while we can!” 

Mobei Jun grunts at him, annoyed. He does not get onto the sword. Instead, he bends down and rests one hand on the ice floe underfoot. His eyes glow a bright, chilling blue, and the air around Shang Qinghua becomes cold enough to hurt his teeth, a feeling like his blood is turning to slush in his veins, like his eyeballs are freezing solid in their sockets!

A thick layer of ice radiates out from Mobei Jun’s hand, racing across the open sea to challenge the sucking current from the increasingly-larger whirlpool, expanding faster than the black water can break it up. Is he trying to remake the entire ice sheet?!  

Just as Shang Qinghua is feeling heartened by how incredibly OP his king is, a slippery shape leaps out of the water and crashes into Mobei Jun, knocking him directly into the black sea!! 

Shang Qinghua lets out a horrified shout and darts over to the expanding ripples, but before he can do more than think crazy thoughts about diving in, several spears rocket out of the water, forcing him to dodge and weave for his life! 

Fuck! Go away, you stupid mob villains! You insignificant background chaff! 

As Shang Qinghua circles in a wide arc to avoid the projectiles, his mind is racing, trying to come up with some kind of strategy that doesn’t involve him diving into the demon-infested ocean and dying a futile death. Can Mobei Jun swim? His king may be one of the strongest demons in the world, but trapped in this swirling and resentful black water, the demons of the Yinhai clan have an unfair advantage. Even if he can swim, Mobei Jun still needs to breathe! If he can’t make it back up to the surface, his king will - he’ll -! 

"My king!” he shouts, voice cracking as he hovers over the rapidly-disappearing ripples. How long has it been since he went under? How long can Mobei Jun hold his breath? 

Shang Qinghua bites his lip, agonized. Just the thought of diving into that freezing black water is enough to freeze his bones solid. He thinks of Mobei Jun, struggling in the airless, drowning dark against an unknown assailant and he shucks his cloak, teeth chattering. Maybe if he clings tight onto his sword, he won’t be dislodged when he dives in and he can cut through the water like it’s air instead of swimming, and there might still be a chance - 

A spear ricochets abruptly off the hilt of his sword, knocking him out of the air and sending him flying across the open water. He screams the whole way down and only barely manages to make a messy crash landing on the newly-formed ice floe instead of plunging headlong into the sea to his death.

His sword bounces off the ice, skidding wildly away from him as he tumbles ass over teakettle. Shang Qinghua shouts and scrabbles for it, but to his horror, it slips into the sea right before his eyes. He draws his fingers into a sword sign and calls it back frantically, but the blade doesn’t respond, caught in the miasmic pressure exerted by the dark water. 

Trapped. He’s trapped! He can’t even save himself, much less save his king! Useless! Useless, stupid author! 

As he’s thinking that, something heaves itself out of the sea and onto the sheet of ice. Shang Qinghua's heart leaps into his throat! ...and just as quickly, it drops queasily back into his stomach as he takes in the fins and gills of one of the enemy water demons. It grins at him, and holds up a wicked-looking sword with a serrated edge. Shang Qinghua glances behind him to see if he can make a break for it, but there’s a good hundred yards or so of swirling black ocean between him and land. He’s stranded on the open water, a complete sitting duck! Unarmed, despairing, and at a complete disadvantage, he can only reach into his sleeves for his emergency talismans. 

He spends the next several minutes shouting, cursing, flinging talismans, and generally fighting for his life! Because life is Just Like That, several more water demons crawl out of the dark sea, turning this one-on-one fight into a totally unfair melee battle! 

Shang Qinghua thinks that he’s holding his own pretty admirably for being unarmed! But surrounded, beleaguered, and harassed on all sides like a fox within a circle of hounds, it’s only a matter of time before one of the demons manages to get in a hit through his protective barrier of talismans, scoring a bloody line down his back. Shang Qinghua twists, shouting with pain and hurling one of his last concussive talismans at the offender, gratified to see it blast the demon straight off the ice and into the water. 

His celebration is short-lived and he has to immediately jump back as another demon takes a swipe at him. He clutches his last few offensive talismans with trembling fingers, trying to figure a way out of this. There are four demons remaining, and he only has three talismans left, plus his faltering barrier. He can do this. He has to do this. If he remains alive, then maybe - maybe he can bring Mobei Jun back. Maybe there’s some way, some method he’s forgotten about, something, anything

The four demons, reaching the end of their patience, roar and do a concerted charge, weapons raised. Shang Qinghua hurriedly tosses out two talismans, blasting one demon off the floe and setting the other one on fire. He flings himself into a dodge roll, hissing with pain as his injury thanks him for the insult. No time to worry about that! The two remaining demons have accidentally clashed with each other, their weapons locked as they squabble and shove at each other to get free. 

Chance! Shang Qinghua takes the opportunity to cast his last talisman, catching both of them in one decisive hit! 

 

 

Or not! 

 

The demons, in a rarely-seen act of cooperative spirit for their IQ level, leap apart, abandoning their weapons to avoid the talisman, leaving Shang Qinghua completely unarmed and still stranded, a sparrow facing down two vipers!! 

Shang Qinghua’s mind is completely empty as the demons stalk towards him. For once, he’s out of words, out of ideas, out of luck. Maybe it’s better this way, for him to go down with his king. It would be better than surviving him, forced to continue on in his absence, the hole created by his death an unpatchable and inescapable wound. 

He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, gathering his qi for one last explosive burst a la Shen Qingqiu before shaking his head wildly. No! It can’t end like this! He didn’t survive so much bullshit just to be done in by two fucking no-name cannon fodder demons! If he’s going to die, he wants it to be a dramatic and splendid death, full of pathos and gratuitous weeping!! He has to try! He can’t give up on Mobei Jun so easily! 

He brings his fists up, wishing that he’d attended the Liu Qingge school of hard knocks to prepare for this situation. Ha! As if Liu Qingge would have deigned to waste his time on Shang Qinghua. All of Liu Qingge's carefully-pulled educational punches are reserved for one Shen Qingqiu! Anyways, his skill in hand-to-hand combat is nonexistent pathetic, but his fists are all he’s got right now, so fisticuffs it is! In a fit of wuxia-inspired bravado, and because these are his last moments alive and there are no other witnesses, he extends a hand and makes the universally-understood 'come and get it' motion with two fingers. 

The two demons glance at each other in open disbelief before looking back at him, smirking. As one, they charge. 

Right as the demons are about to reach him, an enormous creature breaches the surface of the black water, propelling itself directly onto the floe in one huge surge of violent motion, colliding head-on with the demons and bringing them with it as it slides back into the sea, leaving only a dark smear of blood across the ice. 

It all happens so fast that Shang Qinghua doesn’t even have time to make a sound, only screaming loudly after the fact, falling ungracefully onto his ass as the ice floe rocks crazily in the wake of the monster. He scrambles back to his feet, trying to keep his balance and looking around wildly, all bravado completely gone.

