As he slowly came to, lying on the floor, Shen Qingqiu was surprised he was alive. That wasn’t how things were supposed to go. Hadn’t he angered Luo Binghe to the point of madness? His vision was blurred as he opened his eyes, blinking against the light. A person’s shape blocked most of his view.
The cut on Shen Qingqiu’s cheek felt numb, just like the rest of his wounds. He was warm, too, which he didn’t understand. The water prison was always so cold. Adjusting to the light, Shen Qingqiu saw that Yue Qingyuan was in front of him. Just like before, he was kneeling, taking Shen Qingqiu’s hand in his own so he could channel his spiritual energy into him. Instead of looking him in the eye, Yue Qingyuan was staring at where Shen Qingqiu’s fingers were curled limply around his hand.
Shen Qingqiu had thought Luo Binghe was going to strangle him to death. His last thoughts had been of Yue Qingyuan, never expecting to see him again in the flesh. Never wanting to see him again, because it would mean that Shen Qingqiu was dragging Yue Qingyuan down with him.
Yue Qingyuan looked even more defeated now than when he’d seen him last. What had Luo Binghe demanded of him for this second visit? And what had possessed Yue Qingyuan to come back?
Stirring, Shen Qingqiu’s fingers twitched in Yue Qingyuan’s hold. “I told you to scram.”
Yue Qingyuan sighed. “You did.” His gaze settled on Shen Qingqiu’s throat, where Luo Binghe must have left the imprint of his fingers.
“That bastard hasn’t even begun to torture me, Sect Leader Yue. You know that.”
Shen Qingqiu struggled to sit upright while keeping his hand in Yue Qingyuan’s, his body weaker than it had ever been. His back was suddenly cooler, and he saw Yue Qingyuan’s outer robe pool around his waist. Yue Qingyuan must have put it over him while he was unconscious. Shen Qingqiu wanted to laugh at the useless kindness, but pulled the robe around himself instead. It was cold, after all. He wondered if Yue Qingyuan would try to leave it with him, and when Luo Binghe would take it away.
This was dangerous. Before he’d wrapped his fingers around Shen Qingqiu’s throat, Luo Binghe had said he knew about Qiu Jianluo. And if Luo Binghe could find out about Qiu Jianluo, he could also find out about Yue Qi. Would he spare Yue Qingyuan, if he knew about his past with Shen Qingqiu? And how ridiculous would it be if Luo Binghe saw Shen Qingqiu huddled under Yue Qingyuan’s robe, like a favored courtesan in a novel? Shen Qingqiu frowned.
“It was pointless for you to come,” Shen Qingqiu said. “You lost face for Cang Qiong Mountain Sect for nothing. How do you think it looks, for the Sect Leader to keep visiting scum like me?”
“It reflects poorly on the sect.”
“So why come back? You’re just prolonging my ending.”
Yue Qingyuan looked down at their hands.
“Is it only bothering you today?” Shen Qingqiu asked, yanking his hand away. “That I’m dying. You abandoned me while I waited for you, and came back when I didn’t need you.”
“I can leave, if that’s what shidi would prefer.”
That was the last thing Shen Qingqiu wanted. He didn’t want to die, and he didn’t want Yue Qingyuan to leave.
“Qingqiu, I wanted to say goodbye.”
Shen Qingqiu was stunned. All he could focus on was the bruise from Luo Binghe’s fingers on his thigh, how it was starting to throb again. He’d been convinced Luo Binghe was going to tear his leg off. Would he stop there? Or would he rip off the other leg, his arms, blind him, pluck out his tongue… until Shen Qingqiu was just a spark of consciousness in the dark.
“Should we say goodbye like we did before?” Shen Qingqiu asked, knowing that Yue Qingyuan understood which ‘before’ it was. “Let me look at you.”
Yue Qingyuan came closer. Shen Qingqiu’s chains rattled as he reached out to touch Yue Qingyuan’s face. As a child, Shen Jiu had starved for Yue Qi. He’d needed no one else in the world, wanted no other rescuer. Shen Jiu used to remember how Yue Qi had looked through the crack in the door and long for him to come back. But then that hope had faded to a fantasy of digging Yue Qi’s grave with his bare hands—he’d wanted Yue Qi’s ending to belong to him. Yue Qingyuan hadn’t given him that, hadn’t even given him an answer to why he never came.
If Shen Qingqiu wanted, he could… He rubbed his thumb against Yue Qingyuan’s cheek. There was no door separating them now, nothing keeping them apart. Yue Qingyuan’s expression was pained, just like when they’d parted at the Qiu manor, and he knew that Yue Qingyuan was preparing to abandon him again. All Shen Qingqiu had left to do was to let him go.
