Shen Qingqiu blinked open Shi Qing Xuan’s eyes the way Shen Yuan had blinked open Shen Qingqiu’s eyes however many centuries ago.
That is to say, groggy from a recent fever, the taste of blood faint in his mouth, and someone unfamiliar making fussy relieved white noise at his bedside. It was a fairly nice bed too, silk sheets and fluffy blankets and fragrant pouches of herbs stuffed into crevices. Also, the smell of fever sweat. Not so nice. He needed a bath right away. Ugh.
[Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations! Good things must be said three times! Customer has successfully reincarnated after dying a natural death! 200 B points awarded!]
What? Then how come he still remembers being Shen Qingqiu? System, explain yourself! Why is he not free of you yet! The plot of Proud Immortal Demon Way had long concluded!
[Prior to his death, Customer had racked up sufficient points to extend his user warranty. Congratulations! Congratulations! Congratulations!]
At the cost of his new life’s memories? Great. Just great. Could he get a refund? Better yet, could he cancel his warranty?
[Complaint noted. Downloading Shi Qing Xuan data pack now.]
Shi Qing Xuan didn’t get a chance to get so much as a surprised croak out before he blacked out.
In the dreamscape, a reel unrolled before his eyes, Shi Qing Xuan’s life playing out for him.
Shen Qingqiu’s new life had started out charmed, the doted on and spoiled second young master of a wealthy merchant family, his future brightly paved.
And yet, what was this endless misfortune and anxiety that followed him about!? The hiding, the disguises, the terror, the haunting by such an old and well cultivated parasitic jinx monster? Truly, had he not worked off Shen Jiu’s bad karma over the centuries? Did he rack up demerits in heaven’s eyes every time he papapa’d with his demon lord or something?
Seems a little harsh...
Having a brother was new but not unpleasant. Shi Wu Du himself wasn’t the nicest of people, far too pretentious and haughty to ever be nice, yet he was devoted and protective and indulgent with his brother underneath all the exasperation, shielding him so fiercely even as he himself was caught in the backlash. Shi Qing Xuan was blessed indeed under the Reverend’s curse to have such a brother. He’s so, so glad this was reincarnation, if it were another transmigration, he’d— he doesn’t know if he’d ever be able to show his face to Shi Wu Du ever again.
Shi Wu Du’s devotion deserved better than an imposter.
Shi Wu Du deserved better than to have Shi Qing Xuan’s burden drag him down like this.
“System, how do I change Shi Qing Xuan’s fate?” Shi Qing Xuan asked. There must be a way. The System was ruthless but ultimately desired that things play out to best effect. As his last life proved, best effect did not necessarily mean by the book.
[Shi Qing Xuan stands on a pivotal point in his fate—]
I knew it! I knew you didn’t awaken my memories ‘just because’! There is way!
[He is haunted by a fearsome curse spirit, the Reverend of Empty Words who speaks misfortune into being. But Customer is not to worry! If he waits his godly brother, the Water Master Wu Du, will take care of everything.]
Oh, well, that’s oddly simple. How does he do that? Maybe Shi Qing Xuan could cut out the middle-man...
[The Water Master Wu Du will redirect the Reverend of Empty Words to another victim, stealing their blessed fate for Customer’s sake and dooming the new victim to madness and ignoble death, followed by becoming one of the most powerful demon lords of this land out for revenge against the brothers who ruined his life.]
No good! Time out! Absolutely not! Shi Qing Xuan definitely did not like that idea, cross it out right now! Oh heavens, he’s going to be sick, that his brother would resort to such a despicable move out of desperation for his sake…
Fed up with this dreamscape memory reel, Shi Qing Xuan mentally groped around for the weak spot. After so many centuries married to a demon with dream manipulating powers, Shi Qing Xuan was more than proficient at navigating his own mind, sloughing off the tricks and intrusions of anything less than a Saint class with practiced viciousness. As a human he’d never come close to what a demon could do naturally, waltzing through minds with none the wiser, but he was not Meng Mo’s inadvertent grand disciple for nothing.
