“Song Lan, hurry up!”
The voices of his shixiong pass through his ears, but Song Lan cannot bring himself to turn towards them. From where he stands, he sees a boy no older than eight years old argue with a man thrice his size. The boy is barely covered by ratty clothes and his hair long and uneven. The man is clearly from a cultivation sect. It is an uneven match with an obvious winner. But this kind of encounter isn’t rare – Song Lan himself has seen it happen almost every time he travels into Yueyang for supplies with his fellow disciples. It is a disgusting, unfortunate sight, but not one he has any power to stop.
Still, though, he watches, because he has never been one to look away from the worst of the world. Even at ten years old, he knows he will, one day, be able to put the world in a better place.
So, he watches. He watches as the cultivator pushes down the impoverished boy and runs over him with his cart.
Agonized, the boy screams. Horrified, Song Lan runs to his side. Frustrated, the disciples of Baixue Temple come to carry Song Lan home, only to see him holding a filthy boy in his arms, bravely holding still as the boy thrashes against him.
It takes a well-aimed chop to the neck to calm the screaming boy. Song Lan carefully hands the unconscious boy to one of his shixiong, who carries him against his chest all the way back to Baixue Temple, at the border between Yueyang and Linxiang. With just a glance, Song Lan can tell that the boy’s hand has been thoroughly crushed and the rest of him thoroughly beaten. Song Lan hopes, perhaps foolishly, that they will be able to save him.
The boy has to be kept asleep for several days. The reasoning is simple—first, that he needs to rest his hand; second, that he has bitten the doctors tending to him whenever he is awake. Four days after the boy’s rescue, Song Lan is allowed to visit and bring him food. He fully expects to have to manually feed him, but as he enters the boy’s quarters, Song Lan is immediately surprised to find the bed empty.
“Get out,” he hears from his right. Spinning on his foot, Song Lan readies to attack, training knife in one hand, bowl of porridge in the other. The knife is knocked out of his grasp instantly, the air in his chest forced out by the heel of someone’s hand. As Song Lan stumbles back, a bony figure climbs over his body, one hand grabbing his ear while a pair of knees land against his shoulders and pin him to the ground.
In the dim light of the recovery room, Song Lan cannot make out the face of the person above him, but size alone tells him it’s the boy. Without hesitation, he drops the bowl, digs his hand into the porridge, and slaps the boy.
The attack must surprise the boy, because he takes a second to react. The second is all Song Lan needs. With only a few jabs, the boy goes still as a board and falls to the side, freeing Song Lan.
“You need to eat,” Song Lan states simply as he stands. His hand is absolutely covered in porridge, a sensation he is quick to clean off with a handkerchief from his sleeve. “You can’t hope to win against any of the cultivators here when you’re no more than a beansprout.”
“Fuck off,” the boy curses, still frozen from the neck-down. “I managed to get the drop on you. And you only get slower the older you are, so I could probably kill everyone else here.”
The word kill sets a fire in Song Lan’s gut. He dares to think to punch the boy for his insolence, but the sight of his heavily bandaged hand is enough to hold Song Lan’s revenge. “Why weren’t you asleep?” he asks instead.
“I was faking,” the boy grunts out. Song Lan notices a finger on his good hand twitch. He’s recovering from paralysis remarkably quickly. “Too dangerous to actually sleep.”
“You’re in Baixue Temple. This is the safest place you could be,” Song Lan retorts.
“I’m not letting any hands on me,” the boy quickly counters. “Those bastards are lucky they’ve only touched my hand. They’d be dead if they tried anything.”
“How dare you! Nobody here would dare—”
“Guess you’ve been lucky,” the boy interrupts. He sits up and wipes the porridge from his cheek. “Or maybe you’re too old for them.”
Song Lan goes to slap him again. But the boy dodges at the last second, leaving only air as he instead tackles Song Lan. When Song Lan lands, the boy says, “Come on, get me out of here and I’ll make sure those creeps never touch you. I have lots of good hideouts.”
