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so I stayed in the darkness with you

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Hua Cheng woke to a crash. 

He jolted upright in his tangled blankets, looking around for the source of danger. 

There in the middle of his cabin was a man. Or at least he thought it was a man, until his vision adjusted to the dark. 

The being glowed gently, silvery light flowing off of him like water before dissipating into gas when it hit the ground. He was kneeling, looking at his naked limbs like he’d never seen them before.

Anyone else in the vicinity would’ve screamed and run, or started attacking the man with shouts of “demon!” but Hua Cheng himself wasn’t human enough to make such accusations.

Hua Cheng glanced up at the hole in the roof. A person falling from the sky was more out of the norm than he was used to, though. He had to be on guard.

When Hua Cheng stood up, the man turned toward him and opened his mouth. Instead of words, a bell-like sound chimed out.  Hua Cheng blinked rapidly. The man frowned and tried again. This time a human-sounding language came out, but it wasn’t one that Hua Cheng understood. After a few more tries, it finally worked.

“Hello! Are you a human?”

Hua Cheng flinched and took a step back. “Not exactly,” he said. He used his magic to hide his fox ears, but it was too late. The man had already seen them. 

The man stood up and wobbled on his legs like a newborn fawn. “That’s alright!” he said cheerfully. His voice still sounded distinctly inhuman; there was a current of song under every word—a chord harmonizing with the melody of his words. “You probably know more about them than I do.”

The man looked himself up and down and poked at his fleshy stomach. “Do I look human?”

Hua Cheng’s gaze followed the man’s hands. He quickly looked away, trying to pretend he hadn’t seen the man’s naked lower half. “Yes. Very human,” he said, his voice strangled.

“Oh, wonderful!” The man clapped his hands together. “We weren’t sure if it’d work, but it looks like I’m alright.” He peered around at the room, taking in all the broken wood, and then glanced up at the hole in the roof. “Oh no, I’m so sorry! Did I break your home?” He stepped forward and almost tripped into the shattered remains of Hua Cheng’s small dinner table.

“Wait!” Hua Cheng said, panicked. “You’ll cut yourself!”

“Oh! If I get a cut, will I die?”

“…no, not at all. But it’ll hurt. And then it might get infected.”

The man stood straight up and didn’t move at all. “I’ll listen to you then! You're the expert on humans here."

“I’m not, though,” Hua Cheng sighed. “I just said I wasn’t human. But yes, you should still listen to me. Stay there. I’ll clean up the mess first.”

Hua Cheng grabbed the broom from the corner of the room and started sweeping the debris away from the man’s feet, clearing a little path so he could lead the man over to his bedroll. The man clung to him with thin arms that belied the strength beneath his skin. The man sat down and his eyes immediately grew wide. He started bouncing up and down and poking the covers.

“So,” Hua Cheng said as he searched through his basket of clothes for something that would fit the glowing man. “Do you have a name?”

He sat straight up and smiled. “I chose the name Xie Lian right before I left. But if there’s anything you’d like to call me instead, go ahead! The others don’t call me by my real name anyway. They call me by a nickname. Or…they used to.” His smile faded and he looked down at his hands.

"How old are you?" Hua Cheng asked. 

Xie Lian tapped his finger against his lips. "I'm not sure how you measure time down here…"

"Are you probably older than me?”

“Oh, yes!” Xie Lian laughed. “I’m actually very young, but certainly much much older than you! You’re a mortal after all.”

Hua Cheng tilted his head. He’d already told Xie Lian he wasn’t human. Fox demons had much longer life spans than humans, so how could Xie Lian be so sure?

“Well, if we were friends and you were older than me, I’d call you gege.”

“Oh! I’d like that,” Xie Lian said with a smile. “And you? Can I call you by a nickname?”

“San Lang,” Hua Cheng said.

“San Lang!” Xie Lian repeated happily, and Hua Cheng had to try very hard to not blush.

“So, gege,” Hua Cheng said slowly. “If you’re not a mortal, then what are you?”

Xie Lian blinked at him in confusion, as if the question was completely unexpected. “A star of course! Didn’t you see me fall from the sky?”

“Ah. No, I didn’t actually. I was sleeping when you smashed through my roof.”

Xie Lian laughed sheepishly. “Sorry about that again. I’ll come back soon and help you fix it.” 

Hua Cheng raised an eyebrow. “And where are you going to stay tonight, mister fallen star?”

Xie Lian padded over to the window and peered outside. After a beat, he pointed vaguely in the direction of the forest. “Under those tall things!” 

“Under the trees?” Hua Cheng said. “On the ground? It’s not comfortable, I promise.” 

“Ah, but…” Xie Lian trailed off, a small crease forming between his eyebrows. 

Hua Cheng turned and stared at his bedroll for a long moment.  

In the end, Hua Cheng asked Xie Lian to stay for the night. It was summertime, but the nights were still cold sometimes, and Xie Lian clearly had nowhere else to go. Hua Cheng couldn’t let him wander around the forest in good conscience. 

One night became two, and then two nights became two weeks. Before Hua Cheng knew it, Xie Lian had become a long-term guest. It should’ve been uncomfortable; he’d never lived with another person in his cabin before, after all. 

But being with Xie Lian was easy, and they fell into a routine that felt like one he’d had for years and years. 

They repaired the cabin together, usually at night when Hua Cheng was most awake. He was part-fox, after all, and a nocturnal lifestyle suited him best. Xie Lian, too, seemed to be most energetic at night, when he could look up and see the stars. 

The walls of the cabin were still intact, but there was an enormous hole in the foundation, so Hua Cheng tore down almost everything to begin anew. 

At first, it had filled him with dread and anger, to see the house that he’d painstakingly built now in pieces. He’d added onto it every year since he was twelve, upgrading it from essentially five planks stacked against each other to a place that could almost be called a home (if it wasn’t so lonely, and if he hadn’t seen the villagers’ homes from afar, filled with love and laughter). 

But he was distracted from the wreckage of his house by the beautiful being who now accompanied him every moment of the day. Xie Lian wasn’t human—it was obvious from the soft, silky glow that rippled off of him at all times, and from the way he gave careful consideration to everything he saw and touched, from stones on the ground to his own hair. 

But like Hua Cheng, he was still a person. And it had been a very long time since Hua Cheng had been around another person, especially on such amicable terms. 

By all accounts, Xie Lian should have been nervous to be dropped into a new world. But he calmly accepted all of Hua Cheng’s explanations with a polite hum. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian said, walking over with a hammer in his hand. “What is this?” 

