They say, Xiao Xingchen stole a wolf from the wilds and dragged it through civilization, using the beast’s teeth to pull apart resentful energy, or any energy, that dares stand in their path.
No-- a wolf, the fierce Song Lan, Cold-Frost-Snow-Distance, stole Xiao Xingchen from his master’s doorstep, luring him into the darkness, off the righteous path.
Yellow eyes peer out at Xiao Xingchen from the darkness. He freezes, fingers tight around Shuanghua. He’s never heard of a spirit with yellow eyes. He’s never heard of a beast with them either, except--
The moon is round and full above him, light catching on the mountain pines and casting long shadows across the clearing. It's quiet, more than it should be, the whole of the woods holding its breath. The hair on Xiao Xingchen's arms stands up.
The creature blinks, slowly, and then it’s coming toward him, stepping into a pool of moonlight. It moves delicately, precise, its eyes never wavering from Xiao Xingchen’s face. A wolf.
Xiao Xingchen’s grip on his sword tightens. He was sent to hunt for a flower that grows halfway down the mountain, something that will add to the poultice his master wants to make during the moon's waning period. He has a handful of it in a pouch hidden in the folds of his robe. The flower's petals are said to attract all manner of spirits and, for the most unlucky, even demons.
This creature, though-- he’s never seen anything natural that was so huge, its fur so dark. The creature is nothing like any story he’s ever heard, nothing like anything he has ever imagined. He cannot, just yet, bring himself to kill it.
“Hello,” he says, for lack of a better plan.
The wolf studies him, as if entranced. Xiao Xingchen wonders if wolves can be cursed, if this creature is even truly a wolf.
When he was younger, some of the older disciples had told stories. It was said that wolves lured children away and bid them drink dew from wolf prints, which caused the children to become wolves. Then the older disciples told Xiao Xingchen that if he did not cultivate properly, and do his chores, they would make him walk through the darkness alone, where the wolves waited.
He wonders how much truth lies at the center of that story.
The wolf’s ear flick back and it snarls, its mouth huge.
Xiao Xingchen draws his sword before he can think, shifting into a defensive stance, just as something cold touches the back of his neck. He whirls, slicing upward with Shuanghua, blocking the corpse’s-- there is a corpse where previously there was nothing, its skin barely clinging to its form, its yellow nails curved like claws-- next blow. Its huge black eyes stare through him, ooze dripping from its mouth.
Dread curls in Xiao Xingchen’s stomach. His back is to the wolf, and if they both come at him--
The corpse makes a sound like teeth grinding together, just as something huge and dark moves next to Xingchen. He flinches on instinct, moving to block the expected blow, but instead the wolf moves past him. It’s fangs are bared.
The corpse staggers back, bloated face almost purple. It looks like it must have drowned, or been suffocated. It must be in great pain, Xingchen notes, distantly.
There’s another snarl, this one louder, and the corpse turns toward it, arms outstretched, mouth open.
The wolf’s fangs cut through the corpse’s skin like it’s made of wet paper, hooking into its throat and dragging it to the side. There’s a wet scraping noise. The corpse’s head comes loose, black liquid-- blood?-- spattering over the grass..
The wolf twists away from the collapsing body, spitting violently, muzzle wet with whatever gore was animating the corpse. The violence is elegant, neat, over in just a few moments.
“What are you?” Xiao Xingchen asks. He cannot help the awe in his voice.
The wolf’s gaze flicks back to him. There’s a weight in that attention, something calculating.
Then the wolf is not a wolf, but a naked man-- young, maybe his own age, maybe a year older-- standing before him. The transformation happens so quickly that Xingchen can barely follow it.
Heart fluttering in his chest, Xiao Xingchen bows. He is-- beautiful. Xingchen’s mouth goes completely dry, his face flooding with heat. There’s something wild about the man’s face, something hard and controlled, almost cold.
The wolf-- the man?-- makes a quiet sound, and when Xiao Xingchen glances up, still bowing, he finds that the man has copied him. His movements are awkward, straightening when Xiao Xingchen does, clearly trying to mirror him.
“Thank you,” Xiao Xingchen says. He sheathes Shuanghua, trying to focus on anything other than the heat in his face or the blood smeared across the man’s hands.
The man tilts his head to the side.
“You should be more careful,” he says. His voice is gravely, deeper than Xiao Xingchen expected, and it comes out slowly, as if from disuse.