Before Song Lan can further object, the door slides open. The doctor shouts, reprimanding both the boy and Song Lan in the same breath. The boy has no time to react before three of the adults, the doctor included, charge into the room and grab him by the collar. He is screaming out a curse as Song Lan’s shixiong knocks the boy out again.
Song Lan isn’t allowed to visit the boy for the next few days. He is told it is to punish the boy, but rumors spread quickly in Baixue. The boy, to everyone’s surprise, is somehow able to resist the lighter-grade sleeping spells, a feat not capable for anyone who isn’t a cultivator. It quickly comes out that he likely has, somehow, managed to develop the fledglings of a golden core. Some people theorize that perhaps he is a child of a nearby cultivation sect, abandoned due to how much of a little devil he is. Others think he is simply a young genius, able to do something their ancestors had to figure out for themselves so many centuries ago. There are also some who believe he may not be human at all. Amidst all this hypothesizing, the boy’s name finally comes out—Xue Yang. Nobody can remember any notable cultivator Xue’s.
When Song Lan is allowed to visit Xue Yang again, it is when Xue Yang is finally given permission to move around with supervision. Song Lan, being the one who saved him, is asked to be the first child to approach him, with the hopes that they’ll be able to become friends. After the last encounter, Song Lan really doubts they will be able to get along.
Song Lan is lead to the koi pond, where Xue Yang sits, obviously bored, surrounded by two of Song Lan’s shixiong and one of his shijie.
“Hello,” Song Lan greets with a perfunctory bow. “I’ve been told your name is Xue Yang. You may call me Song Lan.”
Xue Yang sneers at him. Silence, as it so often does for Song Lan, makes itself known. Still, though, the adults are watching, so Song Lan comes to sit beside Xue Yang. As he does so, he notices that Xue Yang’s hand is still heavily bandaged up, but it is missing a pinky. The doctors must not have been able to save it.
“Do you miss it?” Song Lan asks.
Xue Yang gives him an incredulous look. “Miss what?” Song Lan points at his hand. “My pinky?”
Song Lan nods.
Xue Yang laughs, loud and harsh. “What the fuck kind of question is that?”
Song Lan shies away, staring intently at the pond and hoping he isn’t blushing. “It’s…” He trails off into a grumble.
Xue Yang goes into a long silence. Song Lan is mentally running through polite ways to excuse himself when the other boy bumps his shoulder. Looking over, he sees Xue Yang unbandaging his hand, revealing dark purple skin, tightly dotted stitches, and a disgusting stump. “It’s weird. I still feel my pinky even though it’s not there.”
“Does it hurt?” Song Lan asks, grabbing Xue Yang’s wrist so he can study the stitching.
“All the time.” Xue Yang makes a noise Song Lan can’t interpret. “Are you a doctor’s boy?”
“No. But I want to become one of the Temple’s medics.” Song Lan finds Xue Yang’s discarded bandages and begins re-wrapping the injured hand. “I’ve been told I have a good, steady hand, so I think I will be useful to them.” Song Lan fastens the bandages. “Um… Do you want to be friends?”
“Gross,” Xue Yang mutters. It’s not a no, but it’s certainly not a yes. “I’m leaving soon as I can.”
“Oh…” Song Lan wonders at the wilting sensation in his chest. “We’ll take good care of you, then.”
Xue Yang leans in and whispers. “I’ll take you when I go.”
Song Lan scowls. “Must I tell you again that you’re safe here?”
“Nope,” Xue Yang replies with a sharp smirk, “because I won’t believe you.”
Song Lan stomps away without a word. He will likely suffer lashes for the disrespect, but that is better than dealing with a fool.
Xue Yang has the strangest memories sometimes. In them, there is a young woman, maybe his mother, maybe his sister, maybe nobody important at all. But she is there, warm and bright as the sun, untethered to this earth yet always there. She has a sword with a yellow tassel. He doesn’t remember her face, but he knows her hands – scarred and dirty and rough to the touch. He remembers swinging a stick next to her and resting in her shadow. He remembers blood. Lots of blood. He’s not sure whose. Whatever the case, he is certain she is dead. He is also certain she was a cultivator.