(Meng Mo’s exasperation when they realized Shen Qingqiu’s knowledge of dreams rivaled Luo Binghe’s had been a sight to behold, especially so given all that knowledge had been carelessly picked up through feel and observation alone.
Teasingly, Shen Qingqiu had saluted Luo Binghe, disciple to master, and called him Shizun. Luo Binghe had swayed on the spot and fainted, much to his husband’s alarm. When Luo Binghe came to he begged his husband to never do that again, he would die, it was too attractive, surely the gods would smite him for looking upon such forbidden fruit.
Honestly, that man! Couldn’t even handle his own medicine!)
Unraveling the dream catapulted him out of sleep so hard he jackknifed up in bed and headbutted the servant — Chen Dong, that was it — leaning over him to replace the cool cloth on his forehead.
Strictly speaking, Chen Dong didn’t belong to him, he was raised to the Middle Court by some other god just like Shi Qing Xuan, but they were friends of a sort and Chen Dong didn’t mind looking after him if Shi Qing Xuan needed help. Or, he didn’t used to mind, that is.
“Ah, I’m so sorry!” Shi Qing Xuan cried, more from reflex than thought, as he clutched his head and toppled over into the blankets. “Ow, ow, ow, I’m sorry, Chen Dong, I was having a nightmare and woke so abruptly, ow…”
“It’s alright, young master,” Chen Dong replied, clutching his own head. Because, really, what was there to say to that? Maybe aim better next time?
Since Shi Qing Xuan had awoken, Chen Dong staggered up to go get the healer. He was grateful for a moment to truly orient himself in this body. He felt… shorter, and, hmm, not as martially fit. Running his fingers through his hair, he found that despite being greasy and lank from fever sweat it felt thick and unruly, not at all like Shen Qingqiu’s neat pin-straight locks. And his cultivation level was, huh, way lower than he was accustomed to when he died but probably just right for a diligent young man his age?
He had some work ahead of him to get up to snuff. This was no state for a Peak Lord, former or not.
Ha, listen to him, a golden core cultivator with no history of qi deviation or damaged meridians isn’t ‘up to snuff’. A whole blank slate with no sordid history and decades of damage he has to shoulder the blame for isn’t ‘up to snuff’. He’s really gotten picky in his old age.
He made to sit up, a little leary of being seen sprawled out in such an undignified fashion without the excuse of unconsciousness, when a sore throb in his head made its dissatisfaction at his moving known. Shi Qing Xuan groaned and groped around for the cool cloth A-Chen dropped, pressing it over what felt like a nascent bruise. Chen Dong was lucky Shi Wu Du wasn’t around, he’d have thrown a fit at the very notion of his brother going around with a bruised face, he wouldn’t give a shit that it was an accident.
There was a soft scuff of shoes on the floor.
Shi Qing Xuan opened his eyes to someone he didn’t recognize standing over the bed.
“You’re not Chen Dong,” he observed.
The strangely nondescript man — the supernaturally nondescript man, he corrected — leered, opening its mouth. “Your fever will—”
Shi Qing Xuan thought fast.
Shi Qing Xuan rolled over and planted a fist in the monster’s stomach to shut it up. “What fever!?”
The Reverend doubled over, looking almost comically surprised. Shi Qing Xuan stuffed his makeshift compress in the monsters mouth and kicked it down.
A loud clatter from the doorway startled them both.
Chen Dong and Healer Tong gaped in horror, taking in the scene; the young master of the house weakly pushing himself up, determination painting his features, the interloper tossed to the floor. The Reverend, knowing it’d been thwarted for now, dissolved in a wisp of black smoke and zoomed out the cracked open window, leaving an ominous chill in its wake.
“Young master!” Chen Dong gasped, blood so drained from his face you’d think he was the ghost here. “That was— that was—”
“I know, I know, it’s alright, I took care of it,” Shi Qing Xuan tried to sooth, waving his hands. “No need to worry!”
