At Meiling, snow blankets the ground like a funeral shroud.
Lying on the bed inside his tent, Mei Changsu cannot see any more than the occasional tiny white flake that drifts in through the slight gap next to the tent’s opening flap, but he doesn’t need to look to be able to visualize that same desolate, blank stretch of land that haunts his dreams and memories.
Then, just as now, these cliffs were dotted with the frostbitten bodies of soldiers from both sides, their corpses slowly buried by the silent snow even as their comrades fought for their lives with steel and fire. It is a treacherous and unforgiving landscape, void of all life and warmth, the place of Lin Shu’s death and Mei Changsu’s birth.
As Lin Shu, he had bravely faced the bitter wind that rushed into every nook and cranny, greedily sucking away whatever little warmth a body had and biting at any exposed skin, but this time, returning under the identity of Mei Changsu, he is past pain and no longer feels its sting.
He is close to death now. This he knows, not from the fatigue that has set back into his bones like an old friend, nor the red that he can no longer keep from staining his sleeve when he coughs, but rather the look of Lin Chen’s eyes each time he comes into the tent to check on him and the tense of his jaw as he takes his pulse.
Just like they’d hoped, the effects of the bingxu pills had lasted long enough for him to see out the bulk of the war, but as the enemy forces were being firmly beaten into retreat, his condition had begun to rapidly deteriorate.
Where two weeks ago he still had been able to ride a horse, now, it would take all of his energy to even attempt to stand. He has not left his bed in a few days. Lin Chen tells him to rest more, to try not to strain his weakening body, but both of them know that at this point, there is nothing more that can be done to stave off the inevitable.
“You should drink something.” Dressed in the dull colors of his army uniform, Lin Chen looks completely different from the uninhibited dandy of a jianghu doctor he was back in Jinling, but everything else about him, from how he carries himself to the way even now he won’t stop his nagging makes it clear that he is still every bit the man Mei Changsu knows.
The corner of his mouth quirks up into a fond smile. “Alright.”
Lin Chen snorts as he reaches for the teapot resting over the little brazier at the bedside. “Glad you’ve finally learned to listen to my medical advice,” he says, pouring a cup and holding it up to Mei Changsu’s lips.
Mei Changsu rolls his eyes, but still complies, savoring the bloom of warmth the hot water brings to the deep-rooted chill that holds a perpetual grip on his chest. As always, Lin Chen’s hands are gentle and steady as he helps him drink, but it does nothing to dampen the brief flare of humiliation at being too weak to hold the cup himself.
It’s a ridiculous sentiment. There is no one inside the tent to witness his weakness other than the two of them, with all the soldiers tasked with his safety standing dutifully at their posts outside the tent, and even Fei Liu having gone out somewhere, probably dogging Meng Zhi’s heels like the world’s most petulant shadow—and yet the shame still persists, that same fury at his own helplessness that had pulled him from the darkness of his grief all those years ago and set him on the path that led them all to this very moment.
Drinking down the rest of the water, he doesn’t move as Lin Chen wipes away the little bit that spilled down his chin, then watches silently as Lin Chen places the cup down and reaches again for the teapot.
Back then, it had been just the two of them like this too, Lin Chen spending countless sleepless nights at his bedside, nursing his burned body back to health while also providing a sarcastic soundboard to the first drafts of his plans. From even before the first pieces were placed upon the chessboard and the opening moves were made, he’s always been a constant presence by Mei Changsu’s side, either physically or just a courier pigeon’s length away. It’s only fitting that now, as they reach the end of this game, Lin Chen is the one who is with him as he puts the finishing touches on his life’s work.
“The letters,” Mei Changsu says as Lin Chen pours another cup. “Can you make sure they’re sent?”
Lin Chen spares a glance towards the envelopes stacked on the table next to the bed, nodding as he sets down the teapot and picks up the cup again. “Of course.”
Feeling almost like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders, Mei Changsu lets Lin Chen give him another drink, eyes briefly closing at the crushing exhaustion that follows when he swallows the last drop.