Hua Cheng spat out the nails he was holding in his mouth. “Well, first of all, it’s dangerous.” 

“Because it’s heavy?” Xie Lian guessed, and Hua Cheng smiled. 

“Yes. It’s called a hammer. You’re supposed to swing it at things—but only at objects for building houses, not at anything else. And above all else, don’t drop it on your foot. That would be much much worse than a cut, gege.” 

Hua Cheng’s vision was designed to be efficient in the dark, so he was able to clearly see the way Xie Lian’s lips curled into a smile and parted around the sweetest laughter. The sound tinkled in the air like bells. 

They worked steadily, night after night. They built a new roof, stronger than the one before. They made a new table, carved out a sturdy door, and patched up the walls. 

The process was made slower by Xie Lian trying to “help.” Hua Cheng spent more time teaching him new skills and making sure he stayed safe than actually fixing things. But he didn’t mind. 

Xie Lian seemed happy to talk with him about anything and everything. He didn’t mind when Hua Cheng was quiet either. They laughed together and traded stories. It’d been a long time since Hua Cheng spent time with someone like this—not since he’d been very little.

Not since he’d had someone who loved him. 

In addition to being a delightful conversation partner, Xie Lian was also curious about everything, and Hua Cheng found it both endearing and worrying.

“What is this?” he asked for the hundredth time. He walked over and poked the pile of logs Hua Cheng had collected. “Ow!” He jolted away from it, his finger bleeding slightly. 

Hua Cheng stepped forward and sighed. “That’s what I meant about getting hurt. You have to be careful.” 

Xie Lian held his finger up to the moonlight and a bead of blood slipped out. Xie Lian watched, enraptured by the bright color. 

“But how do you know?” Xie Lian said, looking at him intently. 

“What?” Hua Cheng said, not following his train of thought. 

“How do you know what will hurt you?” Xie Lian said.

“Well, some things are obvious,” Hua Cheng said. “Broken wood, for example. It has splinters that can get into your skin. It has jagged edges that can cut you.” 

“But it’s not obvious,” Xie Lian said, looking thoughtfully at the wood. “It wasn’t obvious to me.” 

“Then…” Hua Cheng said slowly. “I guess you learn from experience. After this, you won’t be touching any more broken wood, right?” 

“But what about the pieces that don’t look dangerous?” Xie Lian said. “The piece I touched didn’t seem broken at all. Don’t the ones that seem whole have splinters sometimes too?” 

Hua Cheng grinned. “Are we…are we arguing?” What a peculiar stranger, to burst through his roof, exclaim that he was a star from the heavens, fit so neatly into Hua Cheng’s life, and then argue with him about a cut on his finger.

Xie Lian shook his head. “Not arguing.” He smiled, too, like he knew how odd this must seem to Hua Cheng. “I’m just trying to learn.” 

Hua Cheng tilted his head. “Then I guess my answer is that you never truly know. Sometimes you just have to make a guess and hope for the best.”

Xie Lian sighed and looked up at the night sky, which was framed by the broken remains of Hua Cheng’s roof. The stars shimmered, brilliant in their perfection. 

“So humans don’t have the answer either,” Xie Lian said pensively. 

Xie Lian was just like this, Hua Cheng had found. He said the most inexplicable things sometimes, but they resounded with something inside Hua Cheng. Xie Lian was innocent but jaded all at the same time. He smiled in so many different ways—polite and radiant and shield-like. His frowns came in many varieties too—sometimes simple confusion, sometimes the edge of a raw wound. 

He glowed like an angel and looked at the world like a mortal.

Hua Cheng enjoyed being around him so very much. 

By the time all the essential things had been rebuilt, they were already well into autumn. They moved onto making trinkets together, carving elaborate designs onto the furniture and walls. After they decorated every surface they could find, there was still no mention of Xie Lian leaving. 

Hua Cheng desperately wanted him to stay, even for a little while longer. But there was so much more to the world than Hua Cheng’s shabby little cabin. Xie Lian was a star and an inquisitive one at that. Surely he wanted to leave and adventure somewhere else. Hua Cheng dreaded the day he’d bring it up. 

Sometimes Hua Cheng had trouble sleeping, private fears and worries rising up to consume him, and this was one of those days. He stayed awake, watching Xie Lian’s face gentled by sleep. He was likely millennia old, but he looked no older than 25. 

The day passed slowly, light shining in through the holes in the cabin. By the time twilight began, Hua Cheng’s eye was heavy with exhaustion. An owl hooted, and Xie Lian stirred behind him. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian said, yawning. “Hello again.” 

Hua Cheng sat up and smiled at him. “What does sleep feel like to you? You hadn’t done it before, right?” 

Xie Lian sat up, too, and blinked at him. “It’s very strange. Every time, it’s like I’ve exploded and died, except there’s just darkness, not gone-ness. And then I’m awake again.” 

Hua Cheng laughed. “Yes, well that is what sleeping is.” 

Xie Lian said again, “Very strange. So much changes in this land. Every day the sky shifts colors and you almost-die. The sounds in the forest are always different, too. I’m not used to it. Stars are eternally the same until they grow huge and red, and then they…” 

He trailed off and looked out the window, lips pressed thin. Hua Cheng followed his gaze up to the sky, which was deepening from vibrant pink to indigo. A few twinkling lights were already peeking out from the darkness. 

Xie Lian still had some of that excitement from the first days after he’d landed here—he was clearly fascinated by all the “change” around him, after all. But there was something desolate in his expression, too. 

He looked at the heavens like he was lost.  

Hua Cheng placed a hand on Xie Lian’s shoulder, wanting to reassure him.

Xie Lian gasped, and a high pitched clanging sound came from his throat, not unlike a sword falling onto stone. Hua Cheng yanked his hand back.

“Sorry, sorry,” he said. “I should’ve asked permission.” 

Xie Lian stared at him, stunned for a few long moments. Eventually, he gained control of his voice and choked out, “You’re…you’re warm. ” 

Hua Cheng blinked. “Well, yes, I’m a living being. Warm-blooded and all that. You’re warm, too, right?”

Xie Lian shook his head, “There was always so much heat coming from my core that the coldness of space couldn’t touch me. In comparison, there’s almost nothing inside me now. I’m…I’m not used to it.”

Hua Cheng instantly regretted not offering Xie Lian a coat to wear during the night, or thicker blankets during the day when they slept. “Here,” he said, moving over to his small basket of clothing. “Wear this.” 

He pulled out his biggest winter coat, the one sewn together from rabbit fur. It had taken him years to hoard enough supplies for it, but he’d just gotten so tired of nearly freezing to death every winter.

