Shang Qinghua likes the sunlight.
Summer does not come to the north, only a lighter winter. The days lengthen, and the weak sunlight becomes a little fiercer—but of course, it is not so now, a few weeks after the solstice. The sunlit hours are short, and the nights are deep, and cold.
Mobei-jun catches Shang Qinghua pausing next to a window, one morning, resting in the sunlight like a small animal and tilting his chin up into it. The yellow-white light warms his round cheeks, teases lighter browns out of his hair. His eyes are completely closed, his face pressed against the square edge of the window, as if he could fall asleep, right there.
Mobei-jun could disturb him, but he doesn’t. Instead, he waits until Shang Qinghua opens his eyes in a slow animal blink. The sunlight makes shadows on his nose, the underside of his chin. Mobei-jun thinks about kissing him, tasting his skin while it’s sun-warmed and sweet. He doesn’t do this, either.
“Are you cold?” he asks, because Shang Qinghua is usually cold. Mobei-jun does his best to keep him well supplied with furs, and warm cups of tea, and other necessities, but he still sometimes catches him blowing on the tips of his fingers in between drafts of trade agreements.
“Ah, a little,” Shang Qinghua says, rubbing at his cheek with one hand, “but it’s all right, my king.”
Mobei-jun says nothing, only extends a hand to tap him on the head, once, carefully. He stabilizes Shang Qinghua’s temperature with the touch, and watches as his cheeks go flushed.
“There,” he says.
Shang Qinghua blinks up at him, wide-eyed. “Thank you,” he says, soft, then shakes his head and clears his throat. “Um. There’s—the embassy from the west is coming today, would you like me to be there?”
“Mm,” Mobei-jun says, and smiles to himself. Shang Qinghua has been taking more interest in matters of state lately, sitting in on council sessions he would formerly have bowed out of and sitting by Mobei-jun’s side when he hears complaints in court. He’s a calming presence there, and he makes good use of his seemingly endless knowledge of obscure details. Mobei-jun is slowly growing accustomed to having to send someone to clean the floor of the throne room less often.
And he likes that Shang Qinghua is carving out a new role for himself here, that he seems willing to move out of the shadows and into the eyes of the court. It bodes well. It makes him hope.
“All right,” Shang Qinghua says, and bobs his head. He reluctantly peels himself away from the thin shaft of light coming in from the window. Mobei-jun has seen him in many different angles, by too-bright daylight and in shadow, in candlelight, in the blueish glow of light-forming talismans—but there’s something about Shang Qinghua in this patch of sun that he likes. For a moment he contemplates telling him to stay behind, and doze in the light like he seems to want to, but he does not wish to disrespect him by implying day-to-day functions can continue without his input. Mobei-jun made the mistake once of not showing Shang Qinghua how valued he was. He does not intend to let this happen again.
“Come,” he says. Extends a hand, and beckons. Shang Qinghua smiles, and does not take it. He pushes himself off the wall, instead.
“Right behind you, my king,” he says, and tucks a stubborn piece of loose hair behind his ear. “Lead the way.”
The throne room is teeming with western demon tribes when Mobei-jun and Shang Qinghua enter. Shang Qinghua’s face is doing something complicated: a fragile mask, slightly overwhelmed, slightly thoughtful. Mobei-jun can’t tell, just now, which emotion he is using to mask the other, and which is genuine. He presses a hand to his small, rounded shoulder anyway, and guides him to the front of the room and to his low desk next to Mobei-jun’s throne. Shang Qinghua’s expression flickers, tightening briefly, and then he cracks his neck, and straightens his shoulders, and starts getting his brushes and ink from the brushroll he carries.
Mobei-jun sits, still looking at the bent line of Shang Qinghua’s neck. The measured, careful way he gets out his things, so deliberate. Like he has to focus much harder on the task, for fear of making a mistake.
Before Mobei-jun’s ascension ceremony, Shang Qinghua rarely spoke of his own comfort or discomfort, his own happiness or sadness; he covered it all with a veneer of yes, my king, whatever you need, my king. Mobei-jun remembers being concerned about this, at first. He had wondered what that easy servitude could hide, what might lie under those waving hands and bright eyes and the statement, so easily given, of I want to serve you the rest of my life. Such things were not said without internal motivation, in his experience.
There were moments, of course, when Shang Qinghua’s flapping hands and absent babbling would give way to something penetrating, soft: a look that lingered too long, or a hand wrapped around Mobei-jun’s wrist as he tumbled off a cliff. Fierceness, and wonder—and then Shang Qinghua would laugh awkwardly, and bow his head, and whatever it was would be gone. Mobei-jun had wondered what laid under that, too. He still does. It’s another of the many things that makes him hope.
He hears a soft puff of air from next to him—Shang Qinghua’s sigh. He takes another glance, and sees a pale face, a gnawed lower lip. He holds his gaze until Shang Qinghua looks up, meeting his eyes, and then a faint smile pulls at his mouth, reassuring, and Mobei-jun is comforted.