What the fuck! What the fuck!! What the fuck was that?! Is that some pet monster that the Yinhai demons unleashed? Fuck fuck fuck! Fuck dying nobly with great spectacle!! He doesn’t want to be eaten alive! 

Shaking, he scrambles across the ice to get to the middle of the floe, where he hugs his knees, curling up very small and trying to present less of a target. Maybe that monster will be satisfied with its hefty snack of two water demons? It’s not like he can even mount an escape, he’s still stranded up blackwater sea without a paddle! And it’s not like he can row himself back to shore with the whirlpool - 

The whirlpool.

Shang Qinghua pauses and uncurls, looking around. The ocean wind whistles shrilly across the bay, which is completely silent except for the restless movement of the waves.

The whirlpool is gone. 

Shang Qinghua rubs his eyes and looks around again just to be sure. It’s gone, it’s really gone!

What happened? Did the Yinhai demon leave? They should have at least made an appearance, right? That’s what villains are supposed to do! They show up in front of the characters and monologue about their evil plans for betrayal and death, only that never happened! The demon just stayed underwater, and what...got bored and left after taking out Mobei Jun, leaving this monster to clean up the mess? Shang Qinghua grits his teeth, suddenly furious. 

How dare you! At least take responsibility for Mobei Jun’s death! Fucking coward! 

An ominous shape moves in his peripheral vision, breaking up his despairing thoughts. Shang Qinghua watches with bated breath as something enormous moves just under the surface of the dark water, slipping smoothly around the remaining ice floes, a silent menace lurking just out of sight. He turns in a slow circle, trying to keep his eyes on it, but it sinks deeper underwater and he loses track of it. 

Fuck. It’s coming back for him. 

He starts circulating his qi for an attack. He’ll probably only get one chance before it gets its teeth into him so it has to be a good one. You can do this, Shang Qinghua! Survive and endure for your king! He takes a defensive position, circling slowly, hands held out before him, already charged with spiritual energy. The sussurating whisper of the surf grinds his composure down as he waits, trembling, waiting for something to happen. 

After what feels like an interminable amount of time, something finally bursts out of the sea with a great splash, crashing heavily onto the ice floe and making it rock wildly underfoot, sending Shang Qinghua tumbling down. 

Attack? What attack?! Forget attacking! Terror overrides every other instinct and all he ends up doing is screaming and putting his hands uselessly over his head, curling up into a futile defensive ball as the creature closes in.

Please please please. At least let it be quick. 

He lies in rigid, petrified silence, arms curled around his head, thinking miserably of wildebeest and zebra being mowed down and savaged by hungry lions and trying not to whimper. The ice shakes under him, rattled by the heavy movements of something massive approaching. Shang Qinghua squeezes his eyes shut as something comes into his line of sight. He can smell it now, the heavy briny odor of something that lives in the sea.  

There’s movement before him and then wet salt spray splatters his face in freezing droplets, the deep bass exhale of an enormous predator. Shang Qinghua gives up all pretense and starts to whimper helplessly. When something touches his back, he screams aloud, miserable and terrified and waiting for death. 

He waits and waits and waits...and still, there’s no pain. Nothing bites savagely into him, no vicious claws tear into his body to rip him apart. Unable to maintain such a high-key state of sustained terror, Shang Qinghua finally uncurls slightly to look his death in the face and figure out why it’s not eating him. 

He regrets it immediately, his face draining immediately of all blood, leaving him as pale as a corpse! 

Before him is an absolutely monstrous leopard seal, fresh blood still staining its snout and mouth like a gruesome mask. Its enormous body nearly takes up the entire floe, its sleek head easily twice the size of Shang Qinghua's torso. This beast could pop off Shang Qinghua's head and eat it like a grape if it wanted to! 

Why...isn’t it doing that? 

Shang Qinghua uncurls a little bit more, trembling like a leaf. The monster simply watches him, blinking slowly a few times and making no move to lunge forward and devour him. Shang Qinghua blinks back before realizing that those eyes are very familiar. He knows that exact shade of blue, knows it like the back of his own hand. 

"My king?” He breathes, barely daring to hope. 

The seal tilts its head and huffs, exhaling disdainfully in a cloud of icy spray. It brings its tail closer in a graceful curve. There, sheltered in the bulwark of its huge body lies Shang Qinghua’s sword and cloak. 

“My sword!” Shang Qinghua cries, abandoning his terrified huddle to scramble on all fours across the ice and grab the weapon. The seal makes an unsatisfied noise. “Thank you!” Shang Qinghua adds hastily, already sheathing the blade. He grabs his sodden cloak to shove it into his qiankun pouch and makes a face at how heavy it is. Then he remembers that there’s a 1000-kilo apex predator of mysterious origin at his unprotected back and whirls around. 

The seal was in the process of sniffing him and its head is so close that they both jerk back, startled. Shang Qinghua bites his lip, studying it. He's sure, he’s so sure this is Mobei Jun, but what if he's wrong?  

“Is that really you, my king?” he asks, breathless with hope. 

In response, the seal starts to shrink, folding gracefully in upon itself in flashes of mottled sealskin until only Mobei Jun remains in front of him, his dark hair dripping wet, his face cold and impassive. 

Shang Qinghua doesn’t immediately burst into tears of relief, but it’s really fucking close! 

“My king!!” he wails, clutching the soaked cloak to him and shaking it in lieu of embracing Mobei Jun’s thigh. “This servant thought you drowned! This servant thought you died! I’m so happy you’re okay!"

Mobei Jun snorts and picks him up by the scruff of his robes, setting him on his feet. “As if demons of such low caliber could hope to defeat this Mobei Jun,” he says imperiously, slicking his wet hair back with such elegance that it would make a model weep. 

Shang Qinghua isn’t finished. “- and then when I tried to dive in to find you, those demons knocked me off my sword, and then my sword fell in the water and then I had to fight, and-”

That makes Mobei Jun pause. His eyes flicker across Shang Qinghua, taking in the various scrapes and injuries earned during the scuffle. "You're injured."

“-and you're a shapeshifter?! And you didn't tell me? My king!!!” 

Mobei Jun’s eyes narrow and he reaches out to pick Shang Qinghua up by the collar, giving him a little shake. “Shang Qinghua. You are injured.”

“I - huh? Oh. Uh, only a little, my king. Trivial, really!” He winces slightly as his hurts start making themselves known in the absence of panic-fueled adrenaline. 

Mobei Jun frowns some more. “Come,” he says, turning and forming a portal with one hand, striding towards it. 

Shang Qinghua, watching Mobei Jun’s extremely shapely buttocks bounce lightly as he walks, realizes very abruptly that his king is completely naked aside from his sealskin! The artful drapery of the pelt across his king's broad chest and waist leaves his backside bare like a badly-fitted hospital gown! His eyes bug out and his mouth flaps uselessly for a few long seconds before he rushes after Mobei Jun, bowing his head to give him some privacy. 