But Yue Qingyuan wasn’t safe anymore. Luo Binghe was curious, peeling back Shen Qingqiu’s past. He’d find out. What was the purpose of Shen Qingqiu’s death, if it couldn’t even protect Yue Qingyuan?
Shen Qingqiu was a self-interested person; the threat of death just made him more so. He leaned forward to press his lips to Yue Qingyuan’s, slow and careful. Yue Qingyuan inhaled sharply, but didn’t jerk away. It was enough. Shen Qingqiu kissed him, trying to memorize how his mouth tasted and the softness of his lips. He could only ever have Yue Qingyuan like this once.
When he pulled back, Shen Qingqiu kept his eyes closed as he pressed their foreheads together. He didn’t want to know how Yue Qingyuan looked right now, whether he was disgusted or simply shocked.
Shen Qingqiu tucked his head against Yue Qingyuan’s neck as he fisted his hands in his robe. “Save me,” he whispered.
He waited. Yue Qingyuan must be weighing their old bond against the shame for Cang Qiong Mountain Sect—or thinking about whether he cared enough about Shen Qingqiu to throw his own reputation away. Shen Qingqiu didn’t know why he still hoped Yue Qingyuan would sacrifice for him when he’d abandoned him before.
But he kept waiting.
An incense time passed before Yue Qingyuan asked, “Can you stand?”
“Does it matter?” Shen Qingqiu asked, with a laugh. “Would you carry me?”
“If I must.”
Shen Qingqiu swallowed the question boiling in his throat—why was Yue Qingyuan saving him now, when it would cost everything? Still too late! Yue Qingyuan reached for the shackles around Shen Qingqiu’s ankles, breaking them open with spiritual energy, then followed with the ones around his wrists.
“Close your eyes,” Yue Qingyuan said. Shen Qingqiu heard a sword being drawn as bright light flashed against his eyelids and the Immortal Binding Cable fell from him. The shock of having his circulation restored nearly brought tears to Shen Qingqiu’s eyes. He’d worn the cable for so long that his spiritual energy was completely drained, leaving him just an ordinary man, who’d been starved and tortured for over a month.
Yue Qingyuan helped Shen Qingqiu get his arms into his outer robe and tie it around himself. There was already dirt and dried blood staining the sleeves of Yue Qingyuan’s white inner robe, reminding Shen Qingqiu of how filthy he was. Shen Qingqiu doubted that he could stand. He struggled to get his legs under him, his body clumsy now that he was unrestrained. Yue Qingyuan wrapped his arm around Shen Qingqiu’s waist and lifted him as he stood up. Shen Qingqiu tried to support his own weight, but his legs could barely hold him upright.
“I can’t,” Shen Qingqiu said, frustration lacing his voice.
“That’s fine. Don’t waste energy on losing your temper.”
Shen Qingqiu was about to show Yue Qingyuan that he still had plenty of energy for his temper left when he heard footsteps coming towards them. They were unhurried; there was no need to, when there was only one way out of the water prison.
Luo Binghe stepped inside the cell. His eyes skimmed over Shen Qingqiu, settling on Yue Qingyuan. “What is he to you?” Luo Binghe asked. “You’re about to trade the sect’s reputation for something so low.”
Resting his hand on his sword, Luo Binghe said, “I’m eager to receive your teaching, Sect Leader Yue.”
Even in the annual spars, Yue Qingyuan never took his sword from its scabbard. He still won. This time, the light as he unsheathed Xuan Su was blinding. After spending so long in the dark, Shen Qingqiu struggled to keep his eyes open as an array of curse seals appeared in the air, forming a barrier between them and Luo Binghe. Yue Qingyuan started to help Shen Qingqiu move forward when Luo Binghe drew his sword and slashed through the barrier.
The fight began in earnest as the swords clashed in the air. Weakened as he was, the flow of spiritual energy around Shen Qingqiu felt like hundreds of needles were pricking his aching flesh. Shen Qingqiu followed the fight’s course with his heart in his throat—when had Luo Binghe become so powerful? What had happened in the Abyss that made him able to fight against Yue Qingyuan?
A deep gash appeared across Luo Binghe’s chest, making him stumble backwards. Xuan Su struck Luo Binghe’s sword aside, sending it flying into the wall to embed itself deeply in the stone. Yue Qingyuan quickly created another barrier as Luo Binghe tried to pull his sword back, but the stone held its grip. Furious, Luo Binghe tried to tear the barrier apart with his bare hands, then slammed his shoulder against it. The barrier flickered, but held.
Luo Binghe bared his teeth. “You won’t know any peace,” he said. Blood was dripping from his wound at the same time it was healing. He was truly monstrous. “I’ll hunt down the both of you and bring you back here, break you apart slowly in front of each other. Do you understand?”
“Kill him,” Shen Qingqiu said, tugging on Yue Qingyuan’s sleeve.