The letters are the last things he needed to do. His affairs have been in order for a long time now, but it’s with these last words to the people he cares about that he is finally ready for death. There is one for Jingyan, one for Nihuang, one for Li Gang and Zhen Ping back in Langzhou, and more, each containing his well-wishes for their futures as well as notifying them of his death.
Maybe it’s the coward’s way out, not wanting to have to see the grief on their faces as someone breaks them the news. But he is just so, so tired, and he hopes they will understand.
“Anything else you need? Want me to call anyone in here?” Lin Chen’s voice sounds muffled, as if travelling through water, and Mei Changsu has to strain his ears to decipher his words.
Ah, Lin Chen.
The thought occurs to him that he hadn’t written Lin Chen a letter. Not that he really needs to, he thinks. Lin Chen already knows him too well.
He doesn’t know what he would write anyway.
“No,” he manages to say, voice growing fainter as sleep threatens to take him. “Don’t call anyone. Just—don’t go.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he thinks he hears Lin Chen say with a sigh. “I promised that I would accompany you until the very end, remember?”
Something pulls at his chest then, a strange, empty feeling he can’t quite place.
Right. Thank you, he wishes he could say, but it’s too late now, the sweet darkness of unconsciousness dragging him into a sleep from which he suspects he will not wake, and as he feels someone take his hand, the callouses on the inside of their warm palm catching against his cold, clammy skin, he hopes that if this is the end, Lin Chen knows how grateful he is to have had him by his side.
Mei Changsu wakes.
The first thing he notices is that he doesn’t feel anything. Gone is the pain that had been his constant companion, gone is the fatigue that sapped away all his stamina, and gone is the chill that filled his lungs, freezing him with each breath.
The second thing he notices is the presence of several people in his close vicinity, the low murmur of their voices cutting off abruptly as he stirs.
He opens his eyes.
“Xiao Sh—uh, Su-xiangsheng!” Meng Zhi’s concerned face looms large above him, blocking out his field of vision with its proximity. “How are you feeling?”
“…Good,” Mei Changsu says slowly, struggling to find words as his mind tries to sort through the flood of disorienting new sensations.
He lifts his hand in front of his face, staring at it. Where his skin had once been cold and so pale it could almost be grey, now it’s flushed with a healthy pink undertone and feels warm to the touch.
Is he dead? If he is, why is Meng Zhi here with him? And if he isn’t, why does he suddenly look and feel well again, as if his body had returned to how it was prior to Meiling?
Meng Zhi’s face breaks out into a wide, relieved smile. “We thought we were going to lose you,” he says, hand clapping Mei Changsu’s shoulder with a force that would’ve caused him no small amount of pain had his body been in its previous condition. “Thank god Lin-gongzi was here. I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of the man when I first met him, but he really is a genius of a doctor.”
Mei Changsu frowns. “Lin Chen? What did he do?”
“He said he’d just finished developing an experimental treatment that should restore you back to your full health and cure the poison for good, so we decided to give it a shot. According to him, you should still rest and take your medicine for a few days, but after that, you should be as healthy as before!”
“I’m…cured?” Mei Changsu’s eyes widen in disbelief, even despite the tiny, fragile hope that blooms in his chest.
Slowly, he tries to sit up, barely able to contain his shock as the movement neither causes any pain, nor leaves him short of breath.
He looks back at Meng Zhi, a tentative smile stretching across his face. “Where’s Lin Chen?”
A sudden silence falls over the room, and the smile freezes on Mei Changsu’s face as his mind fills with a horrible suspicion.
“What did he do?”
Meng Zhi shifts awkwardly, unable to meet his gaze. “Well, you see, he said he’d figured out how to make a cure with the bingxu pills, but to do so would require a blood transfusion, from someone with a high enough qi. Plenty of people volunteered, of course, but he refused to show anyone else how to do it, and instead said he’d do the transfusion from himself.”