He draped it around Xie Lian, who blinked and moved his hands along the rabbit fur lining. “Oh! Oh, it’s so soft. And I do feel much warmer now, thank you. But…” And then all of a sudden he was pressed against Hua Cheng’s chest, burrowing against him like a kit. 

Hua Cheng froze, stunned. Then he said, very slowly, “Gege, what- what are you doing?” 

Xie Lian sighed against his chest, sounding content and happy. “Ah, you’re just so warm, San Lang. There’s something inside you like a star's core. I can feel it thrumming.” 

The small part of Hua Cheng’s mind that could still form coherent thoughts realized Xie Lian probably meant his heart. And it made sense that he’d feel very warm to Xie Lian—the fox demon magic in him made him run hotter than any human. 

The other part of him was drowning in the sensation of another body pressed against his—not to fight or hurt him. Just a person who wanted to touch him of their own volition.  

Xie Lian looked up. “You’re frowning,” he said, and a little pinched frown made its way to his lips, too. He stepped back, and Hua Cheng unconsciously moved forward, chasing after his warmth. “Did I do something bad?” 

Hua Cheng shook his head quickly. He didn’t know what to say, but at the very least he had to make sure Xie Lian wasn't upset. “No, no it’s fine. I’m just…I’m not used to it.” 

Xie Lian tilted his head up. His face was suddenly very close and Hua Cheng felt breathless. “You too?” Xie Lian said, eyes wide and shining. He smiled brightly. “I’m not used to it either. Stars aren’t supposed to be like this at all.” 

“Oh?” Hua Cheng said, trying very hard to not be overwhelmed by Xie Lian’s cuteness. His arms weren’t even wrapped around Hua Cheng—they were too deeply buried in the coat to do so. Xie Lian was just pressing his entire body against Hua Cheng’s chest. “How are they supposed to be?” 

“We’re not supposed to want things like being close,” Xie Lian said, and his smile didn’t disappear, but it grew fragile. “I’ve always had this need in me, and I didn’t even know what I was looking for.”

“What did the other stars say about you wanting closeness?” 

“Oh, we don’t really say things, not like this. We communicate, but it’s through…you could call it music, maybe. Diffused waves of sound. Not like this—so small and easy to hold in one place. Just talking with you like this… I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.” 

Hua Cheng smiled as wonder rose in Xie Lian’s voice. “I see. So what did the other stars think about it?”

Ah, and there was the sadness again. 

“They thought there was something wrong with me!” Xie Lian laughed bitterly. It was painful to hear. “Because… well because we all have our own domains and we’re born so far away from each other. That’s just how stars are. That’s what we were built to be satisfied with. But I was always asking if I could go to other places. Stars can’t just leave, though. We have duties.” 

He burrowed his head into Hua Cheng’s chest again, his voice muffled by the edges of the coat that he pulled up against his mouth. “But in the end…I suppose I did get to leave.” 

Hua Cheng held back the urge to wrap his arms around Xie Lian. “That’s a good thing, then, isn’t it?” Hua Cheng said. “Now you get to experience all the things you wanted to.” 

Xie Lian shook his head, warbling out a faint, “Maybe.” 

A sudden surge of protectiveness swept through Hua Cheng, and he gave up on trying to hold back. He wrapped his arms around Xie Lian’s back, pressing him as close as he could. 

Xie Lian gasped, and then let out a laugh that crackled like logs shifting in a fireplace. “You’re so warm,” he whispered. Xie Lian closed his eyes and pressed his head against Hua Cheng’s chest. 

Hua Cheng smiled down at him, happy to let him settle into a calmer state of mind. But then he hesitated. “Gege, I should let you know though...being physically close like this is something people usually do when they’re emotionally close with each other as well. Like friends and family…” Nothing he’d had in a very long time. 

Xie Lian perked up at that. “Oh, it’s fine then! We’re friends, after all.” 

Hua Cheng froze. “We are?” 

Xie Lian nodded his head decisively. “We are!” 

And it was really that easy. 

Throughout the night, Xie Lian asked for hugs, again and again, marveling every time at how warm Hua Cheng was. “This feels so good,” Xie Lian said, smiling in contentment. “I love this.” 

“Me too,” Hua Cheng said, and it felt like admitting weakness. It was foolish to be so emotional about a simple hug. But surely Xie Lian, who knew what it was like to long for something he thought he’d never have, wouldn’t judge him for this. 

Though Xie Lian had looked more cheerful by the end of their discussion, it seemed to have lanced some festering wound in him. Maybe it was a good thing that Xie Lian felt comfortable enough around Hua Cheng to let some of his sadness slip out, but it was still painful to watch. 

As winter approached, Hua Cheng tried to make sure that Xie Lian was warm as he could be, and hoped he was happy staying here with him. But no matter what he did, Xie Lian’s expression grew tighter and tighter with each passing day. 

At dinner once, Xie Lian said suddenly, “When I was sent away…we weren’t sure if I’d survive.” Hua Cheng waited, heart pounding, to see if Xie Lian would say more. Xie Lian paused for a long moment, his lips opening on a sound. “They…” But then he just shook his head and went back to quietly eating. 

Another night, Xie Lian walked around the cabin, checking all of the nearby trees. 

“San Lang, what’s happening to them?” Xie Lian asked, worried. “Why are some of the trees changing color?”

“Soon it’ll be winter and most of the leaves will fall. It’s how the trees survive the cold,” Hua Cheng explained.

Xie Lian looked sad, then, and stared up at the trees, his expression complicated. “There are so many beautiful things here, San Lang,” he murmured. “It’s hard to see them go.” 

Autumn leaves whirled up around Xie Lian, framing him in the colors of fire. He tilted his face toward the wind and closed his eyes. 

The sight took Hua Cheng’s breath away, and he understood what Xie Lian meant. It would be painful to see something so beautiful leave. 

Another day, Xie Lian asked to follow Hua Cheng on one of his hunting trips. Hua Cheng was surprised, but he agreed. They waited, one at each end of a clearing, hidden in the shadows and the shrubbery. 

As the sun began to rise, a small rabbit ambled its way into the clearing. Hua Cheng transformed into his fox form and pounced. The rabbit was fast—he was always surprised by how quickly such a small, silly-looking animal could move—but Hua Cheng was faster. He herded it toward Xie Lian. 

Xie Lian dove for the rabbit and caught it between his hands, his movements as fast and decisive as a flicker of light. He stared curiously at the rabbit between his hands. The creature panted frantically, otherwise frozen in that way unique to prey animals. 