The rest of his memories are clear and more or less the same routine of picking pockets, begging for food, and sleeping in the smallest alcoves he can fit into. He is stronger and faster than most of the other kids, too, so he quickly amassed a small following. If any of the kids under him got food, they had to share with him, and the same went for money. In return, he protected all of them from the adults, those lecherous fucks whose eyes and smiles betrayed their monstrosity.
The streets had a few concrete rules. First, the brothels are tough to get into, but lots of money can be found there. Second, never try the gambling dens. Third, be extra cautious in the rich districts. Fourth, stay away from dogs. Fifth, you can trust the cultivators.
Cultivators are a noble sort. There were lots of stories of kids being taken in to have a better life with cultivators, so it was everyone’s hope that they would catch the right person’s eye.
Xue Yang thought he had caught the right eye. If he could do everything Chang Ci’an wanted, then maybe he could have more than a plate of sweets. He could finally leave the muck of the streets behind, if only he did everything right.
Now, though, he sits in the dark, kept to a recovery bed, missing a pinky and cursing the cultivator that crushed his hand. If he goes to the window, he can see so many children just as foolish as him, thinking they can become noble if they swing their swords hard enough. But he prefers the alcove he has made of blankets and pillows, hidden under white linen and free to think whatever he wants. He is alone most of the day, probably because they want to keep him where no one can rescue him. And in his solitude, with nothing else to think about, he mentally runs over all the children who disappeared from his following. Everyone said they were adopted by cultivators, but nobody really knew for certain. What if they were fooled by Chang Ci’an, too? Or other cultivators, who led them to their deaths. Dismembered, violated, forgotten by the rest of the world. Surely that is the truth. There is no happy ending for urchin like them.
He wonders if he should try to find them after he leaves Baixue Temple. He decides against it – too much danger.
In all his desperate melancholy, though, he does find one thing worth staying for. There is a child, Song Lan, who visits him every day. Besides the doctors, he is Xue Yang’s only guest. The boy rarely talks, but he is welcome company nevertheless.
One day, though, curiosity picks at Xue Yang and he asks, “Why do you come here?”
Song Lan frowns. “It is my punishment for being so rude to you and my senior disciples.”
Xue Yang snorts. “Really? That’s all? I thought you wanted to be friends.”
Song Lan likes to keep to the shadows, too, but Xue Yang can still see the way he blushes. “You are too intolerable for that. I only asked because I was told to.”
He is an interesting kid, Xue Yang thinks. Maybe that is why he is so certain he will take Song Lan with him when he can finally go. But, that is neither here nor there, and Xue Yang wants to rest in his linen alcove, so he does. They have done this routine for a few days, now, so the resulting silence is comforting.
Eventually, Song Lan decides to sit on Xue Yang’s bed, nearly intruding upon his alcove. “Can I see your hand?” he asks, so quiet it is almost like he never spoke. Xue Yang holds out his hand, though, and lets Song Lan inspect it. He doesn’t remove the bandages, but he does ask, “Does it still hurt?”
“All the time,” Xue Yang responds. “Your doctors don’t give me medicine.”
That’s a lie. He actually just doesn’t like the taste. But he does like the startle that appears on Song Lan’s face.
“That’s not right! I’ll make sure they give it to you.” Song Lan places two fingers over Xue Yang’s pulse and declares, “Here, I’ll try to lessen the pain.”
The qi-feeding doesn’t do much. Xue Yang would call the attempt clumsy at best. But it does lessen the worst of the ache, the feeling of splinters still dug into his skin.
“Did it help?”
There is an obvious glint of approval-seeking in Song Lan’s eyes. But Xue Yang instead answers, “You said you want to be one of the temple’s medics, right?”
“Yes, I want to be… I want to give my life to this temple for saving me.”
Song Lan lapses into silence again. Xue Yang mentally groans and tries to continue their conversation. “What happened to you? Monster attack?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember my life before the temple, but I remember not being happy. I was hungry all the time and something always hurt. Now I’m never hungry and the adults are nice to me. You should trust us in Baixue Temple, we won’t hurt you.”