Mei Changsu clenches his fists, fingernails digging into his palms.
“Where is he?”
Meng Zhi sighs and bows his head. “He’s in his tent. After the transfusion, he fell unconscious, so we had a doctor tend to him, but he does not respond to anything and has not woken since. The doctor says he isn’t sure he will.”
Mei Changsu closes his eyes, all previous elation forgotten in his anger and despair. This wasn’t supposed to happen, he thinks. Bastard. You knew I never would’ve wanted this.
“Take me to him.”
Lin Chen is laid out on his bed in nothing but a simple white robe, his eyes closed and a blanket pulled up to his chest as if simply asleep. Like Meng Zhi had said, he does not react as Mei Changsu enters, though Fei Liu, who is sitting on the ground by the foot of the bed, glances up with a mournful look on his young face.
With each step that takes him closer to the bedside, Mei Changsu feels his heart thud painfully in his chest, an inescapable reminder of Lin Chen’s blood—Lin Chen’s life—pumping through his veins.
He kneels down at Lin Chen’s side, staring silently. Lin Chen’s face is pale and his body still as death, chest barely moving with each shallow breath. He looks frail, maybe even more than Mei Changsu himself had been, a far cry from the man he had talked to barely more than a day ago.
A bitter, desperate rage bubbles up in Mei Changsu’s throat.
“Traitor,” he spits, grateful that Meng Zhi thought to allow him his privacy, letting him enter the tent alone. “All that talk about understanding me, about sacrificing one’s life for one’s morals—you told Li Gang, Zhen Ping, and Wei Zheng that they couldn’t exchange their lives for mine, but you still went ahead with exchanging yours. Why couldn’t you just let me die?”
“Won’t die.” Fei Liu’s voice sounds small, his expression filled with a fearful uncertainty as he looks at Mei Changsu, eyes searching his for a reassurance he cannot give. “With you…won’t die?”
Mei Changsu looks back at him, anger dissipating to be replaced by a bone-crushing weariness and sorrow. “I’m not a doctor,” he says, unable to keep the grief from his voice any longer. “I’m sorry, Fei Liu. I don’t know how to help him.”
Fei Liu gives a jerky shake of his head and reaches over, grabbing Mei Changsu’s hand and dragging it over to Lin Chen’s slack one.
“With you, won’t die,” he repeats, pleading, squeezing their hands together.
Mei Changsu doesn’t know how to respond, doesn’t know how to soothe the pain of the boy’s heart when his own is breaking too. “Fei Liu…”
“Won’t die!” Fei Liu shouts, a stubborn jut to his chin as he jumps to his feet, and Mei Changsu can only stare helplessly after him as he turns and runs out of the tent, leaving him with nothing other than Lin Chen’s cold hand in his.
Exhaustion crashes down on him all at once, his newly healed body still unused to much physical or even emotional exertion. He leans his head down against the edge of the bed, reluctant to let Lin Chen’s hand go even as he closes his eyes.
“You promised you wouldn’t leave me,” he whispers, squeezing Lin Chen’s hand tighter as if trying to will his life force to transfer back to Lin Chen through their joined hands. “Don’t make me have to drag you back from the courts of hell to make you keep your promise.”
It’s the last thought he has before he feels himself drifting off, his consciousness fading as the weight of his fatigue and grief overwhelms him.
Once again, Mei Changsu opens his eyes to a completely unforeseen situation.
This time, rather than finding himself with a new lease on life, he finds himself standing in an unfamiliar place, with absolutely no clue as to how and why he’s no longer in Lin Chen’s tent on the battlefields of Meiling.
Here, instead of the edge of a snow-covered cliff that stretches out as far as the eye can see, he seems to be in some sort of dark, rocky cavern. All around him, the cold stone that forms the ground beneath him is dotted with stalagmites rising upwards out from the cavern floor, but the ceiling stretches so far above him that he cannot make anything out of the darkness.