“If you don’t kill the bastard now—”
“I know.” Yue Qingyuan shook his head. “Qingqiu, we must leave. I don’t have much longer, and there’s still the labyrinth.”
Not much longer? Luo Binghe hadn’t even been able to hit him. Yet Yue Qingyuan was pale, the color draining from his lips. He continued supporting Shen Qingqiu by the waist as they navigated the labyrinth, seemingly tireless.
“They didn’t blindfold me on the way in,” Yue Qingyuan said, smiling a little, “because of my status as Sect Leader.”
“You remember the way out?”
It wasn’t long before they encountered some of Huan Hua Palace’s disciples. None of them lasted long enough to raise an alarm, though Yue Qingyuan did nothing more than knocking them out. Xuan Su’s power was astounding, but…
As they approached the exit, Yue Qingyuan staggered, tumbling to the floor and twisting his body to take the force of the fall. Shen Qingqiu tried to make his legs bear his weight as he struggled to help Yue Qingyuan back on his feet. Yue Qingyuan’s hands trembled in Shen Qingqiu’s as he coughed up blood, staining his robes.
“Shixiong?” Shen Qingqiu asked, wiping at Yue Qingyuan’s mouth with his sleeve. What was happening to him?
“Don’t worry. My apologies for the indignity, but we need to move faster.”
Yue Qingyuan gathered Shen Qingqiu in his arms and rose to his feet. Shen Qingqiu didn’t spare a thought for his face while Yue Qingyuan was pushing himself past all endurance. If anyone came to challenge Yue Qingyuan now, Shen Qingqiu wasn’t sure he could defeat them. Yue Qingyuan’s breathing was labored as they entered the courtyard, where a group of practicing disciples turned to look at them. They were both bloody, and Shen Qingqiu’s appearance was ghoulish, his hair wild and completely unbound. The disciples unsheathed their swords.
Yue Qingyuan stepped on Xuan Su and lowered Shen Qingqiu to his feet again. He gripped Shen Qingqiu’s waist and took off into the air, so quickly that the wind felt like it was snapping at his face.
“Stop pushing yourself,” Shen Qingqiu said.
“You’ll die anyway! What’s wrong with Xuan Su?”
“Haven’t you already thought of it?”
Shen Qingqiu swallowed, then looked behind them. At least a dozen disciples were following, though they couldn’t keep up with Yue Qingyuan’s speed. Even so, they were too close. Yue Qingyuan couldn’t fly for much longer. His breath was rattling in his throat, and he coughed weakly, bringing up more blood for Shen Qingqiu to wipe away. The red barely showed on his black sleeve.
He was powerless to do anything but watch Yue Qingyuan destroy himself for his sake. “Dive,” Shen Qingqiu urged.
Yue Qingyuan tightened his hold on Shen Qingqiu, and Xuan Su fell like an arrow. They stopped just a zhang above the ground before doubling back. Shen Qingqiu was helpless to do anything more than watch as Yue Qingyuan sent them flying through the trees, each moment seemingly a near fatal miss. He didn’t dare say a word. Yue Qingyuan slumped forward as they finally slowed, landing on the forest floor with a thump.
Shen Qingqiu fell backwards with Yue Qingyuan on top of him.
“Xuan Su,” Yue Qingyuan said weakly, “the sheath…”
Taking the scabbard from Yue Qingyuan’s hands, Shen Qingqiu scrambled out from under him and crawled towards where Xuan Su was lying in the grass. The sword felt like it was burning as he sheathed it. He turned back to Yue Qingyuan, whose color was a little better.
But he still seemed like he was dying. Shen Qingqiu looked around and nearly disbelieved his luck.
There was a hunter’s hut close by. It was disused, the roof partially collapsed. But it was shelter, and it might even be enough to hide them. Shen Qingqiu tried to stand again, and this time he had just enough spiritual energy to force it, shakily. He grabbed Yue Qingyuan by the collar and dragged him towards the hut. Every step hurt, and his arms felt like they were being torn from their sockets. But he didn’t let Yue Qingyuan go until they were inside and he could collapse with his back to the wall. He pulled Yue Qingyuan closer to him, lowering his head into his lap.
At least he could make Yue Qingyuan comfortable.
They’d escaped from the most secure prison in the cultivation world, yet that was only the beginning of their troubles. What would follow?
His gaze drifted down to Yue Qingyuan, and how the front of his white robe was dyed red. Shen Qingqiu gently touched his cheek, making Yue Qingyuan’s eyes flutter open.
“Please rest, shixiong.”
It was what Yue Qingyuan needed, even though every time his eyes closed, Shen Qingqiu was terrified he’d never open them again. He kept one hand on Yue Qingyuan’s pulse, feeling his life growing weaker and weaker.