Hua Cheng knows, of course, that Dianxia is kind. There is no doubt in that: throughout the centuries, no matter how hard life treated Xie Lian, whether he was a prince basking in glory or a fallen god collecting trash, he has stayed sympathetic toward others, always ready to help and give the shirt off his back even to those who have wronged him. Oh, Hua Cheng knows better than anyone that Dianxia’s selflessness has no limits, and he adores that part of him just as much as he adores everything else about him, but that’s not why he loves him.
It is easy—effortless and joyful, even—to love someone for the kindness he or she shows toward you, for the succor and support this person offers you; easy to appreciate someone’s usefulness to you. Hua Cheng, however, loves Xie Lian whole and accepts him whole. He has seen him at his worst; he knows of his foolishness and anger and imperfection and weakness, and he takes all of it without filtering for the things that benefit him only.
Despite that, he also knows that Dianxia is fair and judicious and not all-tolerating. For example, for all Xie Lian’s efforts to put up with his shitty cousin, Qi Rong, even his patience has a point past the last straw.
“He is terrible,” he says honestly to Hua Cheng. “Even when we were children, he always acted so spoiled, and now it’s just like he has bats in his belfry. He’s really the most insolent, rude, vulgar person I have ever met.”
“I couldn’t agree more, gege.”
Or those two idiots who unfortunately happen to have been Dianxia’s servants once in the past. Hua Cheng admits, watching them bicker and be at each other’s throats can be pretty amusing but not for too long, it just gets annoying then. If not for Dianxia, Hua Cheng would have made sure he would never have to see their ugly mugs ever again a long time ago.
“You said it first, you fucking idiot! Is your memory that bad?!”
“My memory is bad?! How about that time you boasted you had the legendary Newmoon Worship sword and swore to show it to me but never did, huh? I’d lay odds you have never even seen it in your entire miserable life!”
“You think I was fucking lying?! I’ll fucking prove it to you, I—”
“Feng Xin, stop swearing!” Xie Lian gasps in exasperation, standing in between them to prevent the two from coming to blows.
“But Your Highness, he—”
“Both of you! Stop being so rude to each other! Can’t you at least play nice?”
On either side, Feng Xin and Mu Qing both frown at the words and glare daggers at each other. However, they do take Xie Lian’s criticism after all because they soon leave in opposite directions.
“I wish they would just bury the hatchet,” Xie Lian admits when they head home after that. His one hand casually drops to wrap around Hua Cheng’s by habit, and the latter’s non-functioning breath catches for a moment.
He’s glad that Dianxia does this. Dianxia shouldn’t bottle up his dissatisfaction or anger, put up with other people’s shit, pull back on expressing his displeasure because he thinks he’s not good enough, not worthy enough, doesn’t deserve to criticize others, so Hua Cheng feels oddly warm and content whenever he hears him say something like that.
“Feng Xin swears too much,” Xie Lian shakes his head. “Mu Qing is so petty about everything. It’s like they’ll never get along with their personalities clashing like that.”
“Hmm, if they accidentally killed each other… it would be killing two birds with one stone…” Hua Cheng pretends to be considering the contingency seriously, and Xie Lian gasps in mock horror.
“I was just joking, gege,” he grins.
“I know. Your jokes are terrible.”
“Are they? Gege, I had no idea you hold such an opinion of them, you wound me deeply.”
Xie Lian lowers his eyelashes, humming, pretending to be thinking, and a sly smile of amusement stretches his lips. “Mm. Maybe I’m just waiting for San Lang to prove me wrong.”
He’s so adorable, Hua Cheng thinks besottedly, speechless for a few moments at the sight, and his chest feels full to the brim with the love for this man.
So yes, Hua Cheng notices and appreciates it when he hears Dianxia berate someone, just as he recognizes and prizes every small step they make in their relationship. However, he can’t help but notice one little thing…
“This is the most monstrous and ugliest penmanship I have ever seen, and I’ve been alive for over two thousand years,” Head Priest says with utmost honesty. “This calligraphy’s very existence is egregious sacrilege of the Chinese language.”
Xie Lian laughs awkwardly.
“Haha, that’s a little hyperbolic, really… I think it has its own style. San Lang’s penmanship may be offbeat but I actually do find it very nice.”
The line earns him an incredulous look from Head Priest, as if it’s almost saying “have you gone blind, Your Highness?”