He is not alone either. Surrounding him is a vast crowd of people of all sizes, shapes, and manners of dress, all of whom are walking silently towards a faintly glowing light at the cavern’s end.
None of them pay him any attention as they pass him, each simply focused on their single destination, and even trying to get anyone’s attention by addressing them or grabbing at their sleeve receives hardly any reaction before they continue on their way.
Discomfited, Mei Changsu takes an uneasy step forward, only to nearly stumble over an object.
Looking down, he freezes as he sees something white glinting next to his foot, eyes widening in recognition as he realizes it’s Lin Chen’s hairpin. Picking it up, he wipes off the little spots of dirt and grime, holding it up to his face.
Lin Chen was here, he thinks, fingers running over the familiar circular shape. Somehow, something tells him it’s a sign that he’s in the exact place he needs to be. Without further ado, he tucks the hairpin into his sleeve and follows the crowd forward, letting it lead him to his next destination.
As he draws closer to the place the crowd is heading towards, he sees that the source of the light is actually several lanterns hung over an open gate. Standing on either side of the gate are two guards armed with polearms, the helmets they wear shrouding their faces in shadow.
They do not move, letting the crowd flow by them without any reaction—that is, until Mei Changsu steps up to the gate and suddenly finds himself blocked by a spear.
“You do not belong here.” The booming voice he hears seems to come from neither the right nor the left, but looking around does not give any clue as to another possible source, so he takes a step back to address both the guards together.
“I must go through. I am looking for someone.”
The guards do not budge.
“No. It is not your time. Leave, or your soul is forfeit.”
Mei Changsu tenses, readying himself to fight, but before he can make a move, an achingly familiar voice cuts in.
“I vouch for him. He is my guest.”
All the fight bleeds out of Mei Changsu’s body, his eyes darting up to see a figure standing on the other side of the gate dressed in full ceremonial robes, his bearing just as regal as he had been in life.
It can’t be. And yet—
Both the guards lower their spears, returning to their stationary positions. “He may pass. But he cannot stay long. Make sure he returns.”
Jingyu nods. “Of course,” he says, the same calm and self-assured smile Mei Changsu remembers so vividly from his childhood upon his face.
Stunned speechless, Mei Changsu does nothing but silently obey as Jingyu beckons him to enter. Crossing the gate’s threshold, the darkness above changes into an endless indigo sky filled with stars and dancing lights of all shades and types, their soft glow washing the ground below them in alternating splashes of color, but he still says nothing as he follows Jingyu a short distance away from the crowd of people. They stop next to a tree off the side of the path, a stone table surrounded by carved stone stools tucked in the shade of its leafless branches.
Jingyu takes a seat on one of the stools, gesturing for Mei Changsu to as well.
“Hello, Xiao Shu,” he says as Mei Changsu sits, a gentle smile on his face. “It’s been a long time.”
A lump catches in Mei Changsu’s throat. “Prince Qi…Jingyu-gege. I missed you. Da Liang suffered an unimaginable loss with your death.”
Jingyu hums consideringly. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’ve heard that you’ve been quite busy in the years since I passed. It is good to know that Da Liang is in good hands.”
Mei Changsu bows his head. “Jingyan and I—we’ve done our best, but we could never measure up to you.”
“Could, would, should,” Jingyu says, shaking his head. “Here in the realm of the dead, none of that matters anymore. Look around you. All these souls, they are headed to the Bridge of Helplessness. Along the way, they will be judged by the river with what they have done, not what they wish they had done. When it is your turn, I hope that you will be able to walk across confidently, without any regrets or unfinished business weighing you down.”
“I don’t have any regrets or unfinished business,” Mei Changsu insists, eyes blazing. “I got the emperor to reopen the Chiyan case, and brought justice to the Chiyan Army, my parents, and you. I rooted out the corruption in the imperial court and helped Jingyan to the throne to ensure a better future for Da Liang. I did everything I promised to do.”