Xiao Xingchen has felt lust before, but nothing-- nothing has ever felt like this. His whole body feels alight. The strength of his desire for the creature in front of him sticks in his chest, his throat, making it difficult to breathe. He wonders, briefly, if he’s somehow been cursed.
“I was unaware of humans on this mountain,” the wolf says. He shifts his weight, forward and back, moving silently on the balls of his feet. Xiao Xingchen wonders what it would be like to touch his calves, his thighs.
“There are a few,” Xiao Xingchen says. "We do not-- usually come this far down." He isn’t supposed to be this close to the foothills, wasn’t supposed to stay out this long at all. He wonders, distantly, what punishment Baoshan Sanren will have for him, provided he ever returns to the encampment. It doesn’t matter. After tonight, he cannot imagine anything ever being the same as it was.
The wolf takes a step toward him, staring without blinking. His eyes are a mix of human and animal, something that should look wrong but Xiao Xingchen cannot force himself to look away.
"Are you lost?" he asks.
Xiao Xingchen waits too long to answer. He isn't lost in any traditional sense. He would know the way back to the encampment with his eyes closed, with a fever, on the brink of death. He walks the path in his sleep most nights, although he never actually arrives at his destination.
"I see," says the wolf, again.
Xiao Xingchen smiles, helplessly. It is this small kindness, this small understanding, that snaps the last of his resolve like a twig underfoot.
"Would you like to see something?"
He shouldn't. His master would have a lot to say of his behavior. Do not invite evil , he can imagine her saying. We don't know if he is evil , he imagines saying back. He is simply-- from another world . He sees his conjured idea of Baoshan Sanren's eyes go flat and cold. They are the same thing .
"Yes," says the wolf.
When Xiao Xingchen begins to walk, the wolf walks with him, his footsteps somehow silent despite his human form.
Xiao Xingchen is not unaccustomed to nudity, but the nights are turning colder and colder, yet this man does not even seem to notice. He moves openly, with ease, as though the night itself is a garment. Xingchen keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the path ahead. He walks the same path as the deer, taking their shortcuts, and if he isn’t paying attention, it would be too easy to get lost, or walk face first into a spider’s web.
"Do you have a name?" he asks, and then blushes with his own foolishness. He hasn't even given his own--
The wolf smiles, if the expression could be called a smile when it is mostly a baring of teeth.
"I have two," he says. "One is-- not language." He frowns. "It is-- the smell of cold frost. Distance."
Xingchen does not say, it sounds lonely , but it is a near thing.
"You may call me Song Zichen," the wolf says, finally looking away, for a moment. Perhaps the cold is starting to affect him; his cheeks are pink.
"I am Xiao Xingchen," says Xiao Xingchen. The wolf mouths the words. Xiao Xingchen wonders how much time he's spent in human form.
It hits him all at once, that he is walking through the woods with a creature out of legend. Song Zichen is real, is warm, is beautiful and powerful under the moon, with blood on his hands and-- and fur. He is part of a pack. Xiao Xingchen considers the wonders that he might never have known, had he not deviated from his expected path, if he had not disobeyed the rules.
"It's just through here," he says, stepping off the path and pushing a branch out of the way. He steps forward, pulse rapid in his throat.
"Oh," says Song Zichen, awe coloring his voice, and Xiao Xingchen knows he was right.
The woods open up to a rocky outcrop, perfectly aligned with a gap in the trees. Stretching forward are leagues and leagues of space, trees that look black under the moonlight, the roving foothills becoming flatter, and in the very faint distance, the flickering lights of human life. Possibly a farmhouse, maybe the beginning of a small village.
"I come here to meditate, when-- when I can," says Xiao Xingchen.
The wolf has his eyes half closed, face tilted into the wind. Xingchen’s chest feels tight in a way that is utterly unfamiliar.
"It's beautiful," Song Zichen says. “The light.”
“We-- the humans who live on this mountain-- are forbidden from it,” he says.
“From other humans?”
Xiao Xingchen nods. “Or other beings.” He carefully looks ahead, not at the wolf/man beside him. If he looks, he might touch, and he is already walking such a thin line.
The wolf looks down, briefly hiding his expression.
“We are forbidden from the mountain,” he says, voice icy. “And discouraged from walking among men.”
“I see.” Xiao Xingchen cannot hide his own smile.
“Sit with me?” Xiao Xingchen says, at almost the same time. He cannot stop talking, has never felt so stupid or so seen in his entire life. “Would you like my outer robe? Even wolves must feel the cold, this high up.”