“No need?” Healer Tong asked breathlessly, aghast and clutching himself, standing over a dropped tray. “A Venerable of Empty Words, in the Middle Court! Great emperor protect us.”
Okay, yeah, it was kind of bad but it’s just one little parasitic curse spirit.
Shi Qing Xuan tells them so, hoping to be reassuring.
If anything, they look even more horrified.
Shi Qing Xuan rethinks that statement and fights a wince. Right. These are just ordinary mortals, not Cang Qiong Peak Lords who view curse spirits as small fry, nor demon lords whose opinion of curse spirits can be summed up as good with ketchup.
In other words, he should maybe not make them think he isn’t taking the situation seriously.
Which he is!
He’s taking it very seriously!
“For a Venerable to get into the heavens by itself, surely it would have to be the Reverend itself…” Healer Tong trailed off, then sucked in a shaky gasp of a breath, shot Shi Qing Xuan a horrified look, and turned tail and bolted. Shi Qing Xuan watched him go, hurt but unsurprised. Who wants to be dragged down by someone else’s anchor of misfortune after all? Not everyone was as tolerant as his brother.
And even then, his brother… his desperate brother…
“Shi Qing Xuan, I—”
“It’s alright, Chen Dong,” Shi Qing Xuan interrupted, too tired for excuses. “I know. Just, help me into the bath before you leave?”
Chen Dong all but vibrated with fear and uncertainty, but his jaw was firm and his hands steady as he helped a shaky Shi Qing Xuan into the bathroom.
Chen Dong was braver than all the Middle Court. Shi Qing Xuan told him so. Chen Dong flustered terribly, stuttering denials and insisting he was a coward since he was still leaving.
“I don’t blame you, Chen Dong,” Shi Qing Xuan told him, “I don’t like it when bad things happen to people because of me. I don’t like bad things happening to people at all.”
Chen Dong clenches his fists so tightly he tremors all the way his arms, biting his lips. “You were always too good, young master.” He grabbed Shi Qing Xuan’s hand to press the back of his palm to his forehead. “Forgive me.”
Left alone to wash the fever stink away, Shi Qing Xuan got lost in his thoughts, mindlessly dragging a rough rag along his skin until he turned pink and finally felt clean.
“Wretched beginning, wretched end, hm?” He mused, running a hand through his hair. “I can work with that.”
He did it with Shen Qingqiu. This couldn’t be any harder.
Shi Qing Xuan was sick of living with a sword at his throat.
And speaking of swords...
Shi Qing Xuan leaves his brother a note when he departs. He knows it’s paltry compared to what needs to be said, and full of too many trite assurances that he knew what he was doing. As if Shi Wu Du had ever trusted he could.
He takes a sword from an armory, spares reserved for martial attendants who hadn’t acquired spirit tools yet. His mind remembers the feel of one in his hand, but his body finds it strange and his heart cries out for his beloved Xiu Ya, no doubt either sealed up in Wan Jian Peak again or laid to rest with his body in the Holy Mausoleum if Luo Binghe had his way. He usually does. It’s no matter. Shi Qing Xuan will adapt as much as he must for survival.
He touches down on a cliff by the sea, the vast stretch of waters a deliberate assurance for himself, as well as a reminder of the stakes if he dare faltered now. If he died, his brother would be sad. If he lived yet failed in this endeavor, his brother would commit a heinous crime in his name. Victory was the only option.
Shi Qing Xuan closed his eyes and lifted his face into the salt-stained breeze rising off the water.
The Reverend had been thwarted. It’ll come back. It had to, it was hungry.
Shi Qing Xuan lifted a leg, knee bent, toes pointed, and swept his arms out elegantly, sword held reverse grip so it lay neatly against the back of his arm. Slowly, in perfect control, he bent to the side and raised his leg further, straightening it out and holding that pose for a beat before bringing his leg back in for a quick spin, twirling the sword and swaying like a reed as if dodging a blow.
Shen Qingqiu knew how to handle a sword. Shi Qing Xuan knew how to dance.
