Xiao Xingchen was mid-meditation when he heard the sound of swords clashing.
“Daozhang!” A-Qing shouted, bursting in at a run - and how many times had he told her to be careful, regardless of how well she knew the area there were always stray stones that could trip her up? “Daozhang, you have to come, quickly-”
He summoned Shuanghua to his hand, already in motion. “Chengmei,” he started to say, but a-Qing interrupted.
“There’s another cultivator,” she said. “He’s fighting another daoshi, all dressed in black, who was looking for you-”
He didn’t think, at the time, about how a-Qing would know what color someone was wearing. A daoshi dressed in black, looking for you. Xiao Xingchen’s heart did something strange, but he didn’t dare stop. “Chengmei is fighting this man?”
“The daoshi called him Xue Yang!”
For the first time in a long time, Xiao Xingchen stumbled.
No, he thought. Impossible.
“Xue Yang,” he whispered, a thousand small details rearranging themselves in his mind and rejected just as quickly.
He moved faster.
The fight was already over by the time he got there.
“Xingchen!” he heard, cried out in a voice that froze him, that shocked him to his core. He stood stock-still, unmoving, barely breathing.
“Zichen?” he called cautiously. “Is that you?”
Nearby, someone laughed. Harsh and raucous as the call of a crow. Ugly and vicious, familiar and not.
He almost staggered, the air leaving his lungs, but then he was propelling himself forward, following the slight sounds, the sound of that voice, of that laugh. When a strong hand caught him by the arm he almost jerked away before he realized who it must be.
“You’re here,” he said, stupidly.
“Yes,” Zichen said simply.
“Touching,” came the rasp, and this time the familiarity was stronger, though twisted by bitterness and strain. Xiao Xingchen turned toward it as Zichen’s fingers tightened.
“Xue Yang,” he said, half question. He had to keep himself from saying Chengmei. He didn’t understand. It felt as though he must be missing something. As though - as though-
“Zichen,” he said. “Let go.”
“Let go,” he said, drawing his arm gently from his grasp, moving forward, toward the smell of blood. His mind was reeling and all he knew was that he needed to somehow make sense of this. And that there was only one person who could help him do that.
This was all - this was all some horrible dream. Some strange nightmare. He would wake up soon. He always woke up - from the nightmares about Xue Yang, from the dreams when Zichen came back for him (and sometimes those were nightmares, too).
He - Chengmei - Xue Yang - was breathing in uneven, rasping breaths; Xiao Xingchen heard him choke and knew it must be on blood. His stomach lurched and his own inhale trembled. He lowered himself to his knees, reached out, drew back, reached out again and his hand found a heaving chest, wet under his palm.
Xiao Xingchen felt Xue Yang’s body shake and didn’t know if it was laughter or pain or the oncoming chill of death.
“Daozhang,” he said, thickly, and now that he knew Xiao Xingchen could hear it, recognize the familiar resonance of his voice.
“Why,” he said, voice shaking. “Why-”
This time he was sure it was laughter, hacking and horrible. Anger flared, searing Xiao Xingchen’s lungs.
“Did you think it was funny?”
Xue Yang didn’t answer. Xiao Xingchen wished, desperately, that he could see his face.
“Get away from him, Xingchen,” Zichen said. “A dying snake can still bite.”
Dying. Chengmei - his friend - Xue Yang was dying, he could hear it in his shortening breaths. His eye sockets burned and Xue Yang sighed out.
“No,” Xiao Xingchen said loudly. “No, tell me, you have to tell me, why did you-”
A ragged, soundless laugh cut him off. If that was what it was - dry huffs that could have been an attempt at coughing, or sobs. Xue Yang’s inhale rattled and Xiao Xingchen felt his muscles spasm. “Don’t forget me, Xiao Xingchen,” he said, and shuddered one last time, and went still.
The sound that issued from his throat felt violent and involuntary, wrenched out of him by force. A wail of hideous grief, his bandages turning wet as blood soaked into them.
As though enough blood hadn’t been shed for Xue Yang already.
Who was he, to mourn a monster?
Xiao Xingchen insisted on burying the body with all due rites. If ever there was someone more likely to rise as the worst of fierce ghosts, Xiao Xingchen did not know who it would be. And though rest was not in the nature of this particular soul-
He hoped that Xue Yang would find it nonetheless.
