If I was dying on my knees
You would be the one to rescue me
And if you were drowned at sea
I'd give you my lungs so you could breathe
~ Brother by Kodaline
He remembered the first time he saw his little brother.
A-Yuan obviously didn’t remember that, how could he remember the first few hours after his birth?
No, Qingge - as he was already known back then - visited their mother in time to see her at the end of her forty-seven hours of labor. He arrived at the estate with Mu Qingfang in tow, because the Lord of Qian Cao was the best healer he knew and he met a few of them over the years since he joined Cang Qiong.
There was, of course, Liu Weilan… but yeah. Mu Qingfang was still a better healer.
And it was too early. It was supposed to be nine months, but the healers said that his mother still had a month left before that birth date would come.
There were no gentle touches or gentle words from her, not from his mother since they lost his father, never her but at that moment Liu Qingge couldn’t even care much. He just stared down at the small bundle wrapped tightly in several blankets inside the small spell cocoon. His little brother, or as he knew back then his little sister, the next Matriarch of their Clan was startlingly small, smaller than anything he had ever seen. He couldn’t touch, the spells would not allow him.
So he just watched the cradle for a while before going to take a look at his mother who was already recuperating in her own rooms.
When he left the Liu Estate with once again Mu Qingfang following him close behind he was very quiet, but that was up to par for him, so he knew that nobody would comment on it.
His visits back to his ancestral home were rare, but it wasn’t like he had much to go back for. His mother took his father’s death hard and while Liu Qingge was every inch of the replica of hers… his presence was an unfortunate reminder that he was raised by him.
Some of his mannerisms were exactly like his father.
He had occasionally wondered how Liu Mingyan would be raised, but on some level, he hoped that his mother would be able to rear the last reminder of her husband without any issues.
So he didn’t really visit outside from the yearly celebrations of his father’s death day. It wasn’t quite proper, but he couldn’t really go back there not with his presence still lingering in every corner, in every corridor, and every room of the estate.
Grief… well, grief and guilt choked him, because every moment spent there was a reminder that he failed him, that he died because he accompanied Liu Qingge and he wasn’t quick enough, he wasn’t strong enough to protect the man who loved him, who raised him.
They called him the War God of Cang Qiong, but what god would be such a failure as him?
He was no god.
Just a man with a golden core who could fight.
And maybe, if he fought enough battles, maybe if he was strong enough one day he could feel less like a failure.
He took stupid risks, he went on night hunts, he ran around and tried to do everything to lessen the guilt he felt. He fought, he saved people.
He had to because he couldn’t stop.
And then he was once again back in his ancestral estate after his mother sent for him because he missed their yearly celebrations. He got caught up in hunting down a man-eating beast in one of the marshes south of Cang Qiong Mountains and days then weeks went by without him noticing.
The tiger led him on a merry chase and he relished the challenge of the hunt.
They had an argument before he left to take a walk in one of the less-frequented gardens, trying to calm himself down. Before… before father died he was the linchpin keeping his and his mother’s sharp edges from not rubbing each other the wrong way. It was another thing they lost, the ability to talk and be understood by one another.
So every time he met her they started arguing almost immediately and he was injured and tired of everything at that point. That was the second time he met his little brother and what a disaster it was!
A grown man getting into an argument with a child, a literal toddler. How old were they? He couldn’t quite remember his own age, and he wasn’t sure how many years it had been since his father died… since their father died.
Liu Mingyan was a child and he could already see his… their father’s features in his face. Or maybe it was just his guilt superimposing their father on someone who was still squishy with baby fat in his cheeks.
It made him act shorter with him even if the child didn’t deserve any of it.
But one thing stuck in his mind about that encounter and it wouldn’t surprise him later on that he had a little brother instead of a little sister.
A bit later it also seemed perfectly natural to start teaching his little brother fighting at an early age. He needed to learn how to fight, how to protect himself and Liu Qingge could give all the necessary help with that.
So his visits doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled within a year and he became a frequent guest at home once again.
He wasn’t a good teacher and usually, he didn’t even want to try. He spent most of his time away from his Bai Zhan Peak since he became a Peak Lord.
Even back when he was a senior disciple, then Head Disciple he was lousy at the teaching part of his role and the previous Peak Lord watched him with heavy sighs.
They had another fight.
He and his mother.
Apparently, his little brother asked to leave for Cang Qiong and his mother said no just because it was Cang Qiong.
It was an hour-long one-sided screaming match by his mother, and he couldn't take her stubbornness anymore and left the estate without finding his little brother. In truth, he was all but escorted out.
Not that they could force him out physically, but he knew the servants since he was a child and he wasn't about to injure innocent people if he could help it.
When he came back to check on his little brother's progress they notched up the training they did without speaking about it much. If his little brother wouldn't be allowed to join Cang Qiong at least he would be still a competent cultivator even if he ended up joining some second-rate Sect instead.
