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until every last star falls

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1.

After Shi Wuduan passed out, Bai Li sat upon that icy slab and carefully hugged him for a long time. He pressed a hand to that seemingly thin back, holding him close. The slow, faint heartbeat, his sparse breaths, the meager warmth of a living being — all of it Bai Li greedily gathered up and let it press his heart hanging suspended back into his chest.

Alive, Bai Li thought. He’s alive.

Then, with genuine wonder: Wuduan’s returned to me. He didn’t lie to me.

Bai Li sat in a daze, all of his senses attuned to the man in his arms. The half-crazed yearning and sadness that had erupted in his heart on that windy, rainy, too-bright battlefield littered with stars had abruptly disappeared now that the person he’d been missing was finally here. For a moment, Bai Li even felt at a loss.

He held Shi Wuduan and asked himself, What will we do now?

 

2.

The answer to that — or at least Shi Wuduan’s answer to that — as it turned out, was, simply put: Nothing.

The pain of returning back after casting aside their flesh and blood was one Bai Li understood well. That never-ending torment that blocked out the rest of the world and even one’s thoughts hounded him to where he could not even count the days or nights that passed, making him want to just rip apart his flesh anew and let himself bleed out to death. Even after the pain faded away, after rolling around in it for so long, if their soul wasn’t exhausted to the point of wanting to reincarnate, then the new body would at least suffer from phantom aches.

In Shi Wuduan’s case, it was both.

Bai Li had taken him away soon after he came back to life, keeping him in a small courtyard halfway up the mountain. The courtyard was average-looking on the outside, not too extravagant and not too plain, easily overlooked and forgettable — but it was the inside that held all the… uniqueness.

Everything that was needed was there. A bed, a place to sit, a table, some bowls and plates and cups and utensils to eat, all of it was fine. It was just everything else that was out of place, sticking out like an eyesore.

Miscellaneous decorations hung and stood here and there, the designs somehow all very bold, some odd devices Bai Li had picked up after hearing one merchant’s very enthusiastic advertisement were littered across, strange jade figurines and wooden carvings sitting on the small bedside table that supposedly promoted health and good sleep and things of that ilk… all were picked out by Bai Li’s clumsy hands in hopes that, when Shi Wuduan came here, it would be a bit livelier, a little less plain and gloomy-looking.

Unfortunately, ever since he brought Shi Wuduan here, he’d been asleep, hardly ever waking up, like he wanted to make up for all the sleep he missed in that last life where he worked himself like a dog defying heaven.

Even dogs had a more carefree life than he did, though.

Sometimes, Shi Wuduan would blearily open his eyes. Day or night Bai Li would be right there beside him, so when Shi Wuduan’s scattered gaze habitually came together to focus on him, the corners of his lips would unconsciously lift into a small smile despite the pain.

Sometimes, he would murmur, “Little Li-zi…”

Other times, he’d faintly call, “Wife…”

Every time, Bai Li would bow his head and tell him, “Wuduan, I’m here.”

You found me.

It seemed Shi Wuduan was always content with these few words. After hearing them, he would laugh a bit, then fall back to sleep without any worries.

 

3.

As the days became weeks, the weather started to get colder in earnest.

By this time, Shi Wuduan should have already gotten better, the pain a fading memory, rejuvenated once more, but even though he was awake for longer now, he seemed reluctant to move at all. Bai Li, the type of person who could not even care for himself, much less other people, really didn’t know what to do about it.

Then, as it truly became winter, Shi Wuduan caught a cold, coughing like he wanted to spit out his lungs while he curled up even deeper under the blanket.

Other than that one time, Bai Li never encountered Shi Wuduan’s seasonal sickness. He clearly remembered that Shi Wuduan was rather flippant about it, making it seem like a small matter that followed him through childhood to now, but with Shi Wuduan’s odd stagnation in recovering from the lightning tribulation and everything after it, Bai Li was suddenly anxious by this small cold.

He crawled into bed with Shi Wuduan, hugging that curled up bundle into his arms and lighting a fireball that he stuffed into the covers for Shi Wuduan to hold, driving the cold out of these four walls.

