Until tonight, Jingyan hasn't shared a bed with anyone but Lin Shu. The last time, it had not been a proper bed but a bedroll sheltered by a copse of trees. At seventeen, they'd still been enchanted by rough camping. Even more so by the freedom to linger through what was usually frantic rutting in some alcove, breathlessly laughing through the fear that they might be caught.
Back then, embraced by flowering trees, Jingyan had won a brief, half-hearted grappling match. He'd pinned Lin Shu's wrists over his head in trampled grass, knowing Lin Shu could have broken free, knowing he was choosing not to. He'd learned, in that dappled moonlight, how to silence Lin Shu's busy mouth with his own. They'd reasoned their way through a handful of firsts, making a mess of it, delighting in it, and ultimately falling asleep sated and heavy and sticky and together.
That night, Jingyan had swallowed back secrets — had buried the impulse to hide his face in Lin Shu's hair and whisper, be mine, be mine, be mine.
Two years later, Lin Shu was dead.
Jingyan has wondered, always wondered, if anything would have been different if Lin Shu had gone to his death knowing he held Jingyan's heart.
Would he ever have had the strength to tell him? Would words have been sufficient?
These questions surface once more, absurdly, as he tries to sleep in Mei Changsu's bed. The room is too warm for his tastes, braziers still radiating dry heat.
Jingyan is not accustomed to resting in the presence of another. He has huddled for warmth, but never allowed himself to sleep. He has fucked for the release of it and briefly known the intimacy of skin pressed against skin, but it has only been a way to pass time. It has always felt the way he felt blindly running his hands through silt at the bottom of the sea, seeking, seeking. It has never felt the way it felt to close his hands around the jagged edge of an oyster and know in his heart he would open it to find a pearl.
It is late, and Jingyan's mind is wandering recklessly. He attributes it to this place, to the strangeness of sleeping somewhere familiar but unfamiliar all the same. He desires Mei Changsu's touch, but despite the way they passed the evening, he isn't sure he would be welcome under the furs with him, welcome in his arms.
One pale hand extends from the rumpled pile of furs.
Jingyan brushes his knuckles against it.
Mei Changsu is cool to the touch and sleeps with the stillness of the dead. He is a splinter that has come to lodge itself in a space that Jingyan does not want to acknowledge.
He is beautiful in a strange way, resting on his back with hair loosened by Jingyan's eager hands earlier. His lower lip is still flushed and swollen from a too-hungry kiss. There's a small bruise at his collarbone from a mouth that lingered too long. I did this, Jingyan thinks, unreasonably pleased despite his restlessness.
It's a half-pleasure, though.
He cannot fully experience contentment when Mei Changsu, even in sleep, makes him feel so unsettled.
Mei Changsu tried to hold back under his touch, not due to the limitations of his frail body, but as if he feared wanting. Jingyan would wake him now, if he thought it wise to do so, to see if another approach might shake Mei Changsu out of his resolve. Surely if he applied himself, he could find a way to shatter Mei Changsu's dogged control.
Look at me, Jingyan wanted to say. Let me look at you.
When he finally drifts off, he dreams of Lin Shu sunbathing beside a river, naked and gold with summer, never quiet, smiling eyes tracking Jingyan's every move as he cuts through the water, swimming against the current.
It feels as if no time has gone by when Jingyan wakes with his face damp, shaken out of sleep by cries he believes to be his own, at first.
It is Mei Changsu.
Watery dawn light seeps into the room, Su Manor's high walls sheltering them from the golden reach of the rising sun. Before Jingyan can react to Mei Changsu's low whimpers, Li Gang enters the room. His eyes briefly widen before he sketches a bow with his arms full and murmurs, "Your Highness."
Jingyan wipes his eyes and waves him off, too focused on Mei Changsu to pay heed to what Li Gang must think of finding a prince in his chief's bed. "What is wrong with him?" he asks.
"Ah," Li Gang hedges, coming to sit on the edge of the bed. "He should not sleep on his back. It makes it worse. Please move him onto his side."
Flooded with guilt, Jingyan carefully eases Mei Changsu to face him with his back to Li Gang. He watches, blood gone cold, as Li Gang begins to thud his cupped hands up and down Mei Changsu's back. It makes a hollow sound. Mei Changsu coughs. Gasps. Coughs. Wheezes.
It is like watching a man drowning.
"Why doesn't that wake him up?" Jingyan asks, pulling his discarded inner robe over his shoulders. He takes Mei Changsu's cold hand in his own, wishing he shared his mother's vast knowledge. The only thing Mei Changsu's pulse tells him is that he's alive. Mei Changsu's faintly blue lips, the labored sound of his shallow breathing between coughing spells — they're at odds with the stubborn flutter under Jingyan's fingers.
"Chief sleeps too heavily. It's difficult for him to wake. It hurts," Li Gang says as if it is a simple fact. He appears to be quite accustomed to it by the way he finishes up his drumming blows and fits two heated bricks wrapped in soft linen against Mei Changsu's back.
"It hurts," Jingyan repeats numbly, feeling briefly as if he is falling. The sounds Mei Changsu makes in his sleep are not the echoes of a nightmare but his response to surfacing to pain. Jingyan is certain that Mei Changsu would not allow his pain to be so plainly known were he awake. "Does this occur every morning?"