The one thing the Reverend could not stand was its victims happy, enjoying themselves, without trying to ruin it.
Shi Qing Xuan was so, so sick of fear. Today was the day he ripped the curse out by the roots one way or the other.
He danced, and he danced, making his way around the cliff top as light and elegant as a cool breeze, sinking past focus into that place of meditation where nothing else but the goal mattered. Building power drop by drop. Waiting, ever so patient, for the trap to spring. Shi Qing Xuan was not so righteous that he couldn’t learn from his enemy’s preferred tactics.
The Reverend, true to its nature as an ambush predator, waited until the sun began to cross the horizon, when darkness could fuel its malice, when She Qing Xuan was undoubtedly tired from dancing for hours without pause, a strenuous workout even for a member of the Middle Court.
It’s a good thing Shi Qing Xuan expected this.
He can’t tell when, precisely, the Reverend arrived, only noticed it slinking out of a long shadow like greasy smoke in the corner of his eye during a furious spin, sword flashing around like a facsimile of a moonbeam turned ribbon. The wretched thing approached confidently, arrogantly assured that the unexpected turn of their previous encounter was just a fluke. It had had stubborn, rebellious prey before, of course, they all started out that way, and one by one they all fell to the inevitable when the Reverend’s curse ate away all that was good and fortunate in their lives.
The thing is though, is that Shen Yuan’s most life saving skill is not any martial or intellectual prowess.
It’s his ability to turn bad karma into gold.
The average mortal doesn’t normally get as many chances as he did to argue fate and win.
So when the Reverend slinks closer like an insidious oil spill of evil, Shi Qing Xuan musters himself, does not outwardly quake the way his bones want to, and lashes out. First the sword to disrupt whatever foul prophecy the spirit had in mind, then his free hand to lay the most powerful spirit-binding seal he can manage.
The Reverend nearly flexes free in Shi Qing Xuan’s astonishment that his plan actually worked.
“Xuan-er,” the wretched thing coos, tries to stoke Shi Qing Xuan’s fear with the very name it sunk its curse into. Its voice dropped into a growl. “Xuan-er oversteps himself if he thinks this paltry cantrip will hold me. My cultivation far outstrips Xuan-er’s.”
The key to countering a Venerable of Empty Words is to refute them utterly and sincerely, but more, you had to believe it.
So Shi Qing Xuan spins and forces the Reverend back lest it be slashed, and leaps into a high kick and makes it cower lest it be struck, and calls out, “Bold words if they came from a predator. Instead I see an old man gone soft and spoiled, supping from the larder as it pleases him, can’t even manage true effort for his own meals anymore!” lest it still think him that scared child, calling for his brother in the dark.
And maybe he can’t entirely shake the fear but by all the shining gods of heaven he can look it in the eye without backing down.
Predictably, thankfully, the Reverend tries to rush him, hands curled and clawed. “You will—!”
Shi Qing Xuan darts towards it and sliced its throat, disrupting the curse. It staggered back, face twisted in a rictus snarl, utterly unrecognizable as a human expression.
Back and forth Shi Qing Xuan dances, leading his unwilling partner across the cliff top, letting the Reverend close when it made to speak, forcing it back when silenced. Back and forth and back and forth under the rising moon, his muscles long past screaming, burned to exhausting numbness. The only thing keeping him going at this point sheer momentum. And it feels like triumph right up to the moment it all slips through his fingers.
Perhaps the Reverend reaches new heights of rage or perhaps it simply loses patience, it ducks under Shi Qing Xuan’s sword and grabs his throat, interrupting the dance. Shi Qing Xuan staggers, and it’s a fatal mistake, his legs going weak, trembling fit to collapse. The Reverend forces him back by the throat, hard enough to send him wheezing, staggering, scrabbling at its hand, the sword forgotten in Shi Qing Xuan’s sudden desperation for air. It forces him back, and back, until his last step hits empty air.
They stand at the cliff’s edge.