Like Huan Hua, he thought with a snort.
He should have known that they shared the same bullheaded stubbornness and he shouldn't have been surprised to get their mother's urgent message that his little brother was gone from home.
Liu Qingge looked at him through the monitoring mirrors and he ignored Qi Qingqi's pulling and prodding.
Or he did it as much as he could, she got quite good at getting under his skin over the years they studied and worked together at the same sect.
But no amount of amicable working relationship would spare her when Liu Qingge saw the panic at his little brother’s face as he was all but dragged away to join Xian Shu and no amount of apologies would make up for the fact that Qi Qingqi made his A-Yuan cry.
Granted, it was in elation, he could see that after the red haze receded from his eyes, but still.
He ignored her apologetic gaze on them both and went back to his own Peak, to introduce Liu Yuan to the disciples on his Bai Zhan Peak.
Sometimes, when Liu Qingge dropped off into sleep instead of meditating the night away, he would get certain dreams.
Mu Qingfang took one look at him during one of the scheduled meetings they had over his latest trip after a rumored artifact and then there was that small tightening of his brows that Liu QIngee knew meant that something wasn’t completely fine. But the healer didn’t say anything to him though so he was content to ignore that part of the week and go on doing his duty.
But the dreams continued and sometimes Liu Qingge would look at his little brother during the day and there would be a flash of him drenched in blood, screaming in pain.
Liu Qingge hadn’t been sleeping well lately.
He was watching from the shadows of a tree as his little brother taught that disciple from Shen Qingqiu’s Peak and there were two blaring thoughts running through his mind.
First was that his little brother would be a very competent Bai Zhan Peak Lord one day. People can whine about favoritism and all that all they want, but Liu Qingge was old enough to recognize certain patterns in a person’s behavior.
Liu Yuan would be a terrifying force on the battlefields, a force to be reckoned with.
If Liu Qingge was feeling generous he would admit that the brat he was teaching would be just as strong if not stronger than his little brother, but he could never be his succeeding disciple.
Peak Lord Shen Qingqiu would never let the boy join Bai Zhan and the Sect Leader would not press the issue no matter how prodigious the boy could be with enough guidance.
Not that it mattered in the long run, because Liu Qingge was sure that the boy wouldn’t want to be a Peak Lord… and despite the potential fighting prowess there was more to being a Peak Lord even at his Peak.
Not that Liu Qingge wanted to remind himself of that, he always hated the more bureaucratic parts of his role and always tried not to be there whenever the paperwork started piling up. He had his senior disciples deal with it and eventually he had his little brother too.
While he knew that A-Yuan didn’t enjoy the paperwork that much either, he was obviously much better suited for other parts of his role as he could see.
He was patient, he could be strict and he was kind when needed.
A good teacher as attested by his student’s progress even if the boy was purposely messing up his moves to get A-Yuan’s hands on him again.
A Peak Lord was also a teacher.
Should be a teacher, and Liu Qingee knew that he wasn’t a good fit but back then he was the best option to lead Bai Zhan Peak.
It was an honor, it was still an honor, but there were days when he wasn’t sure that he was actually happy in this position. He could have been a rogue cultivator without the backing of the most powerful sect around and he would have been happy, he thought?
But that ship sailed decades ago and Liu Qingge would only have to think about anything like that when the entirety of Cang Qiong’s Peaks changed their lords when their generation would retire. That would take years, most likely decades or maybe even centuries.
It didn’t mean that he couldn’t start training his succeeding disciple now and frankly, Liu Yuan making a name for himself would help his little brother in the future if he accepted the position.
People wouldn’t be able to wag their tongues then.
The second was that the little disciple was a wolf in sheep’s clothing and his little brother was terribly oblivious to the hungry gaze on him.
How old was Shen Qingqiu’s brat anyway?
He certainly looked scrawny enough to be that young.
He knew that A-Yuan was older by a few years and he also knew the temperament of his little brother… namely that he was painfully oblivious to anything romantic especially if it was aimed at him.
That didn’t mean that Liu Qingge didn’t have his fair share of guarding to do, there were so many pests flitting around his little brother that he couldn’t even deal with them all on his own.
He had never thought that one day some of his disciples would be also involved to protect their family’s little cabbage.
But Bai Zhan always protected their own.
For years he went out on night hunts and treasure hunts as much as he could, so that one day A-Yuan could be happy.
He had to admit that the first small qi deviations were a bit of a surprise though not much of one. They were bound to happen sooner or later, Liu Qingge had known that for years.
Maybe he shouldn’t have been so blase about them in hindsight.
Maybe he shouldn’t have ignored the first warning signs.
Maybe that would have stopped the nightmare of waking up and almost killing his little brother.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
He was old enough to know that only wishing for something means nothing in the end. If you don’t put in the hard work, wishes will never come true on their own.
