Song Lan is sixteen when a white-robed, smiling youth makes his way up to the entrance of Baixue Temple. People rarely make the trek all the way up the mountain, up those endless rows of stone steps, and everyone turns to look curiously at the man - just a boy, really - who has arrived, uninvited and unannounced.
He is tall, graceful, with a face serene and bright and beautiful - that is the only word Song Lan can use to describe him. The way he carries himself is self-assured a kind of quiet confidence, and a slender and shining sword rests at his waist. A powerful cultivator, but a rogue one, likely - his robes are simple and white, bearing no sect markings.
“Can I help you?” Song Lan ventures cautiously. He’s the de facto head of the disciples - not the oldest, but the most talented - and the temple master is currently in secluded meditation. It’s not as if he could actually handle it if this person actually were here for malicious purposes, but courtesies must be followed.
The boy turns to him and bows gracefully.
“Can you tell me… what your name is?”
“Song Zichen. And yours?”
The boy smiles, a pure and radiant thing. Song Lan feels his heart beat wildly against his ribcage.
Over the course of the next few days, Song Lan finds out a great many more things about Xiao Xingchen. He is sixteen, and an orphan as well, though he was left at the base of the mountain of Baoshan Sanren, and raised as her disciple. He is indeed a rogue cultivator, as Song Lan hopes to be, and wishes to found his own sect, one built on ideals and those who embody them.
Song Lan has spent his entire life at Baixue Temple and the village at the bottom of the mountain - a safe life, a good life, to be sure, but he has always yearned for something more, something beyond . And so Xiao Xingchen tells him of the time he has spent since he left the Baoshan Sanren’s secluded mountain, traveling across China, spending his days doing odd jobs for the villages he’s passed along the way, dealing with fierce corpses and restless spirits and other supernatural occurrences. He takes his sword out of its cloth wrapping to show Song Lan, Shuanghua, a beautiful silver blade sheathed in bronze, intricate patterns of frost wrapping up and down its scabbard. In return, Song Lan brings out his own sword, Fuxue, almost shyly - it is a good blade, the best one that anyone in Baixue Temple owns, but in comparison to Shuanghua, it may as well be a practice sword in the armory, plain and dull.
Xiao Xingchen takes the sword in his hand, tracing the characters engraved on the blade with a light and gentle touch.
“It’s beautiful,” he says, looking up at Song Lan, who gives him a sheepish smile and shakes his head.
“No, no,” he replies, an inexplicable heat dusting his cheeks.
When Xiao Xingchen leaves Baixue Temple a week later, Song Lan follows.
They’re at a tea shop, a rare moment of respite from their constant traveling. Xiao Xingchen’s hands curve around a cup of jasmine tea, light and fragrant and elegant. Across the road, a woman sits on a threadbare carpet, dressed in an attempt at exotic garb - a red scarf draped across her hair, golden bangles dangling from her wrists. A sign next to her advertises soulmate readings, a few yuan for a hint in the direction of the red thread that ties you to your soulmate.
“Soulmates, hm?” Song Lan muses. He sips at his tea, savors the slight taste of osmanthus and honey on his tongue. People talked about it at the temple sometimes, mostly girls. The red thread of fate that bound you to your soulmate, invisible except to a few gifted souls. No one at the temple had ever been able to see them, so to Song Lan, the story has always been just that - a story, and nothing more. “Do you believe in such a thing?”
“Of course,” Xiao Xingchen says, like it is the most obvious thing in the world. He smiles. ”Don’t you?”
Song Lan gives him a wry smile.
If I did, his brain thinks, against his will, I would hope that it is you.
Their relatively peaceful life is interrupted by the massacre of the YueyangChang clan, the most gruesome, bloody event of recent history. Song Lan has never seen Xiao Xingchen as angry as when he hauls Xue Yang up the stairs of Carp Tower, hands and feet tied tight with spirit-binding cables. He stands in front of the audience, in front of the leaders of the four great sects, fearless and righteous, and reads out a long list of crimes, accompanied by incontrovertible evidence, voice shaking with barely-contained fury.
Most of the cultivators in attendance and three of the four great sect leaders agree to the death penalty almost immediately, but the LanlingJin sect refuses, arguing and pleading for leniency, for mercy. It takes almost half a day, but Xiao Xingchen is nothing if not stubborn in the things he believes in, and finally, the LanlingJin sect acquiesces.
Xue Yang’s face as he is hauled away by Nie Mingjue is almost mirthful, black eyes dancing, mouth twisted into a caricature of a smile.
