After it is all over, Liu Qingge collects what is left of Shen Qingqiu, freeing him from the Water Prison. It isn’t much. But it’s better than nothing. Liu Qingge ties the jar Shen Qingqiu is in around himself, so that Liu Qingge might carry him and have his hands free to fight whatever demons come his way.
Shen Qingqiu remains insensate for a long time. But he is alive. Liu Qingge had checked. Shen Qingqiu is breathing. His heart is beating.
…a lot of him is missing.
Liu Qingge finds the first inn he can find within the human realm and tosses a fist full of coin at the attendant. He goes to an empty room and settles in. Water is brought in for a bath. Very slowly, Liu Qingge brushes the hair away from Shen Qingqiu’s face.
A single green eye blinks at him, not quite recognizing him.
“Shen-shixiong,” Liu Qingge says, like he had never said before, his throat tight and itchy. “It’s fine. You’re safe.”
Shen Qingqiu does not respond. It’s okay. It is early still.
Liu Qingge… draws him out of the jar. Shen Qingqiu is naked, clothed only in blood, gore, and grime. Liu Qingge would have to find robes that could fit him. Robes that could mostly fit what remains of him anyway.
Carefully, Liu Qingge places Shen Qingqiu into the wooden tub, watching so that Shen Qingqiu does not drown. Liu Qingge draws up his sleeves and sets to work in cleaning his wretched shixiong.
“It’s over,” Liu Qingge says again because there is precious little he can say to comfort Shen Qingqiu. No matter what Liu Qingge said or did, Yue Qingyuan would remain dead. Their sect would remain toppled. And nothing could erase the torture Shen Qingqiu had been through.
“The demon won’t be back,” says Liu Qingge. “I’ve taken care of him. It’s fine. You’ll be fine.” He pauses then. “Why don’t you say something?”
Shen Qingqiu lifts his head then. He opens his mouth and, oh. Shen Qingqiu does not have a tongue.
Liu Qingge hands shake as he bathes Shen Qingqiu. The water is changed three times before it does not immediately grow red and foul. Liu Qingge’s own hands are stained by the gore.
“It’ll be alright,” Liu Qingge says again, washing Shen Qingqiu’s brittle hair. “It’ll be alright.”
And Shen Qingqiu watches him, scarcely blinking. And Liu Qingge would like to think that Shen Qingqiu recognizes him.
In the morning, Liu Qingge swathes Shen Qingqiu in a robe that did not quite fit him. Liu Qingge fumbles with the excess fabric of the sleeves, ultimately doing nothing.
"Sorry," Liu Qingge says, helping Shen Qingqiu back into the pot that had served as his prison. At least he'd washed the pot clean from blood and gore and filth, but soap and water could not remove memories. "It would be safest."
And, again, Liu Qingge ties this pot around his chest.
The world had grown so dangerous. And Liu Qingge would not allow Shen Qingqiu to be harmed again.
Shen Qingqiu is strangely docile. Liu Qingge doesn't like it.
At first, Liu Qingge sets out without a clear destination in mind. He had to get further away from Luo Binghe's collapsing empire, further away from the violence that would spill out.
(Liu Qingge wished to escape his sister.
No matter what, he could not understand what had drawn Liu Mingyan to such lengths. To such horrible ultraviolence. He could not understand how Liu Mingyan could see what her husband did to her shibo and then return to his bed at night.
All while smiling.)
It's almost lucky when Liu Qingge stumbles upon a precious treasure flower. This one is called the Lost Sundew Flower. Or, at least, Liu Qingge assumes it's the Lost Sundew Flower. Botany was never really his strong suit, unless it was man-eating flowers or something of the sort.
No, but Shen Qingqiu would be the one to know for sure.
Liu Qingge sets the jar down, careful not to jostle Shen Qingqiu too badly. And Liu Qingge halts.
Shen Qingqiu is asleep. His head hangs. His breaths are soft and even. The tension has bled out of his body and, now, there is only peace.
It'd... be mean to wake him up when he's sleeping so peacefully.
So Liu Qingge sits down beside the flower. He doesn't meditate. He wouldn't want to be distracted. And, again, he hesitates. The sun is out. And, after so many years spent within the Water Prison, Shen Qingqiu is as pale as a piece of paper. If he burns, he would burn badly.