Then, at last, he, a-Qing, and Zichen left death-haunted Yi City behind. It was a good thing, Xiao Xingchen thought, that he could not look back.
Nothing made sense.
That was what Xiao Xingchen kept getting stuck on: nothing made sense. He knew what Zichen told him: that he had been looking for Xiao Xingchen (ever since we parted, he said, with an urgent desperation, needing Xiao Xingchen to believe him and afraid he wouldn’t). That he’d found a-Qing just outside Yi City, and she had been guiding him to the yizhuang when he crossed paths with Xue Yang.
Xue Yang, carrying a basket of vegetables, returning from the errand he’d gone on earlier.
Are you stupid? Actually I picked the shorter one, but I hid the one that was longest. No matter which one you picked, I would still be able to pull out one longer than yours. Picking on your blindness, that’s all.
Xue Yang had attacked Zichen. They’d fought. Xue Yang had lost.
Absurdly, Xiao Xingchen wondered what had happened to the vegetables.
It didn’t make sense. He kept trying to fit them together, his friend Chengmei and the murderer Xue Yang and it felt like trying to mend a broken bone, the edges not quite lining up. Overlapping in places, but the break too distinct to ignore.
Incomprehensible. Why, he’d asked, and Xue Yang hadn’t answered; a last act, Xiao Xingchen thought, of spite.
A-Qing cried when she confessed she’d been lying to him, that she wasn’t blind, that while she couldn’t see well she could see. Xiao Xingchen accepted her apology with a vague murmur, his thoughts still in a muddled whirl.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry, Daozhang, I should have told you.”
Xiao Xingchen shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I don’t hold it against you, a-Qing.”
What was her lie against one so much greater?
Song Lan’s fingers brushed against his arm and he had to focus not to flinch away. That touch, once so familiar, felt strange now. He felt strange. Dislocated. He had come to know Yi City: its streets, its buildings, its people. He didn’t know where they were now.
He had not felt his blindness so acutely in a long time.
But that was only because he hadn’t realized its depth.
“Xingchen?” Zichen said. The note of uncertainty in his voice cut, a knife slipping and slicing into his finger.
“I’m all right,” he said. Lied. He felt torn open, eviscerated. Fractured down the middle. Yesterday he had had a life - a small thing, but precious. Now it was in shreds.
If he could just make sense of it all-
Zichen’s hand curled around his wrist - over his sleeve, not touching skin - and squeezed. “You don’t have to be,” he said. “I understand.”
No, howled a vicious, angry thing in Xiao Xingchen’s chest that took his breath away. No, you don’t.
A moment later he hated himself for thinking it, and for his anger. What right did he have to it? None.
He dreamed of the scene at Chang Manor, as vivid in his memory as it had been when he’d first seen it. The butchered dead. The hanging bodies. Blood, everywhere.
And a young man laughing, eyes bright, smiling. Hey, Xiao Xingchen-daozhang. You here to appreciate my good work?
He woke with a gasp, reaching out. A-Qing was at his side immediately. “Daozhang,” she said, even as Zichen’s voice further away said, “Xingchen.”
“I was dreaming,” he said, voice thick, his tongue fuzzy in his mouth. “Just dreaming.”
How? How could he not have known, not have realized?
Three years, three years he’d been living with a murderer at his side, a man who had slaughtered countless people without batting an eye. He’d known that his friend had a past, that he had his darkness and his edges, but he had deemed it not his place to judge.
How Xue Yang must have laughed.
(He’d laughed. Hard, and often, more than he had in years, more than he’d expected to again. Xue Yang had made him laugh. Xue Yang had made him laugh.)
Xue Yang, who had butchered Zichen’s temple. And he’d made Xiao Xingchen laugh.
He felt sick.
Xiao Xingchen lurched to his feet, drawing away from a-Qing’s hands and Zichen’s voice both. “Xingchen?” Zichen said, voice full of worry, and he shook his head.
“I need to - I need to take some air,” he said. “I’ll be back in a moment.”
He walked away quickly, not waiting for a response. His skin was prickling; it felt like he wanted to crawl out of it. He was breathing too quickly and focused, trying to slow it. It wasn’t fear. He wasn’t afraid. He kept going back to that. He should feel - if not afraid, then relieved, or angry. And he was angry, he was, but-
Don’t forget me, Xiao Xingchen.