Still, he thinks about it the rest of the day: Shang Qinghua’s odd, precise movements, how pale his face looked when he tilted it to the light. And then, later, when they are in Mobei-jun’s rooms, how his voice seems softer than usual, his mind a little more scattered. He pauses once, while undoing a braid in Mobei-jun’s hair, his hands absently smoothing through but his eyes peering elsewhere, somewhere Mobei-jun can’t follow.
Mobei-jun turns, and cups Shang Qinghua’s chin in his hand, smoothing his finger over his chewed-up mouth. He likes to know him like this, through touch. Sometimes when they are walking, as Shang Qinghua talks, Mobei-jun wishes he could put out a palm, and press it to Shang Qinghua’s chest to feel the rumble. The rise and fall of breath in him, the buzz of speech. Just to know he is near, his heart beating. It’s a weak, wrenching desire.
He means to ask if he’s all right, but before he can, Shang Qinghua’s eyes focus, going dark. He lets his mouth fall open, lets Mobei-jun’s thumb press against his lip, dragging it down. His hands smooth down the loose front of Mobei-jun’s robes, then curl into them, holding on. Thumb on Shang Qinghua’s mouth, free hand sliding around his waist, Mobei-jun smiles, and decides to leave questions for later.
The first night, Mobei-jun had stopped Shang Qinghua from leaving his rooms with a hand on his wrist, and said, “I want you.” There: as clear as he could make it, and decisive.
Shang Qinghua frozen and then he had stepped forward, pressed his shaking hands to Mobei-jun’s chest, his ribs, feeling the heaving of his breath. Good, Mobei-jun remembered thinking. Good. He should know what I’ve wanted, and for how long, and how much. He remembered thinking the hitch in his breath when Shang Qinghua finally touched him would convey all of it. He had encircled Shang Qinghua’s wrists with his hands, and pressed his palms down against his skin.
“Oh god,” Shang Qinghua had muttered, a little too low to be purposeful. And then he had stretched on his toes, and kissed Mobei-jun, and allowed himself to be pulled into bed.
Twenty minutes later he had frantically hit Mobei-jun on the shoulder and crawled out of it again, of course, but then the next evening Shang Qinghua had come back, brow furrowed, determined. He had looked up into the five or six inches between them and said, “I’ve been thinking about it, and we can—we can get better at it, can’t we? It can’t be that difficult.”
Mobei-jun hadn’t wanted to hurt him again, and so he had stayed still.
But Shang Qinghua had tilted his chin up and taken a step closer, and said, “Ask for what you want, my king. This servant will do his best.”
That was the first night they had gotten somewhere, and it was the second night Shang Qinghua had left Mobei-jun’s bed, after, and went back to his own.
Mobei-jun has been keeping track.
“Are you ill?” Mobei-jun asks, when Shang Qinghua is rising from his bed, reaching out to catch his wrist, turning it over so his thumb can press against the raised blue-green vein. He really is very pale. Concerningly so.
Shang Qinghua flashes him a nervous smile. “Did this servant disappoint you, my king?”
His hair is still a mess, red marks blooming on his hips and chest, being covered quickly as he pulls his wrist free and begins to dress. The idea that he could be disappointing is so laughable Mobei-jun doesn’t even deign to give it an answer. Even the awkward (and sometimes painful) fumbling of their first times together were not disappointing, because it had been him. And either way, Shang Qinghua is avoiding the question. He always retreats into formalities when he is unsure. “ Are you?”
“No,” Shang Qinghua assures him. “No, I’m not sick.”
He takes a few more steps back from the bed. Shang Qinghua generally does his best to slip away after sex, as soon as their breathing has evened. Sometimes Mobei-jun tires him enough that he falls asleep, which Mobei-jun likes, because it means he gets the pleasure of cleaning him up, tucking him under the furs, and holding him close before falling asleep himself.
It is not that Mobei-jun likes to see him go, but he lets it happen. Lays back down in bed. Once he was selfish enough that he would have rolled on top of Shang Qinghua, wrapped him up well in blankets and his arms, and kept him here whether he liked it or not. But the balance is important. Mobei-jun does not want to cage Shang Qinghua—if he stays, it will be because he wants it.
So far, he has not stayed in bed, but he keeps coming back, keeps climbing into Mobei-jun’s arms. Mobei-jun is trying to hold onto him, this strange and fickle human. He is trying to work out what it all means.
It hits him after a few days that Shang Qinghua genuinely seems more tired than usual. A little listless, a little less bright. His smiles come slowly and fade quickly, and Mobei-jun watches him trail off several times, mid-conversation, as if searching for a word he can’t find. Each time, he shakes his head and goes back to work, scrubbing at a cheek, blank-eyed. Retreating back into that place that Mobei-jun cannot join him in.
There are a few things that Mobei-jun is very, very good at. Chief among them is taking action. Shang Qinghua, between the two of them, is the one who makes plans: Mobei-jun’s method for solving problems has always been to beat them into submission or to pretend they don’t exist. He wishes he could beat back Shang Qinghua’s listlessness, or aggressively pull him back from the blankness in his eyes.