Xie Lian’s knees drifted down to the ground when Hua Cheng walked up to him. Hua Cheng sniffed the rabbit. Healthy. Good for a warm stew. 

“Do we have to kill it?” Xie Lian said, frowning slightly. 

Hua Cheng’s tail waved back and forth behind him in languid curves. We do. Hua Cheng’s voice echoed through the air, a soundwave on a different plane. There aren’t enough edible plants here to sustain us. We have to eat meat to survive. 

“Hmm,” Xie Lian said, his gaze locking eerily with the rabbit’s eyes. It was as if he could tell what the rabbit was feeling, or was at least trying hard to imagine it. “So sometimes, dying is necessary. It’s for a good reason. Even though it hurts.” 

Hua Cheng stepped closer to him, tail wrapping around Xie Lian’s hands. I can make it so it doesn’t have to feel any more fear. I can give it a quick death.

Xie Lian blinked hard and broke himself out of his reverie. “Yes, you should do it. I wouldn’t know how to make it painless.” 

Xie Lian’s fingers loosened a fraction. In the split second before the rabbit could escape, Hua Cheng bit down on its throat and broke its neck with one quick wrench. Blood from the puncture wounds dripped into his mouth, and his sensitive nose was overwhelmed with the scent of copper. 

Xie Lian let out a soft sound, and Hua Cheng’s head shot up. He’d thought Xie Lian would look away, but Xie Lian was staring at him, eyes wide. He couldn’t tell what Xie Lian was thinking—he was scared that Xie Lian was disgusted by his animal instincts.

Part of him was ashamed that he hadn’t protected Xie Lian from the sight of a life cut short. But the other part of him hoped Xie Lian would understand he was doing what he needed to survive—that he wouldn’t reject Hua Cheng for being what he was. 

After a moment, Xie Lian just nodded. “Sometimes dying is necessary. That’s how the world works.” 

Hua Cheng was relieved to see no condemnation in his eyes. But the soul-deep sorrow he found instead wasn’t much better.

All of the slowly building sadness reached its peak one evening a breath away from winter. Hua Cheng found Xie Lian standing under the stars, shivering. He often forgot to wear his coat since he still wasn’t used to having a form that contained so little heat. 

“Gege, do you see the shooting stars? Aren’t they beautiful—” Hua Cheng froze when he stepped closer. 

Xie Lian was crying.

“Gege?” Hua Cheng said softly.

Xie Lian raised a hand to his face and stared down at his fingers. “It’s wet,” he murmured absently.

“They’re tears.” Hua Cheng said. “Humans create them when they’re sad.” He placed a hand on Xie Lian’s shoulder.

Xie Lian leaned into his touch, but his eyes stayed on the night sky. “They’re dying,” he whispered. “They’re not stars- I’m not sure what they are. But they’re dying.” 

Xie Lian tore his gaze away from the lights streaking across the sky and looked at Hua Cheng.

“I’m sorry for being like this,” Xie Lian said quietly. “I’m sorry I’ve been so…so dull to be around the past few weeks.” 

Hua Cheng shook his head quickly. “No gege, not at all. I want to be around every version of you.”

“San Lang…” Xie Lian said and his tears glistened, reflecting the silvery light that always clung around him. 

Hua Cheng leaned closer. “You can tell me anything you’d like. I want to listen.” 

After a long silence, Xie Lian whispered, "My neighboring stars—maybe humans would call them my family?”

“You were close with them?”

Xie Lian exhaled heavily, his breath visible in the cold autumn air. “I’m not sure if ‘close’ is the right word according to human terms. We couldn’t touch, of course. But we sang together. We laughed and we were sad together.”

Hua Cheng hummed. “That sounds like a family to me.”

Xie Lian smiled gratefully. His eyes flicked toward the sky again. “My family—they were getting old,” he said. “Stars have fates, too. When it’s their time to die, they must die. It is the cycle of the universe.”

He turned his face away, as if ashamed. “But I couldn’t accept it. I tried to get close to my fellow stars—to help them maybe. But we stars have an enormous pull on the fabric of the universe. I ripped it apart.”

Xie Lian paused for a moment, and then said, his voice breaking, “I just wanted to be close to them before they were gone. I thought… I don’t know what I thought. I thought I could help.”

"That's understandable," Hua Cheng said softly. "It sounds…very human."

Xie Lian laughed, the sound choked. "They always said I shouldn't have been born as a star,” he murmured. “It was a kind of blessing to be sent down here in mortal form.” 

“But gege…” Hua Cheng said, feeling worried. “Does that mean you can never go back?” 

Xie Lian shook his head and looked down. “Probably not. It was…a kind of banishment. I did something awful. The universe has order, and I thought I could be the one to defy it, but…I couldn’t. Everything fell apart, and I made it even worse than it should’ve been.” 

“So...they didn’t survive.” Hua Cheng knew what Xie Lian had been implying, but he wanted to give Xie Lian the chance to say it out loud. 

Xie Lian hunched over. After a heavy silence, he choked out, “Yes, they’re all dead. Everyone I loved.” 

They stood there for a long moment, only the sounds of quiet sniffles and wind rustling through the trees filling the night air. Then, Hua Cheng laid his head on Xie Lian’s shoulder, hoping it was a reassurance rather than an intrusion. 

Xie Lian blinked, little teardrops falling down his cheeks. After a beat, he leaned his head against the top of Hua Cheng’s head and seemed to relax a little. Hua Cheng let out a sigh of relief. 

“Are stars born, gege?” he asked.

“I—they are, actually." Xie Lian replied. "They’re born from the remnants of old stars.”

“Then…then it’s alright, isn’t it? It’s not a real end.” 

Xie Lian tilted his head toward him, a small smile tiptoeing across his face. “It isn’t?” 

“It isn’t,” Hua Cheng nodded. “Winter is the time where everything dies here. But those trees are going to grow leaves again, maybe even more beautifully than before. And those rabbits we’ve been hunting—yes, they died, but they died so we could continue living. They died to bring life. You’ve only been here a few months, gege. Wait another few months and you’ll see. It’s not a true end. When spring comes, everything will grow again.” 

“They’ll still be here?” Xie Lian murmured, gazing at Hua Cheng. “They won’t really be gone?”

Hua Cheng swallowed roughly, something in Xie Lian’s eyes making his heart tremble. 

“They won’t,” he said. “They won’t leave you,” and Xie Lian smiled.

Bit by bit, they grew more comfortable with each other—more intimate. They went stargazing often because Hua Cheng loved to see how Xie Lian’s eyes lit up, the misty glow around him dancing like fireflies. And with each passing night, the air grew cooler, so they edged closer and closer for warmth. 