And now he also knew how it felt to have his little brother’s blood on his hands.
“LIU YUAN!” He could feel the vein pulse at his forehead as he touched down on the shattered platform of stone that the demons and the disciples used to fight.
His little brother looked like a startled deer even as he was surrounded by disciples from several Peaks, congratulating him on a well-won fight. They scattered like small rabbits when faced with Liu Qingge’s arrival.
Or most of them did. Shen Qingqiu’s brat is still hanging around quite closely and he was also aware of the way his little brother shifted to cover more of him from Liu Qingge’s sight.
And he also could see the way Liu Yuan’s borrowed Qian Cao robes bunched up at certain spots that might indicate that the brat was clinging on to him.
His eyes narrowed further and glared down at the little brat who was taking such liberties with his little brother.
“Br… Peak Lord Liu!” Liu Yuan squeaked once and on any other day Liu Qingge might have found some humor in the way he straightened but that day wasn’t it.
Finding his little brother’s room empty in the healer’s wards, then realizing that there was an invasion in progress? It made him more than frantic at the time and he cut through the demon forces that got into his way.
And then he saw his little brother in ill-fitting robes squaring off against a demon while Shen Qingqiu and the rest of the disciples stood around and did nothing.
Thankfully, the fight didn’t last long and he knew without a doubt that once they were all back on their own Peaks, he would have Liu Yuan run through his paces. Maybe step up his training even more because if he can still run off when he should be resting then he was obviously not being challenged enough.
Otherwise, he was very proud of his little brother though he wouldn’t tell him because A-Yuan might take that as tacit-approval for future plans that would make Liu Qingge go grey early.
This was different from other times, because while he knew that A-Yuan could take care of himself - Liu Qingge made sure that his little brother could - he was also supposed to stay at Qian Cao under careful monitoring.
If Liu Qingge slipped away from the healers once or twice, that was his gods-given right, he was an adult, but Liu Yuan?
Not on Liu Qingge’s watch.
Though, later when they all were back on their Peak safely and everything calmed down, he would make sure that A-Yuan got the recognition he deserved for winning his first fight against a demon. And for protecting his fellow disciples.
Over the next few years, they all got used to seeing the lone green and white-uniformed disciple on their Peak, always following their Head Disciple around like a faithful little puppy.
Some of them didn't like one of Shen Qingqiu's brat wandering around but they were quickly silenced by his little brother's glare that eerily reminded everyone of Liu Qingge.
It was both vexing and something to be proud of, because his little brother was growing up to be a strong and principled cultivator, but also… Why would he let one of Shen Qingqiu’s brats cling to him in such a way?!
Liu Yuan even looked at him of all people sadly when he heard Liu Qingge refer to the brat as a brat and reminded him that the nuisance’s name was Luo Binghe.
He could swear that the brat was laughing at them all the next time they saw the two eating during A-Yuan’s dinner break...
By the way, the older his little brother got, the worse the rumors of his beauty became.
It started when Liu Yuan became sixteen and started going out to the surrounding areas for night hunts, often accompanying disciples from other Peaks. There had been gossip already about the always hidden face of the Head Disciple of Bai Zhan Peak, ranging from him being horribly disfigured to being a calamitous beauty the likes of which had not been seen for hundreds of years.
The latter came out as the winner in an incident where A-Yuan lost his mask in the middle of a fight in full view of simple commoners who didn’t hesitate to spread their findings to anyone who would listen.
And with the rumors becoming more outlandish the more they spread across the land, the more incidents involving his little brother started happening. Love letters and confessions were the least of his issues. No, there were some who tried to snatch A-Yuan’s mask off his face.
And eventually, there were those who tried to snatch A-Yuan himself.
It was one more way in which A-Yuan resembled their father.
In this, Liu Qingge was thankful for the continued presence of the brat, because it also meant that by the time the Qing Jing disciple was old enough, he accompanied A-Yuan on almost every night hunt. And the incidents where A-Yuan was accosted by people tapered off much to the happiness of everyone involved in the matter.
Liu Qingge knew without a doubt that Luo Binghe had more than a hand in it, that brat was growing up to be as devious as a demon himself.
But better the devil you know.
The years passed and Liu Qingge started getting used to the thought of having Luo Binghe as his brother-in-law.
In the future.
In the far, far off future.
It brought him much amusement though to guess when that day would come because his little brother was denser than a brick when faced with any romantic overtures. He even entertained some of his fellow Peak Lords who watched the unfolding teen drama like they were all watching a tournament.
Yes, he thought while once again catching sight of the brat fluttering around A-Yuan who was oblivious to the slightly shorter boy placing more food into his bowl he was so concentrated on describing a beast to the younger disciple. He was also oblivious to the adoring gaze on him, or more likely believed it to be the same amazement he felt towards beasts rather than something directed at his person.