My king, Shang Qinghua had told him once, perched on his thighs, we’ve got to get better at this. It had been the second or third time they had slept together, and Mobei-jun could still faintly feel the smack Shang Qinghua had administered to his shoulder from the first time. Not because it had been particularly painful, but because its warning had been effective. It was alarmingly easy for him to hurt Shang Qinghua, especially if he barrelled in head-first, clumsily, wanting and without thought.
Tell me then, he’d said, and slid his hand up the back of Shang Qinghua’s neck. Watched the smile bloom easily across that beloved mouth. It had been early fall, still cold, but the days were longer, and Shang Qinghua’s smiles came easier. There was an easy light in him, then, that has dimmed since. What would you have this king do?
He can’t ask that, for this. And Mobei-jun is not particularly creative, even at the best of times. But he thinks of Shang Qinghua standing, exhausted, tilting his face into the weak light from the palace’s window, and he thinks he might have an idea.
The western delegation goes as quickly as it had come. Mobei-jun is summoned to hunt with Luo Binghe, who spends over half the trip complaining about missing his husband, which is unpleasant, but a marked improvement on the way he formerly spent half their trips whining over how Shen Qingqiu would never love him. Mobei-jun spends most of the trip mentally planning a layout for the office he wants to build for Shang Qinghua, and killing beasts when prompted. He takes the long way home to scout locations alone in the south and west, which takes him an extra few days; he sends his retinue ahead to give word that he’ll be late. It is not something he would have apologized for, before, until one evening when Shang Qinghua was sitting with him at dinner, cradling a hot cup of tea, unwavering brown eyes fixed on a shallow cut on Mobei-jun’s cheek. I didn’t know where you were, he’d said, all in a rush, looking quickly at the cup in his hands. As if he had to convince himself to say it at all.
Mobei-jun had ached at his concern. Another wrinkle he had not anticipated; a mistake. His own fault for not thinking of it. I was in no danger, he had said.
Yes, well, I never doubted that, my king, Shang Qinghua had said, and went back to his dinner. Now, Mobei-jun does his best to send word.
Mobei-jun pauses, thoughtful, in a bright, sunlit clearing in one of the forests of the southwest, where it generally remains warm without being too humid. It’s far too warm for him—not uncomfortable or painful, but like an itch at the top of his head he can’t quite scratch. It’s clear, though, and there’s a light breeze, and he thinks again of Shang Qinghua tilting his face up quietly into the light, and then thinks—yes, this will do. This will do nicely.
Shang Qinghua does not greet him by the door as he usually does. When Mobei-jun goes to find him, he finds him in the treasure rooms, a series of three maze-like underground chambers where Mobei-jun has tossed his spoils for the past two decades, and where his father and his grandfather likely tossed spoils before him. Shang Qinghua is abnormally invested in cleaning it up and organizing it. Sometimes it’s as if he’s looking for something specific, and he will come upstairs to dinner with a furrowed brow and a tight jaw when he doesn’t find it. Today, he is mumbling to himself as he tries to climb the side of one of the shelves, the ladder abandoned halfway across the long room.
Mobei-jun clears his throat. Shang Qinghua yelps and almost loses his balance.
“My king! You’re back!”
“Yes,” Mobei-jun says, and offers his hands as a place for Shang Qinghua to put his foot, so he can better balance as he climbs. Shang Qinghua blushes horribly at this, eyes skittering from Mobei-jun’s hands to the shelf and back again before he tentatively steps onto them.
“Um,” he says, and hurries to get the object he was reaching for, a small and dusty scroll. “I didn’t realize you were coming back today.”
“I said I would return in five days,” Mobei-jun says, then, “the ladder is right there.”
“Well, it’s very heavy, my king, and I couldn’t drag it all the way over here, I am only one poor weak cultivator,” Shang Qinghua says, as if the two things don’t directly contradict each other. He hops down to the ground and brushes off the front of his robes.
Mobei-jun gets the ladder for him anyway.
“Oh! You didn’t have to do that, I could have—”
“What are you looking for,” Mobei-jun interrupts him, glancing at the scroll. Shang Qinghua tends to get excited over objects that Mobei-jun has no use for, like thick boots, and new brushes, and old documents, but it’s worth paying attention to them anyway.
Shang Qinghua isn’t quite listening, chewing on his lip instead. “It’s already been five days?”
“Yes,” Mobei-jun says, blinking at the sudden change of subject.
“Huh,” Shang Qinghua says, in a tone of mild and slightly gloomy surprise. “Okay.” Then he starts unfurling the scroll and chattering about it. Mobei-jun watches his hands instead of listening.
Mobei-jun knows a great deal about him, now. Shang Qinghua is strange, and small, and knows much more than he likes to let on. He likes melon seeds, and citrus in desserts, and spice in dinners. He doesn’t like receiving dead things as gifts unless they have been processed: made into furs, teeth, venom, bone. He hates wearing anything in his hair beyond the simplest, lightest pins and ribbons, though he will bear the weight on his scalp if asked. He has been trained with a sword, but prefers words, and, barring that, evasion.