“My king, ah, your uh - your cheeks - I mean, your clothes! Your clothes are sort of, uh, gone -” He hastily offers his cloak, making sure to keep his eyes respectfully averted despite the overwhelming temptation to peek! 

Mobei Jun eyes the sopping fabric before giving Shang Qinghua a long stare. He does not take the cloak. Instead, he gestures expectantly at the portal. 

Shang Qinghua hesitates for a second. He has a feeling that he’s forgetting something. What is it…? Well, if he can't remember it, maybe it's not that important? But what was it - 

Mobei Jun, impatient and unamused with his muttering, grabs him around the waist like a bag of potatoes, picking him up effortlessly. Shang Qinghua lets out an extremely unflattering squeal and grabs desperately onto Mobei Jun's pelt for balance, his legs kicking frantically as Mobei Jun takes them both through the portal. 

No need for such rough treatment, my king! 

 

---

 

Four hours later, Shang Qinghua wakes from a dead sleep, sitting bolt upright with a gasp. 

 

Oh fuck!! 

 

The minister of trade!

Chapter Text


 

The fact that Mobei Jun is capable of an incredibly cool beast transformation doesn’t really sink in until a few days after the fact. 

Shang Qinghua has to put a pause on his paperwork to fanboy for a moment when the sheer glory of the concept kicks in, gushing internally over how cool and powerful his king looked! The whole bloody muzzle and finger-length fangs and rippling monster body are now terribly splendid in hindsight with the knowledge that he won’t be eaten alive. Sure, he doesn’t actually remember writing in such a brilliant idea, but he gives himself a few smug pats on the back for a job well done nonetheless!

Still...it puzzles him. Did he really write something like this? He should remember if he did, right? When it comes to Mobei Jun-related plot issues and lore, his retention of his own writing is much better than usual. And like...a seal? An enormous and extremely impressive monster seal capable of tearing apart a human like a wet paper bag, yes, but still...why a seal? Can Mobei Jun turn into other animals too? Is that why he always carries that animal skin around with him? Is it the source of his magical animal transformation powers, like sailor moon’s scepter? Ah, now he's bummed that he missed his king's transformation sequence!

These thoughts plague him for the rest of the day, tickling at the back of his mind like an unscratched itch. It’s not like he can ask Mobei Jun about it either! His king hasn’t acknowledged what happened at the bay besides imposing a few harsh trade sanctions against the Yinhai clan. The one time he'd attempted to bring it up, Mobei Jun had shot him a look severe enough to freeze him solid. Literally! Shang Qinghua's boots had frozen to the ground, trapping him in place for a good hour! Mobei Jun obviously doesn't want to talk about it, and Shang Qinghua hasn't tried to ask him again, despite overflowing with a thousand questions.  

A day grows into a week, a week stretches into two weeks, then three, and Shang Qinghua is no closer to obtaining more transformation-related information because there’s just no good segue to broach the subject. ‘My king! I have some paperwork for you to look over, and by the way, could you tell me a bit more about your incredibly cool beast transformation?’ ‘My king! I managed to find a provider for the snow pears that you like so much! Also, speaking of things you like, do you enjoy turning into an enormous seal?’ 

Terrible. Absolutely terrible! Rip up the scripts, they’re no good at all! At this point, he might as well just give up...

Yeah right! 

But before he can start a furtive deep-dive into whatever animal transformation myths can be found in the palace library and treasure vaults, Mobei Jun kidnaps recruits him to help capture some monster that Shen Qingqiu Luo Binghe wants. Why Luo Binghe couldn’t come along with them or gone himself is something Shang Qinghua doesn’t want to ponder on for too long, so he follows his king obediently into the portal. Hey, thinking about it, it’ll just be him and Mobei Jun! One-on-one quality time! This might just be the opportunity he needs to broach the transformation topic! 

This retrieval mission should be a piece of cake, as simple as reaching into a bag to pluck out a handful of melon seeds, right? How bad can it be? 

 

---

 

Bad! 

It’s very, very bad!!! 

Shang Qinghua lets out a garbled scream, leaping frantically among a series of rocky pillars as he dodges yet another stream of pressurized water that cuts through the stone behind him like a laser through warm butter!

The spiritual salamander they were sent to capture makes an angry bubbling noise, dipping its nose into the cold spring to gather more ammo, the soft tendrils on its back fluttering threateningly, flashing a bright warning yellow. 

Shang Qinghua pauses for breath, hands on his knees as he pants raggedly. He has a few seconds while the thing recharges before he has to dodge again, and he spends them all trying to think of a way to 1) capture the salamander and 2) get both him and Mobei Jun out of here alive. He casts a despairing glance at his king’s unconscious body, slumped ungracefully behind a nearby rock formation. 

How did things get like this, ah? Why do things always go wrong for him, huh?! 


 

It had all started out so well. 

They’d arrived at the spiritual caves Luo Binghe had told them about, the deep, energy-rich cold spring system within it home to a nine-colors spiritual salamander, whose bodily fluids and secretions have all manner of fascinating medicinal and alchemical properties. Shang Qinghua is willing to bet the entire annual net profit brought in by An Ding Peak’s famous melon seeds that Shen Qingqiu mentioned this creature in passing to Luo Binghe, resulting in this annoying acquisition trip for him and Mobei Jun. 

Wandering through the picturesque cold springs while searching for the salamander had been incredibly scenic. The caves have a calm and tranquil atmosphere, with deep pools of cold water and fast-flowing underwater streams lit by the soft blue glow of crystal formations...perfect for sharing secrets! Shang Qinghua had attempted to make conversation in the direction of Mobei Jun’s beast transformation, only to be interrupted by the appearance of the elusive salamander. 

Half-spiritual, half-physical, it looks like some sort of ghost as it floats - pale, motionless, and slightly transparent - in the center of a small wellspring, soaking up the plentiful ambient energy.  

Mobei Jun, not one to waste any time, immediately encases it solid in a block of ice! 

Shang Qinghua has a moment to feel slightly disappointed at the very anticlimactic capture when the salamander ice cube starts to...melt? Mobei Jun raises his hand again, but the salamander bursts free of the encroaching ice with an angry bubbling sound. Shiny, sizzling slime drips furiously from its body, melting Mobei Jun’s ice on contact. The soft-looking, wavy tendrils lining its back in a double row start to flash a deep and menacing red. 

Oh. That’s not good! 

Shang Qinghua remembers writing about how the colors correspond to different special attacks. He does not remember what the actual attacks are. Is red acid? No, based on RPG conventions, acid should be green or purple, right? 

The salamander storms out of its little pond, leaving a thick slime trail behind it that sizzles violently, eating corrosive little pits into the floor. Okay, so red is acid! Also, he’s getting out of here! 