Shi Wuduan made a sleepy, content noise, not even looking at him.

Bai Li thought about it for a long time and finally decided to ask, “Wuduan, what’s wrong?”

Shi Wuduan grunted. He paused for a long time, almost making Bai Li think he fell asleep, then replied slowly, “What?”

“Is there something wrong with the bodhi wood?” Bai Li asked directly. “If there’s something wrong with the wood, we can go back to Bodhi Mountain and use a different part of the tree, return this defective piece — “

Shi Wuduan was genuinely confused at first, but then he suddenly laughed. After coughing for so much before, it came out a bit hoarse. “I split my body into two and took on all your karma for you, getting struck to ash by heavenly lightning. Now that I have this new body, what am I, defective goods?”

Bai Li frowned. “Then why haven’t you recovered yet?”

“I have recovered,” Shi Wuduan said plainly. After saying so, he coughed.

“Laying here for almost a month, hardly eating — recovered?” Bai Li pointedly asked.

Shi Wuduan was quiet, then, as if realizing what Bai Li was saying, he laughed again. His voice was muffled as he spoke, “Little Li-zi, I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong. It’s just… cough… it’s been too cold lately.”

Silence.

All of Bai Li’s worries were abruptly washed away by cold water. In its wake was a simmering frustration. After trying to calm himself down several times, he reached out to sharply pinch Shi Wuduan.

All this time, wondering if there was anything wrong, if Shi Wuduan was alright… in the end, only for it to be a case of debilitating laziness!

You little bastard, Bai Li thought to himself as Shi Wuduan yelped from the pain. Why do I worry about you? Isn’t it a waste to?

That one pinch wasn’t enough. Bai Li pinched him one, two, three times more, venting his grievances as Shi Wuduan tried to shuffle away from those merciless fingers. At first, he laughed even as he complained about Bai Li's itchy fingers, but after being painfully pinched so many times, he seemed to realize his error.

"Little Li-zi, don't be upset anymore."

"It hurts, it hurts, don't pinch. You're going to pinch a layer of skin off!"

"... Wife, I was wrong."

After rolling back and forth, Shi Wuduan's head poked out from beneath the blanket. He gazed at Bai Li, his hair a mess, suddenly seeming indescribably remorseful.

… Not that it meant he really was.

Anyway, Bai Li did not want to argue with him in the first place. Seeing Shi Wuduan like this completely wiped away that lingering bit of anger from being fooled by him. He reached out, fingers hooking around Shi Wuduan's narrow waist, and pulled him back to his side.

Shi Wuduan sensed his sullenness, thinking it a bit funny, like a wife full of grievances unwilling to acknowledge her husband but also unwilling to stray too far. He smiled, patted Bai Li's head, and asked, "If I get up tomorrow morning and take you out to play, will you be happy?"

Shi Wuduan added afterwards, "As long as it's not too cold, of course."

Bai Li frowned. Ignoring that tone that was used for coaxing children, he asked, "What made you think I'm unhappy?"

"Isn't that why you were asking if something was wrong? I've realized now that laying around like this, I've seemed to have neglected my wife," Shi Wuduan reasonably explained.

Bai Li hummed. "It's good that you remember you have a wife."

Then, he sighed. "It's fine. If it's a good day, we can go visit the nearest village. If not, you can continue living as a lazy hermit and I'll accompany you. Whichever it is, it's all fine. Wuduan, you don't know — as long as you're here, I'm happy."

Bai Li was straightforward in nature. He spoke matter-of-factly, leaving no room for ambiguity. After hearing this, Shi Wuduan let out a quiet oh. His face didn’t know what expression to make, wanting to smile but also wanting to scrunch up, looking hideous in indecision… It was a good thing Bai Li had tucked his face against his neck, unable to see.

It’s Little Li-zi though… Thinking so, Shi Wuduan eventually gave up on trying to make an expression and simply pressed his face to Bai Li’s hair. Slowly, he wrapped an arm around Bai Li’s shoulders and, with several thoughts running laps around his head, drifted back to sleep.