He talks to himself when he’s thinking, when he’s irritated, when he’s stressed, and when he is very happy. It was once very difficult to tell the difference between these different moods, as they all result in Shang Qinghua pacing and muttering, but now he knows. He thinks by moving his hands in the air as he talks, sketching invisible pictures. He mutters deceptively kind insults when he’s irritated—“No, thank you very much, my lord, we’re all very pleased to be on round five of you trying to skirt around my reasonable fucking trade agreement” —and his fingers drum when he’s stressed. And when he’s happy his voice softens, and his chatter redirects itself. In other moods, he talks about what he’s doing, reciting details out loud so he won’t forget them. When he’s happy, he jumps from thought to thought far too quickly for Mobei-jun to keep up, and he smiles without cause.
All of this is relevant because right now, Shang Qinghua is talking slowly, his hands smoothing down the scroll instead of waving through the air. It’s a very good imitation of what he’s usually like, but there is no vitality behind it. No life.
“Take the afternoon off,” Mobei-jun decides.
“My king?” Shang Qinghua says, startled. “But you’ve just gotten back—I mean—don’t you want—?”
Mobei-jun obviously does want to spend time with him. Of course he does. This means very little when considering the strange intensity of Shang Qinghua’s exhaustion. Mobei-jun will find whoever thought they could work Shang Qinghua too hard in his absence, and he will make sure they understand why this is not acceptable. And meanwhile, Shang Qinghua can sleep.
“Tomorrow,” he says, already heading for the doorway. “You’re tired. Rest.”
“I don’t need to!” Shang Qinghua says, scampering after him. “My king, honestly, it’s nothing a little tea won’t cure, since Shen-shixiong helped me find that blend that gives the drinker energy, I could stay up all night if you wanted—”
“ Rest, ” Mobei-jun repeats, and stops him with a hand to the top of his head. “Do you understand?”
There’s a blush on his ears, a twist to his mouth. Shang Qinghua has never responded well when Mobei-jun points out how poorly he cares for himself, so this is nothing new. Still, it hurts to have him avoid eye contact. “Yes, my king,” he says. “I shouldn’t have assumed—anyway. I’ll. I’ll go and rest.”
“Mm,” Mobei-jun says, pleased. “Good.”
“Right,” Shang Qinghua mutters, “right, I’ll—good night, my king.” He leaves quickly, ears still red.
Mobei-jun stares after him for a long moment, pensive. He doesn’t regret telling him to get rest. He will miss him—and he would, of course, rather have Shang Qinghua sleeping in his bed, so that he could keep others away—but Shang Qinghua has already demonstrated his lack of desire to be in Mobei-jun’s bed without the excuse of sex, and Mobei-jun knows he should not push him.
But—still. The hunch in his shoulders is concerning.
He will have to encourage the workers he’ll assign to build the office to hurry.
In a week’s time, Shang Qinghua leaves for one of his monthly visits with Shen Qingqiu, a tradition that has been established for several years now and shows no signs of stopping, no matter how irritated the two sometimes seem to make each other.
Shen Qingqiu and Shang Qinghua are in a deep, near-silent conversation when Mobei-jun comes to Luo Binghe’s home in late evening to bring Shang Qinghua back to the north. It is still winter here, but lighter winter than in Mobei-jun’s lands—Shang Qinghua is not so wrapped in furs here, and while he cradles a cup of tea between both hands, his eyes are bright, his cheeks flushed with warmth. Mobei-jun aches a little, looking at him, deep in his gut where other feelings like hunger and bloodlust live.
Shang Qinghua notices him immediately; Shen Qingqiu takes a few seconds. Shang Qinghua’s smile does not dim when he looks over. “Hello, my king,” he says. Shen Qingqiu sighs through his nose and straightens his sleeves, peering calmly across the room at Mobei-jun as the emotion of their aborted conversation fades from his face.
“Are you ready?” Mobei-jun asks.
“Ah, let me get my cloak,” Shang Qinghua says, “Cu—Shen-shixiong, did you put it—?”
“It’s by the door where it always is,” Shen Qingqiu says, then eyes him balefully. “Remember what I said about the mushrooms. And the walks.”
“Aiyah,” Shang Qinghua says, sighing dramatically. “Are you trying to be my doctor now, Shen-shixiong? I have Mu Qingfang for that, he does a good enough job, doesn’t he?”
“Doctor?” Mobei-jun says, alarmed. Is he ill? He ought to have said something, if he was. But Mobei-jun has asked, and—
“It’s nothing, my king,” Shang Qinghua soothes, laying a pale hand on the vambrace of Mobei-jun’s armor and patting twice. “Shen-shixiong is over-reacting.”
“Have you ever known me to over-react?” Shen Qingqiu says. “I know about these things. I’ve certainly done more research on them than you ever have. Soy is good, too, and you could try training more often, because exercise—”
“I am fine,” Shang Qinghua says, his fond, complaining tone dropping, and his glare suddenly icy. “This one is perfectly well and able to go on with his duties—”
Shen Qingqiu’s mouth twitches sourly. “And this one is not saying Shang-shidi is incapable,” he says. “Only that he might feel better if—”
“Shang Qinghua,” Mobei-jun says. “What is this.”