He scrambles for higher ground as Mobei Jun leaps into action, forming heavy frozen projectiles and launching them at the salamander - a very cool and flashy move! He’s probably attempting to knock it unconscious via blunt force trauma, but it just looks like he’s trying to skewer it alive.  

“My king, don’t kill it!” Shang Qinghua cries, ducking behind a convenient stalagmite formation to safely spectate from. These cold pond caves amplify the salamander’s abilities, but it’s a sort of AOE buff that gives Mobei Jun’s icy powers a boost too. Obviously it’ll be his king’s victory! 

As he’s thinking this, the salamander opens its mouth wide. The tendrils on its back shift to a light lavender color, and it spits out a great cloud of bubbles that hang soft and shining in the air, drifting gently in a dense curtain around it. 

Mobei Jun rushes forward, not intimidated in the least. The instant he touches the wall of bubbles, he’s blasted backwards into the cave wall like he’d run headfirst into an oncoming freight train!

Shang Qinghua lets out a scream of equal parts horror and confusion. What the hell was that! Avoiding the innocent-looking bubbles that drift his way, he picks up a small rock from the cave floor, tossing it at the closest offender. The bubble pops on impact, but the rock ricochets back with so much force that it leaves a chip on the cave wall!

What the hell are these bubbles?! 

Shang Qinghua frantically tries to recall the relevant parts of this chapter as he amasses pebbles from the floor around him to pop any wayward bubbles drifting his way. What was lavender? He thought it was something innocuous...something to do with sleep? He doesn’t remember anything about bubbles with the violent recoil potential of a double-barrel shotgun! He starts making his way towards Mobei Jun, cautiously popping bubbles as he goes and keeping an eye on the salamander, which is still hunkered unmoving behind its bubble cloud shield wall. 

“My king!” he hisses as he reaches the impressive hole in the wall. “My king, are you okay?”

Mobei Jun staggers up out of the Mobei-shaped crater, shaking his head and looking absolutely furious. He snarls viciously, clawed hands curling into fists, eyes flashing a violent cyan as he directs a deadly glare at the bubble wall. 

“My king, wait! Don’t just charge in again, I can clear a path for you!” Shang Qinghua pulls out a wind talisman from his sleeves, presenting it with a little flourish. See! He can be helpful too! 

Mobei Jun jerks his head impatiently and Shang Qinghua obediently activates the talisman, directing the swirling winds in a wide fan shape into the worst of the bubble cloud, blowing them all away.

Ha! Take that! 

Mobei Jun leaps forward the moment the path is clear. He - stumbles a little? taking a few more faltering steps before swaying dramatically and collapsing, barely managing to catch himself before he splits his head open on the floor. 

Terrible! Bad! No good at all! My king, what was that dreadful performance? 

Shang Qinghua darts to his side, casting nervous glances at the salamander, which has puffed itself up angrily at the sight of them, shifting colors rapidly. 

“My king! What’s wrong?” he cries, fighting the urge to clutch at Mobei Jun’s shoulder.  

Mobei Jun shakes his head, looking sort of out of it. “Nothing,” he says, his voice rough. He tries to stand up again and immediately topples onto his side, unable to keep his balance. He shakes his head again, looking distinctly dizzy, his eyelids drooping heavily. 

Oh fuck, he needs to listen to his intuition more! Lavender definitely has something to do with sleep, and those bubbles were all made out of salamander spit. Mobei Jun essentially took a hundredfold dose of that soporific attack by running directly into the bubble wall earlier! 

“My king, no, you have to stay awake!” Shang Qinghua pleads, giving in and shaking Mobei Jun urgently. He can apologize for his presumptuous actions later. Right now, Mobei Jun needs to get them out of here! They can come back another day when the main DPS isn’t in danger of passing out! 

...

Mobei Jun passes out. 

None of Shang Qinghua’s increasingly-louder efforts at rousing Mobei Jun work. He’s out cold. Completely out of it! Felled by a single attack! My king, aren’t you supposed to have plot armor against this kind of thing? 

He casts a quick glance at the salamander to see it puffed up very large, the tendrils on its back a wavering yellow. He scrambles to place himself in front of Mobei Jun, his mind racing. Yellow...yellow…what was yellow? 

It comes to him right as the salamander lets loose with a jetstream of pressurized water that carves a line through the rock wall next to him like a sizzling knife slicing through an ice cube! 

Ahhh fuuuuck!!! If that hits him, it’ll punch a hole clean through him! Fuck, fuck, fuck! 

The salamander dips its nose back into the cold spring, eyeing him balefully with pale pink eyes. It starts to swell as it takes in more water. 

Reloading! It’s reloading!! 

Shang Qinghua glances despairingly at Mobei Jun’s limp body, back at the salamander, and makes the very smart administrative decision to run in the other direction, shouting and waving his arms wildly. 

The salamander tracks him, ignoring the sad, unconscious lump of Mobei Jun on the ground in favor of a moving target. Success! 

 

...

 

And that’s where he is now! Acting as live bait. Having an extremely bad time! 

Shen Qingqiu, Shen Qingqiu, Shen Qingqiu! You just had to open your big mouth, didn’t you, Cucumber-bro? This old man knows that this is all your fault! Come and take some fucking responsibility for this! 

The salamander takes aim at him again. Shang Qinghua shifts his weight onto his toes and when the creature fires, he leaps upwards. The deadly jet of water misses him by a couple inches and he shouts in victory, dancing angrily as the salamander is forced to recharge once again. 

Behind him, the cave wall makes a very threatening creak. Shang Qinghua whirls around, dread coiling in his stomach. This section of the wall must be thinner than it looks, because it’s starting to bow forward, groaning and buckling under the immense pressure of something huge behind it. 

Ahhhh!!! Forget the salamander! 

Shang Qinghua takes off at a dead run back to where Mobei Jun is lying. Even as he sprints, he can hear the monstrous crash of the wall giving way under a tremendous roar of flowing water!

He reaches Mobei Jun right as the flood catches up with him, sweeping them both up in a torrential whitewater current. Shang Qinghua clings onto Mobei Jun for dear life! He wraps his arms tight around his king’s chest, his legs around Mobei Jun’s waist, clutching him desperately with all four limbs like an octopus, both cheeks puffed up to hold his breath as the wild current buffets them, tumbling them about like laundry in a front-load dryer.   

He hates this! He really hates this!! He's really tired of all this water-themed bullshit going on in his life lately!

The runaway current washes them across the entire length of the cave, joining up with one of the fast-moving underground rivers to sweep them further into the cave system. Shang Qinghua manages to struggle to the surface with Mobei Jun’s dead weight clenched tight between his legs, maneuvering them both upwards for a quick gasp of air. 

