It’s funny – for someone who is wanted by most of the cultivating world, where most of the cultivating world (at least, to Xue Yang’s knowledge) would happily strike him down where he stood if they believed themselves to have the power to do so… Shifu is very, very bad at hiding himself.
Oh, he does try. He doesn’t always go to Yiling – he tries not to keep to patterns, tries not to have a day he goes out every week, and tries different locations at times. It’s how he discovered Xue Yang in the first place, after all, how he came across him.
But given he’s the Yiling Patriarch, going out in his robes and colors that no one else dares wear unless they are desperately trying to mimic him (except Xue Yang, because he’s a true student and not a mimic at all)... with the tall corpse that is Wen Ning doing his best to seem nonthreatening... Well, he’s not really subtle. When Xue Yang tags along, or A-Yuan, they’re not exactly unnoticeable either. No one else really ventures forth, no one else quite dares to, because the world is not forgiving towards the Wens and only in Yiling is Wei Wuxian, is Shifu, someone that people are truly comfortable with, but…
Xue Yang shakes his head.
He was allowed to come along today, allowed to tag along. It was a trip to Yiling, not one of the further ones that he was only allowed to come along with on if he was practicing his flying skills. A-Yuan had been disappointed he couldn’t come with, but Xue Yang was very very firm in his desire to do no babysitting today, and he had been sufficiently distracted by Fourth Uncle.
Up ahead, Shifu is joyous. He chatters cheerfully, flirting easily with an elderly shopkeeper as Wen Ning pulls the cart and people who have long gotten used to him flock easily, tittering. Kids pull on his robes and old ladies titter at him.
A-Yuan tends to get a lot of positive attention – Xue Yang used to get some, but once he perfected his smile, his toothy grin that makes people rock back in discomfort, makes them turn away…
Well. He doesn’t get bothered anymore, which leaves him in the perfect place to observe.
Shifu might be careless, might care little at hiding himself when he’s out and about like this, but Xue Yang doesn’t particularly want to die any time soon. Jins could lurk in the shadows, or maybe Nies? No Jiangs, and he’s unsure about the Lans… He doesn’t know enough about Hanguang-Fun’s role to know how he could affect them, and there’s all the minor sects to worry about…
Xue Yang drops his smile to scowl, kicking at the ground. He doesn’t need to worry. He shouldn’t need to. It’s Shifu and Wen Ning is already dead, and Xue Yang has Suibian strapped to his side, just in case. Shifu always laughs, ruffling his hair. “Who needs that!” he says, twirling Chenqing, and Xue Yang doesn’t have much of an argument because he doesn’t have his own sword just yet.
It’s just that he doesn’t want to have to drag Shifu back if he gets stabbed and if Shifu falls there’s no one else to contain the corpses and-
Somehow, being among the Wens, feeling that perpetual fear of the Jins, it makes him forget sometimes that they honestly don’t give a shit about him, and if he could hide his current connection to the Yiling Patriarch he could slip away with none the wiser.
(Not that he would, but. Still.)
Xue Yang spins away from Shifu, letting that slip away, and that’s when he spots them.
They’re undeniably cultivators. One dressed in white, one dressed in black – not old, maybe just a few years older than him. Two teens, standing side by side, and watching Shifu.
He feels vindicated, smile creeping up over his lips and settling on his face, tongue flickering out to touch his teeth. He knew it. He knew it.
They don’t step forward, don’t have attention on him, and so Xue Yang approaches them and seeks it out himself. “Hello,” he says, smile curved in place, and he catches his lip in his teeth as he takes a better look. The dark-clad one is serious looking, impassive – not serene like Hanguang-Jun, but more that he has no current emotions to feel about the situation, hasn’t formed an opinion. The one in white has a light to his eyes, a small smile on his own lips.
(Xue Yang wants to cut out his smile from his face, and carve out his pretty cheekbones.)
“Hello,” says the one in white. He looks… happy at Xue Yang’s presence? “That’s the Yiling Patriarch, isn’t he? Are you his disciple?”
He is, of course, instantly recognizable, literally wearing a pair of Shifu’s robes cut down to his size, but it does send a thrum of pleasure through him regardless. Whatever their intentions, to be recognized as a demonic cultivator in this way, as one who has the potential to be very powerful, linked to Shifu like this… He likes it, for now. “Yes on both,” Xue Yang says, and he laughs a little. “So I have to ask. What are two cultivators like yourself doing here, hm~?”