So, Liu Qingge gets right up again and stands before Shen Qingqiu, shading him with his body, waiting for him to wake.
When Shen Qingqiu does wake, it isn't immediately obvious.
Shen Qingqiu... is pretending to be asleep.
But Liu Qingge can hear the rabbiting beat of his heart. "Shen-shixiong," he says, far too softly. "Could you help this shidi? Do you recognize this flower?"
At this, Shen Qingqiu opens his eye. The remaining eye. Very slowly, he nods.
"Is it a Lost Sundew Flower?"
"So it can restore a part of you."
This nod comes much more hesitantly.
Liu Qingge kneels in the dirt, harvesting the flower. Its golden petals shimmer softly. "What part do you want restored first?"
This flower, so small, could only restore one piece of Shen Qingqiu. One part that had been taken away. But Liu Qingge is a ghost. He doesn't really need to rest or eat or anything. He can relentlessly hunt for treasure flowers in order to help heal Shen Qingqiu from his ordeals.
Shen Qingqiu opens his mouth.
His tongue, then.
Liu Qingge places the small flower within Shen Qingqiu's mouth. Had he moved even slightly slower, he might have lost his fingers with how quickly Shen Qingqiu bites down.
Liu Qingge waits. For all he wants to yell at Shen Qingqiu... he just can't.
Shen Qingqiu's tongue grows back right before his eyes. Shen Qingqiu moves his jaw. Then, the newly grown tongue peaks out of his mouth, wetting his pale, cracked lips.
"Liu Qingge," Shen Qingqiu says, beyond hoarse. "How are you alive?"
"I'm not," says Liu Qingge.
Which is the wrong thing to say. He should have thought more before speaking. Shen Qingqiu had grown so fragile while held in the Water Prison. His body is so thin, his face sunken in. What remains of him is gaunt and somber. Though his expression is somewhat subdued, Liu Qingge could recognize sadness where he sees it.
Shen Qingqiu lowers his head for a moment. Then he sneers. "Beast," he says, voice low and rough. Angry. "Don't you think I'd recognize your hand in my dreams?"
Liu Qingge remains steady. "Shen Qingqiu," he says. "It's really me. I came to save you."
Shen Qingqiu shakes his head fiercely. "Liu Qingge wouldn't rescue something like me," he says vehemently before letting out hoarse laughter. He laughs and laughs until he begins coughing.
Liu Qingge brings out a waterskin and offers it to Shen Qingqiu. "Drink."
And Shen Qingqiu drinks. Greedily. As though he thinks this too will be taken away.
"Slow down," Liu Qingge tells him. "No one will take this away. This water is all for you."
Shen Qingqiu does slow down but, when Liu Qingge draws away, Shen Qingqiu looks at him strangely. "You really are Liu Qingge," he murmurs faintly.
Shen Qingqiu shuts his eye, shoulders slumping. "Why did you rescue me?"
"Isn't it obvious?"
Shen Qingqiu is quiet.
Liu Qingge kneels before him. Before the jar. Very carefully, he runs his hands through Shen Qingqiu's brittle hair. "I came to get you," Liu Qingge says, "because we're martial brothers. Because you were hurt. Tortured beyond reason. Because I saw everything."
Shen Qingqiu's brows furrow. "It took you so long... You're too late, Liu Qingge. You're too late. Our martial brothers and sisters are gone." Shen Qingqiu lowers his head. In a hoarse voice, he says this: "Yue Qingyuan is dead."
Liu Qingge cannot argue otherwise.
Shen Qingqiu is far too quiet. But when he speaks he's far too biting, as though he is trying to make up for lost time.
(Liu Qingge prefers it when Shen Qingqiu speaks. Even if it hurts. Even if Shen Qingqiu aims to hurt with his words. Liu Qingge would always prefer this to the silence.
He would never tell the other man this.)
Shen Qingqiu is exhausted. Many times Liu Qingge does not realize the man has fallen asleep until Shen Qingqiu jerks awake, usually with unkind words for Liu Qingge.
Eventually, when night falls, Liu Qingge finds another inn. He has no shortage of coin. He had pilfered Luo Binghe's coffers after killing the demon.