Something brushes his face in the dark and he lets out a shriek of terror, slapping automatically at it to push it away! His fingers skim across wet fur and his screaming grows louder before he realizes it’s not...attached to anything? It’s - recognition strikes him. It’s his king’s animal pelt, sliding out of his robes because of the violent water current. With a yell, he lunges for it right as it slips out of his fingers, grabbing handfuls of the wet fur and hauling the pelt back to the safety of his body. 

Fuck, that was close!! Mobei Jun would never forgive him if Shang Qinghua had let it slip away! Clutching Mobei Jun’s waist with his legs and the pelt with his arms, Shang Qinghua finds himself at an impasse. If he stuffs the pelt back into Mobei Jun’s robes, it might slip out once more, and with the darkness and the rough current, there’s no guarantee he can catch it again if that happens. The same risk is present if he puts it into his own robes, with the additional downside of it bunching up to create a very unappealing lump on him like a strange beer belly.  

Thus, the only possible solution! 

He gropes wildly for his qiankun pouch, fumbling it open and digging around inside it one-handed, pulling out handfuls of random paraphernalia to make room before stuffing the pelt hastily inside, looping and knotting the drawstrings tightly shut around his inner sash. There! Now it won’t be at risk of being swept away. 

Not one second too soon! The moment Shang Qinghua has the pouch secured, he’s suddenly aware of something splashing frantically next to him in the dark. Glowing flashes of distressed, quickly-changing color marks it as the nine-colors spiritual salamander. Shang Qinghua spares one brain cell to think furious thoughts at it. 

You! You did this! You did this to us! 

The salamander, too caught up in the fast-moving and turbulent currents to swim away, simply struggles pathetically, lighting up the small area around them with frantic and desperate flashes of colored light. 

“And how am I supposed to catch you now?” Shang Qinghua shouts at it, sticking a leg out to fend off a large rock that rises up from the dark to crush them. Feeling rather protective, he cups a hand over the back of Mobei Jun’s head. His king is totally defenseless here! Completely dependent upon Shang Qinghua to get them out of this terrible situation! The weight of all this responsibility is enough to sink him...

Wait, no sinking! No thoughts about sinking right now, only thoughts about how to escape! He punts them away from another set of rocks, wincing as a sharp edge cuts right through the sole of his shoe. No time to think about that! The salamander, sensing that Mobei Jun is some kind of island bulwark in the swift current, starts to splash closer, seeking safe haven. 

“No!! Tch! Tst! Go away!” Shang Qinghua shouts, sticking his foot out in futile warning. The salamander has its pale eyes fixed on Mobei Jun’s weirdly-buoyant body and obviously means to try and clamber on, kicking Shang Qinghua off in the process! 

In a last-ditch effort, Shang Qinghua starts throwing things at it. He’s still clutching a handful of random junk in one hand from his quickly-emptied qiankun pouch, including a soaked bag of melon seeds, a couple of slowly-dissolving inksticks, some kind of jade token that he doesn’t remember the function of, and a spirit-trapping pouch.

The salamander is about three feet away and closing fast when Shang Qinghua hurls the spirit-trapping pouch at it. To his absolute surprise, the spiritual salamander lets out a long, bell-like cry, and is promptly sucked into the pouch! The bag even rebounds back to him, landing squarely in his palm, shaking three times before lying still, exactly like a pokeball! 

Shang Qinghua stares at the bag in open disbelief for a few seconds before pumping his fist with a loud shout of victory!

Cheap shots work! They really work!!

With no threat of being kicked off of Mobei Island, Shang Qinghua sends a little ball of spiritual energy into the air to light the way ahead of them and clings contentedly to Mobei Jun’s chest. This rapid current will eventually slow down as it meets a wider waterway, and he’ll be able to steer them to the riverbank in relative safety to wait for Mobei Jun to wake. No need to push the plot along! Simply cling tight and wait patiently, and all will be well. 

He rolls the little jade emblem between his fingers as he scans the river ahead of them for looming rock formations. What does this thing do again? It’s an unassuming little palm-sized oval of mottled jade with a Mobei seal carved into the back surface, but that’s a rather ubiquitous feature among tokens from the northern palace. Experimentally, he feeds a little of his spiritual energy into the emblem, which glows shortly before - nothing happens. 

Huh. Probably nothing important then. 

He tucks it into the pocket of his inner robe and pillows his chin back onto Mobei Jun’s bountiful pecs, lazily keeping an eye out as the rapid current sweeps them along. If not for the threat of rocks in the water ahead and the annoying, growing roar of the river all around them, this could be considered rather scenic. A lazy river adventure, like they’re at a waterpark! 

...

Wait a second. 

Growing roar? 

Shang Qinghua sits bolt upright!! He raises a hand and brightens the glowing ball of spiritual energy to its maximum output, trying to see as far ahead as possible. Sure enough, in the near distance the river stops flowing forward, instead dropping steeply off into what is obviously an enormous waterfall! 

Ahhhhh!!!! Fuck!! What lazy river? What peaceful riverside escapade?! Is he muddled in the brain or something?!

He starts to paddle wildly towards the edge of the river, but the current is moving too quickly for him to make any headway. He tries to pull out his sword, but Mobei Jun’s dead weight and the fast-moving water are a bad combination, and in the span of several seconds he fumbles his sword, cuts his hand grabbing for it, and nearly gets swept away from Mobei Jun! Well, his initial plan of hauling them both onto his sword is definitely not going to work. He might be able to get onto his sword by himself and catch Mobei Jun in midair when he goes over the edge, but is that really worth the risk? Ah, what to do, what to do?! 

In all emergencies, there is always an answer! 

“My king!” he shouts, alternately slapping Mobei Jun’s chest and shaking him urgently as the current brings them ever closer to the waterfall. “My king, please wake up! You need to get us out of here!”

Mobei Jun’s eyelashes flutter sluggishly before going still again. Shit, he’s really out of it...Shang Qinghua despairs slightly. Psyching himself up and begging forgiveness in advance, he draws his arm back and does the unthinkable. 

Pah!

He slaps Mobei Jun sharply across one perfect cheek! 

Mobei Jun startles awake, but his face remains slack, his eyes glazed and unseeing, the pupils dilated wide. Shang Qinghua takes his king’s beautiful face in his hands and squeezes his cheeks desperately, trying to hold his attention. 

“My king, please! Waterfall! There’s a waterfall! You have to make a portal back to the palace!”  

Mobei Jun blinks lethargically at him, uncomprehending. Shang Qinghua, despairing, wonders if he’ll have to slap that beautiful face again. Even once was enough to make his heart quake and his knees tremble. Doing it again would be an insult against the heavens, an offense too great to be forgiven!

To his despair, Mobei Jun’s eyes slide shut as he succumbs to the salamander-induced sleep. Shang Qinghua looks heavenwards in anguish! Surrendering his life as collateral, he cringes and raises his hand to slap Mobei Jun again - once, twice, thrice in quick succession! 

All that sacrifice for nothing! 