His eyes started to burn. When he’d woken from that nightmare, he’d reached out in the dark, seeking the warm body beside him, curled around him, breathing soft and open-mouthed. A solid presence he clung to in those first waking moments before he reassembled himself. His friend. His-
Three years. What had he been waiting for? What had he been planning? Three years of simple living, of cold winters with little food, of a painfully ordinary life that should have bored the restless, vicious man he’d known within a week, a month at most.
He could almost hear what Zichen would say. You can’t possibly hope to understand him, Xingchen. His nature is so foreign that it must be incomprehensible.
Perhaps that was so. Perhaps he was trying to make intelligible what was inherently unintelligible. He had marveled, once, that a human being could wreak such destruction as Xue Yang had done, so viciously, with such pleasure.
But Xue Yang had been human. His friend had been human. What was lies? What was truth? How could he possibly hope to separate the two?
“A-Qing,” he said. Opening his mouth to guide her to him with his voice, and remembering late that she didn’t need him to.
She came up quietly, her steps light, her touch on his arm even lighter.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes,” he said, nearly automatically. “Yes, of course.”
He could almost hear her frown. “Daozhang.”
A-Qing had never liked Chengmei. Never trusted him. Tried to warn him about their - about Xue Yang. Her instincts better than his.
“Don’t worry about me,” he said, turning, smiling, patting her head. “I’ll be all right soon.”
Her skepticism was palpable, but she said, “good,” firmly, and then, “Song-daozhang is worried about you.”
Again that spike of anger, startling and painful. He turned his face away. “Well, then,” he said. “I suppose we’d best go and soothe him, hm?”
Xue Yang was a thorn in his foot, Xiao Xingchen told himself. A parasite that had embedded itself into his life. Something to be drawn out and extracted, and doing so hurt, and left a wound behind, but it would heal.
Thinking it made him flinch.
Maybe, he thought, it would help if he divided them into two people.
If he separated them - Chengmei from Xue Yang; pretended that the former, his friend, and the latter, his enemy, were entirely separate - maybe it would be easier to make it make sense. He could imagine that it was Chengmei who had left the yizhuang for groceries, and somewhere along the way Xue Yang had killed him, devoured him, replaced him. That was how it felt, in some ways: he’d had a friend, and that friend was gone, obliterated. If he thought of it that way-
But that was dishonest, at best. And not so easily done as it should have been.
How could he know? How could he parcel out what was Chengmei from what was Xue Yang, what was true and what wasn’t, when it all felt true, when it had all felt real.
Perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised. He’d always known that Xue Yang was a human being; had scolded Zichen for implying otherwise even when he’d known it was hyperbolic, born of disgust for his actions. Human beings were complex. Often contradictory. He hadn’t known Xue Yang, not really, not beyond his crimes.
There was no line of separation. No matter how much he wanted there to be.
He kept turning over his memories like he was looking under rocks, trying to find what he had missed. Clues he had ignored. Some things his friend had said took on new, more dangerous meaning; the exaggerated threats made to a-Qing sometimes when they bickered sounded less like teasing.
His fingers brushed against Xiao Xingchen’s bandage and he flinched back. Come on, he’d said. I want to see. Do you think you’re going to scare me off?
His maimed hand. The bones, badly healed, that had ached in winter, making him irritable and withdrawn, and Xiao Xingchen had cornered him and made him sit so he could massage the pressure points, and he’d hissed and squirmed and sworn before finally, slowly, going slack, the tension of pain bleeding out of him. He’d ended up with his head in Xiao Xingchen’s lap, half-asleep.
Xiao Xingchen’s stomach hurt.
What had he wanted? What had he been waiting for?
Wisdom said let it go. Zichen, if he tried to speak to him about this, would say the same. Zichen, who hovered next to him like he feared Xiao Xingchen would vanish if he looked away. Zichen, who had looked for him for years, full of guilt and regret that he seemed desperate to express.
Zichen, with whom he had always harmonized so well. There was a dissonance now. A strangeness.
He did not doubt it would pass with time. Just now, it was another stone in the road he was trying to walk.
Sometimes it was a respite when Zichen went separately to purchase supplies, as he did, perhaps understanding that it was a boon to Xiao Xingchen. He hoped it didn’t hurt him. He feared it might, and was too selfish to tell him it wasn’t necessary.
