The evening after he finished making the Bingxu pill, Lin Chen found Mei Changsu curled up in his pavilion, holding a wooden box that was absurdly tiny in his claws.
"What's that?" Lin Chen asked, sitting uninvited on one of the human-sized cushions and helping himself to some tea.
Mei Changsu didn't answer right away. Lin Chen narrowed his eyes at the cup he was holding, but didn't move from his loose sprawl. Drawing out Mei Changsu's confidence was rather like drawing venom from a viper: one must move very carefully until one was sure the slippery bastard could be pinned down.
Delicately, Mei Changsu laid the box next to the table and used the tip of one claw to open the lid. Inside, a massive pearl glowed against a cream cloth lining.
Lin Chen whistled and leaned forward, nudging the box around with the tip of his fan to see it better. "So someone has had the balls to make you an offer? And at your age! How flattering." He let his hair fall down a bit to cover his face and hide his shock – and Mei Changsu had accepted the pearl? People had tried before – though never with a pearl this fine – and his friend had calmly, politely rejected all of them as companions.
"Not at all," Mei Changsu said, sounding deceptively reasonable until he continued, "This pearl was meant for Lin Shu when Jingyan came of age, many years ago."
"And was given to Mei Changsu today," Lin Chen said, rolling his eyes.
"Jingyan knows that is impossible."
Lin Chen made a face. The argument that Mei Changsu was a perfectly legitimate Imperial was of course doomed, since he had lost his coloration with the rest of his scales during his treatment for the Poison of Bitter Flame. His colour had come back as a faded grey, with a handful of very pale blue spots. Rumor had it that he was the misbegotten sickly crossbreed of some profligate Imperial dragon, and Mei Changsu had done nothing to dissuade the gossip.
However, only a pure Imperial dragon was allowed to be the companion of a member of the Emperor's family. For all the reverence around dragon and human companions and the right to chose by merit, the strict limitation on which dragons the royal family could chose was downright hypocritical. If they kept on, the Imperial line was going to inbreed itself into sterility, and the Xiao line would just have to live with 'lesser' dragons.
A faint memory sparked, and he tilted his head to look at the pearl again. There was something about the name Xiao, Imperial dragons, and a pearl....
He finished his tea, continuing the argument with half his attention, and sent a message to Langya Hall that night.
The northern wind whistled across the peaks of his tent as Lin Shu pushed aside the last report from the border defenses. He was careful not to disturb Fei Liu, who had grown bored hours ago and leapt up to sleep curled at the base of his neck. Despite the most warmly furnished tent in the army – possibly the kingdom – and the blazing braziers that made the the tent uncomfortably warm for every visitor, he was cold everywhere but the place where Fei Liu slept. Two months and three weeks since he took the Bingxu pill, and he still had the facade of health, but his bones felt too hollow and light, while his wings grew heavier and almost numb. The familiar rasp of liquid was creeping back into his lungs, and Lin Chen could no longer hide his anguish when he took Lin Shu's pulse.
Mei Changsu's mission was completed. Lin Shu's duty was fulfilled. His murdered troops were avenged, and Jingyan and Nihuang were safe and victorious. It was alright that his time was almost done.
Except without Mei Changsu's and Lin Shu's purpose, what was left in his heart was only xiao-Shu, who just wanted to see the people he loved again before he died – and that was an impossible thing, now.
He twisted his neck to look down at Fei Liu, sprawled across the scales of his back. Carefully, he nudged Fei Liu's outflung arm back into place, even though it was unnecessary. He was old enough and strong enough to catch himself if he fell.
The boy should have been a dragon, with the way he leapt and flew. Perhaps in his next life, he would be rewarded for his early years of suffering in this one, and all his years of loyalty and love since. He hoped that Fei Liu would understand when Lin Shu was gone, and not spend his years asking Lin Chen when his Su-gege would return. They've seen a great deal of death these past months, and he thought that Fei Liu was beginning to grasp the idea, but Fei Liu was also stubborn in very specific ways that he didn't always understand.
Lin Chen would look after Fei Liu, as much as Fei Liu would let him. It was fine. He was–
"All done with your reports?" Lin Chen asked from inside the tent entrance.
Lin Shu heaved a sigh. His friend hadn't even had the courtesy to rustle the fabric to warn Lin Shu of his approach, so he was clearly annoyed.
"Yes," he said, lowering his head to stare Lin Chen in the face. Most people would be at least a little intimidated by that, but not Lin Chen. Alas. "The last troops are in place, and reporting all quiet from the Da Yu border. With winter coming soon, we've certainly seen the last of them for this year, and probably several to come."