“Daozhang, daozhang,” he coos, and Song Lan shivers in disgust. Xiao Xingchen simply gazes back at him, eyes clear and burning, and Xue Yang lets out a crazed laugh. “Make sure you don’t forget me.”
A letter arrives from Baixue Temple a few weeks later, a call for help written in hurried, messy script, and Song Lan’s face goes pale.
“Go,” Xiao Xingchen says, before Song Lan can even him the letter. Song Lan nods, and sets off immediately on Fuxue, with only a few talismans tucked inside his robes.
The scene that greets him at the temple is utter carnage. Bodies are piled all along the walls, in the doorways, heaped up in a mound in the center of the courtyard. The temple master, who’d taken him in, raised him as his own son, the monks that cooked him meals and snuck him fruit in the middle of the night, all the other disciples who had grown up with him and studied with him for sixteen years - all the people who had taught him, raised him, loved him - all of them are lying dead on the ground, rivers of blood running along the tiles. Flames engulf the buildings around him, the dormitories, the library, licking hungrily at the sky.
Song Lan knows who he will see even before he appears, floating down from the sky on Jiangzai, eyes glinting dangerously.
“Xue Yang,” he growls, under his breath, and the man laughs wildly.
“I told you not to forget me, didn’t I?” Xue Yang replies. He gestures with his arm in a wide arc, throwing something through the air.
Song Lan screams.
“-Lan! Song Lan!” Xiao Xingchen’s voice breaks through the haze. Song Lan is not sure how much time has passed, but the air still has the bitter tang of blood, the ashy scent of fire, and everything comes flooding back to him, the nightmare that has become reality, the bodies, the blood, the carnage, Baixue Temple, his home, his only home, gone. Everything, everyone - gone. Even his eyes - but, perhaps, after knowing what he would see, if he still had it, that is a mercy.
He feels Xiao Xingchen place a hand on his shoulder and he immediately slaps it away, a burning fury roaring in his chest.
“You!” he screams. He feels half-crazed, barely aware of the words rushing out of his mouth. “This is all your fault!”
“I’m sorry,” Xiao Xingchen whispers. He makes no attempt to touch Song Lan again, and his apology only serves to make Song Lan angrier, because Xiao Xingchen doesn’t need to apologize. But Song Lan is weak, is incapable of controlling his emotions, is lashing out from anger, from a need to blame someone, to label someone responsible, and Xiao Xingchen is taking it, just sitting there taking it . Song Lan hates him, in that moment, hates him for being so good, so righteous, for arriving at the gates of Baixue Temple, for pulling him into his orbit, for becoming the person Song Lan would follow to the end of the world.
“Why did you even come down from Baoshan Sanren’s mountain in the first place?” Song Lan nearly screams. He can feel something running down his cheeks, tears, maybe blood, and they hurt , his eyes, his arms and legs burn, but beyond that, something deep within him feels fractured and broken and gone. “You know nothing of how this world works. Why did you have to go and meddle? Why did you have to avenge the YueyangChang clan?”
What use is it to be good, to be righteous, when you cannot protect the ones you love?
“I’m sorry,” Xiao Xingchen whispers again, and Song Lan feels the slight prick of a needle in his neck before everything goes black.
“We had an agreement,” the woman says, voice soft but stern. “I made it very clear that you were never to return.”
“I know,” Xiao Xingchen says. His voice is strained, edged with desperation. “But - Song Lan - he is -”
The woman tilts her head. “He is the one you left this mountain for?”
Xiao Xingchen nods. The woman sighs deeply.
“Fine. One last favor. I will heal him for you, and then you will leave, this time for good. But you must know that even I cannot work all miracles.”
Xiao Xingchen bows deeply, pressing his forehead against the ground. “I understand. Thank you, Master.”
The next time Song Lan awakens, he can see. He sits up and looks around. The room is unfamiliar, but his clothes are folded neatly on a chair next to the bed, Fuxue, still wrapped in its cloth binding, leaning against it. A small parcel of food rests on top of his clothing.
Xiao Xingchen is nowhere to be seen. Song Lan winces when he thinks back to the last words he’d said, steeped in frustration and misery and anger. Of course he would leave. Song Lan feels like he should apologize, but what if Xiao Xingchen doesn’t want to see him again - what if Xiao Xingchen hates him for the things he said -
He stretches out his hand, reaching for his clothing, and then he freezes.
Around his little finger, a red thread is tied in an elegant knot, extending out past the window, disappearing into the horizon.
My soulmate. And then, immediately after, a realization: Xiao Xingchen.
Song Lan follows.