“Do you know any cool sword moves?” Bai Tian asks, one evening. There are fireflies humming around him. He turns his face and it catches starlight in his eyes.
“No,” lies Yu Xiao. “Just alchemy.”
Bai Tian is sprawled out on a fallen tree, one knee balancing atop the other as he plays with the grass flutes and flower crowns Yu Xiao has been teaching him to make.
Yu Xiao sits in a nearby tree, the lowest branch he could find while still being out of Bai Tian’s reach.
The sun set hours ago.
Yu Xiao hopes Bai Tian doesn’t leave.
“I miss my parents,” Bai Tian says after a while. He’s never sounded smaller, not even when he was a little kid chasing Yu Xiao through the forest. Bai Tian is older now, almost seventeen.
Yu Xiao misses his parents, too.
He doesn’t say anything, just hums softly.
Bai Tian doesn’t know how to do a lot of things.
He doesn’t know how to chop vegetables or sweep the floor. He doesn’t know about ironing boards or drying herbs or fill out his taxes. He’s not good at budgeting or identifying plants or painting pictures or playing the piano.
Yu Xiao wants to teach him.
Yu Xiao wants to brush his hair and help adjust his grip and tell him about cooking and chemistry. He wants to guide those sunkissed hands in calligraphy or music.
Yu Xiao wants to catch Bai Tian when he falls.
Bai Tian falls out of a tree on the morning of his seventeenth birthday. Yu Xiao rushes to catch him. He misses.
Bai Tian bawls, not over his scraped hands or bloody knees, but over Yu Xiao.
“Promise me you won’t touch me,” Bai Tian says, rubbing his face with his hands. “Promise me!” His eyes are puffy and red.
Yu Xiao crouches, ensuring they are on eye level.
“I won’t touch you,” Yu Xiao swears. He’s not sure if he’s lying or not. “I promise.”
“I really really don’t want you to disappear,” Bai Tian sobs. “Please don’t disappear…”
Yu Xiao is a mountain god, a spirit of lost people and broken things. His mountain is big and lonely. There is a lake on the east side and bamboo groves to the west. To the north, there is a small town and a river and a maze array to keep people out. To the south, there are more mountains that belong to Shifu and Shixiong and all of the younger students. Bai Tian lives in the north. The first time Yu Xiao sees him, Bai Tian is six years old and trapped and lost and alone.
Yu Xiao peeks out at him from behind a tree.
“Hello?” Yu Xiao calls.
Bai Tian jolts. He clamors to his feet, head twisting to catch sight of someone in the fog.
Bai Tian’s eyes land on Yu Xiao. Tears well up. He starts running.
“Heeeeeelp!” Bai Tian shouts eyes clamped shut, arms reaching reaching reaching.
There’s a part of Yu Xiao that wants to stay very still and wait for death to take him.
Yu Xiao takes a breath and leaps .
“Wah!” cries Bai Tian as he slams into the tree.
“Are you okay?” Yu Xiao asks from his new perch far above the small child.
“You’re mean!” Bai Tian yells, rubbing his forehead. Yu Xiao can see the scratches and the swelling and before he can think to stop himself, he is sending the boy a small Blessing.
“You’re the only person for miles and miles and you’re super mean!”
Yu Xiao blinks.
“I’m not a person,” he says, pointing to his mask. “I’m a spirit.”
“That’s stupid,” says Bai Tian.
“What’s stupid?” Yu Xiao asks.
“Being a spirit doesn’t stop you from being a person, does it?” Bai Tian asks, giving Yu Xiao a look. You’re stupid , Bai Tian’s narrowed eyes tell him.
“Oh,” says Yu Xiao. “I thought you were talking about my mask.”
“That’s not stupid,” Bai Tian scoffs. “That’s weird .”
Yu Xiao’s inner five-year-old wants to tell Bai Tian that he’s the weird one. Instead, Yu Xiao cocks his head.
“Why are you on my mountain?” Yu Xiao asks.
Bai Tian glares.
“Mountains don’t belong to people,” he says, squinting.
“You’re right,” says Yu Xiao, patiently. “They belong to spirits. Like me.”
“If it’s your mountain, do you know how to get back home?”
“Probably,” says Yu Xiao. “Unless you live in the city.”
Bai Tian wrinkles his nose. He is very expressive. Yu Xiao is almost charmed.
“I mostly live in the city,” Bai Tian admits reluctantly. “But this summer I’m staying with Auntie and Uncle.”
Yu Xiao weighs his options.
“If I come down, you’re not going to touch me or anything, right?” Yu Xiao says.
“What happens if I touch you?”
“That’s not how touching works.”
“That’s how I work.”
“Then I guess I promise I won’t touch you.” Bai Tian says magnanimously.
“You guess?” Yu Xiao raises an eyebrow.
Bai Tian corrects himself.
“I promise,” he says.