“Did you?” Jingyu’s smile turns sly, knowing. “What of the promises you made to Jingyan? To Princess Nihuang? Or to the one you came here to find? Were those not promises as well?”
“I didn’t—” Mei Changsu says, then stops. Tries again. “Those were just…”
Jingyu reaches across the table, placing a gentle hand on Mei Changsu’s shoulder. “I say this, dear cousin, not to condemn your actions, but to spare you from having to wait here for longer than you have to, unable to cross into your next life.”
Mei Changsu looks at him, eyebrows drawing together. “You have unfinished business.”
Jingyu nods, his eyes taking on a tinge of melancholy. “I am waiting for someone. Before I cross, I hope he and I can have a final talk with each other and bring peace to both our souls.”
Returning his hand to his lap, Jingyu sits back to gaze at the parade of people walking along the winding path beside them, their silhouettes of their bodies occasionally flickering into transparency as they file past.
“I do not know if the one you are looking for also has decided to wait, but if they have not, you do not have much time before they cross the bridge and are made to drink the soup of forgetfulness, after which they will be lost to you forever,” Jingyu says, nodding towards where all the shades are headed towards—a red bridge hanging high against the star-studded sky, seemingly supported by nothing even as it stretches across a body of water so vast that the edge of it disappears into the horizon. “If I were you, I would head there before it is too late. Be careful not to take too long, else the judges of the court will be sent after you, and I will no longer be able to help you.”
Mei Changsu bows his head. “Thank you, Jingyu-gege. I will keep your advice close to heart.”
Jingyu nods and smiles. “It was good to see you again, but should fate be willing, I hope this will be the last time. In another life, perhaps,” he says, standing back up. “Now go. There are still promises you have yet to fulfill.”
Chastised, Mei Changsu gets to his feet as well, giving Jingyu another bow, but when he looks back up, he is alone, Jingyu’s spirit nowhere to be found.
He lingers for a moment, lost in thought, the weight of Jingyu’s words hanging heavy on his mind as he turns back to rejoin the procession of souls headed for the bridge.
As he walks along the winding path, the trees and bushes by the side of the walkway grow fewer and fewer, their numbers thinning out until he doesn’t see them anymore. In their place, a carpet of red spider lilies spreads out from the edge of the path all the way down to the river bank, their thin, spindly petals swaying gently in an imperceptible breeze.
Almost halfway to the bridge, Mei Changsu begins to tire. All the spirits around him seem to take painstaking effort in sticking to the exact twists and turns of the path they are walking on, but to get to the riverbank, it would be much faster to simply cut across the field of flowers, he thinks.
Stopping at a bend in the road, he takes a careful look around. Seeing nothing to deter him from his desired shortcut, he steps towards the flowers, intending to cross through them instead of having to walk all the way around when a hand grabs the back of his robe, pulling him back.
“Son, you don’t want to step in those. They’re cursed.”
Heart leaping into his throat, Mei Changsu whirls around. His sight confirms what he hardly dared to believe he heard.
Clad in his full, shiny set of battle armor, his father grins at him, looking just as strong and impressive as Mei Changsu remembers. Beside him, also smiling, is his mother, dressed in her favorite, flowing purple robe as she stands at her husband’s side.
“Xiao Shu,” his mother says, the sound of his name on her lips so familiar it makes his heart ache. “We missed you.”
Thirteen years of pain and grief come rushing back at once and Mei Changsu falls to his knees. “I missed you both too,” he says, voice breaking on the last word. “Why are you still here? I thought—I gave the soldiers of the Chiyan Army the dignity of a proper burial, I cleared your names and the name of our family—”
“And we are proud,” his father interrupts, kneeling down beside him and placing a hand on his arm. “But now that you have done everything you could have for us and more, our only wish is that you continue to live and find happiness for yourself. This is what we waited to tell you.”
“Why should I have lived when so many did not? I was supposed to die,” he says, the words tumbling out of him in a jumbled mess.
“Everyone is supposed to die eventually,” his mother tells him, her gentle fingers cupping his cheek. “Your time just doesn’t need to come yet.”
