Yue Qingyuan had known pain. He knew it when he was young, when he and A-Jiu struggled to survive on the streets; when hunger would gnaw at his gut, devouring him whole, or when the winters would come and the only warmth they had was an alley wall and each other’s bodies, the cold biting at any exposed skin, turning their cheeks red and eyes watery. He knew it when he had to leave A-Jiu behind, when he heard his dearest friend sobbing behind a closed door, crying out for his Qi-ge to save him, they broke his legs please Qi-ge take me away from here.
He knew it when he bound his life to Xuan Su, a different pain from before but pain all the same, tearing at his soul, ripping him apart every time he drew his sword. He knew an even greater agony when he was too late, too late to save A-Jiu, too late to take him away before the Qiu family home was burned to the ground with A-Jiu’s master lying half-burned in the ashes.
He knew it when those arrows pierced his body. It was lesser than what Xuan Su wrought and yet more at the same time, fire that drilled into him, ceaseless in its flame, until his corpse prickled with so many arrow shafts one might think someone was using him as a quiver. He knew it when bitterly cold resentment filled the parts of him that had once burned, changing him, morphing him into something new, something dark and powerful and dead - oh so very dead - but still there , still capable of moving in this world. Still capable of finding the soul that anchored him here, finally strong enough to protect Shen Qingqiu no matter the danger.
None of it, not a single bit, compared to what he felt when he found his A-Jiu.
The cave was dark, and damp. Dripping water echoed off the walls, making it difficult to orient oneself even by sound; but none of that mattered to Yue Qingyuan. It was easy for him to glide through the slimy tunnels, his own ghostly form emitting a dim glow that lit the immediate area around him. He was so close, now. He could feel the soul he had been searching for reaching out to him in the darkness, icy fingers clawing at him and dragging him onward, deeper and deeper into the earth. How long had he blindly wandered, hoping for just a taste of that soul energy, just a hint of its continued existence? Now he was practically drowning in it, letting its chill wash over him in waves. He was so close, so close, I’m almost there, wait for me--
His path ended at a low-ceilinged cavern, poorly lit by low-burning torches. There were boxes scattered along the edges, proof that someone had been using this place quite recently. He didn’t see anyone, not even the man he was looking for, and if his heart still beat it would be clenching in fear. The bond they shared, that he could feel now in death, would not lie; Shen Qingqiu was here, somewhere. But why had he not called out, not said anything, when Yue Qingyuan’s glow made him visible to even the darkest corners?
He had only moved a few feet further when he heard the groan, soft and tortured, from the shadows off to his left. He turned himself toward the noise, drawing Xuan Su at last so its eerie light could illuminate more of the cavern than those torches or his ghostly aura combined. As the corner he faced brightened, he felt himself choke on an inhale he no longer needed to take.
It was Shen Qingqiu - A-Jiu - hanging from the ceiling by chains that wrapped obscenely tight around his throat and waist. His head lolled to the side, long hair matted and caked with sweat and what must be blood. The golden pin holding his hair up was gone, and his face was white as death, marred by more blood, blood that solidified in tributaries from the corners and bottom of his lips, flowing into a dried-up river at the hollow of his throat. Another groan spilled from his mouth and Yue Qingyuan knew why Shen Qingqiu hadn’t spoken, why he couldn’t speak even if he were conscious enough to do so.
The blood was a big clue, but the desiccated lump of flesh lying on the floor at Shen Qingqiu’s feet really gave it away.
Or, that was where Shen Qingqiu’s feet should have been. They weren’t any longer. Yue Qingyuan drew closer, taking in the emptiness where feet and hands and legs and arms should have been. They were gone, all of them. Shen Qingqiu only had a torso left, with barely enough shoulder for his head to loll against.
The dead can’t feel pain , Yue Qingyuan told himself, though his entire being blazed, an inferno engulfing the very soul that kept him tied to this plane through sheer spite. He wanted to tear himself to shreds and offer the pieces to Shen Qingqiu, use them to bring him back, make him whole again.
But that wasn’t how it worked. There was nothing Yue Qingyuan could do, and there wouldn’t have been even if he was still alive. There was no way he could save Shen Qingqiu’s life, no way he could fix what had been done to him.
I’ve never been able to save him. Maybe that’s the point.
“A-Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan whispered. He was close now, so close, dead eyes like pools of viscous black fixed on Shen Qingqiu’s face. He didn’t notice the twin trails of bloodred liquid that flowed down his cheeks. “A-Jiu. Wake up.”
Shen Qingqiu didn’t even stir. His breath came in broken pants, so quiet that if it were not for their proximity Yue Qingyuan would think he wasn’t breathing at all.
“A-Jiu,” Yue Qingyuan said again, extending a hand that had an arrow straight through the center of his palm. He was careful to make sure only his fingertips brushed along Shen Qingqiu’s cheek, frozen touch meeting skin that was far too warm. Only then, with the cold seeping into his jaw, did Shen Qingqiu slowly open his eyes.
He made a gargled sound in his throat, then hissed and spit old blood onto the floor. Yue Qingyuan’s aura surged with rage, a blueish-white flame that burst upward, starkly illuminating Shen Qingqiu’s condition while still leaving parts of him in shadow. It made him look even more hollowed out and broken than before.
Yue Qingyuan frowned. Shen Qingqiu couldn’t speak, possibly was too far gone to even recognize who was here for him. With a gentle pressure, Yue Qingyuan lifted his old friend’s face so their eyes could meet, so he could see the flash of recognition in Shen Qingqiu’s eyes, watch how they widened in shock. And fear, a part of him observed; he pushed it aside. Of course Shen Qingqiu would be afraid, after what had happened to him. After everything he’d gone through, only to end up here.
