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A Place to Call Home

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The scholar is a strange one. He keeps to himself in his grand house by the mountains, and Xiao Wei really had no business meeting him, let alone finding out his name. But he’d run into the woods after his older brother had shoved him out of the house for looking at him wrong – to get his share of their midday meal, Xiao Wei suspects. He would make his brother pay later but for now it suits him just fine to be outside.

That’s when he meets Kun Lun, while he’d been jumping up to pick a ripe pear hanging just out of reach. Xiao Wei had let out a huff, sitting back on his heels to think of way to get it, when a hand reaches up and picks it, just like that.

Xiao Wei whirls around to find a tall man in the finest green silk robes he’d ever seen, holding the pear in one hand, a bamboo scroll in another. He's smiling softly, and his eyes are shining  - like he's happy, so happy to see him, and that alone keeps Xiao Wei from giving him the look he gives his siblings when he wants to be alone.

“Are you hungry?” The man – the scholar, Xiao Wei supposes, the wealthy one that had been the talk of their small village when he first came to live here – puts away his scroll and hands him the pear. Xiao Wei hurriedly stuffs it into his mouth before the scholar could change his mind. Wolfing it down and the scholar just watches him, not scolding for not sharing like his mother would. The sweet juice drips down his chin, and he wipes at it, suddenly embarrassed. Moreso when the scholar looks so sad all of a sudden.

“There are more where those came from,” The scholar says when Xiao Wei has chewed at the pear right to its core. He points up, and Xiao Wei squints, his eyes widening in surprise when he sees more ripe, sweet fruits hanging from the branches. But they’re too far up to reach, and Xiao Wei tosses the pear core to the ground, frowning and biting his lip. The scholar smiles at him again, his eyes crinkling up.

(Xiao Wei likes it when he smiles. He likes it very much.)

“Here. Let me help you.” And Xiao Wei finds himself being lifted up, up on the scholar’s shoulders like his father likes to carry his youngest sister and no one else. Xiao Wei gasps a little, frightened at being so high up. His fingers clutch nervously at the top of the scholar’s topknot and the scholar winces.

“Careful, Xiao Wei.” He says, and Xiao Wei’s fingers loosen.

“How’d you know my name?” He asks curiously. The scholar gives his knee a pat.

“I have a pet cat who tells me about everything that goes on in the village.” The scholar says seriously, and Xiao Wei wrinkles his nose.

“Cats don’t talk.” He says. But he doesn’t mind it when the scholar grins at him.

“This one does. Go pick your fruit now.” He says, and Xiao Wei obeys, filling up the folds of his sleeves with as many pears as he can carry. He remembers to bring some back home for his brothers and sisters, otherwise his mother will give him a scolding for being greedy.

The scholar lets him down when he tugs at his topknot again. Xiao Wei is holding the biggest, ripest pear he’d picked in his hand, and when he’s safe on the ground he gives it to the scholar. The scholar’s eyes crinkle again when he accepts the fruit, and Xiao Wei’s ears heat up for some reason.

“Thank you for the gift, Xiao Wei.” He says. And he sounds so happy that Xiao Wei doesn’t feel sorry at all that he won’t get to eat his pear.

Xiao Wei expects that’s that. The scholar will be back to reading his bamboo scroll and Xiao Wei will go home. But just as he’s about to bow he catches the look on the scholar’s face.

He looks so sad. Xiao Wei hesitates, and it’s a long moment before he notices he’s staring, and that the scholar has taken his scroll out of his sleeve again.

“Can you read, Xiao Wei?”. Xiao Wei shakes his head, but the scholar doesn’t yell at him, or scold him, or call him stupid, or look scared of him like other people do.

“Do you want to learn how?” The scholar asks. His voice is gentle. Truthfully, the thought has never even crossed Xiao Wei’s mind until now. But he nods anyway.

“Come sit beside me, then?” The scholar says. “Eat your lunch.” And so Xiao Wei does, chewing on his pears as the scholar joins him, taking bites out of his own pear as he reads out loud. And it’s a wonderful day, the sun is warm, and Xiao Wei is full. It takes no time at all for him to fall asleep beside the scholar, his head pillowed on his silk sleeve, the scholar stroking his hair the way he watched his mother stroke his eldest brother’s hair sometimes, though he complained he was too old. Feeling himself lifted up in strong, safe arms like he had a very dim memory of his mother, when she wasn’t afraid of him yet, and he burrows his face against soft, warm silk. 

He only fully wakes when he finds himself along a familiar path. The road leading to his father’s farm, and Xiao Wei feels his full belly weigh heavy as a stone all of a sudden. He keeps his eyes closed, like maybe the scholar won’t put him down if he sees he’s asleep, but he feels the scholar put his hand on the back of his head. 

“Your parents must be getting worried, Xiao Wei.” The scholar says. “I need to take you home." Xiao Wei doesn't look up. 

"They won't be." He finds himself saying. "They don't want me there." Silence. Xiao Wei wonders if maybe the scholar's angry with how disrespectful he was, but when he reluctantly glances up the scholar just. Looks so sad.

But he still smiles at Xiao Wei, like everything's going to be all right. 

 "Don’t worry, Xiao Wei." The scholar says. He tilts Shen Wei's face up with his thumb. "I’ll be back, understand? I’ll finish reading the book to you, and teach you.” Xiao Wei doesn’t respond, just clings to the scholar’s shoulders. The scholar is quiet for another moment. 

"I'm so glad you're here." He says softly. "I'm so happy you were born." Shen Wei looks up, stares at him with wide eyes. But his mother is rushing out of their small house and his father is stumbling out, bowing and red-faced. The scholar lowers Xiao Wei to the ground, holds his hand as he speaks to his parents.  Xiao Wei watches him go without his expression changing, not even when the scholar waves goodbye. His father doesn’t yell at him for speaking to the scholar, but his siblings are whispering.

Xiao Wei ignores them all. He leaves them their share of the pears but eats the rest of his out on the fields. Watching the stars and wondering what the scholar is doing right now. If he’d finished reading his book without Xiao Wei. Turning his words over and over in his head.

His younger brother sneers at him and calls him a freak the next morning. Something in Xiao Wei snaps, and he drags him to the well, seeing nothing but red as he tries to shove his younger brother down. But strong hands pull him away, force him to let his brother go. Strong arms hold onto him, protecting him when his father arrives with his bamboo cane, ready to beat him senseless. The scholar holds onto Xiao Wei’s hand as he leads him away from the place where he was born to the place he would forever call home.

Home. Xiao Wei thinks, as Kun Lun yells at him for trying to run away and almost getting run over by a horse. Kun Lun falls quiet, and his eyes are red at the corners as he pulls Xiao Wei into a hug, clutching him tight like he’s the scared one, and Xiao Wei doesn’t make a sound but he clings back. And he can’t stop smiling, not even when Kun Lun pulls back, cupping his face and watching him for a moment before standing up, holding his hand tight like he’ll never let him go.

(He never does, and Xiao Wei doesn’t, either.)