“Daozhang,” a-Qing said quietly, one night when they were alone, snuggling up next to him with a comfortable familiarity that was a relief in the face of Zichen’s careful, respectful distance. “Are you happy to see Song-daozhang again?”
Xiao Xingchen started, his breath catching. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, of course I am, I have missed him - he was my dearest friend. Is.” His heart twisted.
“You don’t seem happy,” a-Qing said slowly. Xiao Xingchen paused. The fire was warm on his face.
“It is...hard,” he said. “To believe in something, and have it wrenched from you.”
How many times had that happened to him, now? Perhaps he should stop believing in anything.
That was maudlin, and melodramatic, and unfair.
“It’s not your fault,” a-Qing said after a moment. “That evil thing was the one lying to you.”
That evil thing. She made it sound so easy. Perhaps that was how he should do it: discard names altogether. “As were you,” he said, without meaning to, and felt her flinch. He shook his head quickly. “No, a-Qing, I don’t mean - I don’t mean it like that. Only that...perhaps I’m too easily deceived.”
“No,” a-Qing said firmly. “It’s not your fault.” Strident and determined.
Xiao Xingchen sighed. Behind his bandage, his empty eye sockets itched. “Thank you, a-Qing.”
“It’s good,” a-Qing said. “I like this. You and me and Song-daozhang. He’s not as good as you, obviously, but he’s all right. And he cares about you.”
“I know,” Xiao Xingchen said. “It is good. You’re right.” He smiled at her. “Forgive me my melancholy.”
“Obviously,” a-Qing scoffed. She shifted, leaning more against him. “I’m hungry. Do you have any food?”
“Let me see,” Xiao Xingchen said, checking his sleeves. His hand froze for a moment, and then he withdrew it and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t have anything right now.”
A-Qing harumphed. “You owe me,” she said. Xiao Xingchen laughed, very softly.
When she fell asleep, before Zichen returned, Xiao Xingchen drew out what he’d found in his sleeve: two hard candies.
He curled his fingers around them for a moment before tucking them away in his Qiankun Pouch.
The familiar had become strange.
He caught himself considering when they would have to turn back to make it home, before remembering that there was not one to return to.
Travel was quiet - not so quiet as it had been once, with a-Qing, but there were gaps in Xiao Xingchen’s map of the conversation, where he would say something, or a-Qing would, and for a skip of a moment he would think and now Chengmei will say-
But Chengmei had never been real, and would never speak again.
The first time he reached out unthinking to touch Zichen and felt him flinch away it was as though he’d been burned. Zichen apologized a moment later, reached out to him, said only it has been a long time, I’m sorry.
It’s all right, Xiao Xingchen said immediately, without hesitating, because it was, of course. He had never held this against Zichen, never resented it. Zichen did not like to be touched; it was not something personal, and not something that separated them except in the most shallow of ways.
Or so he had told himself.
He remembered the first time the stranger (Xue Yang) had casually elbowed him in the ribs, bumping their shoulders together; the shock that had gone through him, of surprise and then something else. Xiao Xingchen heard his voice say laughingly it’s like you can’t get enough of me, and there was truth to that.
Growing up, there hadn’t been many boundaries between disciples. They’d slept close together when it was cold, hugged each other, held each other. Touch was common and casual and easy. He hadn’t realized how much he’d missed it until a-Qing, grabbing his arm and tugging him here and there; until the stranger.
He hadn’t planned on starting anything. Hadn’t meant to. But when Chengmei climbed into his lap and said hey, let me try something before kissing him like he was never going to be satisfied, he’d been the one to grab on and refuse to let go.
He had never slept with - had sex with - anyone else. He’d told Chengmei (Xue Yang) as much, and he’d seemed pleased. You’re mine, yeah? Xiao Xingchen remembered him saying, hands holding Xiao Xingchen’s wrists pinned down over his head as he moved in him. Mine, Daozhang, when you die they’re going to find pieces of me in you.
Xiao Xingchen’s stomach clenched. In retrospect-
(He remembered how Xue Yang (Chengmei) had come apart when Xiao Xingchen had held him, one hand behind his neck and the other in his hair, bodies rocking together. The fractured sound when he’d said you’re good, you’re so good.)
He’d been wronged. He’d been violated.
He searched himself for the revulsion he should feel. The disgust. The anger.