No amount of slapping rouses Mobei Jun, and each slap only deepens the slightly-ruddy handprint on his king’s perfect face, adding to the growing pile of sins already weighing heavy on Shang Qinghua’s guilty shoulders! 

“My king!!” he wails, clutching Mobei Jun’s face remorsefully, completely overcome with guilt. 

He’s just managed to get his sword out again, gearing himself up to leap up onto it and pace Mobei Jun until he goes over the edge of the waterfall to catch him when a sudden crash of realization strikes him. 

That white jade token! He knows what it does! 

It’s a direct transport back to the northern palace, given to him for emergencies after he’d burned up his single-use talisman escaping from Cang Qiong in the wake of his betrayal!

He hurriedly sheaths his sword, fumbling to withdraw the jade emblem from his inner robes, nearly dropping it into the water in his haste! This close, the immense roar of the waterfall is nearly overwhelming, and the misty spray cast into the air by the thundering water condenses to slide in slow drops down his face like nervous sweat. Really not helping the terrible urgency of the situation! 

He looks at the jade token, looks at the hundred yards left between them and the drop, and squeezes his eyes shut. He’s never used this token before. He doesn’t know if it will even work after all this time, or if it’s capable of transporting two people. He doesn’t know a lot of things. But Mobei Jun continues to lie heavy and unconscious between his tightly-clenched legs, completely at the mercy of Shang Qinghua’s actions. His king is counting on him! Just this once, please let the narrative work in his favor. 

He clenches the white jade token tightly in one hand and starts to pour as much spiritual energy as he can spare into it, murmuring the activation sequence for the array that will take them back to the northern palace. The unrelenting current carries them swiftly and mercilessly toward the edge as the Mobei seal begins to glow between his fingers, a brilliant white light unfolding outwards from the unassuming jade into the complicated shape of a long-distance array. Shang Qinghua closes his eyes and holds Mobei Jun a little tighter as he shouts the last few words to the sequence right as gravity slides out from underneath them and they slip, weightless, over the edge of the waterfall. 

 

...

 

They reappear in midair directly above Mobei Jun’s bed. 

Shang Qinghua shrieks as they crash into the mattress in a great flood of flailing limbs and coldspring water. The bed collapses under the strain of their arrival, folding in on itself with a great crack of splintering wood, catapulting Shang Qinghua off of Mobei Jun’s body and sending him rolling like a cannonball into the corner of the room. He wants to scream and shout with success even as he pops upright, hurrying back to make sure that Mobei Jun is okay. 

Close!! That was way too close!   

Mobei Jun is still completely passed out, lying facedown on the bed, slumped over the cracked bedframe in a highly undignified manner. Shang Qinghua rolls him over with great effort, rearranging his king’s limbs so that he looks a bit more ‘artfully disheveled sleeping beauty’ and not ‘fallen down disgracefully in the street’ before fumbling with Mobei Jun’s belt for the token used to call the household staff. 

He summons the head healer and head of household affairs before scrambling to sit at Mobei Jun's head, cupping a careful hand over his king's nose to check that he's still breathing. Mobei Jun's eyes flutter heavily, deep and drugged. He lets out a low groan, his head flopping into Shang Qinghua's lap. 

Shang Qinghua hastily starts to pat him, running a hand reassuringly over Mobei Jun's damp forehead and up along the crown of his head, smoothing the wet hair away from his face and rubbing guiltily at his slightly-flushed cheek. 

"It's okay, it’s okay, my king!" he babbles reassuringly. "It's fine now, we're home."

 


 

Mobei Jun sleeps like the dead for a solid two and a half days. 

As a rightfully paranoid and inherently distrustful demon king, it quickly becomes clear that he had made contingency plans for this very situation. Shang Qinghua has to accompany anyone who goes in and out of Mobei Jun’s bedchambers, feeding his spiritual energy into the watchful array that guards his king’s slumber until the visitor(s) leave the room, a cautionary measure to make sure nobody attempts anything sinister while Mobei Jun is unconscious and unable to guard himself. 

Why Mobei Jun entrusted Shang Qinghua with this extremely important duty is highly questionable. Surely there are better candidates for this, my king? Also, this is kind of overkill, isn’t it?! 

Apparently, if Shang Qinghua stops feeding the seal or accidentally takes his hand away while distracted, the ‘intruders’ will be aggressively swallowed by the array, turned into eerie ice sculptures that no one knows how to defrost! Haha, it’s fine though, only a few people were accidentally eaten! He's sure there won't be any lasting damages, just a little minor/major frostbite once Mobei Jun wakes up and thaws them out! It’s totally fine! Shang Qinghua definitely pays attention to his hands now and does not remove them from the seal until everyone is completely out of the room! 

And then, as if the incredibly daunting guardian array that eats people wasn’t enough, there was also the issue of only one bed. 

What?! He’s not going to abandon Mobei Jun in his hour of need! His king is completely defenseless here! What if something actually manages to make it through the guardian array? There has to be someone here to guard him until he’s awake.

So, one bed. A very big bed! Freshly replaced, with a brand new bedframe and mattress and sheets and cushions and everything! But only one bed. 

The sheer disrespect of attempting to huddle in the royal bed next to Mobei Jun’s unconscious body had brought up very stressful memories of their first meeting. Shang Qinghua had not wanted to risk a repeat of that night, kicked to the ground like a dog upon Mobei Jun’s awakening! Thus, he had immediately relocated to the antechamber before the bedroom, curling into a ball on the fancy couch with a few stolen furs to drape over himself. 

The overwhelming cold of the outer rooms had driven him, teeth chattering, back into Mobei Jun’s bedchambers, where the proximity of his king’s familiar spiritual energy and the incongruous wealth of furs and blankets was enough to ward away the chill. Even so, attempting to sleep with Mobei Jun lying as still as a corpse next to him had been uh...disconcerting to say the least. He’d been so freaked out the first night that he kept waking up in cold sweats at regular two-hour intervals to make sure his king was still breathing! 

All in all, an extremely harrowing few days! 

 

It’s the morning of the third day when Mobei Jun stirs fully awake. His consciousness is still fitful, but he’s lucid and in a foul temper in the precious minutes that he’s fully alert. Shang Qinghua gave him a very condensed report of what happened after he’d passed out in the coldspring caves and Mobei Jun had slipped back asleep directly after - a true sleep, light and vigilant, with a sense of impending doom if disturbed. 

Seemingly satisfied with that, the watchful guardian array finally disengages its extermination mode, allowing Shang Qinghua the freedom to move back to his own room. He’s absolutely, crushingly exhausted by the time he trudges back to his quarters, collapsing facedown into his bed and marinating in the luxury of lying on his own blankets and cushions. 

Mobei Jun is safe, his health confirmed by the head healer, the guardian array now rightfully tuned back to his king’s consciousness instead of Shang Qinghua’s presence. Shang Qinghua closes his eyes. 