Mei Changsu shakes his head. “I would’ve died again if it hadn’t been for Lin Chen foolishly trading his life away for mine.”
His father gives a small chuckle. “You would lay down your life for others, so why is it so strange to know that others would lay their life down for you?”
“I never wanted him to!”
“And he doesn’t want you to either,” his mother says. She smiles, reaching out to brush a stray hair out of her face before reaching for his hands and pulling him back to his feet. “I think you will find, my son, that just as you care for others, there are many people who care for you too. To respect that care, the least you can do is to treat your own life with respect as well.”
His father stands too, pulling a long, thin object from inside his sleeve and pressing it into Mei Changsu’s hand. “Stick to the path. Just as the leaves of the spider lily only appear when its blossoms wilt away, it curses all who touch it with eternal separation from their loved ones. If you want to bring him back, be careful and go now, before it’s too late. We will stay here, waiting for when it’s your time, but that time hasn’t come yet, so we expect you to live a good long life, understood?”
“I…will try,” Mei Changsu says, fingers wrapping tightly around the familiar wood of Lin Chen’s fan. He gives both his parents one last bow, his promise filling his chest with a new determination.
His parents nod back at him, their eyes shining with a pride and love that makes his heart ache, and he takes a brief moment to commit every detail of their faces to memory before returning to his mission.
This time, he is patient as he walks along the path, obediently following the flow of the crowd as they all slowly make their way to the bridge. Just as before, none of the spirits around him react to his presence or make any noise, with even their footsteps making no sound as they continue towards their final destination. With each spirit he passes, Mei Changsu tries to see if he can spot Lin Chen, but out of all the faces he checks, he finds he does not recognize a single one.
In this way, it doesn’t feel long before he finds himself at the foot of the bridge, its lacquered red wooden steps climbing up into the sky with no end in sight.
Resting a hand along the carved railing, Mei Changsu looks down below to the riverbank, eyes lingering for a moment upon where the sea of blood-red flowers meets the edge of the dark, murky water. Fallen petals decorate the water’s surface, drifting lazily amongst a stream of glowing paper lanterns floating downriver.
Mesmerized by their warm, flickering lights, he leans closer, trying to see if he can decipher any of the black brush marks decorating the paper of their surfaces when a flash of white enters the edge of his field of vision.
“They’re wishes sent by the living, hoping to reach their loved ones.”
Startled, he spins around, but his readied admonishment dies at the tip of his tongue when he catches sight of the speaker.
Standing beside him, leaning against the bridge’s wooden railing with a familiar, confident smirk, is none other than the brightest boy in Jinling. Dressed in his old white tunic and vest, his face and demeanor filled with a youthful arrogance, he looks just as he had before setting off with the Chiyan Army for that fateful battle all those years ago, still untouched by illness and the weathering of time.
“Me,” the spirit agrees, that same old mischievous twinkle in his eye—the same one he still sees even now sometimes, in the reflections on the surface of the medicine Lin Chen makes him drink.
“But—” Mei Changsu says, unable to tear his eyes away from the strange specter before him. “I’m not dead.”
The spirit smiles. “You’re not. But I am. You said it yourself—I, Lin Shu, the young marshal of the Chiyan Army, am dead.”
“You’re mistaken,” Mei Changsu says, lips pressing into a thin line. “I am Lin Shu.”
The spirit shrugs. “You are, and you aren’t. It’s true, you were once Lin Shu. But people grow. Change. The you of today is not the you of last year, or even the you of yesterday. Each new moment we live through is another death of the person we were before, and that’s what it means to be alive.”
“You’re a child,” Mei Changsu snaps, his patience wearing thin. “What do you know about life or death? You have no right to judge me. You know nothing of what I’ve seen and experienced.”
“Exactly,” the spirit says, grinning. “Because I am not you, and you are not me. It’s been thirteen years—almost half your lifetime ago. Wouldn’t it be sad if you’d never changed, Su-xiansheng?”