The wolf looks at him, a single eyebrow raised, and then he is again a true wolf, black fur and yellow teeth. He sits almost pointedly, tail neatly tucked at his side. Xiao Xingchen sits beside him, tucking his robes in the same way. If the wolf notices, he doesn’t so much as flick his ears.
Xiao Xingchen has not smiled this much in-- in any time he can remember. Perhaps as a child, when he still had parents.
It isn’t that he dislikes the other disciples, that he doesn’t believe in their cultivation, or Baoshan Sanren’s teachings. The opposite, even. He loves them, their mountain, their words, with all that he is. It’s only-- the world is dark, and strange, and he is so far from it. He hears of atrocities and bloodshed and must nod, must meditate as if it were only a story, not real lives wasted. It chafes at him a little more each night.
As if sensing his thoughts, the wolf leans against him. He is shockingly warm, even through the several layers of Xiao Xingchen’s robes.
It is easy to talk to him like this. To speak out loud the thoughts that trouble Xiao Xingchen when the other disciples sleep, the doubts that creep into his mind when Baoshan Sanren turns her back. Easy even when, after an hour or so, when Xiao Xingchen’s throat has gotten sore from talking so long, the wolf becomes a man again, and takes the offered outer robe. He blushes when he does, although Xiao Xingchen cannot imagine why.
He listens while the wolf speaks, pressed shoulder to shoulder, until the sky has gone yellow and grey with dawn light and their clothes are damp with morning dew. Song Zichen speaks softly, with strange turns of phrase that Xiao Xingchen can almost see him working over in his head, translating the not-language of the wolves to share with Xingchen. He talks of injustice, of isolation, of the need to do more.
Xingchen thinks he would like to listen to Song Zichen for the rest of his life.
“Would you come with me?” Xiao Xingchen asks, before he can think better of it. “If I left?”
The wolf looks at him. His eyes should be warm, that pale yellow, but they aren’t.
“Yes,” he says.
He blushes, again, just barely visible. Xiao Xingchen's chest feels like it might burst. He cannot remember when he last slept, but he also doesn’t feel tired in the slightest.
“I would like to see that light up close,” Xingchen says. It’s barely visible now, in the sudden light, but he can still just make out the distant glow.
Song Zichen sits up.
“Now?” he says.
“I-- won’t you be missed?”
“No. It’s normal for us, to leave for a time. Will you?” Song Zichen says.
“No,” Xiao Xingchen says. It twists his stomach to say it, but he can hear the truth in his own voice.
Perhaps Song Zichen can hear. His hand finds Xingchen’s wrist and squeezes, once, gently, before letting go. The heat leaves behind an imprint that travels up Xingchen’s arm.
It’s impulsive. It’s dangerous. It’s the only thing that’s ever felt real. Isn’t this what the stories talk about? Isn’t this how legends begin?
Xiao Xingchen stretches, heart fluttering. He stands, extending a hand to Song Zichen to pull him to his feet. Zichen takes it with only a somewhat bemused expression.
The rock outcrop is softer in the daylight, somehow. Green lichen curls at the corners of the stone, flecked with morning dew.
“It will be faster if we both could run, as wolves run,” says Song Zichen.
In the soft dirt there is an imprint of a wolf’s paw, half-filled with dew. Barely enough to drink from. Song Zichen watches him, gaze impossible to read. Xiao Xingchen’s chest turns over.
“I-- may I?” he asks, because it-- he must ask. If Song Zichen tells him no, now, he will never allow himself to think of it again. He will cut this want from his chest and bury it here, on the mountainside, and he will walk beside Song Zichen for as long as they both live, never once thinking of it. But if he says yes--
Song Zichen smiles. It’s a beautiful thing, both familiar and not. Almost desperate.
When Xiao Xingchen sinks to his knees, Song Zichen goes with him, hand in hand. Above them, the sparrows call a greeting to each other, and the wind whistles between the branches, a song Xingchen can barely hear, in this form. A secret he never even thought to wonder about.
Song Zichen squeezes his fingers. Xingchen bends, careful not to disturb the edges of the pawprint, and drinks.
A man meets a wolf and they walk, together, through towns, along the coast, over newer, stranger mountains, always in lockstep. One acts as an extension of the other, as if they are one being in two bodies. Sometimes, there are two men. Sometimes, there are two wolves.