The Reverend bares its teeth, spitting, “You will fall from this cliff.” One last curse before it killed prey no longer amusing.
Shi Qing Xuan gasped.
Grabbed the spirit’s robes.
And ran his sword through its heart.
“I’m taking you with me,” He promised.
And dragged it over the edge.
Shi Wu Du screamed himself hoarse hours ago.
Pei Ming keeps a firm grip on his shoulders, holds him immobile no matter how he thrashes and curses.
Later, he might spare a spark of gratitude for his friend, one of the few he had in Heaven. If it’s Pei Ming restraining him, if it’s not Shi Wu Du forcing himself to obey Jun Wu’s order to not leave the court, then maybe Shi Wu Du can pretend, just a little bit, that he’s not a complete failure at protecting his precious little brother.
They’d found out about Shi Qing Xuan fleeing Heaven, found the sloppily scrawled note, found the rifled armory, after some cowardly quack had already raised a hue and cry across the whole damn Middle Court about a Venerable of Empty Words sneaking in.
There is only one such Venerable with the power to reach a victim in Heaven.
Given the level of emergency, Jun Wu had summoned the major martial gods, as well as Shi Wu Du, to his court with all due haste. The intrusion of the Reverend was no matter to be taken lightly. Heaven had not seen such a furor since Crimson Rain Sought Flower had utterly destroyed thirty-three gods in one go. The Reverend had the potential to destroy more, and ever more insidiously at that. At least Devastations can be fought off.
Shi Wu Du had been forced to swallow his pride, burning with mortification at being put on the spot, and ordered to explain to all how his brother— his sweet, earnest brother who had done no wrong— was cursed, through no fault of his own. No, Shi Wu Du laid the blame for that entirely on their parents. So caught up in their fortune they forgot to mind others’. Jun Wu’s face was inscrutable, Shi Wu Du couldn’t tell if he was displeased or merely apathetic, because he certainly couldn’t have been pleased about finding out about the unwitting viper in his realm.
And if anyone even so much as suggested that’s what his brother was, Shi Wu Du would drown them in a pickling jar with his bare hands.
Jun Wu called for the scrying basin, and called again for the Water Master to fill it. Since Shi Qing Xuan was raised to the Middle Court by Shi Wu Du’s power, then Shi Wu Du’s water was their best bet at finding him.
And they found him alright.
Found him dancing on a clifftop, controlled, deliberate, meditative, a cultivator conducting a ritual with utmost focus.
And then the worst thing happened, to Shi Wu Du’s mind.
Jun Wu had been… intrigued.
The Reverend of Empty Words was such a wily creature that little was known of it, much less the concrete identities of its victims. To see someone actually attempt to fight it, how was that not a rare treat? Even now he could see a multitude of martial gods jostling for a better view of the scrying basin, Shi Wu Du didn’t bother concealing his sneer. Fools, all of them. So quick to panic, and so equally quick to stand to the side.
Shi Wu Du had moved to leave, eager to retrieve his foolish brother, to shelter him far away, when Pei Ming had grabbed him. The General shook his head gravely at Shi Wu Du’s hiss, nodding at the Heavenly Emperor who’s placid gaze was nonetheless riveted to the basin.
“It’s me or him, Water Master Wu Du. Who would you rather throw your temper at?” Pei MIng murmured, face damnably understanding. Shi Wu Du wanted to claw his eyes for daring to think to protect him when it wasn’t him who needed it, who cared about Jun Wu, that was his brother down there—!
Shi Qing Xuan danced for hours, showing no sign of stopping or even flagging as the sun slowly sank across the sky. Shi Wu Du felt his heart in his throat every second of it.
“I had no idea your brother’s stamina was this impressive,” Pei Ming said quietly.
“Don’t,” Shi Wu Du snarled hoarsely. “He shouldn’t even be down there in the first place!”
“Still, aren’t you a bit proud?” Pei Ming continued heedlessly. “It’s a rare soul that thinks to fight a Venerable.”