Mei Changsu clenches his fists. “Mei Changsu is not a person. He is nothing but a vengeful ghost born out of the massacre of the Chiyan Army, and now that his mission is completed, he deserves nothing more than to fade away along with the ghosts of the seventy-thousand other Chiyan Army soldiers who have finally been given their proper burials.”
The spirit shakes his head, sighing. “Please, if Mei Changsu is not a person, then who is the Su-gege who found and raised Fei Liu, spoiling him and keeping him by his side? Who is the mysterious Chief Mei of the Jiangzuo Alliance who Li Gang and Zhen Ping are so loyal to? And who is Lin Chen’s Changsu, the one he traded away his life to save, and the one who is here now, trying to save him in turn?”
“I don’t—” Mei Changsu splutters, heat filling his cheeks as he finds himself lost for words.
The spirit’s eyes soften slightly even as the corner of his mouth curls upwards. “Like it or not, Mei Changsu is a person, if not in your own eyes, at least in the eyes of the people whose lives you have touched. He is a man of integrity, loyalty, and honor, and I am proud to become him. I only hope you don’t disappoint me with who you decide to become next.”
With his final words, Lin Shu shoots Mei Changsu one last cocky grin and closes his eyes, an orange flame igniting in the center of his chest. Shocked, Mei Changsu rushes toward him, reaching out to try and extinguish the fire, but before he can touch it, the flame has burnt through Lin Shu’s body as if it were made of nothing but paper, and his hand closes over nothing but sparks and ash.
He stands there, motionless, staring at the empty air where his younger self had stood, his mind still trying to wrap itself around what he’d just seen.
Could it have been a trick? Some mirage created by the realm of the dead in order to mess with his head? It made no sense. How could Lin Shu have been standing in front of him when he is still Lin Shu, he thinks, barely able to swallow down the hysterical laughter that threatens to bubble up from within him.
Unless, a little, traitorous voice whispers inside his head.
“I don’t know Lin Shu,” Lin Chen had said during the last argument they’d had before leaving Jinling, betrayal and pain written plain across his face as if Mei Changsu had stabbed him with a dagger and was now twisting the blade. “The friend I kept alive by every possible means was not Lin Shu.”
Lin Chen, who has been here on this journey with him since the very beginning. Lin Chen, who, over the years they’ve known each other, has seen him at his best, his utter worst, and everything in between, who knows him better than anyone else past or present. Lin Chen, with that blustery, conceited attitude of his he puts on to hide his soft heart, never hesitating to call him out on his bullshit, but still, in the end, letting him have his way anyway, no matter how much it hurts him to do so.
He stares up at the bridge’s apex, eyes falling onto a familiar white robe amongst the line of people in the distance. His hand falls open, letting the wind blow away the last particles of ash on his palm as he begins to run, taking the steps two, three at a time.
“Lin Chen!” He pushes his way through the spirits in the crowd, heedless of who he jostles as he squeezes past. As he gets closer, more and more of the spirits he passes are holding small wooden bowls, some filled with liquid, and some not. A cold panic creeps into his lungs, spurring him on even faster.
He’s so close now. He has to reach Lin Chen in time. “Lin Chen!”
As if in anticipation of his destination, the spirits near Lin Chen scatter as he approaches, clearing a space in the crowd. Finally reaching him, Mei Changsu shoots out a hand to grab him by the shoulder, forcing him to turn around.
“Lin Chen,” he gasps out again, heady relief washing over him as he meets Lin Chen’s familiar eyes, heart clenching as he sees Lin Chen’s eyebrows draw together in that same frustrated expression Mei Changsu remembers from every time he tried to avoid taking his medicine. “I’m glad I found you. We have to go, there isn’t much time—”
“Who are you?”
Ice fills Mei Changsu’s veins as the words register, the cold politeness in Lin Chen’s voice freezing him from the inside out as his eyes drop to see the half-empty bowl Lin Chen holds in his hands.