 

4.

Lately, Shi Wuduan has been spending more time in the vegetable garden. He didn’t plant carrots or potatoes, any kinds of beets — there was none of it, and any bit of green leaves one could see was just the grass in the yard.

Day and night, as long as the weather was favorable and this languid pair didn’t have any plans, Shi Wuduan would be in the garden… growing arrays.

Bai Li sat on the steps leading to the garden and watched as Shi Wuduan scribbled intelligible things into the dirt with a wooden stick, occasionally tossing little rocks here and there seemingly at random, sometimes swiping his foot across his calculations, erasing them altogether. After getting caught in this man’s arrays one too many times, Bai Li had since learned to exercise caution here. He wouldn’t step a foot into the garden if he could help it.

Bai Li: “What are you making this time?”

Shi Wuduan glanced over at him. His brows furrowed, and instead of replying, he asked back, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, why are you still wearing that wooden figurine?”

Caught off guard, Bai Li blinked. He clasped the wooden figure around his neck. Almost as if he didn’t understand the question, he said with some hesitation, “... You gave it to me.”

Why wouldn’t I still wear it?

Like that blinding eyesore of a hairpiece Bai Li still wore, it seemed like no matter how ugly or strange, as long as it was “something Shi Wuduan gave him”, Bai Li would keep it.

Some sourness touched Shi Wuduan’s nose. He suddenly felt that Bai Li was a bit pitiful, and that he himself was a bit of a bastard.

When he was younger, he only knew how to cause mischief. What was the point of needing to know what looked beautiful and what looked gaudy? All he knew was that Little Li-zi was the prettiest person he had ever came across, and that pretty people should like pretty things… regardless if those things, when put together, was flashy to the point of being ugly.

Then, when he was older, after rolling through several obstacles with this Demon Lord, shedding each other’s blood and calculating schemes left and right, in the end, he’d given him a figurine of himself… made out of the Ghoulish Astrolabe and soaked in his blood. Something like that was only good for curbing inevitable yearning. Now that the person himself was alive and here, still keeping it on him at all times like this…

It wasn’t as if Shi Wuduan didn’t understand, but seeing it around Bai Li’s neck only reminded him time and again that he, Shi Wuduan, tried twice and failed twice at giving this person a proper gift, yet each item was still sincerely cherished by him.

He looked down at his calculations, then crouched down to wipe all those messy writings away with his hand.

He mumbled, “Don’t wear it so much anymore, who else would want a figurine of myself other than you? No one’s going to take it away. In the future, I’ll make something better for you to wear.”

Even though his voice wasn’t loud, Bai Li still heard him. He smiled, looking reminiscent of that little beauty all those years ago. “No one else may want it, but I can think of one little devil who will take it and hide it from me. I won’t stop wearing it. If you are going to make something, let it be something I can wear somewhere else.”

Shi Wuduan opened and closed his mouth for a long time but didn’t speak. There was no telling what he was thinking of, but he eventually smiled, brilliant, revealing the little dimple on his cheek.

Bai Li knew him well enough to know that he was cooking up a scheme in that wooden head of his, but seeing him smile — and so brightly at that — he couldn’t bring himself to dissuade Shi Wuduan from whatever plot he was thinking of. He watched as Shi Wuduan resumed his calculations with more fervor, focusing single-mindedly on it, a smile of his own on his lips.

 

5.

On a day that wasn’t too hot and wasn’t too cold, wasn’t too windy and wasn’t too humid, Shi Wuduan dragged Bai Li down the mountain to travel around.

“The weather will be good the next few days,” Shi Wuduan explained, though Bai Li didn’t know how he knew. Perhaps he had calculated it somehow. “If we’re lucky, we can reach the east ports and have enough time to come back to the mountain, too.”

“Oh,” Bai Li answered, but didn’t say anymore.