“It is nothing, ” Shang Qinghua says stubbornly. “He’ll be trying to feed me soup next like I’m some kind of invalid—let’s go, my king, all right? I’m sure there’s a lot to do.”
He holds out his arm expectantly. Shen Qingqiu looks at him, then at Mobei-jun, and then unfolds his fan and sinks down behind his tea-table again. His expression says, fairly clearly, well, I’ve done what I can.
Mobei-jun swallows his own trepidation and takes Shang Qinghua’s arm, to take them home.
The office is finished about a week after this (strange) incident, during which Shang Qinghua avoids mushrooms out of what seems to be misplaced stubbornness and works harder and longer than Mobei-jun is accustomed to him working. (He makes his way into Mobei-jun’s bed only once, and Mobei-jun, knowing he will not stay long enough to be held, arranges Shang Qinghua on his hands and knees and presses himself against the line of his back, hands over his against the sheets. Encompassing, and close. He hopes it does more for making him feel grounded than it can to keep him warm.) When Mobei-jun gets the word from his workers that the office is complete, he calls off the drills he was supposed to observe to hunt down Shang Qinghua.
“Come,” he says when he finds him, curled up at his current desk—close by the fire, covered in papers. He has been sharing Mobei-jun’s office for months now, which Mobei-jun does not mind, because he does not use it. But now things will be different.
“I have to finish this, my king,” Shang Qinghua says, sounding tired, and not looking up. His hand flicks once, faintly, in the air, like he’s fanning away a bug but can’t really muster the energy for that, either.
“Shang Qinghua,” Mobei-jun says, sharper now, to get his attention. He blinks, dropping the brush and then fumbling for it before too much ink can get on the table.
“Sorry! Sorry, sorry, let me just—let me just put the brushes away and clean them and then—”
“Someone else will do that,” Mobei-jun says, then reconsiders. “No. Take them with us.”
“Ah?” Shang Qinghua says. His thumb has a blot of ink dried on it when he moves to push his hair back. Mobei-jun comes closer, arms crossed. Shang Qinghua is still kneeling next to his desk, fumbling to clean the brush before he puts it back in its brushroll. He’s muttering something, but Mobei-jun only catches the words pens and cleaning. “Yes, my king, right away, my king—”
He looks up to see Mobei-jun standing next to him; he blushes and gets to his feet in a hurry.
“Where are we going?”
“Come,” Mobei-jun says, insulted—he isn’t just going to tell him, it’s a gift—and heads for the door. Shang Qinghua mumbles something else, something that is probably at least slightly unkind, and follows.
They walk together in silence, which is odd. Usually, Shang Qinghua talks, and talks, and talks. But lately he has still been tired, tired in his strange distant way, so his silence makes sense. Mobei-jun slows until they are walking side by side, though Shang Qinghua is walking slower than usual, and keeps falling behind him.
“My king, aren’t we going to get there soon?” Shang Qinghua says, eventually, and Mobei-jun hides a smile.
“It’s this way,” he says, putting a hand to the middle of Shang Qinghua’s back and guiding him to the bottom of a staircase.
When they reach the top, Shang Qinghua is frowning again, his face tight. “My king, really, I have to—”
“Hush,” Mobei-jun tells him. “Come here.”
He opens the door, and Shang Qinghua falls quiet.
Mobei-jun cannot help but feel pride as Shang Qinghua steps forward, mouth hanging open, his words briefly escaping him. The office is everything Mobei-jun hoped it would be—the sunlight streams in from the ceiling, bright and warm, the glow from it clinging to every piece of furniture in the room. He’d had a desk made, wide enough for all of Shang Qinghua’s various stacks of papers. He had connected the array on the ceiling to the clearing he’d found in the southwest, where it generally remains warm without being too humid, which also means it will be warm and sunny in this room long after the pale, fragile light fades out of the northern castle’s windows. And there is art on the walls, cushions on the floor, space for a tea-table and empty shelves for all of Shang Qinghua’s scrolls and books. It's a good place, a warm place. Mobei-jun has high hopes for it.
Shang Qinghua steps in, mouth still agape. He stops in the middle of the room, spinning slowly on his heel, taking in every inch.
In a voice dulled from shock, he says, “What is this?”
“Do you like it?” Mobei-jun asks.
“Is it mine? ” Shang Qinghua says, his voice cracking a little. His hands are shaking as he puts the brush-roll down on the desk, and turns back to look squarely at Mobei-jun.
“If you like it, it is,” Mobei-jun says. “If you don’t, I’ll make something else.”
Shang Qinghua takes a deep breath, and turns to look back at the room. His hands are still shaking. He’s making the face he makes when he’s trying to put pieces together, and finding the result unsatisfactory, or confusing, or false. The sun paints his face golden, places a careful dark shadow under the round edge of his jaw.
“You’d make something else?” he repeats. A challenge; it’s barbed, sharp. He almost sounds like he could cry.
Mobei-jun takes a step closer, worried he’s hurt him, somehow, without meaning to. “Yes,” he says. “Do you want something else?”
