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An Extra Bullet

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It had been months, and the man lying beside him still had no name.

Xiao Xingchen hadn’t questioned his refusal to share his name at first. A man beaten and dumped by the side of the road certainly had reason to fear that his enemies might find him. But months had passed, and no enemies had appeared, and they’d created a home out here, away from the town, and still the man hadn’t given his name. A worry crept into Xiao Xingchen’s stomach and began to curl around his insides. He must not be telling his name because he knew Xiao Xingchen would know it, and think so unfavorably of him that staying nameless was preferable.

Xiao Xingchen started listening, feeling, and thinking very carefully. His voice was not familiar. Possibly that was because they had never spoken before. That was a comforting thought. But his voice also had a rough edge to it, like he’d taken a blow to the throat sometime. That could change a man’s voice. The voice proved nothing, then.

The man’s accent had been scrubbed clean of street inflections without gaining any of the affectations of the clans. Common enough, among the rogue cultivators Xiao Xingchen had known. Many came from rough roots and had strived to leave them behind.

His taste… Xiao Xingchen flicked his tongue over his lips and swallowed, being careful not to disturb the man in his bed with any movement. No. He had never been intimate with this man before. He hadn’t been intimate with many people in his life and he remembered them all clearly. That… proved nothing.

The man never let Xiao Xingchen touch his left hand. He would touch Xiao Xingchen with his left hand. Open palm. Thumb against forefinger. But when Xiao Xingchen reached for his hand, the man would shift and Xiao Xingchen would get his right hand, or a shoulder, or a laugh and a “Careful, I’m holding a knife!”

It had taken him weeks to accept his suspicions. If he was right, what would happen to them? To A’Qing? To their home? But once the miserable fear had settled in his chest, he knew the only way to destroy it was to prove it wrong.

The man usually returned to his own bed before sleeping, no matter how much time he spent in Xiao Xingchen’s bed that night, but sometimes he stayed, usually after they’d had a bit of wine. The next time Xiao Xingchen went to the market, he sought out a couple of bottles of the sweet ice-wine from Gusu.

The man fell asleep curled up on his side, Xiao Xingchen pressed against his back. Normally, Xiao Xingchen would have savored the rare moment of closeness and vulnerability. This time, he was taking advantage of that vulnerability. If I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter. I can go to sleep and perhaps we’ll have a late morning tomorrow.

He waited until he was certain the man was asleep, then gently touched the man’s elbow and slid his hand toward the fingers. If the man woke, he’d say he was just being affectionate. Xiao Xingchen’s hand found the man’s wrist, and then, his hand shaking, the single-fingered glove covering the man’s left pinky. It took all his self-control to not fling the man away from him. Instead, he quietly drew back, snatched up Shuanghua, and headed outside into the cool night air. He staggered behind one of the empty shops and coughed up blood, using his sword as a staff to keep him upright.

Xue Yang. The monster that had slaughtered several clans and the White Snow Temple. The man who was the reason for Xiao Xingchen’s blindness. Why is he here? What game is he playing?

Xue Yang had to have known who Xiao Xingchen was the moment he’d seen him. Of course he’d been injured then, so he would have kept quiet, but now he’d been healed for months. Why hadn’t he left? Why hadn’t he killed Xiao Xingchen? Why had Xue Yang helped him build a home? Why had he let Xiao Xingchen kiss him? Make love to him?

Xiao Xingchen’s head spun. He covered the spilled blood and got a cupful from the water barrel to rinse out his mouth. He sat down in the center of the courtyard crosslegged, with Shuanghua by his side. He rested his hands on his knees and took long breaths.

This Xue Yang wasn’t like the Xue Yang he had known before. This Xue Yang was kind and thoughtful. Xiao Xingchen knew he’d threatened shopkeepers a couple of times, but he’d been bluffing. Posturing. The old Xue Yang had slaughtered entire clans on a whim, and the new one… stabbed the occasional potato.

A small light of hope kindled in his chest. Could people change? There were tales from history of warlords who had left the battlefield for a peaceful life, usually a monastery or a small farm. It had been over ten years since he’d heard anything about Xue Yang before this. Something must have happened that changed him. Of course he’d keep his identity a secret. He’d have thought that Xiao Xingchen would toss him out, or kill him, and, well, he wouldn’t have been wrong, at first. Now Xiao Xingchen thought that he might be able to forgive him, at least for the injuries done to himself. He didn’t have the right to forgive for the others. But if he had changed, if this was real, didn’t Xue Yang deserve a chance to make amends?

Song Lan… Song Lan would not be happy. Xiao Xingchen would have to broker a peace between the two of them long enough for Xue Yang to show he’d changed. If Song Lan couldn’t accept it, there was no question who Xiao Xingchen would choose. Song Lan had claimed half of his soul long ago. But Song Lan would trust him and Xue Yang would prove himself. Song Lan would love A’Qing and she him. It’d be tough for a while, but Xiao Xingchen was sure he could keep his old family and his new.

The man in his bed - Xue Yang - woke when Xiao Xingchen slipped back into bed. “Everything okay?” he asked.

“Just needed some fresh air,” Xiao Xingchen said. He rested his head against Xue Yang’s shoulder. I’ll wait for him to tell me. He’d talk to Xue Yang about forgiveness and second chances and let him decide when to open up about the past.

Xue Yang rolled over and kissed him. “Oh, I forgot, I went scouting while you were at the market. There’s a farm northwest of here that’s had reports of attacks.”

Xiao Xingchen wrapped his arm around Xue Yang’s waist. “We’ll investigate tomorrow,” he said. Yes, Song Lan would like the new Xue Yang, once he got to know him.

Sometimes giving someone a second chance is like giving them an extra bullet for their gun because they missed you the first time. - Unknown