The serious one narrows his eyes faintly, a crease in his brow, but the smiling one seems unphased by the question. “Oh! I want to meet him, of course. My teacher is Baoshan Sanren, the same as his mother.” He keeps his smile on as if that’s not probably up there on the list of utterly insane responses he could have given.
Xue Yang… doesn’t actually know anything about Shifu’s past. About his parents, and who they studied under, or anything like that. Maybe the average cultivator knows, maybe this is common knowledge, but Xue Yang grew up on the streets where people didn’t talk about things like that. Shifu’s parents were long dead, and maybe if he ran in the streets by where Shifu lived, he would have heard that kind of gossip, but he didn’t so he hasn’t.
He’s extremely reluctant to turn his back on them in any circumstance, now, but he was expecting to start a fight that Shifu and Wen Ning would probably jump in on. Not a response like this, where he doesn’t know how to answer, doesn’t know if they’re lying or not.
Fortunately, Shifu steps in before Xue Yang has to figure out the best strategy here.
“A-Yang,” he says, coming up behind him and clapping a hand on his shoulder, “Who are your new friends?” There’s a touch of steel in his voice, and when Xue Yang glances up at him, he’s looking at them unwaveringly, eyes flickering red.
Yeah. Sometimes, when he sees Shifu being goofy all day, burying A-Yuan in the garden and getting scolded by Wen Qing and trying to lick Xue Yang in a game, it’s hard to remember that Shifu is scary.
This vividly reminds him, viciously so, and Xue Yang feels abruptly less unsettled. “Hm,” he says, resting one hand on Suibian’s hilt while the other comes up to tap at his chin as he smiles. “Well. They say that Baoshan Sanren is their teacher, Shifu, and that’s why they came looking for you.”
He’s ready for a fight, ready to demolish them, one of his feet tap-tap-tapping in anticipation, but instead of any sort of chagrin in being caught out in a lie, the smiling cultivator only shakes his head. “Just me,” he says.
He opens his mouth as if he is going to continue to speak, going to say more, but Shifu’s hand is tightening its grip. “You… learned under Baoshan Sanren?” his shifu asks, and when Xue Yang glances up again, his smile fades.
There’s no ferocity in his eyes, now. No sign that this is going to lead to a fight, but a genuine hope, a misting of his eyes.
They’re telling the truth, then, and Xue Yang’s heart sinks.
Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen are their names, he learns as Shifu sweeps both of them into discussion. They came to see whether the rumors about Shifu were true, to learn for themselves – Xiao Xingchen came because he wanted to meet his martial relative, and Song Zichen traveled with him because it seemed like he went wherever Xiao Xingchen went? Something like that.
Shifu, of course, was ready to fill them in on the truth. To explain about the Wens, about liberating them from the Jins and hiding them here, because otherwise they would be killed. How the Jins claimed he was raising an army but all he wanted was peace, to have everyone live together as they could.
There was no sign of disbelief in Xiao Xingchen’s eyes, no sign that he doubted Shifu in the slightest – by contrast, Song Zichen’s brow was furrowed slightly, mouth tense, and Xue Yang was pleased to see that fade when they entered the Burial Mounds and Shifu could properly show off their home, their small little ramshackle village of sorts.
Of Wens, stooped and old and certainly no army, and Xue Yang felt vindicated.
It doesn’t change the fact that he wants them gone, though, and he slips away the moment that he can do so.
The other visitors hadn’t thrown him… not off-balance like this. They were Shifu’s family. They were people already in Shifu’s lives that had slotted out their spots, and there was never any thought they would stay here long term, would upset the balance that already exists.
But he doesn’t know what’s going on here, if they’re going to stay or what they’re going to do, and Xue Yang wishes he had decided to stab first, ask questions later. Then maybe they wouldn’t be in this situation.
Because they don’t just stay a single night.
They mingle with the Wens – or Xiao Xingchen does, rather. He stands out in the same way that Hanguang-Jun did, that shining white in the middle of this place, but he smiles, free and easy and talking with everyone. Xue Yang stays away, tries to, doesn’t get close enough to hear what he and Shifu call each other, if they’ve decided on a title for their strange relationship, or if they call each other by name.
Song Zichen is a lot easier to just straight up dislike. He skirts around the Wens, doesn’t touch them, avoids when A-Yuan wants to speak with him and Xue Yang is more than happy to scoop up the brat, making a face at Song Zichen. “Don’t bother with him, he’s mean,” he tells A-Yuan.