One evening, Xie Lian even laced their fingers together, saying that their hands were getting too cold and they should share their heat. After that, they just kept on holding hands. 

Hua Cheng explained that humans usually held hands with lovers, or with their parents if they were young. He stuttered through the whole explanation, but he felt it was important to get out. Xie Lian clearly didn’t know much about romance, or sex, or any of those concerns held by those with corporeal forms. 

Xie Lian just tilted his head and said, “But I like it. Can’t we do it if we like it?”

Hua Cheng blushed hard. He couldn’t think of a response to that. 

Before long, they grew accustomed to sitting pressed against each other, the heat of Xie Lian’s arm and thigh burning one line long into Hua Cheng’s skin. Xie Lian’s scent, which inexplicably tasted like breathing in starlight, washed over Hua Cheng and sank into his clothes.

With the deep of winter came a soft blanket of snow. The moment Xie Lian saw it, he ran outside in just his sleepwear and slipped on some ice, falling face-first onto the ground. Hua Cheng panicked and ran out with his thickest blankets, bundling Xie Lian up until only his face was visible. 

Xie Lian laughed and laughed and laughed. He shouted at the forest, at the sky, at the snow, “So this is what it’s like to really be cold!” He smiled at the way his voice echoed through the clearing. 

Then Xie Lian leaned his entire body into Hua Cheng’s arms and said, quietly, like it was their little secret, “And this is what it’s like to really be warm.” 

They spent their days inside the cabin, burning through the excessive supply of firewood that they’d collected before the first snowfall. Hua Cheng had been worried that Xie Lian would find the winter unbearable, so he’d stockpiled triple the amount he’d usually have. 

All the winters Hua Cheng had experienced before had been brittle and boring. It was a season of merely existing, waiting for time to pass (even more so than usual in his stagnant life). When Hua Cheng was alone with his thoughts like that, as he had been for the past fifty winters, his past surged up and overwhelmed him. They tore at him more efficiently than even the icy storms outside could. 

Winter with Xie Lian was like this: hot tea in the evenings and conversation any time they wanted it; grey storms outside, red fires inside; loneliness farther away than the moon; very, very creative dinners and messy kitchens; soft hands and soft words. 

Xie Lian asked Hua Cheng to teach him how to sew. On New Year’s, Xie Lian surprised him with a patchwork, handmade coat. Hua Cheng wore it with pride, thinking, warm, warm, warm. Have I ever been so warm in my life? 

Every morning before bed, Xie Lian said, “Today was such a good night!”

He said, “Of course I’m not bored, San Lang. I have you with me!” 

He whispered under the covers, “I know you said I’ll love spring, but I almost wish winter would never end.” 

Hua Cheng wished it, too, with all his heart, because when spring came Xie Lian would surely leave and Hua Cheng…Hua Cheng didn’t know if he could follow him. 

Xie Lian picked up on Hua Cheng’s brooding because they were always around each other, and because Xie Lian saw him more clearly than anyone else ever had. 

“Are you- has there been a lot on your mind, San Lang?” Xie Lian asked as they sat down on their bedroll just before dawn, getting ready for sleep. “Would you like to talk about it? It’s just like you said: ‘You can tell me anything. I want to listen.'” 

Hua Cheng knew his mind was in true turmoil when he chose to talk about his childhood rather than admit to his real worry. 

“When I left my village...when I was thrown out, it was during a winter storm just like this one.” 

One day, the butcher had caught Hua Cheng stealing some meat, and the beating he’d earned had been brutal. The dirty cloth wrapped around his head had covered his red eye, but his fox ears were harder to hide. Hua Cheng’s hold on his fledgling magic only needed to slip once for him to be exposed. 

“They forced me to turn into my fox form,” Hua Cheng said. He remembered how it’d felt to be surrounded as a child, all the humans towering over him. He didn’t mention the rib-shattering kicks, the hot torches that the villagers eventually brought over. 

Even as a kit, he’d had enough survival instincts to know that if he revealed his full fox form he would be killed. But he’d had no choice.

Xie Lian’s hand wrapped around his and Hua Cheng realized he’d squeezed his eye shut. 

“My father was there,” Hua Cheng said, desperately trying to hide from the images he was recounting. “He was there in the crowd with his horrible wife.” 

His hand twitched from phantom pains. Every time he thought of his step-mother, he couldn’t help but remember enormous wooden poles slamming down on his back and boiling water flying through the air. 

“He was there too and I screamed for him to save me, but he didn’t listen. His wife said I was cursed and he believed her, so-” 

Hua Cheng curled into himself slightly, away from Xie Lian. He was disgusted with his own loss of control. How ugly his face must look right now, twisted up against tears. 

Xie Lian followed the motion, leaning into Hua Cheng’s side and wrapping his arms around Hua Cheng’s torso. He pulled Hua Cheng down so that his head, which usually towered above Xie Lian’s, was now cradled against Xie Lian’s chest. Xie Lian bowed his head over Hua Cheng’s head in a protective arch, like the roots of a tree sheltering a fox den.

“And that’s why I hate them,” Hua Cheng said, his voice empty, his heart thudding painfully in his chest. “That’s why I never leave this place, why I never want to see anyone. I don’t want anyone to see me eitherto see this horrible body of mine.” 

There was a long pause. Hua Cheng’s breaths were painfully audible.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian said suddenly. “The ears on the top of your head are fox ears, right?” 

Hua Cheng’s stomach clenched. “Ah,” he said. “Yes, my ears, they…”

What did it matter? Why was he so nervous? Xie Lian knew all about Hua Cheng’s parentage and didn’t care in the slightest. There was no danger, and yet…

Hua Cheng knew he was an abomination in his half-human, half-fox form—the unnatural, in-between state of something that wasn’t meant to exist. 

“They’re cute!” Xie Lian said, a bright smile in his voice. “So soft looking. When I first saw them I really wanted to pet them.” 

Hua Cheng blinked. “Cute?” 

“Yes!” Xie Lian said earnestly. 

Hua Cheng’s world tilted on its axis. It’d been a long time since someone said anything kind, or even neutral about his ears. 

As a child, they’d been flea-ridden and ragged—the ugly curse that gave him away as inhuman. Even when he’d grown old enough to hide them, to groom them and find plants that would stave away the insects that gnawed at the sensitive tissue, he still hated them. After all this time, Hua Cheng could only see the disgusting ears he’d had as a child every time he saw them in his reflection. 