After going up and down the mountain a few times already, Bai Li already had a general idea of how Shi Wuduan was whenever he decided to “travel”. After spending half the morning deliberating, if he decided to go down, then of course he would go down, but there was no telling how fast or slow he would go. Most of the time, he would drag his feet, not that it was on purpose, but because ever since he came back to life, now that he was free to do whatever he wished whenever he wished, Shi Wuduan spent a lot of the time “savoring” the moment.

If a bug caught his attention, then he would watch that little brother until it skittered off. If he happened to think that the sky that day was particularly fascinating, then he’d stare at it until he looked his fill before resuming down the path. If he was suddenly inspired to cause trouble halfway down, then, of course, he would run off the path and happily cause trouble, forgetting entirely that he had set out earlier that day to “travel”, not swipe the offerings off his shifu’s altar.

But to hear that Shi Wuduan had planned several days for the both of them, Bai Li couldn’t help but feel happy about it. Because of that, even though the chances of them making it all the way to the seaports in the east were somewhat slim, he didn’t refute Shi Wuduan and went along with it.

When they made it down the mountain without incident, Bai Li realized: this time, it really looked like Shi Wuduan was serious about it.

The entire time, Bai Li walked half a step behind Shi Wuduan, content with letting him lead the way. Who would've thought that after they entered the nearest village, Shi Wuduan would suddenly turn back to look at him.

His expression was unreadable. Startled, Bai Li asked, "What is it?"

Shi Wuduan stared at Bai Li, then up to the sky, then down to the ground, then, after setting his jaw into a firm line, held out his hand.

Bai Li looked at his hand. "This is…"

As Bai Li stared, Shi Wuduan was remembering the embarrassing, awkward incident where he had shaken off Bai Li's hand before. It made him even more determined to go through with this, but also made it three thousand times more awkward.

For a brief moment, he wondered where that shameless, heedless child who unabashedly pulled that seemingly shy little girl left and right went to.

But after thinking about it, he realized there was no point.

They were both different now. For what purpose should he cling to all the memories of before?

"Do you…" Shi Wuduan cleared his throat. He felt cold sweat rise on his palm. "... want to…?"

He raised his hand a bit and was startled when he met a cool palm. Icy fingers curled over his, holding on tightly.

Beside him, Bai Li smiled, this time not looking like that little beauty in his youth but older, no less beautiful, different in a way Shi Wuduan could say belonged to the Shi Wuduan — maybe more jaded, a little older, and also different — of now.

Shi Wuduan held his hand in return. He slowly grinned, showing that dimple on his cheek, feeling a bit that they'd both returned to that happy, carefree time of their childhood, but this was different now too, not as bittersweet.

Better, Shi Wuduan thought finally as he tugged on Bai Li's hand and watched his smile grow a little deeper.

This was better.

 

6.

The eastern seaports were a bustling place. On regular days, there would be dozens upon hundreds of people walking about and selling their wares, open all day and through the night, never once stopping to sleep. If a visitor woke up in the middle of the night to stomach cravings, chances were anything from rice pudding to roasted duck would be freshly available at the time.

By the time Bai Li and Shi Wuduan arrived, the Small Reunions Festival had just begun.

All around were lights and decorations, even banners hung here and there exclaiming Welcome home! The unmarried men and women looking to find a match this year were dressed their best. Dozens of ships were docked to the port, each of them dressed in the festive fervor too, bobbing up and down in the water like brightly-colored toys.

It was a festival where everything from the food to the buildings shone like stars, blindingly bright.

Sitting in the midst of it, Bai Li only glanced at it from his vantage point on the second floor of a restaurant they’d chosen to rest at, then looked at Shi Wuduan.

He asked, "What did you want to do here?"

They had stopped here after walking around once, seeing that it was favored by many people and the aroma of food was enticing enough. Shi Wuduan sat next to him, chewing his food faster than he usually spoke. Ever since their meal arrived, hardly a word had left his lips, Shi Wuduan wanting to pick something off of every plate before wasting a moment thinking of what to say, and Bai Li, aware of this quirk of his, let him eat in peace until he had his fill.