A-Yuan sticks out his tongue. “You’re mean, too, gege!” he says, and that’s of course plenty to make Xue Yang start yanking on his hair and they get into a tug-of-war that ends with aching scalps for the both of them.
No, Song Zichen is easy to hate. He clearly doesn’t want to be there, clearly is only there for Xiao Xingchen, and Xue Yang hopes Xiao Xingchen realizes that and just ups and leaves already.
Because while it’s easy to hate Song Zichen… it’s not as much, with Xiao Xingchen.
Xue Yang has to stay away, has to be out of his sight or not catch his attention, because Xiao Xingchen will turn a smile on him, will try to talk and engage with him and Xue Yang does not want that, cannot express how much he doesn’t want that, and so he does his best to be out of the way.
He’ll- babysit A-Yuan. Do laundry. Pick vegetables. Practice with the sword in some corner so he doesn’t have to engage with them, doesn’t have to feel the burning that crawls up his back and his chest, the pain that shifts up his sternum and makes his muscles pull tight.
There’s no denying Shifu’s smiles. No denying how excited he is, to have this connection, how loud his voice is and how long his laugh echoes – and unlike the others, unlike everyone else, these two could stay. They could, if they want to, could stay, Xiao Xingchen with his smiles and Song Zichen with his frowns and Xue Yang knows that if Xiao Xingchen wanted to stay, then Song Zichen wouldn’t deny him, just from the way they look at each other and hold themselves and-
Xue Yang goes to sit. He chooses a spot by the water, where he can take off his shoes and stick his feet in, letting the chilly water run over them as he presses his legs to his chest.
He doesn’t think that either of them want to learn demonic cultivation. They were confident enough, the two of them, to approach Shifu even if there was the possibility he was truly the terrifying monster everyone painted him as. They don’t need that power, probably – or, well, they could get more powerful with it but most people don’t want to.
But some people do.
Xue Yang has never really thought about the copycats with anything but condescension before this. They don’t know anything about Shifu, and they never will – he’s not sure about Shifu’s rhyme or reason for choosing people, doesn’t quite get still why he was scooped up off the street entirely, but he had been counting on having time. On… on being the sole disciple for awhile. At least until A-Yuan was grown, was older.
He’s okay with it, like this. With him and A-Yuan being the two, but Xiao Xingchen and Song Zichen are only a little older than him and they throw off the balance, through off the careful rhythm of the Burial Mounds but in a way that threatens to continue, in a way that could continue in a different way that makes him burn-
The sound of his name startles him, and he looks up to see one of the very people he has been avoiding standing above him: Xiao Xingchen. He smiles down at him. “Can I sit here?”
It’s the ground. It’s the ground and Xue Yang doesn’t own the ground and sitting on it will probably dirty his white, pristine robes but Xue Yang grins at him regardless, smile slipping easily into place. “Sure, sure!” he says. “Were you looking for me?”
Easily, unabashed, Xiao Xingchen nods as he sits. “Yes, I was,” he says, and when he looks at Xue Yang, his eyes are crinkled and warm. “I wanted to talk to you.”
Unease thrums through him, but he doesn’t let it show. “Ah, what did you need, Daozhang?”
Xiao Xingchen is quiet for a moment, his smile slipping away – not upset, not sad, just thoughtful. He looks at the water, and then he speaks. “What the world has done to you, it is unjust,” he says, and Xue Yang stares at him. “I came down from the mountain because I want to help, and I want to help here.”
He turns his gaze onto Xue Yang. “How can I help here?”
Xue Yang is… he’s startled.
Is this why Xiao Xingchen has been talking with everyone? Is this why he’s been mingling, why he’s made sure to trade words with everyone, from A-Yuan to Wen Qing to Granny?
“Shifu didn’t have any ideas?” Xue Yang asks, trying to stay light, trying not to let his racing thoughts show. “Or Wen Qing?”
Xiao Xingchen shakes his head slightly. “He said I did not need to bother, that there wasn’t anything they needed help with,” he says. “Wen Qing asked if I could stop by again with some herbs she’s making a list of, but that is very little.” There’s… a hint of frustration in his voice, a chink in his demeanor. “That is patching the wound, not healing it.”
Xue Yang think. He runs his tongue over his teeth and considers the situation. They do need food, they always need more food – but that is “patching the wound”, as Xiao Xingchen put it, and won’t change their situation.