Maybe, it would take decades, not years and Liu Qingge was more than alright with that fact when A-Yuan noticed him and bounded up to him with a quick word to the brat. “Brother!”
Liu Qingge patted his head before sending him off to finish eating then to repeat some of the training exercises.
He had to wonder what Shen Qingqiu thought about his wayward disciple frequenting Bai Zhan Peak, but he knew very well that neither of his disciples breathed a word of Luo Binghe’s visits to the Qing Jing Peak Lord.
With how much the brat spent on their Peak, how much the seniors taught him, how much A-Yuan doted on him, Luo Binghe was a Bai Zhan disciple in everything but name and uniform. Though the latter changed every once in a while with him donning their greys or more likely A-Yuan’s spare uniforms whenever some manner of catastrophe struck his own.
It was something that became increasingly frequent in the last few months, now that he thought about it.
‘Wait one second…’, he thought while narrowing his eyes at the brat who was snuggling up to his little brother, wearing a very familiar overrobe.
He was going to murder Luo Binghe.
A few weeks before the Immortal Alliance Conference was going to be held, their mother reached out to Liu Qingge.
It was about a marriage proposal.
Between their clan and one of their old-time allies and the letter accompanying it strongly suggested that they complied with it, their mother pressuring them to accept for the good of the Clan.
And it had A-Yuan’s old name on it.
Liu Qingge declined the proposal immediately.
Their mother didn’t write to them again.
He watched the Immortal Alliance Conference proceed and he was with his fellow Peak Lords when the first demons appeared.
He didn’t hesitate for a second and breached the barrier to fight them, ignoring the screaming that came from all sides.
He had two goals, one was to destroy every demon that he ran into and two was to find their disciples. To see that his little brother was safe and sound because he had a knot in his stomach ever since the young man stepped into the arena with one last smile at him.
It felt like a goodbye though the word didn’t actually leave A-Yuan’s mouth.
Liu Qingge fought, blood staining his robes, blood dripping from his sword to the scorched ground and he cut a swathe through anything that came at him. And the demons came at him in droves.
They would have to investigate how such a breach could occur.
On the way to the opening of the Endless Abyss that stained the air with miasma, he came across disciples fighting to protect each other, disciples fighting to cover others’ retreats and disciples who were close to their death. Liu Qingge made sure to clear each area of hostiles before pressing on, made sure to light flares for the healers, and so on.
And he still didn’t come across his little brother, but at that moment he was already sure that A-Yuan would be in the thick of things like he usually was.
Which in this case meant somewhere close to the opening of the Endless Abyss, the most dangerous place Liu Qingge could think of.
He fought and he killed and he protected those he could.
The closer he got to the center of everything, the fewer survivors he found and he started hurrying up. The closer one got to the opening of the Endless Abyss the stronger the demons were.
Of course, they wouldn’t be a match for a Peak Lord.
Liu Yuan was a strong cultivator but he was still just a disciple.
He touched down close to the Abyss and saw Shen Qingqiu standing before the Abyss staring into it with a strange look on his face, surrounded by dead demons.
No words passed between the two of them which should have been a warning sign because Shen Qingqiu rarely exercised restraint on his sharp tongue when faced with him. But there was something in the air that Liu Qingge couldn’t quite decide what it could be as they fought together side by side.
Hours passed like that.
Other high-ranked cultivators arrived and they managed to get the opening closed and then they started to tally their injured and dead.
Liu Yuan was not on either of those lists and Liu Qingge grew frantic the longer his little brother was missing. Then Shen Qingqiu came forward and told the gathered Peak Lords once the cultivators from the other sects leave, that his disciple was found to be a demon-spawn.
That Luo Binghe was a demon in disguise infiltrating their Sect, that he deceived them all.
That Shen Qingqiu had to fight him and that the young boy dragged Head Disciple Liu down with him as he fell into the Endless Abyss.
Later on, Liu Qingge stared numbly at the spot where his little brother died, because they all knew that falling into the Endless Abyss was a death sentence and he could only think that something didn’t quite work with that story.
He didn’t know what, but something didn’t quite add up and he stood in that spot trying to make sense of his new reality where there wouldn’t be a little brother waiting for him at Bai Zhan Peak with a smile that could rival the sun.
And Liu Qingge stood there in silence because he had seen the devotion that was shared between him and Luo Binghe. He couldn’t believe that was faked.
Liu Qingge clenched his jaw and he wanted to scream because at that moment he realized what disturbed him about the entire sequence of events Shen Qingqiu described to them all.
Because above everyone and everything he knew his little brother, knew him like he knew no one else. He knew how loyal and kind he was and he knew that Luo Binghe would have never needed to drag him down.
No, oh, no.
Luo Binghe would have never needed to drag him down.... because Liu Yuan would have gone down with him on his own.