“Do-” Hua Cheng looked up at Xie Lian, his throat tight. “Are you saying you still want to touch them?” 

Xie Lian nodded, eyes wide. “I would love that. But only if you’re alright with it, San Lang. I can see it bothers you. You don’t have to force yourself.”

“No, it’s alright,” Hua Cheng said. He wanted so desperately; it was like the pangs of hunger he’d had as a teen during winter—a bone-deep need that pushed him to take more risks than he’d usually allow. 

As a child, Hua Cheng’s ears had been cut, pinched by his step-mother’s fingernails, and stabbed at with needles. But a long time before that, when his mother had still been alive,  she’d loved touching his ears. He had faint memories of the simple pleasure of her fingers petting his ears—the gentle kindness that washed over him with every touch. 

Suddenly, he needed to remember how that felt.

Hua Cheng leaned his head down and bit his lip, squeezing his eye shut. He couldn’t help but brace for pain, even as he knew Xie Lian would never harm him. He gasped at the first brush of fingers against his ears and started to tremble. 

“San Lang?” Xie Lian said, his fingers stilling. “Are you nervous?”

Hua Cheng laughed, his hands clenched and scratching against the wood. “A little.” Terrified was probably a better word for it. 

“Hmm,” Xie Lian hummed sympathetically. “Here, maybe you’ll feel better if you’re in a more comfortable position.” 

Xie Lian turned and nudged Hua Cheng’s head down until it was laying in Xie Lian’s lap. He began to gently stroke Hua Cheng’s ears. 

Every single touch felt like burning—but not like pain. More like the stinging of frozen fingers warming up next to a hearth fire after long hours outside in the snow. 

It was like coming home. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng said, a faint tremor threading through his voice. Gratitude surged in him—more than he could express with words.

“Is it a lot?” Xie Lian said, soft and steady. 

Hua Cheng nodded and the motion made Xie Lian’s long hair brush against Hua Cheng’s ear. Hua Cheng turned to hide his face against Xie Lian’s belly.

“It’s a lot,” Hua Cheng said, and his voice cracked on the last word.

Xie Lian just nodded and held Hua Cheng’s hand. “It’s going to be alright,” Xie Lian murmured, scratching lightly at the base of Hua Cheng’s ears, not stopping even when Hua Cheng’s breaths turned fraught. “You’re going to be alright.” 

He whispered sweet nothings until Hua Cheng stopped shivering and melted into Xie Lian’s lap—until his ears didn’t sting anymore and felt only warm. 

The stars tilted toward the horizon and slipped under their covers, and the sun turned a new morning pale pink. 

Springtime arrived, and the flowers bloomed more beautifully than they had the year before. Even the evergreen trees that had stood sentinel through the whole winter looked more alive. The air was thrumming with sounds and scents. 

Xie Lian checked on the wildflowers around the cabin every day as if they were his own personal garden, and Hua Cheng’s heart ached when he thought of Xie Lian sewing vegetable seeds and harvesting them each year. There’d always be a little dirt on his cheeks, and Hua Cheng would wipe it off for him, but secretly he’d think that Xie Lian looked even more beautiful with traces of earth on him. He could weave a hat to protect Xie Lian’s skin from the sun. He could help him harvest the crops every autumn and plant them every spring because Xie Lian would still be here year after year-

Hua Cheng cursed his overactive imagination. It was too easy to imagine an entire life with Xie Lian, from now until the day Hua Cheng died. 

Almost every night, Xie Lian sat next to Hua Cheng on the bedroll and gently pet Hua Cheng’s ears, scratching and grooming them, brushing the fur and smoothing it into neatness. It became a habit of theirs—a warmth that was more like a steady firepit than the faint candle lights Hua Cheng used to hoard so very carefully. 

Xie Lian asked if he could pet Hua Cheng’s ears at other times, too, and of course, Hua Cheng had to say yes. He had a hard time imagining saying no to Xie Lian. In fact, he had to hold himself back from begging, please, please, as much as you want. As much as you’ll allow me. 

To Hua Cheng, that kind of peace was only suited for very special occasions. But Xie Lian seemed to enjoy giving it to him at any time of the day. They’d be eating lunch together or searching for a place to cut more firewood, and Xie Lian would lean over and cup Hua Cheng’s ears in his hands—not petting or squeezing. Just holding him in the cavern of his grasp. 

Every time Xie Lian did that, Hua Cheng’s mind went completely blank. Even when Xie Lian called his name, he just blinked at him, mouth slack. There was only warmth and safety—not a worry in the world. Xie Lian laughed and pulled Hua Cheng along by the hand while Hua Cheng tried to remember how walking worked. 

One day, as a special treat to celebrate the new spring, they stayed up all the way through midday, blinking blearily at the noon sun. 

As they strolled through the forest, Xie Lian looked around in wonder. There were delicate flowers and fresh green buds growing everywhere. 

“The trees look smaller during the day,” Xie Lian said, peering up at the canopy. “At night, they seem as though they could almost touch the stars.” 

Hua Cheng bit his lip. “Yes, the sunlight does make things look a little different.” 

Hua Cheng was entranced by how human Xie Lian looked during the day. At night, the liquid light that wreathed him was completely visible, like a softly glowing halo framing the moon. 

In the brightness of day, that light faded into a shimmering mirage—something that most people wouldn’t look twice at. Xie Lian’s voice, too, had become more similar to Hua Cheng’s over time. Mortals might think the sound of his voice was beautiful and otherworldly, but they would never actually think he was a star given a form of flesh and blood. 

With every passing night, there was less reason for Xie Lian to stay here. 

Hua Cheng couldn’t stand how dependent he’d become. He’d gotten used to Xie Lian’s steady warmth, as if he deserved it—as if it belonged to him. 

“Humans usually travel during the day,” Hua Cheng blurted out. Why was he saying this? “They feel safer with the extra light. Sometimes they walk on their paved roads, and sometimes they use horse carts.” 

“Horses?” Xie Lian said, tilting his head. 

“It’s an animal. A large one.” 

“Like the bunnies, but bigger?”

“No,” Hua Cheng laughed, but his mouth tasted like bile. His stomach was trying to revolt. “Very different. You- you’d probably really enjoy seeing one.” 

Xie Lian laughed but didn’t say anything. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng murmured, struggling to keep his voice under control. “Do you think you’ll want to travel?” 

Xie Lian tilted his head. “Well…I’m not sure.” 

Hua Cheng looked up at him. “But you like seeing new things,” he said. “Don’t tell me you don’t. Every time we encounter a new plant or animal you haven’t seen before, you get so excited.” 