It’s this old man’s turn to sleep for two and a half days now! 

 

---

 

Shang Qinghua doesn’t sleep for two and a half days, but he sure wishes he could! 

Upon waking up refreshed the next morning, he’s immediately presented with all the paperwork he wasn’t able to finish during his time as Mobei Jun’s specialized bouncer. He spends most of that day traveling between his room and the library, researching things for various upcoming diplomatic visits and finishing up the various inventory and requisition requests that have piled up during his stolen three-day reprieve. 

He hasn’t had time to give the full report on what happened with the spiritual salamander yet, but that’s fine. He hasn’t even seen Mobei Jun yet today! His king is probably also suffering from the same deluge of overdue bureaucracy demanding his attention, and he’ll call Shang Qinghua for the report when he’s ready. 

He’s just thinking that when a small movement in his peripheral vision catches his eye, and he turns to see Mobei Jun materialize in his living area in a dramatic swirl of shadow. 

What good timing! 

“My king!” he cries, springing upright and running to him. “This servant has -” He doesn’t get the chance to say anything else as Mobei Jun grabs him by the collar, hauling him into the air and shoving him into the nearest wall! 

“What have you done?” he demands, eyes wild, looking disheveled and enraged. “What did you - how dare you - where -” he dissolves into enraged snarling, his eyes glowing a bright and vengeful blue. The temperature is dropping rapidly and Shang Qinghua's breath plumes in the biting air as dark frost begins to crawl up the walls. 

“My king!” Shang Qinghua chokes, shivering and clutching at Mobei Jun’s relentless fist. “I - I don't know what you're talking about -”

Mobei Jun snarls, low and vicious. He draws his other hand back, palm flat, fingers spread wide.  

Ah…so Mobei Jun is reinstating the 'hitting your servant for sport and entertainment' policy that he had so graciously suspended? Well, that’s - that’s fine. It’s not like Shang Qinghua had hoped that things would change between them. He hadn’t hoped for that at all! This development is fine. Expected, even! 

His body has been lulled into complacency by the year of comfortable, bruise-free security enjoyed at his king’s side though. It has to relearn how to properly fear Mobei Jun’s presence again, but upon seeing that upraised arm, decades of deeply-ingrained instinct rise once again to the surface, and Shang Qinghua flinches hard enough that his elbow runs directly into the wall behind him. He has to immediately fight the urge to yodel with pain, tears springing helplessly into his eyes as spangling pain radiates out from his funnybone! 

Mobei Jun, still holding him aloft, seems to stall for a second, his face frozen in an expression of dark and vicious rage. His hand clenches into a tight fist, trembling slightly as if he's gathering steam for a particularly nasty punch. Shang Qinghua cringes, closing his eyes and waiting for the heavy blow to fall. 

Well, my king? Don’t draw it out like this!

Instead of beating him up though, Mobei Jun backs away, dropping Shang Qinghua to the ground like a discarded corpse. Silent and seething, his face full of frustrated anger, he steps back into one of his portals, disappearing without a single word. 

Shang Qinghua pulls himself together and glances fearfully around his empty room, but Mobei Jun is really gone. Gone without a trace, and more importantly, without a single explanation for that sudden fit of temper! Sighing and shaking his head, he takes a second to rub at his bruised throat and his slightly-bruised ego before getting to his feet to begin the arduous process of chipping the dark ice off the walls of his room before it can melt all over his things. 

Really, my king! If you’re going to barge into this humble servant’s room and beat on him a little, the least you could do is say why? 

 

---

 

It’s been three days. 

Mobei Jun is still avoiding him. 

Not only is he actively avoiding Shang Qinghua, he's being particularly nasty about it too! Why do you keep giving this poor servant such wrathful looks? Refusing to talk to him? Openly giving him the cold shoulder! My king, why?! 

Shang Qinghua goes through his daily duties in confused and slightly lonely dejection, still unsure what crimes he’s committed. Was it because Mobei Jun realized that Shang Qinghua saw his defeat in the spiritual caves? Is Mobei Jun angry at him for being the lone witness to the pitiful spectacle of him fallen down on the floor, shamefully passed out after a direct OHKO from their opponent? 

Sure, in hindsight, it’s sort of hilarious that Mobei Jun got owned so hard by what should’ve been by all rights a simple and low-level miniboss! But he’d never hold that loss against his king! Shit happens to everyone, even someone as blessed by the narrative as Mobei Jun is. This servant’s lips are sealed, my king, please rest assured that your secret is safe!

He’s munching mournfully away on his midday kilo of melon seeds when he suddenly has a horrible thought that makes all the hair on his arms rise up in fright, goosebumps running through the entire length of his body!

Is it possible that Mobei Jun remembers Shang Qinghua slapping him across the face?

Surely it can’t be...the thought is too terrible to entertain! Mobei Jun was passed out cold, barely able to open his eyes on command. His king’s level of restraint is notoriously poor...nonexistent even! If he recalled Shang Qinghua laying hands on the pale and lovely skin of his face, forget about being passive-aggressive! This master would be down one hand and banished into the northern wilds to be hunted for sport! 

Another chill wracks his body, and he shivers in preemptive dread, clutching the bag of melon seeds tightly to his chest. Maybe it’s better not to question Mobei Jun’s foul mood at all. Whatever it’s about, he’ll get over it eventually! Mobei Jun has never had the best temper. Best to let him work it off before seeking his company again. Feeling slightly heartened, he uncurls and polishes off the rest of the bag in good humor. 

Snack break over, he trots back to his room and sits down to the spread of half-finished paperwork on his writing desk with a sigh. The minister of finance is still waiting on Shang Qinghua’s official sign-off for some adjustments he wants to make to increase production quotas on their more lucrative mining sites. He’s sort of an idiot though and the changes he recommended straight up suck! Shang Qinghua has been making ruthless edits to his proposal all morning. Time to continue the flaying! 

He reaches for his brush and inkstone, only to realize that they’ve been taken away, clean replacements sitting accusingly in their old spots. 

...Okay, so maybe he leaves his brushes sitting out until the ink dries solid into the bristles, rendering the brushes basically impossible to use. Maybe the servants have complained about all the dried and clotted ink left on his inkstones. Maybe the head of household has actively lectured him before about this particular bad habit, but he forgot just this once, okay!

He sighs and looks around on his desk for an inkstick. Of course, there isn’t one! There aren’t any servants around either, so he can’t bribe someone into getting one for him. He thinks about making the long trek to the storeroom just to grab one and groans aloud, slouching where he sits. Why is life so hard! 

Grumpily, he fishes out his qiankun pouch, undoing the tightly-knotted drawstrings with several muttered complaints. He keeps all sorts of odds and ends in here, including extra writing supplies for when inspiration strikes. He’s sure there’s an inkstick or two rattling about inside. He finally gets the drawstrings free and upends the bag onto his lap with a few aggressive shakes. 