“If you do, I’ll fade away into nothingness and you’ll be lost in the woods forever,” Yu Xiao warns him.
“I promise, for real,” Bai Tian nods. He’s very small. And loud.
Yu Xiao climbs down to the roots of the tree. He is barefoot today, not by choice or mood, but because his sandal strap snapped this morning and Yu Xiao hasn’t gotten around to fixing it yet.
Bai Tian shuffles his own feet, looking down at the ground with a hint of shyness that comes too late in their meeting for Yu Xiao to trust.
“I’m Bai Tian,” Bai Tian says. “Spelled daylight.”
Yu Xiao takes a deep breath. It’s not the same name. It’s not the same family. It doesn’t matter. Why would it matter? It doesn’t matter. Yu Xiao lets out his breath, exhaling slowly.
“I am Yu Xiao,” he tells the boy. “You can call me Shifu.”
“Are you somebody’s shifu?” Bai Tian wonders.
“Yours now,” Yu Xiao says, picking up a solid branch from the forest floor. It might make a good walking stick. But for now, it will have a different use. “I’m teaching you the way home, aren’t I?” There is a pause while Yu Xiao cleans off the stick and Bai Tian works through what he just said. The boy is not simple, but he is only six years old.
“Here,” Yu Xiao says, offering one side of the branch. “We won’t be touching, but we won’t be separated either.”
Bai Tian grasps with strong fingers.
There is an echo of a memory. The fingers of a child reaching up to grasp one side of a branch. The fingers of a man keeping it steady. One day, no one will remember at all.
For now, Yu Xiao remembers. He stares for just a moment before he begins to lead Bai Tian through the maze array and down the mountainside. They head north, picking their way through trails just wide enough for them to walk side by side without worry of touching.
When they reach the town, Bai Tian stops.
“Thank you,” he says bashfully. “I know the way from here.”
“Don’t get lost again,” Yu Xiao says.
“Shifu,” Bai Tian scrunches up his face. Yu Xiao thinks he's trying to look cute, but his wobbly lips and teary eyes do not move the mountain god. “Can I come see you again?”
“Don’t get lost again,” Yu Xiao repeats, resigned.
“I won’t, Shifu! I promise!” Bai Tian cries gleefully, rushing forwards to hug Yu Xiao’s legs. Yu Xiao doesn’t wait a moment. He just springs away, spinning into the mists of his treeline. Bai Tian does his best to break as many promises as he makes that summer.
And the next. And the next. And for many more after that.
“I’ll miss you,” Bai Tian says, the day after he turns seventeen.
Usually, he’s gone by now. On a train or bus or car back to the city. Away away away. Instead, he’s waiting at the mountain path where Yu Xiao likes to spend his mornings.
“We’ll have next summer,” says Yu Xiao.
“But after that there will be school and work and—”
“We will have next summer,” repeats Yu Xiao, patiently.
He’s not worried.
(He doesn’t know. How could he? He is a god. He doesn’t realize how limited their time is.)
“I’m not worried,” he says, smiling. “We have next summer. And you can always come visit me.”
(They will spend next summer fishing and gathering herbs and playing in the trees. Bai Tian might even brave a kiss on Yu Xiao’s masked cheek. They will walk together, holding a stick or a ribbon or a basket between them.
And then Yu Xiao will have an idea.
“Do you want to come to the festival?” He will ask.
Bai Tian’s eyes will go big and wide.
“The one with all the spirits?”
“And creatures and deities and things. There are always some humans mixed in with the crowd.”
Bai Tian will cheer and say yes. They will dress up, and wander the market stalls and watch the fireworks. Bai Tian will buy Yu Xiao a lantern and they will send it floating together, with the same wish.
A young couple will knock into Yu Xiao and he will stare at his hands for just a moment and watch them fade into starlight.
“Bai Tian,” he will say. Bai Tian will look up.
“Bai Tian,” Yu Xiao will say again. “Hug me.”
Bai Tian will take a step back.
“Please,” Yu Xiao will say. “Let me die in your arms.”
And then he will die.
But Yu Xiao doesn’t know any of this.
He doesn't know.)
“I made you something,” Bai Tian says. “For the winter.”
Yu Xiao blinks at him. Bai Tian stands across the path, arm outstretched, holding a little bag out for Yu Xiao. A gift.
“To keep you warm.”
Yu Xiao smiles.
“Like a hug,” he says.
“Like a hug.” Bai Tian agrees.
Yu Xiao opens it, his heart swelling.
“It’s a scarf,” he says before wrapping it around his neck. “You made it?”
“It’s not perfect,” says Bai Tian. He wrings his hands.
Yu Xiao disagrees.
“It’s your birthday,” Yu Xiao says, instead. “Why are you giving me a gift?”
“Because I am going to miss you,” says Bai Tian.
Yu Xiao’s heart breaks.
“I’m going to miss you, too,” he says.