Song Lan’s words stir something disgustingly familiar in Xue Yang’s guts. He doesn’t know what to call it yet, but it’s like finding unspoiled food in someone’s refuse. But he has to be careful of anyone smart enough to leave poison in their trash, so he keeps the feeling in a vice grip and instead says, “You’re an idiot to trust any cultivators.”
“Shut your mouth!” Song Lan quickly scolds. His hold on Xue Yang’s wrist tightens, just slightly, before he seems to notice and loosens his grip. He slumps and leans into Xue Yang’s space, his eyes trained to the ground. “I’ll protect you, at least. There are some mean shixiong, but nobody has hurt me, so no one should hurt you. And I’m going to be a strong cultivator for Baixue Temple. I promise to keep you safe as long as you’re here.”
The feeling in his guts struggles free from his grip. Xue Yang leans forward, resting his forehead on Song Lan’s shoulder. “I’m still going to go when I’m done healing. But I’ll believe you.”
Despite his words, Xue Yang stays long after the bandages and stitches are removed, long after the scars on his hands have healed to pale white remnants of trauma long-passed. He stays long enough to earn a courtesy name and have a sword, Jiangzai, crafted for him. Together with Song Lan, they grow from children to teens with aching legs and backs, growing faster than Baixue’s seamstresses can keep up with. And soon they become the top disciples with little fanfare and many a jealous eye.
Baixue Temple has always taken in street urchins and rogue cultivators. This was the intention of the founder, to never turn away those with talent and desire to learn. But that man had a family and left the world many, many decades ago. So far removed from their ancestor, and with a long history of being the lead family, his descendants have let pride replace compassion, have let jealousy conquer delight. Song Lan and Xue Yang have unwittingly threatened their internalized superiority – and they all know it.
“Zichen-gege,” Xue Yang whines as they make their way to morning training. “We should skip today, don’t you think?”
“We are the head disciples. We need to set a good example,” Song Lan reasons, like he always does.
Xue Yang grouses and, without warning, jumps onto Song Lan’s back. Song Lan catches him easily, though, and carries him without complaint. Song Lan’s broad back is a comfort to Xue Yang, who relaxes against the warmth, burying his nose into the crook of his friend’s neck. Song Lan always smells like sweets to him, like the perfect sugary glaze. Xue Yang holds onto him tightly, onto the one thing that kept him stable throughout these past six years.
Baixue Temple has been good to him, for the most part. But nobody can hold a candle to Song Lan.
“Gege,” he whines again. “You know they don’t want us there. We should skip!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Song Lan rejects. “We have proven ourselves to be worthy “
Xue Yang rolls his eyes. “Keep this up and they’ll stop feeding us.”
Song Lan’s grip on his thighs tightens, just slightly. His spine tingles at the sensation. “You know I don’t like it when you talk like this.”
“Like what? Like someone smarter than you?” Xue Yang laughs. There is an unfamiliar prickling in his crotch, an uncharted territory of sensation as he becomes more and more aware of everything about Song Lan in this moment – the smoothness of his hair, the strength in his hands, the heat he gives off. Xue Yang thinks he should probably get down, but he loves being carried too much to move.
“Like anyone here in Baixue Temple will hurt you. You’re fourteen now, Xue Yang, you should know better.”
Xue Yang wants to object that stares can hurt just as much as actual abuse. Ever since the day he was inducted as a disciple, he’s known that he wasn’t accepted. He was always too dirty, too rambunctious, too sneaky, too weird to be a proper disciple. Besides Song Lan, nobody has even tried to approach Xue Yang as anything more than their fellow disciple. Instead of saying any of that, though, he replies, “Then do it for yourself. Everyone can tell that you’re tired.”
Song Lan grumbles. “I’m only tired because you keep waking me up for pranks.”
“And one of these days, you’ll agree to join me!” Xue Yang laughs. “You’re fifteen now, Zichen-gege, you need to learn how to have fun before you become one of those dumb adults.”
“You’re having more than enough fun for the two of us,” Song Lan remarks. “While I take the blame for all your mess.”
“No, you don’t! Don’t lie!”