"So, all done with everything. Just in time, then." Strangely, Lin Chen didn't sound as bitter about that as he had for the past few months, whenever he mentioned the deadline that Lin Shu had forced upon himself by swallowing that pill. Lin Shu tilted his head to eye him as Lin Chen shook out his sleeves and sauntered further into the tent.
"Have you heard the story of Xiao Sheng?" Lin Chen asked.
Lin Shu arched his neck, confused. "That children's story about the minister who swallowed a pearl and turned into the first Imperial dragon?"
"That's the one." Lin Chen plopped down on a cushion. "Except it's not a story."
Lin Shu snorted hard enough to make Lin Chen's hair flutter. "If turning into a dragon was that easy, everyone would be doing it."
"Oh, lots of people tried after Xiao Sheng. They all died, including some very valuable talents of the Court, so the Emperor suppressed the technique – it's a bit more complicated than just swallowing the pearl – and did an excellent job of convincing posterity that it was a folk tale. Langya Hall has the real records, though." He pulled a familiar box out of his sleeve, along with a folded letter.
Lin Shu eyed the box with sudden suspicion. “Is that my pearl? The one I left in Jinling?”
“You break your promise, I steal your pearl,” Lin Chen said, without any of the rational fear one should have at stealing from a dragon. "Now, what's interesting about the technique that I found is that it should work the other way, too. Only no one's ever tried, because what dragon would risk death for the sake of never flying again?" Lin Chen gave him a bitter smile. "Maybe one that's going to die anyway, but promised a lot of people that he would try to come back to them?"
Lin Shu turned his head away. “Perhaps I'll just die in a different way.”
Lin Chen blew out a thoughtful breath, not quite agreeing. “No one knows why Xiao Sheng survived when others did not. Many matched him in merit, or bravery, or intelligence. I know the medicine and can be sure of that part, but the rest? I'm betting it was something in his bloodline.” He gestured with his fan. “You are his descendent, as much as any Imperial, and his human brother was the ancestor of your Xiao Jingyan, who gave you the pearl. Your chances are better than most.”
“That's my life you're betting,” Lin Shu grumbled half-heartedly. After all, one week was a pittance to gamble – which was certainly why Lin Chen had waited this long. His mind, practiced at laying out the threads of consequence from these past years at court, began to work at the idea despite himself.
“The Poison of Bitter Flame will still be in me,” he started.
Lin Chen said, “Perhaps. Turning into a human will break and reform your bones far more thoroughly than the cure did. If you survive that process, it may purge the poison entirely, and the Bingxu pill with it.” He shrugged, his usual nonchalance sitting falsely on a face than Lin Shu knew far too well. “Or you may die on schedule all the same, after going through a hideously painful transformation first.”
He snorted, then stilled when Fei Liu stirred on his back at the noise. Wouldn't it be worth it to try? To be able to see Fei Liu grow up, even though Lin Shu would die before him with a mere human lifespan? To keep his promises to Nihuang and Jingyan and Lin Chen? He'd not be able to have eggs with Nihuang – although they hadn't been able to anyway when Nihuang insisted they try, in the months after she found him out – but they could travel together, be companions, make each other laugh again. And he could see Jingyan rise to the throne, the glory of his rule. All those things he had told himself were impossible.
He'd never fly again. But wasn't it worth it?
He took a deep breath, ready to answer.
Lin Chen smiled.
Jingyan quickened his stride towards the Eastern Palace. His duties had kept him longer than expected – longer even than the time he'd estimated that they'd keep him – and so he was late for Nihuang's arranged visit. The Consort Princess was late in her pregnancy and would not be able to receive them, and even knowing that Nihuang would both understand and not care, he cringed at the impoliteness.
Besides, he couldn't help being curious about this man that Nihuang had brought, having chosen a companion after so many years: the ceremony had taken place in Yunnan, but her letter with the required announcement had arrived just hours before a report from his people there. For years, Jingyan had idly assumed she would choose to be Xia Dong's companion, if she chose to be anyone's: a warrior, straightforward and honorable. Perhaps it was not so strange that she would choose a member of Jiangzou Alliance, come to Yunnan with a bequest from Mei Changsu's estate.
He stifled the urge to cry out that xiao-Shu was barely dead and she was already moving on – that was hardly the same thing, and he should not begrudge an old friend her happiness, just because his own heart was too stubborn to heal.
Nihuang's sinuous bulk was visible long before he reached the tea pavilion in the gardens: her pale green coloring, fading to yellow towards her wingtips and tail, was perfectly suited to this late spring as it tipped into summer. Her companion was less apparent, until she uncoiled herself at the sound of Jingyan's approach – he had once been capable of stealth, before his days of being trailed everywhere by ministers and eunuchs – and Jingyan blinked at the man standing by her foreleg, struggling to hide his surprise.