It can’t be.
Desperation fills him as he grabs the front of Lin Chen’s robes, searching for any hint of recognition in his blank eyes.
He can’t be too late. There’s too much he remembers he needs to say now, words of apology, words of thanks, words of affection. He can’t have come all this way and tried so hard for it to all end like this.
“I’m Mei Changsu. Your friend,” he says, uncaring of the way his voice cracks as he holds Lin Chen close, his knuckles turning white with the strength of his grip on Lin Chen’s clothes. “Please. You have to remember. Even when I went back on my promise to not give up on my life, you still stayed by my side, and I never…I never got to say thank you.”
Heart breaking as Lin Chen still stares at him, distant and uncomprehending, Mei Changsu can only swallow down the hopelessness that threatens to choke him and pull Lin Chen into a hug, barely noticing as the bowl is knocked from Lin Chen’s hand, the rest of the soup spilling across the floor.
“Thank you for everything,” he says again, voice hardly more than a whisper as he squeezes Lin Chen tight, as if holding him close could keep him from disappearing from this life forever. “Please don’t leave me now.”
In his arms, he feels Lin Chen let out a surprised wheeze and then a cough, tremors racking his body. Concerned, he loosens his hold, but before he can move away, a hand comes up to rest against his back.
“Who said I was going anywhere? I told you I promised I’d be there with you until the very end, didn’t I?”
Mei Changsu’s eyes widen, his body stiffening with shock. “Lin Chen?”
Lin Chen laughs, the sound of it vibrating through his body before he lets Mei Changsu go, stepping back to look him in the eye. “No, I’m Her Royal Highness the Empress Dowager herself. Who else would I be?”
“Bastard,” Mei Changsu says, a helpless smile breaking out across his face despite his words.
Lin Chen gasps. “Rude! And after all I’ve done for you,” he complains, arms crossed in the very picture of indignation, and Mei Changsu doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the warm relief that expands and fills his chest.
“I know,” he says instead, eyes soft and serious. “And I swear to you, this time, I will keep trying. To live, for myself.” And this time, he truly means it.
Lin Chen looks at him, his lips quirking up into a small smile of his own. “Okay. I trust you,” he says, simply.
Mei Changsu nods and holds out his hand, once again grateful as Lin Chen takes it.
“Let’s go back.”
He’s still holding Lin Chen’s hand when he wakes, his sleep-drunk mind briefly filling with confusion as he tries to figure out where he is.
As his memories return, he jolts up, heart leaping into his throat as he prays that what he’d just gone through wasn’t just a dream, only to find Lin Chen awake and blinking tiredly at him, a small smile on his face. He’s still pale, his skin still cool to the touch, but where before his face had almost turned gray, a light flush of color seems to have returned to his cheeks.
“Hey, Changsu,” he says, voice scratchy and tired, yet still gently teasing. “You weren’t worried about me, were you?”
“Like I’d ever worry about you,” Mei Changsu says, smiling despite himself—but he still doesn’t let go of Lin Chen’s hand, not even when Fei Liu rushes back in, jumping up onto Lin Chen’s bed with an overjoyed yell, or when Meng Zhi and the others come in to see the commotion, gathering around with shocked and relieved exclamations at the apparent miracle of Lin Chen’s recovery.
Amidst the chaos, he feels Lin Chen give his hand a little squeeze, and he can’t help the flutter in his heart as he gently squeezes back. It doesn’t mean anything, and it doesn’t have to mean anything, but still, it feels like an unspoken offer, a reassurance, a promise.
He is alive, and Lin Chen is alive, and maybe they don’t have all the time in the world, but whatever time they do have, he’s ready to live it in the best way he can.
Outside the tent, the snow of Meiling continues to fall, covering the cliffs with the white. It is a mourning robe, paying its silent respects to the dead buried within the mountains’ grasps, but in the pristine, empty canvas it provides, it is also the blank page of paper from which new stories are born.