Before Song Lan can continue their bantering, they arrive at the training grounds. Most of the field is empty save for a few hard-working older disciples, the teachers, and, of course, the head priest’s family. As Xue Yang drops to his feet, the family stare daggers into his head. Xue Yang smirks at them. He has dealt with much, much worse than these petty losers.
But as Song Lan approaches to greet them, an ugly feeling churns in his gut as those disdainful stares bear down on his oldest and only friend. Nobody can judge his Song Lan like that.
Song Lan is no idiot. He is well-aware that he is no longer welcome. He is also distinctly aware that he could leave. It isn’t uncommon for Baixue to lose disciples – some leave for their first night hunt and don’t make it to morning; others decide to strike out on their own, for love or for adventure; and others still join different cultivation sects. Really, overall, there are very few long-standing families within Baixue Temple, including the head family, and only a smattering of disciples who stayed well-past adulthood without marrying in. Despite of the founder’s original wishes, Baixue Temple has long become a place for proud bloodlines and whatever orphan they grant pity upon.
A small part of Song Lan’s heart wishes he could have noticed this fact sooner. He became head disciple at thirteen alongside Xue Yang and he took great pride in that, for a time. But as he grew older, he realized the terrible reality of it all. Despite, and because, of his talent, he was despised by the people he once revered. The only person who remained largely the same, who did not turn his heart away from Song Lan, was Xue Yang.
Song Lan knows he could simply leave with Xue Yang in tow. The two have never discussed it, but neither of them is under the pretense that Xue Yang stayed in order to become a Baixue cultivator. They could strike out on their own, like so many cultivators before them. It would be easy, between their shared strength and Xue Yang’s street smarts. In some years time, Song Lan is certain they could even found their own cultivation sect, one that actually cared for the progress of all, regardless of the confines of blood.
It would be so easy. Yet every time Song Lan considers packing his meager assets, his blood freezes. The choice should be so easy, but his own body prevents him. His body, which is covered in the markings of his life and the people he calls family. A scar on his knee from losing his balance during training. Reflexes built from dodging wooden swords. His clothes made and mended by women he has known for as long as he can remember. What few accessories he has were given to him by his shidi and shimei. His bones, hair, mind have grown within the confines of Baixue Temple. They all tie him here, where he once was loved.
Song Lan is no idiot. He knows Xue Yang is judging him for his own reluctance. He also knows, very well, that he fell in love with his only friend some long time ago.
“Gege,” Xue Yang whimpers one night, his honeyed and familiar voice alighting Song Lan’s entire self in the otherwise dark room of their dormitory. “Gege, why do you keep letting them hurt you?”
Song Lan isn’t injured. Nobody has been able to touch him for nearly three years now. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He does, actually. He can’t think of the last time he didn’t find his bed covered in bugs or his spare clothes torn or muddy. Some of his shixiong have even begun to steal food off his plate, because they know he won’t stop them and Xue Yang won’t fight Song Lan’s battles for him.
“I hate that you’re like this,” Xue Yang grumbles. Song Lan pretends the confession doesn’t sting.
“We’re stuck here, Yangyang,” Song Lan weakly bites back. “So long as I’m here, you will be, too. So stop nagging me – it won’t work.”
Suddenly, his bed shifts. He recognizes it as Xue Yang’s weight, but he has no idea when his friend moved. Xue Yang has always been sneaky like that – Song Lan both loves and hates it.
“What will work, then? I’m getting tired of watching you hurting like this,” Xue Yang whispers. He has pinned Song Lan between his legs now, his hands on either side of Song Lan’s head. Song Lan can’t say he dislikes the sudden closeness of this position, but it does raise every hair on his body. He tries to push Xue Yang away, but his friend grabs his hand. “Let’s leave tomorrow, okay?”
“Go without me.”