Shi Wuduan hummed. He raised his bowl and drank the rest of his soup in gulps, set it down with a sigh, and finally said, “Nothing… in particular.”

To be honest, that day where Shi Wuduan declared that they would go down the mountain had been a spur-of-the-moment decision. With all kinds of thoughts tumbling around his head day in and day out, venting it all into arrays and calculations, after he had finished it, he had looked up and found Bai Li leaning against the wooden pillar by the steps, having fallen asleep while watching him.

Some pain had pricked his chest. Even Shi Wuduan did not know what he was thinking at that time, watching Bai Li until he woke up from the weight of his gaze.

“Little Li-zi,” Shi Wuduan had said. “Let's go down the mountain.”

Now that they were down and out though, it became obvious that there was no plan on what to do on their way. If they happened to want to eat, then they’d choose a place to eat. If they wanted to sleep, they would find a place to sleep. If they wanted to go down this path or that road, whether it was by walking or asking the passing people for a ride, it was all the same.

Without any deadline or grand purpose, traveling together, bickering occasionally and laughing occasionally, hand-in-hand and step-by-step — perhaps that was what Shi Wuduan wanted.

Shi Wuduan pulled himself out of his thoughts and tossed the question back to Bai Li: “You don’t want to do anything here?”

“What even is there to do?” Bai Li asked honestly. “This festival is for those unmarried people, but I’ve already met my match.”

“Your imagination is too small,” Shi Wuduan answered good-naturedly. “Of course, though the unmarried and returning men are the focus, there must be entertainment for everyone else as well.”

Shi Wuduan paused, smiled, and added, “If there’s not, then we can always make some. After all, what is a festival if not everyone can participate?”

“Even yaos and demons?” Bai Li drily wondered, but upon seeing that light flicker to life in Shi Wuduan’s eyes, Bai Li said, “Wuduan, your imagination is too wild. Is there anyone who is as crazy as you?”

Shi Wuduan looked at him and laughed, “Wife, isn’t it you?”

A while after, they both exited the restaurant and strolled along the streets. For someone who walked the mortal realm for several years, even residing in the country's brightly lit, carefree capital city, Bai Li was both surprisingly and unsurprisingly ignorant of the songs and games of the people. Shi Wuduan teased him for it, but he was no better. In the end, they bickered back and forth, goading each other on at every stall they stopped at.

“Little Li-zi, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with your natural talent,” Shi Wuduan said as they walked. He laughed, “Hey, weren’t you paying attention at all back there? That old shopkeeper clearly said to aim the ball into the jars, but how is it that every time you “tossed”, if something didn’t break, it would topple over! That old man was about to faint from anger. Don’t you know how… huh?”

He was occupied recalling the game they “played” and laughing about it, not really paying attention. Shi Wuduan belatedly realized that Bai Li had disappeared from his side some time ago.

Before he could realize it, his heart lodged in his throat, beating like mad in his ears. Shi Wuduan shed the lazy, languid air about him, whirling around, but stopped short after noticing that he could still sense Bai Li nearby — he had stopped walking, standing further back in the crowd, gaze captured by a nearby shop.

For a moment, he stood there watching him. His heartbeat eased, heart falling back into his chest. Shi Wuduan breathed out, and his senses returned.

Stupid, he could not help but scold himself as he walked over to Bai Li’s side. He reached out and held Bai Li’s hand, tugging it.

“What are you looking at?” Shi Wuduan asked. “What fun game are they offering that you stopped without a word?”

Shi Wuduan took a better look at the shop and trailed off. There was a bright red sign by the entrance of the building. In beautiful penmanship as if enticing passerbys, it read, Fortune Telling.

In fact, this was something they both avoided for different reasons.

Shi Wuduan’s reason was simple: he was afraid. Whenever curiosity sprouted, he would remember those whose fates he looked at and that budding curiosity would wilt, thoroughly quelled.

