Jiang Shutian opened his eyes.
That was the first and greatest surprise. He should have been dead. No, he knew he was dead. At the end, he’d transformed himself into pure energy, taking what remained of his body and power and transforming it into weapons that the other Shuyu could use to protect himself and his version of their family. The last thing he’d felt before his consciousness faded from the world was the other Shuyu taking the weapons that had once been “Jiang Shutian” into his hands. There couldn't have been enough of him left to wake up.
Was this the afterlife, then?
If so… then why was he alone?
Where were his Shuyu and Shujun?
In that moment, a shriek rang through the air, immediately cutting all contemplation off at the root. “Dàgē! Dàgē!”
It had been more than ten years—but he would never forget that voice.
Shutian leapt up from the bed, already moving before his sister’s voice hit the second syllable. But his body didn’t move as it should have. It felt—sluggish. Slow. Weak. His ice didn’t react as it should have either. No skates appeared beneath his feet to quicken his stride; no sword formed in his hand.
What had he done to himself?
There wasn’t any time to wonder. Gritting his teeth, he rushed through the hallway, pushing himself harder in the direction of Shujun’s scream.
The door smashed open under his hand. He scanned the room in a single blink, searching for the threat—and froze.
The room blazed with electric light, a sharp contrast to the night filling the hallway behind him. There were only two people inside, one propped up in a hospital bed, the other standing besides it. Both turned to him.
His eyes latched onto Shujun first. Ten years. He could have sworn that he hadn’t forgotten a single detail of her face in all that time, but as he drank in the sight of her, he found that that wasn’t quite true. She was Shujun, just as he had known her—but at the same time, there were details that had faded over time, small things that he hadn’t realized that he’d forgotten until now.
Tears filled her dark eyes, which nearly made his heart stop before he saw that she was smiling too. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a smile so bright. Had he ever seen a smile like that before?
“Dàgē, Dàgē—Èrgē woke up!”
No other words could have made him tear his eyes away from her. That figure in the bed—
It was Shuyu.
Not the stronger, more mature Shuyu he’d spent the last few weeks with. Not the aberration which had had the gall to wear his face. Not even the Shuyu from his dearest memories, athletic and healthy.
This was Shuyu as he’d last seen him in life: pale and wasted away from his long weeks in a coma. The only difference was that this Shuyu was awake, his eyes bright in that startlingly thin face.
Shutian’s legs grew weak. He stumbled forward and crumbled to his knees at the side of Shuyu’s bed, his fists clutching the sheets, his head bowed.
Could it be—
Had he really managed too—
“Dàgē!” Two voices cried out as one; two pairs of hands reached out for him: Shujun’s small hands at his shoulder, and Shuyu’s frail, emaciated ones over Shutian’s fists.
His whole body shook. Had he really, truly come back to the past? Or—the terrible thought hit him—was this yet another parallel world?
His head snapped up to meet Shuyu’s concerned gaze. “Do you know who you are?” he demanded.
Clearly confused, Shuyu answered, “Yes, of course.”
“What year is it?”
“What continent do we live on?”
“Asia, of course... Dàgē, there’s nothing wrong with my memory, if that’s what you’re worried about—Dàgē?!”
His answers were what they should have been. Shujun hadn’t reacted strangely to any of them either. That meant—that meant—
It truly was them. His Shuyu. His Shujun. He didn’t know how, but somehow, he had done it. He’d come back to them, to a time before he’d failed them.
He broke. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cried—certainly before the apocalypse; perhaps even before their parents had died—but now he couldn’t stop the tears from coming. They were alive. His Shuyu and Shujun, the family who he’d so terribly failed, were alive again. All those sacrifices he’d made—they weren’t for nothing, after all. He had a second chance.
He could hear Shuyu and Shujun’s frantic voices, calling out to him. Abruptly, he moved, seating himself on the side of the bed and pulling Shuyu to him with one arm and Shujun with the other. It was an awkward, cramped position—Shujun was half-sprawled on his lap—but he didn’t care. They were so warm. Everywhere where they touched felt warm. Their breath was hot against his skin.
The word reverberated through his mind, almost too wonderful to be believed.
Ignoring their protests—“Dàgē! You’re squishing me!”—he pulled them even closer to him. His tears finally stopped as he began to plan. His family was alive—but there was much he needed to do in order to keep them that way.
He didn’t have much time to prepare. He didn’t know what day it was, but it couldn’t be less than three days before the apocalypse came, because the Jiang Shutian of this time had not yet left for Oceania. First, he needed to fire the servants. The maid, the gardener, the cook—he had no way of knowing which of them had the strength to survive the black fog, and he wasn’t going to risk his siblings to find out.
Next, he needed to gather as many of his mercenaries who had survived the fog the first time around as he could. That could be tricky—depending on what day it was, some might have already gone ahead to Oceania on his orders, waiting for him to join them there. No matter. He’d call home who he could. Then he’d need to gather supplies—preferably before the meteor shower, and definitely before the fog started gathering, before people started realizing something was wrong—
Shuyu felt so frail. Right now, he felt even thinner than Shujun. Shutian tightened his grip on his siblings even more, hearing but not registering Shuyu’s soft gasp. For the first time, he could understand why the Jiang Shutian of the other world had developed the power to heal rather than the ice he needed to protect. With Shuyu like this… If he were healthy, there would be no question of his surviving the black fog, but as he was now—
No. No. The other Shuyu had survived, and from how he’d told it, he’d been just as weak. The only reason his Shuyu had turned the last time was because he’d been in a coma. He had the necessary strength of will. If he knew what was coming—that had been enough for the other Shuyu. It would be enough for his too.
Jiang Shutian’s breathing calmed. For the first time in over ten years, he felt himself steadied. He had a plan. More importantly, he had his siblings, alive and in his arms, and he would never let them out of his sight again. He wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
This time, they were going to survive.
He was going to make sure of it.