“A foolish one, you mean!” Shi Wu Du tried to elbow the flirty bastard only for Pei Ming to shift him about effortlessly. Despite Shi Wu Du’s elemental power, he wasn’t exactly martially inclined. “When I get my hands on him—”
“You have to admit,” interjected one nearby god, “even if the Reverend doesn’t show up the show’s quite good.”
Shi Wu Du rounded on him as much as Pei Ming’s grip allowed, snarling, “Say that when it’s your own brother, wretch!” The god blanched sickly grey and hurriedly skitter away through the crowd, Shi Wu Du reveled in the satisfaction. Every single one of these gods was on his shit list after today. Whatever misfortune Shi Qing Xuan suffered from this stunt, Shi Wu Du would inflict on them tenfold!
“Easy does it, Wu Du.” Pei Ming shook him gently, little more than a slight jostle. “Don’t implicate yourself so easily. You’re smarter than that.”
Night was falling in the basin’s surface, obscuring their view. Jun Wu gracefully waved a hand and the image adjusted, brightening again. Now they could see the black stain slinking across the ground, an unnatural presence palpable even through scrying. Cold sank to the marrow of Shi Wu Du’s very bones, followed swiftly by unadulterated wrath. He threw himself against Pei Ming, swinging elbows and knees, trying to dislodge him, he needed to leave, Shi Qing Xuan needed his older brother to protect him, Shi Qing Xuan needed him right now—
Vaguely, he hears himself screaming. Funny, he didn’t think he had enough voice left to do that.
Why did no one care?
It’s the shocked gasp rippling through the crowd that wrenches his focus back to the basin, Shi Qing Xuan was still dancing, seemingly heedless of the curse spirit, the Reverend itself was staggering backwards, clutching its throat.
“What?” Shi Wu Du chokes out.
The Reverend lunges for the dancing figure, and fear lances through Shi Wu Du like lightning through a tree, a devastation that splinters and strips barriers, and he clutches to the General hard as his little brothers darts the sword out in a movement almost to swift to be seen and nearly took its head! Shi Wu Du collapsed forward, surprising Pei Ming with his weight, who follows him down to the floor, crawling on his knees closer to the basin. Shi Wu Du doesn’t give a damn how undignified he looks right now, he needs to see.
The pattern repeated, a low terrified noise tearing from his throat with every attack. How could Shi Qing Xuan keep this up? Surely, he couldn’t? It’s already been so long, surely he was tired now. Surely, the Reverend would let its temper surpass its self preservation instinct?
And sure enough, the curse spirit gets his precious brother by the throat.
Pei Ming ends up having to haul his thrashing body back with a startled oath, otherwise Shi Wu Du would surely have knocked the basin over.
Shi Wu Du thinks he’s crying now. He can’t really tell through his panic anymore.
Pei Ming tries to cover his eyes but he won’t have it.
Shi Wu Du makes a punched out noise in unison with the sword punching out the curse spirit’s back, then let out a weaker keen when they both went over the edge. There’s not even time to slacken in the General’s implacable hold, a bright, eye searing burst of black qi fountained up, up, up over the cliff, fireworking across the sky in a great death display of something ancient and unkillable finally meeting its end.
“I’ll be,” Pei Ming breathed. “That crazy kid actually did it.”
“Qing Xuan,” Shi Wu Du moaned despairingly.
A susurrus of such exclamations swept through the crowd, martial gods exchanging disbelieving glances, some of them so shocked they had to sit down. Jun Wu himself was moved to raise his brows, actually taken aback by this turn of events.
“This is a momentous occasion indeed,” the Emperor said softly, cutting through the room. “How wonderfully historic, don’t you think? Tonight, a great evil dies. We owe much to your brother, Water Master Wu Du, he has done the seemingly impossible.”
Shi Wu Du is half a thought from telling him where to shove his praise.
Instead, he drags the tatters of his dignity close and nods wordlessly, not daring to look at the Emperor lest his hateful glare be too disrespectful.
Shi Wu Du freezes.