Xie Lian laughed, but there was something uneasy in his gaze. He shifted his hands and started rhythmically tapping his fingers against the tips of Hua Cheng’s ears. Occasionally, his hands slid down to press the inner part of Hua Cheng’s ears between his pointer finger and thumb, rubbing in circles so gentle they felt like the brushing of butterfly wings. 

Hua Cheng sank down onto the mat, knees going weak under that barrage of sensation. 

Xie Lian smiled, his eyes softening. “What about you, San Lang? Do you want to travel?” 

Hua Cheng’s teeth clenched together and he lowered his gaze. 

“I can’t,” Hua Cheng said, his voice choked. 

Xie Lian paused. “Hm? You don’t like traveling?” 

“I just can’t!” Hua Cheng said, harsher than he intended. Hua Cheng pulled his head away from Xie Lian’s hands, suddenly feeling certain that he shouldn’t be allowed such perfect comfort. It was dangerous to get addicted to something temporary. 

After a long pause, Xie Lian said softly, “That’s alright, San Lang," and then fell quiet.

Self-hatred flared in Hua Cheng, as all-consuming as it’d been all those years when he was alone. He wanted to apologize but he didn’t think he could talk more about this without losing control over his emotions again; they walked the rest of the way home in silence. 

Xie Lian had burst through his life like a miracle, and he was going to disappear just as quickly, leaving behind nothing but a lonely, charred impact site.  

Hua Cheng resolutely avoided mentioning his outburst, and Xie Lian didn’t ask about it, either. But Hua Cheng did start to share all his favorite things and places with Xie Lian, desperately trying to make the most of the time they had together before Xie Lian left. 

Xie Lian seemed to enjoy their outings greatly. He’d ask, “San Lang, which of these things—these fish—do you like most?” and showing Xie Lian the best place at the stream to catch trout would somehow turn into lounging in the spring morning light for hours. They laughed as they splashed water at each other and talked about anything that came to their minds. 

On a full moon, Xie Lian asked about the best place to see the sky. Hua Cheng brought him to a small clearing that he privately thought was blessed by magic. Flowers bloomed there every year, no matter how long the drought season was, and the trees felt like home. Hua Cheng had curled up under their roots when he’d first been kicked out of his village. The shelter they’d provided had formed a deep bond between him and this forest. 

In the past, he would’ve been embarrassed to admit that to anyone (if there’d been anyone to talk to). But now there was Xie Lian, and he didn’t laugh. After Hua Cheng told him that little anecdote, Xie Lian knelt down and touched the roots of the tree.

“What are you doing?” Hua Cheng asked. He crouched next to Xie Lian and resisted the urge to place his hand on top of Xie Lian’s. 

“Thanking them,” Xie Lian said with a small smile. “For protecting San Lang when he needed help.” 

Hua Cheng’s heart thrummed. It was silly, maybe, to be moved by that. But then, being around Xie Lian was so often moving. He had relentless acceptance and compassion for the world around him, and he’d pulled Hua Cheng so easily into that fold. 

Hua Cheng stood up and touched the tree trunk. “It’s strong enough to hold our weight if you want to try climbing it.” He thought Xie Lian might enjoy being closer to the stars. 

Xie Lian’s eyes brightened, the diamond brightness in them gaining a sharp clarity. 

Xie Lian was just as clumsy going up the tree as he usually was when walking on the ground. His limbs didn’t quite move in tandem. Luckily, Hua Cheng was there to steady him each time he slipped. Hua Cheng was a halfling, after all—a fox in human form. Movement was easy. His awareness of his own body was a simple comfort. 

When they reached one of the highest branches still strong enough to hold both their weights, Xie Lian hugged the trunk, sighing in relief.

“Trust me?” Hua Cheng said as he tiptoed further out along the branch. He held a hand out to Xie Lian and waited. 

Xie Lian returned his smile tentatively and shuffled over until he was clinging onto Hua Cheng’s arm. 

“Now look up,” Hua Cheng whispered. 

Xie Lian gasped. At the top of the forest canopy, there was only the expansiveness of the sky above them.

“I miss being there,” Xie Lian said. “ some ways I miss it, but in some ways I don’t.” 

Hua Cheng wrapped an arm around him, making sure that he didn’t lose his balance in his reverie. “What do you miss?” 

“Well, it was everything I’d ever known. When I was up there, I didn’t have all these racing thoughts, like…like stray rocks flying through the darkness. I was just heat and light. It was a simpler existence.” 

Hua Cheng bit his lip. When he put it that way, being stuck in a mortal’s strange body and complicated mind sounded like being shackled. 

“But you said you also don’t miss it?”

“There are so many new things now! Things I didn’t know I would love so much.” Xie Lian turned his gaze on Hua Cheng and smiled brightly. “Someone I never would’ve met if I hadn’t fallen.” 

Hua Cheng stared back at him, entranced. “I'm glad you don’t hate it here.” 

“I don’t,” Xie Lian said, “Not at all. I think I can love both my old life and my new life at the same time.”

Xie Lian pressed closer to Hua Cheng. “Every star is born knowing that they belong somewhere. Everything has a place in this world. I thought I’d lost that faith, but maybe I can find it again.” 

Hua Cheng’s stomach clenched. He felt a painful smile twist across his face. “The world is big. Once you start traveling, you’ll find a place to belong again.”

Xie Lian was silent for a long moment. “I don't want to travel," he said suddenly. “I just want to stay with you.” 

Hua Cheng looked down and closed his eye. This was all his fault. He was holding Xie Lian back. “No, gege,” he said. “You can’t.” 

“You don’t want me to stay?” Xie Lian said, voice trembling. 

Hua Cheng’s head shot up. “That’s not it at all! I just…I know you want to see new things. You didn’t descend from the heavens just to live in a cabin with me.”

Xie Lian shook his head, still as stubborn as ever. “I have seen new things,” he whispered. “Having a conversation with someone, being able to hold and touch them… I’d dreamed of all of that, but I never imagined it could be real. And you give me all of that. You teach me new things about the world every day. You make me feel things I’ve never felt before.” 

Hua Cheng shook his head, turning away from Xie Lian to hide his expression. He was so ashamed of himself for trapping Xie Lian in this illusion of domesticity when there was so much more out there to experience. 

“You just feel that way because you’ve only met me,” Hua Cheng said. “I’m the worst conversation partner. I’m impatient. I can hold grudges forever. If you met anyone else in this land, you’d probably realize you enjoy their company more than mine.”

