There are some memories that will stick with you. Moments that shape you, change you, ones you revisit over and over in your mind, examining from every angle. Xuē Yáng wasn’t much one for introspection, he’d be the first to admit that, but he recognised that he had had many such moments over the years, moments he could feel something shift in his understanding of the world, his place in it, his purpose.
Losing his finger.
Holding a knife for the first time.
Manipulating the qi in his body for the first time.
Discovering demonic cultivation.
Meeting Xiǎo Xīngchén.
It was funny, really, because Xuē Yáng was damn certain this moment was going to join those others, immortalised, white and red and iron scent and the way the sobs cut off and why the fuck was Xuē Yáng still standing still, watching, musing on how it was going to replay behind his eyes over and over and over and over when he could be moving, why the fuck wasn’t he moving, doing something, that was too much red, there shouldn’t be red, it would stain his robes, red red red red Dàozhǎng wasn’t breathing—
Xuē Yáng was kneeling beside him, skin was too pale, too cold already under unsteady fingertips, and still more red, this wasn’t meant to happen, heart still warm and beating because it didn’t realise the body was dead already, squeezing the last of the life from his chest, not much longer—
No! Fuck that! Xiǎo Xīngchén didn’t—he couldn’t—he wasn’t allowed to just—just leave! No! This wasn’t—they’d been having fun! They didn’t work like this, Xiǎo Xīngchén didn’t give up, he didn’t stop—
This wasn’t allowed.
The wound was too long. Blood was too quick. It pushed between his fingers, escaping, all the heat that should be under Xiǎo Xīngchén’s skin burning his hands instead.
Why did he have to make things so difficult? Why didn’t he understand? Why didn’t he argue? Why this, why red, why red , why red, why couldn’t he just act like Xuē Yáng wanted him to! They liked each other! It was so simple! They could have kept playing for years and years but—it would serve him right if Xuē Yáng made him into a fierce corpse. Sòng Lán and Xiǎo Xīngchén, a matching pair, obedient twin weapons that didn’t get to just choose to leave him and bleed—
No, no, then Xiǎo Xīngchén would never be warm again, he should always be warm and laughing and teasing and—and—and if the edges came together again the heat would stay inside and his heart would grow strong again and warm and Xuē Yáng could fix him! Make him better!
It wasn’t working. Qi too slow too weak, he never used it for healing other people, didn’t know how to direct it to stitch the flesh closed, Xiǎo Xīngchén’s own spirit greedily drawing the qi in like a drowning thing gasping air, but the wound wasn’t fixed, it was all just flowing free again—Wound Transfer Curse! That would work, if he could find someone nearby to curse. Someone living. Someone in a town full of puppet corpses. The curse didn’t work on the undead, a big flaw really, it would be so useful for assassination otherwise—
Oh! Someone living!
Xuē Yáng giggled, tracing the sigils to cast the curse in the air. Immediately he felt lightheaded, his free hand flying to his own throat to stem the blood. Xiǎo Xīngchén’s neck was flawless now, sticky, stained red but whole, he was breathing again, yes! Xuē Yáng had won! He’d beaten him! Xiǎo Xīngchén wasn’t allowed to die.
When had he laid down? Everything was fuzzy.
Xiǎo Xīngchén’s heartbeat was still too fluttery beneath his fingertips. Vessel sealed but close to drained and empty. He needed more energy. Xuē Yáng let more pour through his fingers, and everything went black and loud for a few seconds, and oh… oh, he didn’t feel well. It was… cold… hot? He was forgetting something important… mouth tasted like blood, his neck was still bleeding... that wasn’t right, was it? Xuē Yáng may not know how to heal other people but he’d always been great at healing his own wounds with qi... it was a simple wound, it shouldn’t be so difficult...
Oh. Xiǎo Xīngchén had stabbed him, hadn’t he? Was that why he couldn’t feel his legs?
Xiǎo Xīngchén was very pretty, even with the bloody tears staining his cheeks… he wanted to lick them away. Xiǎo Xīngchén shouldn’t cry. He should smile. He had a good smile.