Hua Cheng looks at Xie Lian in surprise, too. He’s aware of how hideous his handwriting is so he doesn’t take any offense at Head Priest’s words but he doesn’t understand why Xie Lian just defended it. He thought Dianxia had become more confident about criticizing others lately?
His astonishment only doubles a few days later. Feng Xin and Mu Qing come to their house coincidentally at the same time and start locking horns again so he flat out tells them to fuck off, which of course immediately raises their hackles.
“Your Highness, he just told us “to fuck off”, won’t you say anything?!” Feng Xin cries in indignance, calling out to Xie Lian for justice.
“San Lang has just had a hard day at work. He probably has a headache now because of you two, too, so could you please keep it down?”
“Really?!” Mu Qing and Feng Xin both cry out in unison at the unexpected answer. Their jaws are gaping.
The look on Xie Lian’s face is one of reproach. “Did you think that if he’s a ghost, he can’t have headaches? Please stop being so loud.”
He isn’t joking, he’s being completely serious about it, and that is doing things to Hua Cheng’s supposedly dead heart. And the final nail in the coffin is when Pei Ming drops by one day and starts shamelessly asking questions about “how things are going in the boudoir”.
“So you’re both men, which of course means you’re naturally both aggressive, so I was curious, does it make the sex… you know, rough ?” he winks.
“Rough is the word you’ll use to describe the beating I’m going to give you if you dare ask such questions in front of His Highness again.”
Pei Ming’s brows shoot up and he puts his hands in front of himself, palms outwards, in a defensive gesture. ‘Hey, hey, don’t take it that seriously, I was only kidding!”
Standing beside the table at which Hua Cheng and Pei Ming are sitting, Xie Lian’s hand comes down to stroke Hua Cheng’s hair affectionately. “Maybe he doesn’t look like it, but San Lang is quite sensitive about what happens in our bedroom. Please refrain from bringing that up here in the future, General Pei.”
His palms combing gently through Hua Cheng’s hair make him feel completely blissed out, like a cat, and he throws his head back a little to nuzzle into the touch and catch a glimpse of the smile Xie Lian offers him. Yet the comment doesn’t escape his attention, so later, when that Pei Ming is finally gone and they’re lying in the sheets, he brings it up.
“Gege,” he calls out in the dark quietly from where he is being spooned by Xie Lian, which is frankly his favorite place to be ever .
“Why do you always defend me in front of others? This San Lang couldn’t help but notice gege doesn’t pull back on criticism when he talks about other people, but you spoke in support of my terrible calligraphy in front of Head Priest, and you didn’t reprimand me for being rude to your former servants or Pei Ming. While I highly value gege’s opinion, it pains me to think that gege is being dishonest with me just because he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings or something like that.”
For a few moments, there is silence, and fear creeps into Hua Cheng’s stomach as he starts feeling like he’s crossed the line. Then his eye widens when Xie Lian’s grip around him tightens and he hears his sleepy voice just above his ear.
“My sweet silly San Lang,” he murmurs. “I’m not being dishonest. I just love you and it’s hard for me to listen to someone saying something bad about you and do nothing.”
The candor strikes Hua Cheng like lightning. He breathes in and out even though he doesn’t need to, and the arms wrapped around him just like centuries ago, combined with the dark and Dianxia’s sleepiness-invoked openness seem almost surreal, like a beautiful dream one never wants to wake up from.
“Gege…” he lets out weakly and turns in his arms, and Xie Lian kisses his forehead a few times, soft loving lips against the cold skin, and Hua Cheng tucks his head under Xie Lian’s chin, resting it on his shoulder. “You’re really going to be the death of me.”
“But I’m only saying the truth,” Xie Lian protests sleepily and Hua Cheng hears him yawn.
Cute. His Dianxia is so cute, his cuteness is enough to restart his rusty heart and make it stop again thousands of times.
He lets his eye close and snuggles closer to the person he used to admire only from the distance and who now, somehow, has come to admire him, too. These dark hours late at night, when they’re safely tucked in each other’s embrace after a long day and there is no daylight to expose their blushes, are the most honest ones, and his heart feels full, warm, and so, so content, like a still giant ocean at dawn.
“I love you, Xie Lian.”
“I love you more. Sweet dreams, San Lang.”