As for Bai Li, he was born tied to two stars. His life was full of suspicion and betrayal, wariness and caution. Ups and downs that chewed him up and swallowed him whole, forcing him to claw his way out… only until now could he hold this man’s hand without any extraneous thoughts or feelings lingering in the shadows of his heart. He did not want to peek into his fate. Aside from this person beside him who he passed the days and nights with, he already knew there was nothing worth looking at.

Yet for one reason or another, standing here, they each felt compelled to go in.

Shi Wuduan thought for a moment, then took a step away, pulling Bai Li along with him back into the crowd of people.

“What did you want to ask about?” Shi Wuduan wondered.

Bai Li didn’t reply, but looking at his expression, it wasn’t too hard to figure out the generalities of it. Shi Wuduan laughed and shamelessly bluffed, “Let’s go. Whatever it is, I can tell you. I’m the best there is, you don’t need to give anyone else any money — just hand it all over to me.”

Bai Li asked back, “What do you even need money for?”

“Of course it’s to use to spoil my wife,” Shi Wuduan replied with an easy grin. Seeing Bai Li’s unimpressed look, he quickly said, “What, you don’t believe me?”

Bai Li didn’t bother with an answer. He sighed and asked instead, “You said I could ask you anything?

“Then,” he continued without waiting for Shi Wuduan to respond, “what was the reason we came here?”

Shi Wuduan didn’t even blink: “To spend time with my wife. Such an easy question, were you really going to pay someone for an answer?”

Bai Li: “You coincidentally bring me to this festival for the unmarried lot, taking me around to look at this and that, commenting on one person or another, asking for my opinion on everything. Are you really just here to spend some time?”

There was a trace of something dangerous in Bai Li’s voice. Shi Wuduan was stunned by it. As he thought about Bai Li’s words, threading together this little demon’s line of thought, his brows rose with incredulity, “You — You think I’m here to marry you off — ?”

“Wuduan,” Bai Li asked, “just how long do you intend to stay with me?”

Shi Wuduan stared at him, then burst out laughing. Bai Li was angered at once, but before he could do anything, fingers shot out and grabbed his cheeks, pinching and pulling.

He grabbed those hands and tried in vain to pull them away: “Shi Wuduan!”

“Ungrateful demon,” Shi Wuduan said, laughing angrily. “I worry that I don’t treat you good enough, I want to make you happy, I even arduously let you win some of those games even though I could beat you with both hands tied behind my back — “

These two grown men were pushing and pulling at each other, squabbling like a handful of years old children. People passed by them, some whispering in concern, some giggling at the display. Unfortunately, both of them were deaf and blind to the fact that they were making fools of themselves.

Bai Li gritted out, “Shi Wuduan, you — “

Shi Wuduan: “ — and you think I’m going to leave you!”

Bai Li froze. Shi Wuduan had somehow managed to hook his thumb into his mouth — Bai Li had been angrily gnawing on it until now. With his jaw loosened, Shi Wuduan pulled at the corner of his lips with his thumb, making Bai Li’s confused expression look even more pitiful.

Looking at this kind of face, the flare of energy faded away along with the sparse anger. Shi Wuduan took his hands back, patted Bai Li’s shoulder while wiping away that bit of saliva, and looked up at the stars with a blank expression, “Just how long am I going to be with you, Little Li-zi? Fine, let me see…”

Even though Bai Li was the one to ask the question in a moment of weakness, starting this mess, now that he saw that Shi Wuduan was seriously considering the answer, he suddenly regretted it. He broke out in cold sweat. “Wait, Wuduan — “

Shi Wuduan ignored him. “I can’t see the stars too well here.”

He moved to walk someplace else. Bai Li held onto his wrist but didn’t dare to pull him, getting dragged along. They walked further away from the lights and festivities, coming to a stop in an open area secluded by the trees. When one looked up at the sky, it really seemed as though the stars here shone brighter than before.

Shi Wuduan picked up a thin, fallen branch. He scribbled the beginnings of calculations onto the ground, stopped, then glanced at Bai Li.

Shi Wuduan: “Not afraid? You always avoided stepping into the garden, now you’re standing right beside me. Where did this courage come from?”

