Shen Wei smiled as he looked up at the stars. It wasn’t often the sky was clear enough to see them anymore, but the chance always increased in the summer months.
“What has you so happy?” Kunlun asked, and Shen Wei turned his smile on him. Kunlun was lounging on the log next to him, his face softened by the glow of the fire. The night was warm, so he’d removed his outer robe and bundled it up behind his head.
“The Bear Stars,” Shen Wei said, pointing at the cluster of stars in the sky.
“The Bear Stars?” Kunlun’s brow furrowed. Shen Wei was just about to tell him the Haixingren name for the constellation, when Kunlun’s face smoothed out. He turned back to Shen Wei, smile wide and eyes earnest. He looked hopeful and excited, like a child from Dixing seeing the moon for the first time. “Oh! The Bear Stars! I’ve heard of them before. Will you tell me about them?”
Shen Wei ducked his head, a flush spreading across his cheeks. Whenever Kunlun looked at him like that, like he was something precious to be treasured and loved and protected, it was too much. It made his chest feel like it would burst, and he couldn’t help but feel unworthy of such warmth. Cloth shifted and Kunlun’s hand tilted his chin back up.
“Please, Xiao Wei, tell me about the Bear Stars?”
And Shen Wei could never deny Kunlun for long.
“The Bear Stars is that constellation there,” he points at the spots in the sky. “The one that looks like a big spoon. I think Haixingren call it Beidou?”
Kunlun nods, eyes searching the sky for the stars. Shen Wei smiles slightly, surprised that Kunlun can’t find the constellation as quickly as he can. He takes Kunlun’s hand and points it at the right stars.
“A long time ago, there was a bear,” he starts. “It was huge, larger than any bears anyone had ever seen. Night after night, the bear came to the first Dixingren settlement in Haixing, and caused chaos. It ate the meat hung out to cure, and destroyed the crops they had harvested. It trampled over the hides strung up to dry, and put out the sacred fire. It scared everyone in the village so much, they wouldn’t come out after sunset.
“Eventually, the chieftain decided they would have to do something about the bear. The people were suffering, growing weak from fear and lack of food. The best hunters were sent out to track and kill the bear. But they never found it.
“Every time the hunters tried to follow the bear, heavy snow storms would hide it from view and bury his tracks. The situation was slowly getting worse and worse, until one night, three brothers all had the same dream.”
“Did they dream that the bear was Da Yu in disguise and that if they welcomed him into the village, he would transform and bring the people prosperity?”
Shen blinked in confusion at Kunlun. Da Yu? Did he mean Yu Laoshi, the Haixingren man that cared for all the camp’s children?
“No,” he said. “They did not dream the bear was actually Yu Laoshi in disguise. Why would they dream that?”
“Yu Laoshi?” Kunlun’s head tilted to the side. Then, waving his hand, he said, “ah, Xiao Wei! Never mind, it’s a game the kids play sometimes.”
“Oh.” Shen Wei ducked his head again, embarrassed he didn’t know about the game. He decided he would visit the children more often. Maybe they would enjoy hearing about the Bear Stars too.
“One night, three brothers in the village all had the same dream. They dreamt that they chased after the bear together and managed to catch it. When they found they had all shared this dream, they knew it was a sign that only the three of them could protect the village from the bear.
“The next time the bear threatened the village, the three brothers followed it in secret. The snow fell fast and hard, but still they followed the bear. They ran over mountains and across rivers, but still the brothers chased the bear. They didn’t sleep or stop to eat, but no matter how hard they tried or how fast they ran, the brothers couldn’t catch the bear.
“Out of nowhere, the bear jumped into the night sky. Without hesitation, the brothers jumped after him, and continued to chase him across the stars.”
Shen Wei stopped to point at the stars above his and Kunlun’s heads again.
“Those four points are the great bear, and those three right behind it are the brothers.”
“They’re still chasing the bear!?” Kunlun exclaims.
“Yes,” Shen Wei answers.
“Do they ever catch it?”
“No. But in the autumn, when the bear grows tired just before winter, it slows down and that gives the brothers a chance to pierce its hide. The blood drips down from the sky, and that’s why the leaves turn red. They keep chasing and chasing it to make sure it can’t return to harm any more villages, but the brothers never catch the bear.”
As Shen Wei was telling Kunlun the story, he couldn’t help but notice how focused he was. He gasped at all the exciting bits, asked questions, and his eyes never left Shen Wei’s face. He was so intent on the story, he didn’t even notice when Da Qing crawled into his lap.
Shen Wei smiled. Clearly, Kunlun really liked bears. Shen Wei would endeavour to learn as much about them as he could, so Kunlun would have someone to share in his fascination with bears. He asks Ma Gui and Fu You about the bears that used to inhabit the mountains around their base before the meteor strike, and asks a Dixing Elder about Dixing’s bears. One of the scribes teaches him to paint with her calligraphy brushes, and he practices this new craft meticulously every night while Kunlun sleeps in the furs beside him. He can’t help but smile, his cheeks growing warm, whenever he thinks about sharing all he's learnt with Kunlun.
But Kunlun disappears into the sky before Shen Wei has that chance. Then Ye Zun falls, and Shen Wei is buried in the ground, Kunlun’s promise to meet again echoing in his head as he sleeps in the earth’s embrace.
(Shen Wei makes sure to continue learning about bears as part of his “Adapting to Modern Haixing” training once he emerges from the dirt. They have buildings called libraries now that house thousands of books, and he is delighted to find that there’s a whole row of shelves dedicated to books on bears. Some even have pictures! Shen Wei devours the books, and paints every species and sub-species of bear he finds a reference for. He even writes his undergraduate thesis on the evolution of bear genetics.
Every night, he looks up to the Bear Stars and thinks of Kunlun doing the same, wherever he may be. He promised they would meet again, so he must be out there somewhere. It’s comforting to know that the stars haven’t changed in ten thousand years, that he and Kunlun can still look up at the same sky...
Now that he’s alone, the bears and the small paper tucked inside his pendant are Shen Wei’s only connection to Kunlun.
And then he sees Kunlun again, and his heart stops.
I promise we will meet again.
But Kunlun doesn’t remember him. Kunlun is Zhao Yunlan, and Chief Zhao is suspicious of him. Kunlun doesn’t trust him.
Shen Wei can’t give him all the ink paintings he spent hours perfecting. Shen Wei can’t make him smile by sharing all he has learnt about bears for Kunlun.
Until one day, Zhao Yunlan suggests the SID’s latest victim had been mauled by a wild animal and Shen Wei knows that’s not the case. The claw marks are too wide, too jagged, too messy, to be anything other than a youchu. But Shen Wei isn’t supposed to know youchu exist, and this might be the only chance he has —
So, he takes out the pictures one by one, looks at Zhao Yunlan as earnestly as he can through Zhu Hong’s computer screen, and tells him every fact he can about each bear, one by one.)