Shen Qingqiu gargled, weakly trying to pull away from Yue Qingyuan’s grip, but it was no use.
“If I could help you, give you power to hurt the one who did this to you--” Yue Qingyuan had to pause briefly, work to get the spike of anger under control before he continued, “--would you let me?”
Shen Qingqiu merely stared at him. He was no longer struggling, which was a good sign, as was the shrewd calculating look in his eyes. Even now, laid so low, he was too sharp to believe such an offer on the surface. Yue Qingyuan felt his chest fill with a warmth so bright, so large that he thought he might burst.
After a long, drawn out silence, Shen Qingqiu slowly nodded.
Yue Qingyuan knew, on some level, that it was unlikely Shen Qingqiu agreed because it was his Qi-ge. After how many times Yue Qingyuan had failed, that was understandable. Shen Qingqiu was accepting the offer for the power to crush the man who had tortured him, and that was just fine. As long as Yue Qingyuan could help, he would, no matter what.
Yet he was still a selfish man, even now, even here. Both hands cupped Shen Qingqiu’s cheeks, one awkwardly tilted so the arrow shaft in his palm only barely touched Shen Qingqiu’s skin. When he leaned in, the dark eyes he’d dreamed of every night fluttered closed, and Yue Qingyuan brought their lips together in the barest of touches.
“Let me fulfill my promise,” he breathed against Shen Qingqiu’s mouth. He did not expect Shen Qingqiu to be the one who closed that miniscule distance, who kissed him fiercely, accepting the scraping drag of his soul leaving his body as Yue Qingyuan drew it into himself, tasted and consumed and basked in everything that was Shen Qingqiu, Shen Jiu, A-Jiu . He let it fill him, let the empty husk that was Shen Qingqiu’s body fall limp in those chains as the soul that had once occupied it rampaged throughout Yue Qingyuan’s ghostly form, absorbing as much energy as it could, feasting on all of the resentment and anger and pain that had driven him to become like this in the first place.
Take all of it, Yue Qingyuan thought, letting eyes that were no longer truly eyes slide shut. Anything, everything that you need. It’s yours.
He was prepared to die again, to let everything go for A-Jiu. But...what he didn’t expect was for the spirit crashing through him to stop, just above where his heart used to be. It wasn’t absorbing resentful energy anymore, simply hovering there. Yue Qingyuan’s frown returned. What was A-Jiu doing?
He wasn’t ready for the answer. Resentful energy, ten times as strong as that which had transformed Yue Qingyuan in the first place, burst from where Shen Qingqiu’s soul had lodged itself. It filled the cavern, snuffing out the torches, even suffocating the glow of Yue Qingyuan’s ghostly form. Nothing could be seen, or felt, or heard in this place.
Nothing but Shen Qingqiu.
The soul inside him tore itself away, rocketing to the other end of the cavern in a blast of light. When Yue Qingyuan could see again, there was a man standing across from him, a man with silken hair like the darkest night, with shrewd eyes and beautiful lips and all of his limbs where they should be.
Yue Qingyuan grabbed at the chains supporting that empty corpse. “A-Jiu,” he gasped, the name tearing at his throat.
Shen Qingqiu watched him, gaze dragging along the form Yue Qingyuan now took, the many arrows that riddled even this incorporeal body. He looked decidedly unimpressed, and Yue Qingyuan found himself smiling and saying,
“You want revenge. Let me help you.”
Shen Qingqiu still didn’t speak. He started inspecting his ‘body’ instead, pressing his fingers into the junctions between his thigh and hip, his bicep and shoulder. Whatever he found made him grimace.
“You did a poor job at bringing me back,” Shen Qingqiu huffed, pulling up his sleeves so Yue Qingyuan could see the thick, ugly stitches that kept his arm attached to his shoulder. Even now…?
“So you have plenty to make up for. You had better get started.”
Yue Qingyuan snapped out of his daze, guilt and self-hatred coiling inside him. Strengthening him, because he had become a being of negative emotions and pain.
Funny, how he’d been more useful to Shen Qingqiu in these last few minutes than in his entire mortal existence.
“Yes.” No time to dwell on that now. A-Jiu needed him. “Tell me what to do.”
Shen Qingqiu hummed as he thought. It wasn’t a pleasant sound; he’d had his tongue cut out while mortal, and his spectral form was still getting used to being able to speak again. It would take time for the bloody gurgles and choked noises to cease.
“First we’ll get rid of Luo Binghe. I should have thrown him out while he was still a disciple.” Shen Qingqiu was gliding - clumsily, at first, though Yue Qingyuan would never say so - closer, resting his hands on his Qi-ge’s shoulders. “Then you and I can form our own sect. A ghost sect.” His fingers curled, squeezing into Yue Qingyuan’s muscles. Or what would have been muscles, before.
“The ghosts in this land don’t have anywhere to go, driven away by human and demon alike. We could bring them together, teach them to be powerful like we are.” Shen Qingqiu pressed against Yue Qingyuan, looking up at him with eyes that had turned scarlet.
“Do as I say, and we can make it happen.”
Yue Qingyuan met Shen Qingqiu’s eyes. He thought of everything A-Jiu had been through, how he had been tossed around by fate, how Yue Qingyuan had failed to keep him safe. How he had allowed an upstart demonic disciple to infiltrate their sect and so utterly destroy Shen Qingqiu. How he had only found the man he loved after Shen Qingqiu had been tortured, cut up, left to die in a cave no one would ever search.
Yue Qingyuan did not breathe, anymore, and yet he sounded winded when he said, “Tell me what to do.”