"Yes," Li Gang says without emotion, handing Jingyan a bowl of warmed salve. "For his hands. It eases the ache." Scooping some of the oily paste out in one hand, he carefully exposes Mei Changsu's pale shoulder and begins to work it into his lean muscle.
There is, Jingyan notes, a bite mark there.
Li Gang does not remark on it.
Mei Changsu gasps, waking enough to try to squirm away from the touch at his shoulder. "Stop," he whispers. It is the first sound to take the shape of a word, and Jingyan hates it.
Li Gang ignores him. Once more, Jingyan is struck by the rote nature of Li Gang's efforts. Every morning. Every morning.
Feeling as if he is witnessing a battle from a distance, Jingyan rubs salve into Mei Changu's hand and asks, "Will you show me how to do what you're doing?"
"Yan-daifu would be better at demonstrating, your Highness." Li Gang says. Nevertheless, he extends his hand.
It takes Jingyan a moment to understand that he is meant to offer Li Gang his own. There's a startling intimacy to the way Li Gang takes his hand and shows him how to dig his thumb into the knotty muscle and over the complicated workings of Mei Changsu's shoulder.
Mei Changsu turns his face into the cushion and exhales a weak sob.
"It's making it worse," Jingyan protests quietly. Last night, he drew similar sounds from his strategist. Now the sounds are quieter, helpless and unhappy. Jingyan feels sick.
"He will not be able to move without treatment, your Highness," Li Gang says, politely firm. This is his domain. There's an air of protectiveness about him that Jingyan is glad for. What would Mei Changsu do alone in his agony? How long would he cry out in his sleep, trying to escape his own body.
Jingyan cannot bear to consider it.
Zhen Ping comes in to refresh the braziers with hot coals. He bustles in and out, paying them very little mind. Soon, there are bowls of hot water cooling to a drinkable temperature on the table beside the bed.
Li Gang shows Jingyan how to carefully uncover only the parts of Mei Changsu's body being tended to. Mei Changsu is otherwise kept under two layers of furs. He doesn't feel warm to the touch, but he doesn't shiver, either.
He shivered the night before. He shook.
Jingyan cannot be sure, but he thought he heard his name, too familiar, escape from Mei Changu's gasping lips when he used his mouth on him.
"Should he avoid exertion?" Jingyan finally works up the courage to ask, feeling terribly ashamed for overworking a sick man.
Li Gang bites back a mirthless laugh. "Even if that were the case, do you think he would comply with the recommendation?"
"He will do as I say if I tell him he mustn't," Jingyan snaps. It is only after he's allowed his frustration to show plainly that he becomes fully aware of exactly what kind of exertion they're both referring to. His face heats.
Between them, Mei Changsu abruptly shakes with laughter. "Is that so, your Highness?" he asks, voice muffled by the volume of furs around him.
Relief and embarrassment mingle in Jingyan, dizzying him. He releases Mei Changsu's ankle to shift in the bed and seek out his gaze. "Sir Su. You're awake." The words are eager, painfully boyish. He hates the way he sounds, but he cannot restrain himself. "Are you comfortable?"
Mei Changsu watches him, a twitch of a smile at his lips, gone in a breath. He nods, eyes briefly glinting with a conspiracy quite unlike those he mulls over day in and out. "Yes," he finally says, shifting under the furs in a careful, slow stretch.
Li Gang and Zhen Ping have abruptly vacated the room.
Heart beating much harder than it ought to, Jingyan bends low to kiss Mei Changsu's mouth.
"Come under the furs," Mei Changsu says into the kiss, commanding. "Warm me."
Jingyan finds that he cannot say no, nor can he voice the strange impulse that catches in his throat like a sigh of grief. Be mine. Working his way under the soft pelts, he fits his body against Mei Changsu's, wraps one arm and leg around him and draws him closer. The smells of medicinal herbs and sex mingle, comforting in their specificity.
Mei Changsu takes a slow, full breath and exhales. The sound is weak, but clear. "Don't worry, your Highness. These are only winter aches. They're of no consequence."
Jingyan frowns. "They're of consequence to me."
Mei Changsu hums, noncommittal. He shifts like he's settling into place. There's tension in him, but not as much as before, when Jingyan laid him bare and mapped his body with his searching mouth — when Mei Changsu covered his face with one hand as if he did not wish to be seen taking pleasure.
The weight of the sleepless night bears down on Jingyan, and he startles from the edge of that precipice, arms tightening reflexively.
Mei Changsu makes a warm sound, his lips moving in a smile against Jingyan's cheek. He brushes his cold feet against Jingyan's. "I am in no hurry to emerge," he says. "Go back to sleep. You're more pleasing to touch than these hot bricks. And more stimulating company."
"Well, I do not wish to sleep," Jingyan says.
"You've never been a good liar." Mei Changsu says it with fondness and absolute confidence, as if he knows Jingyan's whole heart. As if he's always known it. More quietly, as if he does not mean to speak the words, he adds, "Stay a while longer."
He has no right to make demands of a prince. Yet he does without hesitation.
Even more baffling, Jingyan finds that he is pleased to obey the gentle order. Wholly pleased. Consumed with the glow of it.
The morning is hushed, heavy with the threat of snowfall. Jingyan drifts to the sensation of Mei Changsu worrying his fingers at the sleeve of his robe. It stirs a memory, but he cannot wrap his hands around it, sleep demanding that he know nothing but how safe he feels in this unlikely embrace.