His robes were pale grey subtly worked with gold thread in a pattern that evoked wings, very fine quality and very suitable for the companion to a dragon of Nihuang's stature – but it was certainly not the clothing of a fighter. As he made his bows to Jingyan, he moved very carefully, with a faint air of awkwardness, as if he wasn't quite sure where his limbs were going to move. If his skin had not been noticeably tanned, Jingyan would have suspected him of living entirely indoors over a desk. He was not at all what he had expected.
“Your Highness, this is Long Chengshu, my sworn companion,” Nihuang said, as her companion straightened from his bow. She soundly oddly – amused? Why would she be amused? Pleased, surely.
"Congratulations to you both for finding each other, and may you never be parted," Jingyan said formally. "Please, sit."
"Thank you," Long Chengshu said. He was quiet while Jingyan and Nihuang exchanged pleasantries – the weather while travelling, the state of Yunnan, Mu Qing's wellbeing – and Jingyan poured tea for his human guest. The servants finished pouring Nihuang's dragon-sized tea and bowed away, and Nihuang said, "Well?"
Jingyan looked up at her, frowning.
"Not you, Jingyan," she said, and he was shocked by her informality – she hadn't used his name unadorned since they were young, running and flying and tumbling around with Lin Shu together.
"This isn't easy. Would you know what to say?" Long Chengshu said. Jingyan stared at him – they were both being informal to the point of rudeness, but there was something....not familiar about his voice, exactly, too flat and quiet from a human chest, but the cadences–
Nihuang snorted. "You just hate apologizing."
"Has he done something that requires an apology?" Jingyan asked, trying to defuse what sounded like a nascent fight. Unfortunately, he'd always been bad at doing that in any way that didn't involve blocking a weapon with his sword.
"Yes," Long Chengshu sighed, then knelt up clumsily. “I'm sorry, Jingyan.” He bowed deeply.
“I...beg your pardon?” Jingyan said, torn between confusion, offense at this stranger using his name, and that odd feeling of familiarity.
Nihuang rumbled and nudged her companion with one delicately pointed, razor-sharp claw.
He sat up, locked eyes with Jingyan and said, “I promised that I was well, that I would return and always be by your side, to watch you rule well. I lied then, but I found a way to come back to you anyway. Will you forgive me?”
Jingyan stood sharply and backed away. “How–?” He looked at Nihuang, then back at– it couldn't be. But that voice....
“Xiao-Shu?” he whispered.
His old friend stood as well, still shaky like a newborn horse – or like a new human, how was this even possible? “I'm sorry it took me so long.” His voice shook for the first time, though xiao-Shu tried to smile to cover it up. “I promised Nihuang that I would come to Yunnan first, so I had to learn how to ride a horse. And...how to walk with two legs.”
Jingyan took a step towards him, then three, then he was pulling xiao-Shu into his arms and clinging. “You're alive,” he said, resting his head on his friend's shoulder. He smelled like Lin Shu, heavy sulfur and bright metal, and also like Mei Changsu, expensive incense and oranges.
It was really him. Jingyan's breath caught, and then he was crying. He pressed his face against the cloth at xiao-Shu's neck to muffle the sound, ashamed, but couldn't control himself.
Xiao-Shu's arms tightened around him. “I'm so sorry,” he whispered. Scales rasped against the stone floor as Nihuang curled around them, hiding them from view, and Jingyan was so grateful.
Jingyan shook his head fiercely. “No,” he choked out. “Thank you. You came back. Thank you.”
A long time passed before Jingyan could force himself to pull back, and even then he couldn't make himself let go of xiao-Shu's arms. He searched his face and asked, “You're truly well now?”
“The change pushed all the poison out of my bones,” xiao-Shu confirmed. “Even my skin is new – I didn't keep any of my scars.”
Jingyan frowned, eyeing the small scar above his friend's right eyebrow. “Where did that come from, then?” Remembering that he could, here, with these people, Jingyan reached out and poked xiao-Shu in the spot he meant, and felt his heart soar at the peeved expression that xiao-Shu made.
Nihuang chuckled. “He really did have to learn how to walk again. Lin Chen said he tried to roll out of bed straight away after the change, insisting that he knew how to walk, and then he fell down and cut his face open on a step.”
“If you're going to make fun of me, can I at least have some tea?” xiao-Shu grumbled.
“Of course, Sir Long,” Jingyan said, solicitously taking him by the elbow. “But first, Nihuang, tell me: did he name himself, or did someone else think it was terribly funny to give him the surname Dragon?”
Xiao-Shu squawked, giving away the answer even as Nihuang started to explain about this Lin Chen fellow and his sense of humor, and they all sat down in laughter.