And then the shutter goes down, and Shang Qinghua is wiping at his face and laughing, turning again to glance around the room, at the empty shelves and comfortable temperature, shucking off the cloak he generally wears when writing or working alone in Mobei-jun’s cold office. “No, of course not, my king,” he says. “I don’t want anything else. This is beautiful.”
He tilts his face into the light again, taking a deep breath. This time, Mobei-jun gives into his desire to kiss him: on the forehead first, and then on his mouth. He’s still a little cold from sitting so still as he wrote all afternoon. But he will warm up, in time.
When he pulls back, that strange aching look is back on Shang Qinghua’s face. Mobei-jun’s hand has come up to cradle his chin while they kiss; he waits for a second to see if Shang Qinghua will say anything, but he doesn’t. Just stands there, looking frustrated, and challenging, and a little lost. Mobei-jun’s hand drifts to his cheek and squeezes, gently, pinching at the skin and tugging on it before letting go.
“Tell me,” he says.
“What, nothing,” Shang Qinghua says immediately, and blushes. “Nothing! Just—thank you, my king. It’s really wonderful. I didn’t—I didn’t know I missed the sun so much, and now—not that the North isn’t—not that I don’t want to live here! It’s just that—”
“Humans need sunlight,” Mobei-jun says, pleased that his efforts will be recognized.
“Well, we don’t need it, it’s not like food and sleep and water,” Shang Qinghua says. “But it is nice. And sometimes—heh—sometimes our minds get a little, um.” He gestures at his head weakly. “Bad? Without it?”
“Hm,” Mobei-jun agrees. “I thought you were ill. Shen Qingqiu seemed to think so.” This is apparently pointed enough, because Shang Qinghua flushes.
“Well, it’s sort of like an illness,” he says, looking around again, but doesn’t elaborate. Tentatively, he pats Mobei-jun’s wrist, the wrist of the hand still cradling his cheek. “Thank you for this, my king. I—I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
His cheek is very warm under Mobei-jun’s fingers. Mobei-jun smiles, and leans in to kiss him again. This time Shang Qinghua, still tentative, kisses him back.
“If you like it, then it’s good,” Mobei-jun says, simply, and backs off. Shang Qinghua still has work to do, and he has always been fastidious about such things. They will see each other later. “You will have dinner with me?”
Shang Qinghua’s eyes are troubled again, a strange combination between light and dark. “Of course, my king.”
Shang Qinghua is quiet again as they eat, a different kind of quiet than the kind he has held the past few weeks. He is thinking, Mobei-jun can tell. He spends the dinner mostly paused with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth, frowning, or putting food in Mobei-jun’s bowl when he thinks he isn’t looking.
Eventually, abruptly, he says, “My king, do you remember what I said, that time when I left?”
Mobei-jun considers it. He had said a lot of things, and almost none of it had made sense, but there had been a thread of clarity among the nonsense, which had been—“You called me spoiled.”
Shang Qinghua goes red, ducking his head over his bowl and eating a few vegetables in quick succession. There is a mushroom among them, which Mobei-jun is gratified to notice. Through the mouthful, he says, “Not that.”
Mobei-jun, more carefully this time, says, “You said you would not come back. If you left. And that I should not try to find you.”
Shang Qinghua blinks. This time he sets his bowl down. “No,” he says, a little softer, a little more lost, holding Mobei-jun’s gaze. “Not that, either. Ugh, I said a lot more than I thought I did, didn’t I?”
Mobei-jun doesn’t remember anything else that wasn’t nonsense. He raises an eyebrow.
Shang Qinghua makes an agonized face. “This is very difficult, you know,” he warns. “And still you’re going to make me say it! My king is far too cruel...ah, well, it can’t be helped.” He fiddles with the edges of his sleeves, rumpling and then smoothing them. “It was about when we first met,” he says. “Sort of. It was—that first few nights, I mean. When you were injured. And everything else, I suppose. I think. Everything since. It’s been so many years...I really am an old man, huh?”
“Qinghua,” Mobei-jun says. “What do you mean?”
He wants to understand. He wants—
“Seeing you,” Shang Qinghua says, still fiddling with his sleeves, but looking up into Mobei-jun’s face, and then he lets go of the fabric and squares his shoulders before continuing. “Getting to see you. I was so happy. I still am.”
He leaves it at this, but Mobei-jun remembers the rest, the second sentence that he had said just before running. You’re even more handsome than I imagined.
“Um,” Shang Qinghua says, when the silence stretches. “So. That’s. That’s what I wanted to ask, my king.”
There is a rush of feeling in Mobei-jun’s chest, hope that settles, that lingers. Love that he does not know what to do with except open his mouth, and say—
“Qinghua,” and Shang Qinghua looks back, brown eyes soft, nervous and determined at the same time. “Come here.”
A smile at the corner of his mouth, cautious. He circles the table, and reaches out to gently pinch the skin of Mobei-jun’s cheek, pulling on it with one hand the way he did with two as they both lay injured and angry. A touch that instantly replaces the first.
“I’m going to kiss you now, my king,” Shang Qinghua says quietly, and Mobei-jun tilts up his chin.