He thinks about what he had been thinking about, the day that they showed up, just a few days ago. About the different sects, about their willingness to come for Shifu if they felt themselves able to, about how many wanted him dead…
“They need to know the Jins are lying,” Xue Yang says. He starts out slowly, but gets stronger as he talks. Yes. Exactly. This is exactly it. “The Jins have been telling everyone that Shifu is creating an army,” he spits, because he doesn’t like it, because he’s angry and sometimes A-Yuan has nightmares still and Xue Yang wants to wring the neck of every single person in gold because the world will be better off without them. “They think he has a giant army of cultivators back here and that he’s amassing corpses and eventually he’s going to try to overtake everyone and conquer everything.”
It’s so stupid. SO stupid. If Shifu were going to do something like that, wouldn’t he have done it already? What did they think he was biding his time for? What did they think was going on?
“If you can tell people that it’s not true, if you can make them listen…”
Maybe, someday, he won’t have to watch his back as carefully. Granny and Wen Qing and the others can leave the Burial Mounds, can wander the streets freely without fear of any harm, that the corpses can come down and Shifu can see his family more (ugly baby and all) and Xue Yang can visit Lotus Pier with A-Yuan, like Shifu has told him about.
Xiao Xingchen seems to understand. Or maybe Xue Yang’s expressions are just too obvious, just too there, and the compassionate gaze of the older cultivator is leaving him undone.
He reaches out and rests a hand on Xue Yang’s head, ruffles his hair just slightly and Xue Yang can feel his cheeks burn a little. “I hope you two get to meet Baoshan Sanren someday,” he says. “I think she would really like you.”
“You three,” Xue Yang says, with a grin.
Xiao Xingchen looks surprised. “Three?”
“A-Yuan, of course.”
Xiao Xingchen’s gaze grows soft. “She’d really like you,” he says, and then he gets up and leaves.
Xue Yang’s cheeks burn, and he thinks sourly that Xiao Xingchen and Jiang Yanli would really get along.
The two cultivators stay one more day, and that’s it. Xiao Xingchen has his plan, has what he needs to go forward and try to “heal the wound”, and he actually hugs Shifu goodbye. He’s so odd, so clearly raised up on a mountain where normal manners don’t work, because he actually tries to hug everyone goodbye on that last day. Granny? Fourth Uncle? Wen Ning? A-Yuan? They all get hugs, all get embraces.
Xiao Xingchen gets to Xue Yang, and Xue Yang raises his eyebrows, daring him. He dares, wrapping his arms around him, and Xue Yang stiffens in shock and then wiggles his way free, cheeks burning. “What-“ he sputters, because this guy is so weird, and Xiao Xingchen laughs.
“Zichen and I,” he says, “We want to start our own sect together.” Everyone else might already know this, but given how much Xue Yang has been avoiding the two, he might be the last to find out. “Will you come visit?” Xiao Xingchen’s eyes dance. “We are related, after all.”
Xue Yang knows way less about proper courtesy titles and anything like that than your average person, let alone cultivator, and he has no idea what to properly call the martial uncle of your shifu who is also only a few years older than you. “We’re related, huh?” he says, and he grins, willing his embarrassment away. “Okay, shixiong, I’ll visit.”
He shouldn’t be surprised when that just makes Xiao Xingchen smile brightly at him. “I look forward to it,” he says, and then he sweeps away.
“Don’t come back anytime soon!” Xue Yang yells after him, which makes Xiao Xingchen laugh and Song Zichen’s eyebrows twitch.
It’s almost strange, for a little bit, to find himself back in the thick of things, to not have to slip and slide and sneak to avoid, and it makes Xue Yang a little thoughtful. A little wondering.
Shifu is always willing to share stories. A-Yuan requests so many and Shifu is more than willing to regale him with a neverending series of nighthunts he’s gotten into, or shenanigans he’s pulled with his brother and friends, or stories about him and Hanguang-jun. But the stories are just that: stories. Snippets of his life without a lot of info, sometimes.
Xue Yang does know things about him – knows that Shifu used to be a street kid like him, that he wasn’t born into the Jiang sect but brought into it, and he knows how Shifu met Hanguang-Jun and of course, there’s the neverending legends and lies and stories he had previously heard of him during the Sunshot Campaign.
So one night, when A-Yuan is dozing on his lap, cheek smashed against Xue Yang’s front and drooling slightly, Xue Yang speaks up. “Shifu?” he asks, and gets his attention immediately, his warm gaze. “Can you tell me about your parents?”
Shifu’s eyes glisten a little, misty, but he nods. “Ah, where to begin, where to begin. Well, for starters,” he says, and he tips his head back. “We had a donkey...”