The money would be used for good things.
Like this. One of the hotel's best rooms.
Warm bath water is brought into the room, filling a wooden tub.
Not subtly, Liu Qingge sniffs the fragrant oils and bars of perfume. He... remembers what Shen Qingqiu had favored--for so many years. Eucalyptus. Lavender. Camomile. All sorts of calming scents.
He picks whatever smells closest.
Liu Qingge bathes Shen Qingqiu carefully, taking care with the other man's many wounds. After, Liu Qingge dries Shen Qingqiu. Applies medicine to the open wounds and swaths him in green robes.
Shen Qingqiu's eye droops. He'd grown sleepy with the warm bath.
Liu Qingge is careful when he brings Shen Qingqiu to the bed, gently drawing the covers over his diminished body. Then he turns away.
"Where are you going?" Shen Qingqiu demands, his voice thick with sleep.
Liu Qingge hesitates. "To meditate."
Liu Qingge turns around.
Shen Qingqiu stares at him. The candle at the bedside flickers, casting long shadows over his face.
Liu Qingge comes close, then, gingerly, he sits on the very edge of the bed. "Is this what you want?"
Shen Qingqiu looks bashful for a moment. Maybe it's a trick of the light. "Lie down," he says, already scolding Liu Qingge. "You ran around all day, making yourself tired, Liu-shidi. You need to rest so that you won't regret it tomorrow, you fool."
Liu Qingge kindly does not point out the fact that he is dead. Nor does he say that even if he was alive, he wouldn't be exhausted by something like this.
Shen Qingqiu wants him in bed, so Liu Qingge will lie down in bed.
Very carefully, Liu Qingge removes his outer robe. Then he lies down, facing away from Shen Qingqiu.
Liu Qingge makes this body of his breathe. His makes his heart beat. It's weird. It feels weird to recall the functions of his body before he had died.
Liu Qingge is still and quiet, even as he feels Shen Qingqiu inch himself along the bed, closing in on the distance between them.
Shen Qingqiu sleeps like this, all but pressed against Liu Qingge's back, his forehead resting between Liu Qingge's shoulders.
Each breath Shen Qingqiu takes tickles.
Liu Qingge remains like this all night, too afraid that... whatever this is will shatter with even the slightest movement.
Liu Qingge goes off in search of more treasure flowers that could help Shen Qingqiu--after he remembers to feed Shen Qingqiu.
(In his defense, Liu Qingge hadn't eaten in many years.
He forgot just what the body needs until he heard Shen Qingqiu's belly grumble. And then he felt like a fool to forget something so basic.
It had been really awkward feeding Shen Qingqiu, who looked as though he would have liked to bite Liu Qingge too.)
Liu Qingge travels a long time until he finds what he wants.
"The Sun and Moon Dew Flower," Shen Qingqiu murmurs. "What does shidi propose we do with this?"
(Darkly, Liu Qingge supposed they could plant a new body for Shen Qingqiu and then kill the damaged one. But. Liu Qingge doesn't think he would be able to do such a thing.)
Liu Qingge grows more body parts, listening to Shen Qingqiu's instructions.
Then, all that's really left to do is wait.
Liu Qingge builds a small sort of shelter, close enough to where he had planted the Sun and Moon Dew Flower seeds.
(If it resembles Shen Qingqiu's old bamboo hut, then it's not on purpose. Of course.)
It takes longer than Liu Qingge would have expected to harvest the limbs. The new eyeball too. It takes longer to attach them to Shen Qingqiu's body.
It is longer still for Shen Qingqiu to grow accustomed to these new body parts.
(Shen Qingqiu remains blind in one eye, even though it had been regrown and reattached. Shen Qingqiu remains half blind and he never tells Liu Qingge this, still so stubborn about showing weakness.)
Within their shelter, there is only one bed.
That is what Liu Qingge thinks each night as he lies awake, Shen Qingqiu all but glued to his side. Though Shen Qingqiu's control over his limbs is tenuous at best, he has managed to hook his arm over Liu Qingge's waist, to slot his knees against the back of Liu Qingge's knees.
A very warm, very intimate position.
It shows Shen Qingqiu's trust.
And Liu Qingge would ensure that he does not betray this trust.
He had decades to make up for.