Shang Qinghua stands and rises from the bed, when it’s over. He is humming, stretching his arms above his head. In the rare moments he isn’t stressed or thinking, his back straightens, and the tense muscles in his shoulders loosen. Mobei-jun likes best to watch him when he’s like this, unburdened, the relaxed line of his shoulders and spine begging for touch.
Mobei-jun had thought he wouldn’t leave this time. He had let himself hope a little too much, perhaps. He is still hoping, stupid as it is. Shang Qinghua’s earnest look at dinner had made it easier to imagine that if he asked, he would not be denied.
Shang Qinghua stands and walks to the middle of the room, absently bending to pick up a discarded robe and then folding it in his arms. He’s only wearing his socks. Mobei-jun does not remember either of them actively deciding to leave them on, in the moment. Now that the moment has passed, the sight stokes an ache in his chest, one that has nothing at all to do with sex and everything to do with Shang Qinghua’s absent-minded sigh as he shakes out one of the robes and pulls it on, tugging his hair out from inside it. Loosened from its perpetual knot, it falls down his back—long enough to be caught in the collar, and absently, patiently worked free.
A chunk of it is still caught, unnoticed, and slipping out of its own accord the more Shang Qinghua moves. Mobei-jun looks at him, and Shang Qinghua smiles back at him, puzzled. There is a mark blooming at the base of his neck, purple-red, clearly visible.
Mobei-jun lifts the covers. Covers made from furs, ones that he had brought in for the express purpose of watching Shang Qinghua curl up underneath them, months ago when all of this began, covers he hasn’t been able to use for their intended purpose. “Come here,” he says, a command that means nothing in the face of what he is actually saying, which is what he has been saying for months now, for years. Come back.
“Shang Qinghua,” he says. Ask for what you want. “Come.”
Shang Qinghua does come, still looking a little baffled.
“Do you need something, my king?”
“It’s late,” Mobei-jun says, and lifts the covers higher.
“Oh,” Shang Qinghua says, noticing. “Ah, I.” He’s biting his lip, frustratingly nervous again. “Are you sure, my king, because I know there’s a lot going on tomorrow and I wouldn’t want to disturb your rest, and I’ll probably have to get up before you anyway, and—”
“It will disturb me if you are not here,” Mobei-jun tells him, frankly, quietly. Shang Qinghua’s rambling slows; he stares at Mobei-jun, openmouthed, stunned. Mobei-jun props himself up on one elbow to look him dead in the eyes, and Shang Qinghua lets out a hitching breath.
He’s still naked, but for the hastily thrown-on robe and his socks, shifting from foot to foot. He must be cold, Mobei-jun thinks.
“You don’t wish to share this king’s bed?” he asks, trying to sort through it.
Shang Qinghua makes a noise like a steaming kettle. “That’s not it, my king,” he says. “And, I, I’m in your bed pretty often, don’t you think? It’s been a good system so far, hasn’t it? My feelings don’t need to—muddle it, for you. I don’t need much, I’m really very easy—”
“You don’t stay,” Mobei-jun says, cutting him off.
“Well,” Shang Qinghua says, huffily, and then loses steam, peering at Mobei-jun with wide eyes. “Do you...my king, would you like me to?”
He sounds so incredulous that Mobei-jun frowns. “Shang Qinghua,” he says, “I have brought you to the tomb of my ancestors so you could aid me in my ascension, and you ask if I would like you in my bed?”
“Well, those are two very different things,” Shang Qinghua says, his voice high and thin.
“They are not,” Mobei-jun says flatly. “You are the one I have chosen.”
“Oh,” Shang Qinghua says, in a very small voice. His eyes are bright as stars, his cheeks very red. Mobei-jun can practically see the pieces moving in Shang Qinghua’s mind, re-assembling themselves in an arrangement that makes sense. “My king, you—you’re saying you chose me? Already? When? I thought that’s what we were doing now! How did I not notice—”
“Why are you asking me why you didn’t notice?” Mobei-jun asks. “I was clear.”
“Clearly not clear enough, my king!” Shang Qinghua says, waving his hands. He is still standing by the side of the bed, and Mobei-jun’s arm is starting to hurt from holding up the blankets, so he pushes them back in favor of grabbing Shang Qinghua by the wrist and tugging so that he climbs, on his knees, into the bed. He sits on top of his folded legs on the mattress, still red-faced and blinking.
“Shang Qinghua,” Mobei-jun says. “You were the one who didn’t want this.”
“In what universe, ” Shang Qinghua says, a little strangled, “wouldn’t I want this? You’re,” and here he breaks off and gestures at Mobei-jun’s body, as if this will make his point for him. Because Mobei-jun is a benevolent ruler, he does not ask him what on earth he’s talking about. “And I’m! You’re the one who just randomly decided to fuck me one day!”
“And you left,” Mobei-jun tells him, and tries not to let blame slip into it. “And you kept leaving. And then,” he sits up a little, too, propped on one elbow to better meet Shang Qinghua’s eyes. “You came back the next day. I didn’t know what you wanted.”
“That was,” Shang Qinghua says, and then takes a deep breath. “I thought you just. Wanted sex.”