Song Lan expects more whining from Xue Yang at his response. Instead, something soft, wet, and sweet presses against his mouth. It’s his lips – Xue Yang’s lips. Song Lan has wanted this for longer than he can remember. So he brings his free hand to the back of Xue Yang’s neck and holds him down, keeps the kiss going with zero protest from his friend. The kiss is hot and awkward, mashing teeth and bitten lips, but still they try to devour each other, conveying feelings they don’t know how to say. Song Lan pushes Xue Yang over, switching their positions, and answers to the heat in his stomach by pressing himself fully against Xue Yang. He’s several centimeters taller than his friend, but still he manages to line up where the heat has pooled the strongest. As their crotches meet, lightening sparks throughout Song Lan’s body and, judging by the noise in Xue Yang’s throat, he must feel the same. Song Lan grinds and ruts into the welcome spread of Xue Yang’s legs, moving wildly until he feels his cum splatter against his pants.
As Song Lan breaks the kiss, Xue Yang cries, “Hey, I’m not done yet!” and grips Song Lan’s shoulder. They both sit up and Xue Yang retrieves his cock, pumping himself quickly and sporadically until cum shoots from the slit and all over Song Lan’s sleeping clothes.
“Xue Chengmei!” Song Lan scolds, even as his brain burns happily at the feeling of Xue Yang’s cum on his body.
“You have to go with me now, Zichen-gege,” Xue Yang sing-songs. “I took your virginity, so now we are bound together forever.”
“That’s not how it works you idiot—”
“Are you coming or not?”
Song Lan thinks back to his family, to the people who cared for him for so long. The thought of leaving stings, yet it is somehow much more bearable now. In the dim light provided by the moon, Song Lan can see Xue Yang smirking and thinks to himself that he could spend a lifetime watching only this face.
When Song Lan wakes the following morning, it is not to the sleeping face of Xue Yang. Rather, he has somehow slept through everyone else in their dormitory waking up and leaving for morning practice. It’s a strange feeling, being so alone, but he doesn’t dwell on it as he hurries to dress himself and run to the training lot.
He finds chaos there. Multiple unconscious bodies, several trainers backed against a wall, and… are those firecrackers?
“Good morning, Zichen-ge!” Xue Yang shouts from a nearby rooftop.
“What did you do?!” Song Lan screams.
“We’re leaving, aren’t we?” Xue Yang asks with a malicious smirk. “Might as well pay them back for all they did for us!” He throws down two lines of firecrackers, which Song Lan – damn his reflexes – catches.
“This is no way to treat them! Also, when did you get these?”
“I have paint, too. Would you rather use that?”
Song Lan can’t believe his ears. He stares, dumbfounded, up at Xue Yang. He friend cackles down at him before jumping down to meet him. Sure enough, there is a wreath of firecrackers hanging from his neck and two jars held under his arms.
“I’m going to do this with or without you, you know, so might as well make your decision now,” Xue Yang declares with a smirk. “Or does Zichen-gege not want little YangYang to have fun?” Xue Yang has the audacity to pout as he says those words, his eyes big and his head tilted. He even uses his cutesy voice, which has never once worked on Song Lan except when he wanted to cuddle at night. It only works to annoy anyone unfortunate enough to hear it, usually.
Still, though, a laugh bubbles out of Song Lan’s chest. It ruptures out of his throat and soon he is doubled over, clutching at his sides because of course Xue Yang did this! Of course his anti-social, goofy, spoiled, tricky, and adorable Xue Yang chose to do this! How could Song Lan expect anything else?
“That’s not a no!” Xue Yang exclaims. Soon Song Lan hears firecrackers pop and older men scream, jars open and shijie protest. Xue Yang, that idiot, continues his tirade as Song Lan eventually sits down and just watches his home be dirtied. It feels much better than he would’ve ever thought it could. Maybe this is what catharsis feels like.
Song Lan knows very well that he will never be allowed to return home, not after this. But he remembers a small boy with a broken hand. He remembers watching that boy pick up a wooden sword and defeat boys much older than him. He remembers being the only one who could calm that boy down; the only one could convince him to bathe; the only one who could make the boy eat, so long as he could prove nobody had poisoned the food. Song Lan watches that boy make a ruckus and laugh his heart out, because Song Lan has also never been one to look away from the best the world has to offer.
“Song Lan, let’s go!”
He doesn’t think twice before following Xue Yang out and away from Baixue Temple.