Bai Li knew this man was purposely prodding at him, but he couldn’t get angry. “I’m afraid you’ll leave.”

“I haven’t even answered your question yet, and you’re already afraid?” Shi Wuduan asked.

Bai Li: “Wuduan — “

“Shh,” Shi Wuduan interrupted. He raised the thin branch, then slashed it onto a small stone in front of them.

The moment it shattered, their surroundings warped. The earth rose up into the sky, and the trees fell away. Each twinkling star grew bigger and brighter, the night sky poured into their surroundings, washing them in an inky sea of stars. Bai Li was almost blinded. The memory of that rainy day flashed before his eyes, and his heart beat heavily in his chest.

Desperation and fear rose up his throat, suffocating him. He instinctively pulled Shi Wuduan into his arms, wanting to press this person into his own body —

“ — cough… tight… Wife, you’re going to squeeze me to death…” Shi Wuduan patted his back.

Maybe I should, Bai Li thought in a daze, not noticing the change in Shi Wuduan's voice. I’ll follow you right after and all the lives after that, too. Even if you leave, I’ll be right behind you.

Shi Wuduan laughed as if he heard his thoughts. It sounded both far, far away and right by Bai Li’s ear. He held onto Shi Wuduan, feeling dizzy.

It seemed as though Shi Wuduan was slipping like water out of his arms. It seemed like his warmth was pressing ever closer to his heart.

Shi Wuduan: “Little Li-zi, look up.”

Bai Li instinctively listened, raising his eyes. The blinding light of the stars before had dimmed into little needlepoints scattered about. All that was left was one shining star lighting up the sky.

“That star is mine,” Shi Wuduan said. “Look at it, don’t forget it, alright?”

Bai Li didn’t understand, but when he thought to ask, Shi Wuduan had already stretched out a hand towards that star. Space bent to his will, and that star was firmly, indifferently… plucked out of the illusory sky.

“You wanted to know just how long I’ll be with you?” Shi Wuduan started conversationally. He held up the fist entrapping the star. Light seeped from his fingers. “Well, let’s see…”

Bai Li had overcome that momentary bout of weakness, no longer wishing for an answer from Shi Wuduan after coming to his own solution. He opened his mouth to stop him: “Wuduan, I don’t…”

Without listening, Shi Wuduan took Bai Li’s hand and pressed the star into it.

Warmth flowed into his palm, spreading from the sensitive tips of his fingers to the shadows in the depths of his heart. As Shi Wuduan pressed down on the star, that warmth ran further, rushing through his body alongside the blood in his veins, leaving lingering trails all around.

Bai Li’s vision flashed with light. All he could make out was Shi Wuduan. His eyes, his smile, and his two hands finally, finally, finally pressing around his own. The illusion faded away, and true night was restored.

“Until the mountains crumble and rivers dry out,” Shi Wuduan suddenly said. “Until every last star in the sky falls away.”

Bai Li’s heart pounded heavily. Shi Wuduan raised his hand, pulling one of his own away to reveal a white jade ring wrapped around one of his fingers.

At this point, Shi Wuduan couldn’t keep up the act. He smiled freely, revealing his eagerness, and asked, “How is it? Do you like it? Isn’t it very beautiful?”

Bai Li was somewhat disoriented, feeling numb everywhere. He looked at his hand, then at Shi Wuduan. “This is…”

“A gift, um… Think of it as my star,” Shi Wuduan said, patting his hand. “Look, like this, my life and future are all in your hands. Now that you have this, you can put away that wooden figure. Don’t wear it all the time anymore.”

Bai Li looked at him, his eyes red and bright.

Shi Wuduan noticed that tell-tale redness and was at a loss, “Are you... crying? Little Li-zi, are you still upset? Don’t be angry anymore.”

“I’m not angry,” Bai Li said hoarsely.

A thousand thoughts tumbled up and down Bai Li’s throat, but he had never been very good with his words. In the end, he tossed them all out, grasped Shi Wuduan’s hand, and pulled him into his arms.

The white ring glinted around his finger, twinkling like the stars in the sky.