“Ge, I don’t know if you can hear me.”
Qing Xuan is praying to him, voice thready and weak.
Qing Xuan was alive.
“I’m sorry I ran out without telling you. I’m sorry I hurt you with my foolishness. I just wanted… to give you the chance to be… as carefree as I am.”
Shi Wu Du choked back a sob.
“Please excuse me, my lord,” he manages around the lump in his throat. “I have to retrieve my brother.”
“Dismissed, Water Master,” Jun Wu nodded. “Go with haste.”
Shi Wu Du runs.
He doesn’t remember reaching the edge, only his own breath caught in his chest, the frantic urgency lending wings to his heels, he hits the edge of Heaven at a dead run and free falls with all the celestial force of a comet, burning and fierce and hurtling through everything in its way. The sea lashes out beneath him, catching him, slowing his descent and speeding him on his way to his destination, leading him to where his brother’s body lay curled on a little sandy stretch beneath a cliff face, likely the reason the fall didn’t kill him right away.
Shi Wu Du sobs openly at the sight, stumbling gracelessly onto the surf. Shi Qing Xuan lay sprawled like a discarded doll, his left arm was shattered, splinters of bone peeking out of the skin, his right leg bent at an unnatural angle. The sword stuck out of the sand, centered on a black, glassy stain that receded before Shi Wu Du’s gaze, leaving just glass behind.
“Qing Xuan!” he cried, dropping by his side. He’s so, so gentle as he gathers his brother in his arms. “Qing Xuan, please, open your eyes.”
“Ge?” Shi Qing Xuan croaks, barely audible. “Hurts, Ge.”
Shi Wu Du gasps wetly, bowing his head, burying his nose in his little brother’s thick hair. “Ge’s here, I’m here, I’ll make it stop hurting. I promise. I’ll make it all better, just like always. You don’t have to worry about anything. Just— just please, please don’t close your eyes again.”
“Ge,” Shi Qing Xuan sighs, weakly tilting his head back. “Oh, Gege, I didn’t… mean to make you cry. I just… I was so tired. I wanted… to stop dragging others down. I wanted you to feel safe too.”
“Who cares about others!” Shi Wu Du cried. “The only one that’s important in my eyes is you! I don’t care what happens to me, I only ever wanted you to live happily!”
Shi Qing Xuan’s eyes fluttered and Shi Wu Du hurriedly propped his head on his shoulder. Shi Qing Xuan whined in pain.
“But Ge,” he manages, panting softly, “the one who is important in my eyes is you.”
Shi Wu Du’s heart could have been wrenched out of his chest and he probably wouldn’t be able to tell past all the pain he was already in. This little idiot! How could he do this to Shi Wu Du’s heart every time! He didn’t raise this boy to be self-sacrificing! He— he raised him to be happy, to smile sweetly and trustingly for his older brother, to feel safe in Shi Wu Du’s imposing shadow. Oh, stars above, Shi Wu Du couldn’t lose him, please, not like this!
He doesn’t know how long he spends, rocking his brother, talking to him, pleading for him to stay awake, stay with your brother, Qing Xuan, don’t go where he can’t follow, okay? He pours as much qi into that broken, battered body as it can handle, trying to repair what he can with his paltry skill with healing. Shi Wu Du has never given up or given in a day in his life and he can’t start now.
He doesn’t dare.
Shi Wu Du knows it won’t be enough.
He listens to the burble in Qing Xuan’s breathing and quietly despairs.
He stops holding back his crying.
Shi Qing Xuan is getting quiet.
Oh stars above, no.
Shi Wu Du gasped, uncurling in astonishment.
Shi Qing Xuan was glowing, gently at first, then searingly, celestial incandescence Shi Wu Du could never mistake for anything else.
“Ascension?” He breathed disbelievingly. Now? When it was too little, too late to spare his brother such pain?
The light reaches a crescendo and Shi Qing Xuan hurtles upward.
Shi Wu Du can only follow, heart clamped between his teeth.