 

What falls out of the pouch is a dark grey sealskin. 

 

 

Shang Qinghua's face goes completely white with shock!  

Oh shit. Oh shit! He absolutely forgot that he had this on him! This is bad. Really bad! My king, please forgive this miserable servant, it completely slipped his mind! To be fair, it was a very stressful situation, followed by an incredibly stressful few days!

Shang Qinghua grabs the pelt, inkstick forgotten, and takes off for Mobei Jun's study at a sprint. 

“My king!” he cries, bursting into the room without knocking and startling Mobei Jun and the minister of finance. Mobei Jun takes one look and dismisses the other demon immediately, ushering Shang Qinghua into the inner room and sealing the door behind them. 

“Apologies for interrupting, my king, but this servant needed to return this to you.” Shang Qinghua says, breathless, brandishing the sealskin before him like it's the only thing standing between him and a sound beating. “This pathetic servant completely forgot he had it!” He bows deeply, holding the pelt out to Mobei Jun on outstretched arms. “Begging my king's forgiveness!”

Mobei Jun looks at the offered sealskin, then back at Shang Qinghua. His stare is very uh…very intense? Well, his king’s cold and imperious gaze is always intense, but right now the intimidation factor is really something terrifying! That fierce and icy glare is so full of concentrated malice that it sort of makes Shang Qinghua feel like his skin is being stripped from his bones! He cringes and ducks his head so he won’t have to face it head-on. Undeterred, Mobei Jun continues to stare, his displeasure thick and heavy in the air between him. 

"Is this your idea of a joke?" Mobei Jun finally asks, his voice low and very deadly. "You dare present this to me? Did you have second thoughts? Cold feet?"

Shang Qinghua starts to sweat, his mind racing. Oh god, there's no reason for Mobei Jun to be this angry unless he remembers the slap(s)! He should be happy that Shang Qinghua is returning his magical animal skin! But instead, Shang Qinghua can practically hear Mobei Jun grinding his teeth in fury. His king knows, doesn't he? Ah, he's dead...he's really dead! Heaven never forgets! The great wheel of karma crushes all in the end! 

Unable to bear the tense and awful atmosphere, he caves like a wet cardboard box, confessing his crimes with great enthusiasm, more than ready to beg for forgiveness! 

"I'm sorry!!" he wails, falling to his knees. "My king, please forgive me! I didn't mean to slap you so many times, but I had to! And you still didn’t wake up so it was all for nothing! And I'm sorry I hugged onto you like a sloth, and -"

Mobei Jun's face goes through several interesting expressions. "You did what? " he demands, incredulous. 

Shang Qinghua freezes on the spot, fear crystallizing his blood. Mobei Jun didn't remember?! Ah...he’s signed his own death warrant...

"I - I -" he stammers, the blood draining from his face, turning him as pale as a ghost.  

"We will discuss that later," Mobei Jun says darkly. "But this…" He reaches out, his outspread fingers hovering over the pelt but not quite touching it. "You took it. Why would you return it to me now?" 

Execution stayed, Shang Qinghua blinks away his dramatic tears. "I didn't take it!" he protests. "It fell out of your robes when we were escaping and I stuffed it into my qiankun pouch so it wouldn't get swept away. It's yours, my king! Why would I take it?" he asks, bewildered.

Mobei Jun fixes him with a slightly disbelieving look. "Do you know what you’re holding?"

"Um. Yes? It's your -" he makes a vague wiggly gesture, indicating the magical animal transformation. "Your uh... your skin. I mean, not your skin skin? Ugh, that sounded weird. It's your fur? No, that sounds weird too -"

Mobei Jun’s eyes are very clear. “Shang Qinghua. Do you know what I am.” 

“A...a shapeshifter?” 

“No. A selkie.”

Shang Qinghua stares at him, brow furrowed, half-forgotten memories of rapid fire searches on baidu for ‘coolest shapeshifting legends from around the world’ emerging one after another like annoying pop-up ads. 

So that’s why he’s a seal! 

Mobei Jun is still watching him, his gaze sharp, then condemning as he sees recognition move across Shang Qinghua's face. His eyes drop to the sealskin in Shang Qinghua’s hands. "You know of it, then. And still, you would return it?"

"Yes...?" Shang Qinghua says, truly confused now. He frets as he tries to recall what was actually on the pages he'd skimmed. Something about stealing skins and returning to the sea? Fuck if he remembers! Of all the shapeshifting myths for Mobei Jun to get, why is it something that he barely researched? 

More importantly, this servant isn't stealing anything! This is Mobei Jun’s precious key item! It’s probably worth its weight in gold, and Shang Qinghua kept it stuffed disgracefully in his qiankun pouch, rolling around with loose papers and ink-stiff brushes and a growing collection of pocket lint for days, like a villain hoarding the heroine’s magical weapon so she can’t transform. Mobei Jun should be elated to see it, snatching it right out of his hands, so why isn’t he taking it back? Why would Shang Qinghua keep it? He's not the one capable of transforming! My king, please take your key item back! This servant doesn’t want to be responsible for it! 

He holds the sealskin out in mute appeal. Mobei Jun does not move to take it. He stares at it, silent, his expression unreadable, before looking once again at Shang Qinghua. 

Shang Qinghua wants to weep! What’s with this tense atmosphere! 

"I can clean it!" he bursts out miserably. "My qiankun pouch isn't that dirty, but maybe there's a little bit of lint, or ink, or dust, or - er, regardless, all easily washed out, my king! Not a problem!"

That seems to spur Mobei Jun into action because he scowls viciously and moves forward to take his precious pelt. As he draws the sealskin out of Shang Qinghua’s hands, his movements are slow and almost…hesitant? Oddly disbelieving as it slips free of Shang Qinghua's fingers. 

He looks at the soft fur with an intense, indiscernible expression, before closing his eyes and holding it to his chest for a long moment. The open vulnerability that bleeds onto his face makes Shang Qinghua's mouth go completely dry. He looks down, gulping and feeling hot about the ears, with the sensation that this is something he really shouldn't be witnessing! 

When he dares to look back up, Mobei Jun is tucking the pelt back into his robes, businesslike, his face calm and expressionless, every trace of frailty gone. He catches Shang Qinghua's gaze with enough force that it feels like a blow. Shang Qinghua hastily bows and salutes, desperate to make his excuses and escape this weird mood! 

"Er, my king, if that's all then this humble servant will be taking his leave - "

"What did you say about a slap?" Mobei Jun inquires coolly, taking a seat across from him. He crosses his legs and rests one hand against his cheek - the very same cheek that Shang Qinghua's guilty hand had reddened in the cold spring caves! 

Shang Qinghua blanches, his soul attempting to leave his body. Ah, here it comes, the sweet, icy embrace of imminent death. 

Goodbye, cruel world!