“Could you just—” and Lin Shu grabbed the soup cooked with the horn of an antelope. It should have disturbed him, and perhaps it would have, if he’d not spent so long swallowing strange herbs and foreign beasts brought from distant lands.
They were supposed to help qi flow in his body, to raise his temperature, make him less susceptible to cold, and to straighten his bones. The Old Master had left Lin Chen in charge after the initial treatment, and Lin Shu rarely saw him without Shang Han Lun in his hands.
“You’re a challenge,” Lin Chen said with a gleam in his eyes as Lin Shu forced back another disgusting bowl of medicine. He was quite desperate for every second of life he could ring out of his emaciated body. He could die later. Not now, not then, he needed time. How could he have lived only to vanish before doing what he needed to do? He was just a tool for Lin Chen to test the limits of his knowledge and ability at first. Their intimacy and understanding came much later. He took advantage of Lin Chen’s obsession by stoking it with certain questions, acting ignorant, and holding a listening expression for long minutes while the young master droned on and on.
“Is that right?” he’d say, and Lin Chen ran to grab another book and stabbed a page with his finger. It started to fascinate him in turn that this young master was so laconic, but such a diligent scholar. It came out one day after Lin Shu’s shoulder slipped out of its socket and had to be pushed back in.
“I told you not to push yourself,” Lin Chen said. “Why did you pick up that bow?”
“I had to try it,” Lin Shu flexed his fingers. He couldn’t believe how his arm had shaken when he pulled back the bow, as if he were a boy just starting training. “I can’t just—”
“You can’t just trust me,” Lin Chen said loudly, looking hurt for the first time. “Is it because I’m not my father? I assure you that I’m quite capable of treating you.”
He was a complete know-it-all, which Lin Shu found extremely irritating, but hadn’t led to any doubts as to his ability. “I just can’t trust that I’m—” and he couldn’t finish his words. He couldn’t say that it felt like a dream. His own face wasn’t his face. He remembered the change in vivid color, he relived it every night, and on waking he couldn’t understand how he was still here, what had happened, and suddenly it seemed silly that he’d ever thought he was alive. “If I could bend the bow then I could be myself.”
Lin Chen squeezed his shoulder warmly for a moment and leaned in, “You will never ever bend a bow again.”
“You have such a way with words.”
It was strange to try and understand what had made him the way he’d been. If you took away all the conditions, the people, and even places then what was left? His estrangement grew each day until he tried to ride a horse to a gallop and fell off its back. “You are the most difficult patient I have ever had the displeasure of treating,” groused Lin Chen as he wrapped his bruised ribs. “How’s the pain?”
“I’m not alive so how could I be in pain?” he said. It was chaotic after that, though he couldn’t understand why. There was a great deal of activity as the people he’d not seen, the few members of Chiyan army Lin Chen said they’d found, came one by one to sit with him and talk. Wei Zheng was last, and what they said together seeped down into his memory and even became his first memory.
“The Young Marshall is not dead,” said Wei Zheng, as he sat before him. “But he must die for the moment.”
“I have to go on.”
“You have to go on.” Wei Zheng nodded. “But the Young Marshall cannot go on. There’s no place for him here, no place they’ve left, not for any of us.”
“So I—” he fiddled with his sleeve thoughtfully. “I am, but I am not.”
“We will remember you until you can remember yourself.”
It didn’t work out like that in the end. Most of them, along with him, seemed to forget he’d ever been anything but Mei Changsu. Wei Zheng kept his promise, and anytime they met they would sit together, and for about two hours he was Lin Shu again. It was self-indulgent, and it took days to return to how he needed to be. It was the only thing he could compare to getting the treatment, what it was like, thinking he would get better. “You were quite handsome in your old body, dear I say it, extremely martial? If I were a maiden, or His Majesty, I would faint just to feel your arms,” said Lin Chen.
“How do you cook someone’s shadow, anyway?” said Mei Changsu, shivering and shaking under the influence of what he’d been fed. “How does that work?”
“Don’t worry your pretty little head,” said Lin Chen, and handed him a washcloth.
He might get to live, but he knew he couldn’t believe it. It was a simple enough logic. If it didn’t work then he’d have everyone’s disappointment, and his own as well to handle and manage.
That was the first night he had a vivid dream that was not a scene from the hell of Meiling. They were by the riverside and a tiny boat was floating downstream, though he knew in a part of himself that the current was too fast for it.
“I’ll get it for you,” said Jingyan, and jumped into the water. “I know you want it.”
“I don’t,” shouted Mei Changsu as Jingyan waded through the water in his royal reds and gold. “You come back this instance!”
“I’m almost there,” but he slipped and water washed over him. Mei Changsu lifted a corner of his robe and moved to the edge of the river. He frantically searched the white froth for him and almost jumped in when the water parted and Jingyan came out holding a golden fish in his hands.
“Not a boat,” Jingyan said half-sleep over breakfast, “but a golden fish. I hope you weren’t disappointed. I would get you a boat—”
Fei Liu paused with a bite hovering by his mouth.
“Lin Chen!” Mei Changsu bellowed. “How many side-effects does this treatment have, you rat?