Huh. Xuē Yáng was dying. He was going to die. Weird. He’d never really thought he could die... Not like those other weak people, but here he was... Dying. Qi quickly growing exhausted, ignoring two mortal wounds because why bother with them when he could make Xiǎo Xīngchén’s heartbeat grow stronger? Xiǎo Xīngchén would live. He had to. Xuē Yáng wanted it to be so.
He didn't want to die... he still had to make Xiǎo Xīngchén laugh again...
It was cold.
Ice encased his limbs, holding him still, slowing his thoughts. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t focus on anything other than the sunlight burning his neck, the only warmth he’d ever felt. Needed it. If it stopped he would freeze. Greedy for it, clawing at it, dragging it closer, into his veins. Flowing through him and setting everything on fire to melt away the ice. Maybe he could move. Maybe he could free himself. Fire was easier to maintain, easier to keep feeding it now—
Xiǎo Xīngchén frowned. This wasn’t right. His last memory had been Chéngměi—no, wait, metal under his fingertips carved with a name as familiar as his own—no, it had been Xuē Yáng, not Chéngměi, Chéngměi had been Xuē Yáng all along—no, no, please, no, that had to be a fever dream, right? Zǐchēn couldn’t be—Xuē Yáng couldn’t be so cruel as to—
Hadn’t he cut his own neck? Yes, he remembered that—
There were shallow gasping breaths coming from just in front of his face. Weak fingers resting on his neck, a strong scent of blood. Qi very nearby, but erratic and fading quickly, like someone dying, what had Xuē Yáng done? Who else had he hurt? What was going on?
Xiǎo Xīngchén reached forward—but that didn’t make sense, he recognised the feel of that tunic, why would he be—his hand found Xuē Yáng’s neck, gently tracing across the edges of the open wound, a mirror for the one Xiǎo Xīngchén had opened on his own neck, a wound now healed—
What had Xuē Yáng done?
Without waiting for his mind to catch up, Xiǎo Xīngchén felt his hands moving in the familiar patterns used for healing, pinning the wound closed with qi. Had that been the warmth that had pushed away the ice? An attempt at healing? But why, why give so much? Why take on such a deadly wound? What sort of—it couldn’t be from selflessness, only minutes before Xuē Yáng had bragged about how little worth the lives of others held for him, but what sort of scheme would risk death like this?
A wave of dizziness swept over him and Xiǎo Xīngchén nearly fell forward, catching himself on shaking arms. Right. Even if Xuē Yáng had somehow healed him, he had recently lost a great deal of blood and qi. His reserves were struggling to keep himself awake, let alone heal someone else, and it was no small injury Xuē Yáng was suffering from. Two mortal injuries. Neck and gut. He definitely couldn’t heal two mortal injuries right now. Could he even heal one?
Perhaps… it would be better this way… Xuē Yáng had done so many terrible things, hurt so many people, and Xiǎo Xīngchén had always tried to subdue rather than kill when they were in combat but sometimes enemies fought to the death, if he had been mortally wounded—
What in the world was he thinking? No, he couldn’t just leave someone to die, not even someone like Xuē Yáng. Choosing not to help, not to try, that would be a more thorough abandonment of his principles than any cruel trick Xuē Yáng had managed to play on him. It didn’t matter what sort of person needed his help, only whether or not he chose to give it.
...and if Xuē Yáng died now, Xiǎo Xīngchén would never discover why he would do something so selfless as to transfer a mortal wound onto himself to save another’s life.
None of this changed the fact that he was still too weak to actually heal anyone, but there was still one option left. Quick as he could, he drew several sigils through the air, wobbling as the charm took most of what little qi he had left. Xuē Yáng’s weak breathing slowed further, then stopped completely, his heartbeat frozen. But he didn’t grow cold, his spiritual cognition falling into a deep sleep. The stasis spell would hold for a few days, if they were lucky. The wounds wouldn’t heal, but they wouldn’t get any worse, and that was good enough for now.