What he felt, mostly, was an acute longing for a touch he shouldn’t miss.
Zichen was a gift. He was kind. He was thoughtful. He was patient.
He treated Xiao Xingchen like he was made of glass. Something rare and precious and eminently breakable.
It rubbed him raw.
He knew he needed to say something. To express, in words, Zichen, I do not need to be cared for or protected, I need my friend. I know you don’t think I am helpless, but sometimes I feel as though you do.
But how could he? His frustration was such a small thing, such an insignificant thing. After all the harm he had caused Zichen - it was unexpected grace that he should be here at all, that he should still want to be together.
Maybe that was the fragility.
Next to him, Zichen sighed. “Xingchen?”
“Can we speak? In private?”
Xiao Xingchen turned toward where he knew a-Qing would be. “A-Qing?”
“All right, all right,” she said. “I’ll go ahead a little.”
“No eavesdropping,” Zichen said.
“Is Song-daozhang accusing me of,” a-Qing started to squawk, with perfectly put-upon indignation. Xiao Xingchen’s mouth twitched and he held up a hand.
“A-Qing,” he said.
“Fine,” she said, and Xiao Xingchen heard her footsteps receding. He waited, though, for Zichen to speak first. He did not, not immediately. Zichen had always been deliberate with his words, careful.
“Would you speak of it?”
“What happened,” Zichen said. His voice was still calm. Xiao Xingchen did not allow himself to tense, pausing to breathe for a few moments.
“Xingchen,” Zichen said. Gently, too gently to be exasperated, but something seized in Xiao Xingchen’s chest like a cramp anyway.
“What is there to say?” he said, more sharply than he meant to.
“You haven’t said anything.” There, Xiao Xingchen thought. A hint of frustration, and he could not have said why hearing it felt like a victory, only that realizing it was so made him feel like a child. Worse.
He shook his head. “I have no explanation I can give you, Zichen.”
“Explanation? I’m not asking for an explanation.”
“Wouldn’t you like one?” Xiao Xingchen could hear his voice getting sharper. “Wouldn’t you like to know how it is that I could have spent three years side-by-side with Xue Yang and not once, never once, notice anything amiss?”
A brief moment of silence in which Xiao Xingchen could almost see the look that would be on Zichen’s face. Or what he expected it would be. Maybe he was wrong. How much had he changed, away from Xiao Xingchen? (How much had Xiao Xingchen changed, away from him?)
“I am not angry with you, Xingchen,” Zichen said quietly.
“Is that so.”
“Yes,” Zichen said firmly. “It is. I am…” He sighed. “Mostly I am just grateful that I found you. And that I found you in time. When I first saw him - knowing that you were nearby…”
I don’t think I was in danger, though, was what Xiao Xingchen thought. I don’t think I’d been in danger for a while. But of course he had no reason to believe that. No reason to assume that Xue Yang wasn’t just - biding his time.
“XIngchen,” Zichen said, “I’m not angry.”
Zichen wouldn’t lie to him. He could, at least, be certain of that.
“I wish you hadn’t killed him,” Xiao Xingchen said, and then wanted to recoil from himself, from his own words. The empty space around him yawned, the silence cold and fathomless. “Only,” he added quickly, “because I have so many - questions.”
“You would never have gotten anything useful from him,” Zichen said, his voice significantly colder. “And as long as he lived Xue Yang would be a danger to everyone, and especially us.”
“You’re right,” Xiao Xingchen said. “Of course.” It was the only thing he could say, and it was true besides. There would never have been peace, as long as Xue Yang survived. Even if they’d merely left he would have chased them, hounded them, hunted them.
And yet somehow he wished-
He was such a wretched fool. Even now.
If one thing was clear to Xiao Xingchen, it was that this, the knot of his feelings about and for Xue Yang, was not something he could discuss.
It was a private grief. There was no one he could share it with. No one to whom he could say I miss him. It hurts.
Sometimes it felt like all he had done since descending the mountain was shatter his own dreams and accumulate regrets.
Xue Yang had left a trail of blood behind him. He had ruined countless lives, blazed through the world like a wildfire, devastation in his wake.
He was an unhealing wound in Xiao Xingchen’s chest, a question he’d never have answered.
Xiao Xingchen wasn’t sure which was worse: that he had loved Xue Yang-
-or that Xue Yang had loved him.