“There are certain dreams I would rather not share,” said Jingyan with a downward slant to the mouth.
“You think I want to show you my dreams?” said Mei Changsu, since whatever Jingyan wanted to shield him from couldn’t be half as ugly as what lived inside him.
Jingyan glanced at him from the corner of his eyes.
“Nightmares, I have nightmares,” said Mei Changsu hastily, and turned around to find Lin Chen watching him speculatively.
“I don’t think His Majesty suggested anything else, Changsu,” Lin Chen said laconically. “Why are you overreacting?”
“This is your fault,” said Mei Changsu. “You didn’t warn me.”
“I didn’t know,” said Lin Chen. “This is all new for me as well. You’re a prodigy even in this.”
“How do we stop us sharing dreams?” Mei Changsu said.
“I can’t help you there,” said Lin Chen. “I won’t mix anything with the treatment. You’ll just have to live with this, and His Majesty as well.”
They both sighed.
They were birds in their dream that night. “I like your wings, xiao-Shu,” said Jingyan as he flew around him in circles. “They remind me of your armor, do you know?”
“You’re very blue,” said Mei Changsu and pecked his beak into Jingyan’s neck as they perched on a branch. The usual distance he kept even now seemed to make no sense in the dream. He spent long minutes working out leaves from Jingyan’s feathers.
“I wouldn’t mind staying like this,” said Jingyan.
“Who will take care of the kingdom?”
“Mother is quite good at the job.”
They spent breakfast not talking about it. If he was unhappy, so what? There were many things that were much worse, and he was well-suited to rule, as Mei Changsu had established a long time ago, precisely because he was uncomfortable with it. The thing about power that others wanted he did not want, and what he wanted—a chance at good governance—those who wanted power for its own sake could not understand. It was while they were in their favorite room at Prince Qi’s mansion one night in a dream that they said what needed to be said, only they didn’t really talk, but Lin Shu—and he was Lin Shu here—rested his head against Jingyan’s shoulder and shifted until he was lying on top of him. “Do you get it?” he said, and Jingyan nodded.
“Jing Wang—ah, Your Majesty,” said Mei Changsu the next day when Jingyan found him in the gardens. He could feel his cheeks heat. It was a dream! Things happened in dreams that would not in reality! Why was Jingyan giving him that look? They sat together near the pond for a long time before Jingyan reached down to grab a wooden boat floating in the water. Fei Liu cried out from the other side, but Jingyan neatly dried it against his silk robes before handing it to Mei Changsu.
“The boat you wanted,” he said gravely.
“I—I,” stammered Mei Changsu, horribly red.
They were in the boat watching the lantern festival. Mei Changsu marveled at the scratches and dents he saw in the sides. They were the same as the ones on Fei Liu’s. “Is this your dream or mine?” he said to Jingyan, who was reclining back and eating a pastry from the box in the middle. He thought it was his dream because he remembered wanting something exactly like this when he was young, a strange longing to have all of Jingyan’s time. He was even dressed in finery he’d not worn since he’d left the jianghu for Jinling, his hair tied with a ribbon and running down his back, and the pale blue of his robes shining in the moonlight.
“You look beautiful,” said Jingyan matter-of-factly, “which means it’s my dream.”
Mei Changsu gasped and clutched tightly the edge of the boat.
Jingyan ran his eyes over him slowly, “You never dress like this in front of me and here you are looking like something from a dream in what is probably my dream.”
Mei Changsu was so warm and flustered. This couldn’t be happening—but it wasn’t happening—but they were both here, and they’d found they remembered the dreams clearly. Did that mean it was happening? Was he here? Jingyan leaned forward with a cake in his hand. “Do you want to try it?” he said shyly. Mei Changsu opened his mouth and bit the cake delicately.
“You even eat so well,” Jingyan said with a rather dazed look in his eyes.
Mei Changsu kept eating from Jingyan’s hand until they ran out of cakes.
It seemed very important to him that he live suddenly, and he went to Lin Chen to ask for the first time in years how long he was stay on this earth. “He’s—” Mei Changsu didn’t know how to tell him. “His Majesty has taken a certain interest in me, which while ill-advised, I fear I cannot dissuade.”
“He’s taken an interest? You think this is new?”
“I’m sure he never thought of Lin Shu like that.”
“What about Su Zhe?”
“Su Zhe was a scheming, lying strategist so no—”
“The great Mei Changsu is naive about certain matters.”
He felt like stomping his foot.
“I think you could do better, but he’s not too horribly ugly and there’s the whole ruler of Da Liang thing—”
“Tell me how long I have,” he said in an uncomfortably loud voice.
“You,” Lin Chen leaned in to stare darkly at his face, “tell me first. Tell me that you want it. You fucking want it.”
“I—” he remembered the sweet taste of Jingyan’s fingers as they lingered near his mouth. “Oh, please.”
“Don’t you feel it?” Lin Chen grabbed his wrist. “The poison is almost gone.”