“With you,” Mobei-jun says.
“Yes, but,” Shang Qinghua says. “I was—I was there? I was convenient? And you wanted—”
He sounds like he’s trying to convince himself. He will need to try harder than that, Mobei-jun thinks, because what he’s saying is nonsense. “I wanted you,” Mobei-jun says, for clarity’s sake. “In whatever way I could have you.”
Shang Qinghua makes the whistling-teakettle noise again. “You can’t just say that,” he says, agonized. Then he throws his arms around Mobei-jun’s neck, which is a step in the right direction, pressing his forehead against Mobei-jun’s collarbone, curling into his body and hiding his face. “Ah, my king, you must think I’m such an idiot.”
“It’s over now,” Mobei-jun tells him. “All that matters is that you understand.”
“That’s not fair,” Shang Qinghua says, quietly, against his shoulder, then, softer, “I hurt you, didn’t I? I didn’t know I could.”
“You could,” Mobei-jun says, meaning, no one else could. No one else could come close. Words suddenly fail him; he presses both palms to the soft pale skin of Shang Qinghua’s back, sliding under the robe to feel the warmth of him. He thinks about the line of his back when he stretches. How, when he thinks of Shang Qinghua, he always seems to be walking away.
“Then I should answer for it, my king,” Shang Qinghua says, then, to himself, says: “You came after me. You let me bully you a little. I should have known then.”
“Hmm,” Mobei-jun says. “There was no bullying.” There had been a little bullying.
“I made you make me noodles!” Shang Qinghua yelps. “I made you come after me—I ran away like an idiot and you had to come rescue me and then I didn’t even thank you, I just made you carry me along in that stupid cart and asked for noodles—”
“You showed me I had been wrong,” Mobei-jun says. “When you returned for me, during the ascension ceremony. I thought you wished to leave me. And I had given you reason to leave me. I wanted—”
“Hey,” Shang Qinghua says, struggling to sit up. “Look, I—”
“You are not unwelcome,” Mobei-jun says, struggling for the right words. “In my bed. In my kingdom. Everywhere.” He pauses; this still does not feel like enough. How can he condense into words what he feels? Shang Qinghua stops wiggling, and settles back in, his nose tucked between Mobei-jun’s neck and shoulder. His cheeks are hot as flames against Mobei-jun’s skin, but somehow soothing. “You will never be unwelcome.”
For a while, they lay this way: on their sides, holding each other, letting this declaration settle. It is difficult to do. Mobei-jun feels vulnerable and prickly; he can’t help but want to pretend he hasn’t said it. Shang Qinghua could destroy him—he’s known that for years—but it’s a different thing to say it, to let it hover there between them, to be handing his life over. All he can do is wait and see what Shang Qinghua will do with it, now that he knows.
But then, he has bared his neck for this man before, and lived through it. He has been baring his neck for years. Knowing this makes the wait easier.
“I’m really embarrassed right now,” Shang Qinghua informs him, eventually, voice raw, “and I will probably be embarrassed for weeks, because I didn’t notice all this, but I. I.” His throat works. He pulls back from their embrace, cheeks glowing, eyes shining, and Mobei-jun feels a powerful relief that he did not expect to feel, the culmination of all the uncertainty he has felt in the past few months, as if a thorn digging into his flesh has been pulled free, and he has only noticed its discomfort once it was gone. Shang Qinghua’s hand is smoothing down the side of Mobei-jun’s face, his neck, his shoulder; then up again. “You really are my favorite, you know? You’re my favorite. I never thought, I never—I don’t know what I’m saying. Usually you shut me up by now.”
“Take your time,” Mobei-jun offers, smiling, and snickers when Shang Qinghua hits him.
“Don’t make fun of me, my king, I’m trying, you know that?”
“This king is grateful,” Mobei-jun tells him solemnly. “He is also very tired.”
“You!” Shang Qinghua says in mock astonishment, and rolls Mobei-jun onto his back so he can sit on top of him, leaning over his body, propped with his elbows against Mobei-jun’s chest. “Ah, I must be dreaming,” he says, laughing a little. “Maybe this whole thing has been a dream. It’s a good dream, though. I don’t want to wake up.”
“You are not asleep,” Mobei-jun says, disgruntled.
“You’re right, you’re right. It was a bad joke,” Shang Qinghua says, and smiles as Mobei-jun tugs at his arms to get him close again. “I’m very awake! You’ll just have to convince me when we get up that this was all real, okay?”
“Hm,” Mobei-jun says, and makes a show of considering it, but Shang Qinghua is hard to refuse when his arms are folded on Mobei-jun’s chest, and his chin resting on top of them: the heat of him close and only a little wriggly. “That is acceptable.”
“It’s all acceptable,” Shang Qinghua says, quietly. “More than acceptable. You know that, right? I hope you do. I was just—dense, and scared.”
“Make it up to me,” Mobei-jun says, “and stay.”
“Hm,” Shang Qinghua says. A feather-light kiss is dropped on Mobei-jun’s nose, and when Shang Qinghua pulls back from it he is blushing again. “I can do that, my king.”