Xie Lian pulled Hua Cheng close, and Hua Cheng was weak to his silent request. He turned around in Xie Lian’s hold, though he still avoided his eyes. “I don’t think that’s true,” Xie Lian said quietly. “Even among my own kind, there were those who were more perfect stars, who fit the mold better. I never felt understood by any of them. But with you, I feel truly seen.”

Hua Cheng desperately wanted to believe that Xie Lian had gotten something out of their time together—that Hua Cheng hadn’t just been stealing moments of sweetness for himself, hoarding them like some strange, solitary animal in the woods. 

“But you don’t know,” Hua Cheng said, voice breaking. Why did he keep fighting against the words he most wanted to hear? He supposed it was because they weren’t allowed to be true—not for him. “You haven’t met anyone else in this land, so you don’t know.” 

Xie Lian laughed. “Well, I can’t argue with that. It’s true. I don’t know for sure. But why would I constantly be fantasizing about ‘something more’ when you already make me feel so complete?” 

Hua Cheng stared at him, heart pounding in his chest. His mind couldn’t process what he’d just heard. The words felt too enormous for reality—he had to be dreaming. 

After a few moments, Xie Lian stepped closer and looked up at him. His breath gusted against Hua Cheng’s cheek. “San Lang, is it so hard to believe that I adore you?”

If Hua Cheng thought he was speechless before, then this was an entirely new state of being. He could barely remember his own name. San Lang? That was him right?

Xie Lian seemed to take his silence as confirmation. He reached up to stroke Hua Cheng’s ears, and Hua Cheng melted into his arms. 

“San Lang, I promise you,” Xie Lian said, “I’m not missing anything in my life right now. Yes, I do want to meet more people and see new places. But more than that, I want to experience life together. If I stay in this forest for the rest of my days, I will be happy as long as it’s with you—happier than I ever thought I could be.” 

Hua Cheng buried his face against Xie Lian’s neck, trying to regain coherent thoughts under the barrage of Xie Lian’s words. 

Hua Cheng took comfort from the scent of him, the heat of him; the way his words wrapped around Hua Cheng’s heart and seeped into his veins. He wrapped his arms around Xie Lian, holding him tight.

Hua Cheng was…was he crying? He could feel his cheek sliding wetly against Xie Lian’s skin. Why was he crying? 

Xie Lian pulled back and looked at him, eyes wide. 

“San Lang?” Xie Lian said, panicked. “You’re crying! That means you’re sad? What can I do to help you feel better? Just tell me and I’ll do anything-”

Hua Cheng held Xie Lian’s hands, heart full to bursting at the worry in Xie Lian’s eyes—worry for Hua Cheng —and finally realized what he was feeling. 

Hua Cheng laughed, loud and free. “No, gege, it’s alright! I’m happy! You say that falling from the heavens was an exile—that it was shameful. But it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. You’re like a shooting star sent to fulfill all my greatest wishes.” 

Hua Cheng had never spoken such honeyed words before, but they were true. 

When his mother had been alive, she’d said, “I love you, I love you, I love you! You’re the treasure of my life, my darling. I’ve lived many, many years, so I know for sure that in all the world the very best thing is you." 

As he grew older, the memory faded like sugar-spun candy that melted when you held it for too long. Perhaps it should’ve all been washed away by the pure, unadulterated hatred his village had shackled him with as a child. 

But Hua Cheng had never forgotten his mother’s words. His mother never lied to him, and that meant that for at least one moment in time, someone had loved him so much that mere words couldn’t express it all, so they just had to say it again and again. 

“I love you,” Hua Cheng declared. He didn’t need Xie Lian to return his feelings, but if they were parted, and Xie Lian went into this unfamiliar world all alone, Hua Cheng needed him to know he’d once been loved fiercely, as bright as the stars. 

Xie Lian’s eyes widened, and he held Hua Cheng’s hands tightly. “Love?” 

Hua Cheng laughed. “I don’t know how to explain that one. It’s just- I’ve never felt like this about someone. And maybe that’s not love, but it means something. It means that you’re more important to me than anyone else in the world. It means that if my mother was alive, I would fight the heavens itself so that the two people closest to my heart could meet. It means that, really, I’d fight the world for anything you wanted.”

Xie Lian was breathing heavily. He looked like he was about to start crying, too. “It means you’ll let me stay for a little longer?” 

“It means I dream of you staying forever, gege. I want to hear your voice every night. I want to be bundled up so tightly with you it’s like we’re one person—until we’re so warm that we’ll never be cold or alone again.” Hua Cheng took a deep breath, shocked by how fraught his voice was. He was crying so hard that it was difficult to get words out, and that wouldn’t do. He needed to say this.

“It means that if you really want to leave one day, I’ll support your choice. And if you want a companion to explore the world with, then maybe- maybe I could go with you. I could try.” Hua Cheng didn’t think he’d ever forgive the universe for its cruelty, and he’d never think humans were good. There was a hatred in him that couldn’t be erased—that emptied him into a hollow husk the world had long deemed unfit for life. 

But when he was around Xie Lian, that hatred couldn’t consume him—not in the face of such steady light.   

“Oh, San Lang,” Xie Lian said, and now he was crying, too. He was suddenly very close, and then his lips were pressed against Hua Cheng’s, messy and wet and salty. Hua Cheng’s brain short-circuited from the soft warmth. When Xie Lian pulled away, leaving barely any space between them, Hua Cheng couldn’t do anything but blink. “Then that means I love you, too, San Lang.” 

Hua Cheng’s breath stuttered. “But- what? Me? But gege, how do you know? You’ve-”

Xie Lian lifted his hands to Hua Cheng’s ears and scratched all the places he knew were most sensitive. Hua Cheng melted into a puddle in his arms, head knocking against Xie Lian’s shoulder. 

“Shush, San Lang,” Xie Lian said. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng whined, laughter shaking in his voice. “Gege is so unfair. You know I can’t think when you do- when you-” 

“Shhh,” Xie Lian said again, and Hua Cheng could feel the trembling of his silent giggles. This man was going to be the death of him. “I’m just like you, San Lang. I don’t know what love is, but at the same time, I do. And even if I’m not sure, we have years and years to find out together.” 

He nudged Hua Cheng’s head up gently. “Don't we?” Xie Lian murmured with a sweet smile. 

“Yes,” Hua Cheng said, entranced by the bright happiness in Xie Lian’s eyes. “Years and years.” 

The birds chirped outside, calling in a new spring, a new beginning of life. And there would be winter again, with its harsh cold and isolation. But Hua Cheng didn’t dread it anymore—not when he had his very own star to keep him warm.