“This is definitely my dream,” said Jingyan that night as the three of them converged on him. Su Zhe sat down primly across from him while Mei Changsu stood with his hands folded in his sleeves and Lin Shu plopped down next to Jingyan’s shoulder.
“Guess again,” said Su Zhe with a sly little smile on his face.
“I didn’t know you had such an indecent mind, Jingyan-gege,” Lin Shu said with a nudge of the elbow.
“You haven’t called me that since you were five,” Jingyan said, “and—and I didn’t mean it like that.”
“We’re here to ask you a question,” said Mei Changsu formally.
“Which—” smirked Su Zhe.
“Of us,” said Lin Shu.
“Do you like better,” said Mei Changsu quietly.
Jingyan looked between them.
“It’s unfair to ask me this question,” he said, finally.
“Why?” smirked Su Zhe.
“There’s only one of you,” said Jingyan. “I know when you were born. I remember when you were supposed to be dead. I know what it was like when you came back to me in disguise. My love, you, there’s only one of you.”
And soon he was alone with Mei Changsu, who came slowly towards him. He seemed to be debating internally, pondering a great question, before taking a deep breath and sitting promptly in Jingyan’s lap.
“I can’t believe you said that,” Mei Changsu hid his face against him. They spent a long time like that before Jingyan shifted and tilted his face up. He felt his eyes fall close at the first touch of his lips.
“It didn’t count,” said Jingyan the next day while they watched Fei Liu pick a fight with a very busy Zhen Ping.
“Let me put these gifts down,” Zhen Ping said as Fei Liu encircled him and came in close for an attack. Zhen Ping jumped up with the boxes still in his arms. “Give me a moment.”
“Su-gege,” Fei Liu turned his pouty face to Mei Changsu. “Tell him!”
Mei Changsu tore his eyes from Jingyan to look at Zhen Ping and gave him such a glare that the poor man dropped the boxes to the ground. They heard something shatter inside. “Play with him,” he said and a silent or else lay behind his words.
“Right away, of course,” and Zhen Ping dragged Fei Liu off by the scruff of his neck.
“It didn’t count?” Mei Changsu couldn’t remember the last time his voice hit such a register. He leaned in close to watch Jingyan’s impassive face. “Everything else counted, but not our—our—”
“Our kiss,” said Jingyan. “It was a dream after all.”
“But—” It had felt real, oh, and how. The wetness, the slide of it, his warm breath and the way they’d moved together. It had felt very real! They'd stayed like that for long minutes, and even thinking of it now made Mei Changsu’s breath hitch.
“I’d like another chance,” said Jingyan, and moved closer. “I want to do it right.”
Mei Changsu glanced at him. He looked back seriously, not a hint of a joke, as if he thought he needed to prove himself.
“Jingyan,” Mei Changsu choked out.
Jingyan picked up his hand and clasped it tight. “It seems impossible that you’re here letting me kiss you.”
Mei Changsu looked down at their hands.
“You’re so stupid,” he said.
Lin Chen said glancing between them.
“No,” said Mei Changsu and kept a tight grip on Jingyan’s hand.
“You’ll have to wait until we finish the treatment,” said Lin Chen with a malicious look in his eyes. “It’s only another month, Changsu. It’s hardly any time at all!”
“Don’t listen to him,” said Mei Changsu, leaning in towards Jingyan. “He’s famous for wrecking the lives of others.”
“I don’t appreciate you maligning me in front of His Majesty—”
“It’s fine if we wait,” said Jingyan virtuously. “I have to return at the end of the month to the capital, but we’ll see each other soon—”
“No!” shouted Mei Changsu. “Absolutely not.”
“I won’t leave if you don’t want me to,” Jingyan said seriously. Mei Changsu stifled a pang of intense happiness.
What was happening to him? He knew Jingyan had to go back.
“This is so sickening,” said Lin Chen in the distance.
He was dressed in the purest white that night in their dream and the material so silken it ran like water over his skin. His hair was brushed until it shone and tied neatly at the back with a silver ribbon. He moved towards Jingyan on light feet and his hair flowed in the breeze as he leaned in. Jingyan watched him without blinking.
“You wouldn’t refuse me, would you?” Mei Changsu said.
“Never.” Jingyan shook his head.
They ended up kissing for hours without stopping and when Mei Changsu awoke he thought his lips were raw and swollen, though it was impossible. It was still the middle of the night and he got up without thinking and walked towards Jingyan’s bedchambers at the other end of the manor. His body was better able to withstand the chill, and the season had changed besides, a few flowers blooming now by the lake nearby. He would take Jingyan there before he left—and perhaps? Perhaps he’d go with him after all to the capital, if not now then in another year or two, once he figured out what he wanted with the rest of his life.
He’d never had to think about it before. It was a given he would follow in his father’s footsteps, and his natural aptitude made it a joy instead of a burden, and later he’d spent so long working in the embers of his life. What would his parents want for him? What would Aunt Jing want for him? “Be healthy,” he imagined her saying. And what about Jingyan?
“Stay with me,” Jingyan muttered in his sleep.
Mei Changsu shook him awake and waited till he was blinking at him.
“I want more kisses,” he said childishly.
Jingyan opened his arms.