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Take my hand, take my whole unlife too

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“One day,” Xie Lian’s mother told him when he was eight years old and had a head full of dreams, “under an auspicious date, you will take the crown from your father and begin your rule with a beautiful queen at your side. And the whole country shall rejoice on the day you wear red.”

Xie Lian might have been just an 8-year-old, but that day he looked into his heart and it told him, “HEAVENS, NO.”

But he was the crown prince – the quiet child, the gentle soul, the ever-obedient beloved son who had never disappointed his parents. There was no place for sentiments and disagreement in a life that had already been planned for him from birth to death. It left him little to no leeway, but Xie Lian’s heart was determined and his mind was resourceful and bright, and so within a few days he found a perfect way out.

His mother wept. His father fumed quietly and showed it only through scorn deeper than his usual one. The Head Priest grinned and squeezed his arm, and for the first time in his life, Xie Lian wanted to turn and cut his hand off. But he was the crown prince, the pride of Xian Le, so he smiled and bowed and thanked them all. His heart was light when he left, devoid of worries.

He took the Daoist whites the next morning and never looked back. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 


 

The ghost bridegroom’s hand is cold to the touch when Xie Lian takes it and steps out of the marriage sedan.

Oh dear, he thinks as his heart hammers in his chest. Oh dear.

The veil covering his face turns the world blood-red. The groom by his side looks no different, just a faint crimson silhouette against the sea of red. There is spring in his steps, youthful joy and cheerfulness Xie Lian has forgotten or perhaps never known. And now here he is, walking hand in hand with a stranger as something new and thrilling blooms in his heart.

It might be excitement. He has gone on without it for so long that he doesn’t know how it feels like anymore. Perhaps it is exactly like this, like a current buzzing under his skin and leaving him giddy. He feels like he can fly.

The person by his side is a man and even though he holds no regard for him, Xie Lian is still happier than he was ages ago, when his parents announced he would get married one day.

Would they have accepted a spouse if he had told them he had wanted to marry a man? It was unheard of, impossible – in all likelihood, he would have been met with nothing but scorn and mockery. So this—this ruse born out of necessity, this pitiful excuse for a ceremony that would never happen—this is all he’s ever going to get.

Crown princes don’t marry men. Gods don’t marry ghosts. And Xie Lian doesn’t marry anyone because no one would ever want to wed the laughing stock of the three realms.

Hand in hand they walk, and a blood rain falls onto them in a torrent stopped only by the ghost’s umbrella. Such an endearing gesture it is; something Xie Lian is no longer used to. It almost makes it seem like the ghost cares.

Everything makes it seem real.

So when he stops, kicks an array away into dust and tugs at Xie Lian’s hand, Xie Lian follows him without a hint of doubt. He has nothing to steal and possesses no power to be a threat. And if giving self-preservation away is the only way he gets to live the fantasy he’s so rarely indulged in, then so be it. He’s done enough mistakes to last him a lifetime; what is one more?

After all, dreams are only that – a figment of one’s imagination, a glimpse into a life that has never come to pass, and Xie Lian has eight hundred years of them under his belt. He’d given up on the idea of intimacy and love before he even learnt what it meant, but the longing forever remains with him no matter how hard he tries to forget it. The crown prince he used to be would have never been granted his deepest wish, and the homeless vagrant he has become deserves nothing of the sort. Even if he found a willing man, what could he possibly offer him? A sack of scraps, a bloodied soul, and a life of misfortune are hardly acceptable. The life he leads is meant for one.

However, nothing prevents him from pretending now, even if for a moment.

And so he stops. The ghost stops as well but never utters a sound. Xie Lian remains silent, too, more than certain than his voice would have failed him. Would he have been just as speechless if it had been real? Would he have been trembling in anticipation and barely contained excitement? Heavens, he can hardly hold himself together now.

So, without further ado, he clasps his hands together in front of him and bows. From what little he can see under the veil, the ghost does the same, though much slower and with a greater hesitation. Xie Lian doesn’t blame him. It is... unusual, to say the least.

Insane, a part of him whispers and he stubbornly elects to ignore it.

With just the slightest nudge, RuoYe uncurls from his wrist and falls to the ground. One end raised in the air, it sways gently in front of them in way Xie Lian has learnt to interpret as confusion. It had taken him a while to read the nuances of RuoYe’s behaviour and even longer to accept its presence, but it happened eventually. Now it’s the only thing he has left of his parents except for unmarked graves he still visits every few years.

In their absence, RuoYe would do.

He bows to it now, and RuoYe sways up and down in what constitutes a bow for it. It must have recognised this situation for what it was – a play, a ruse, a mockery of a ceremony Xie Lian’s never going to get. Thus he wants to have at least this to think back to with fond nostalgia. No one but them is ever going to know.

The ghost bows, too, even slower this time. The night is quiet around them save for the last droplets of rain falling from the leaves and the soft jingling of the jewellery. Is he wearing more than just those chains attached to his boots and the vambraces around his wrists? What does he even look like?

Xie Lian would rather not know. It’s better to see him as a faceless fantasy. This way, he remains a figure Xie Lian can project his helpless longing onto, an imaginary phantom whom he can’t hurt with his careless whims. This way, Xie Lian doesn’t have to make up for his transgression.

He gives RuoYe a sign to come back and turns to face the ghost. Keeping his eyes focused only on his black boots, he clasps his hands once more and bows—and this makes the ghost suck in a sharp, wheezing breath.

Do ghosts even need to breathe?

Xie Lian is about to ask when the ghost finally shakes off whatever came over him and mirrors his bow with equal—if not greater—seriousness. Xie Lian, suddenly giddy, can only force his racing heart and uneasy stomach to calm down. It’s nothing. It means nothing, and all there is to it is the ghost indulging him in this silly little fantasy Xie Lian played at his expense. This is no wedding, but at least now he has a memory to add to his up till now vague and hazy hopes. His imagination would fill in the rest.

He bows again, not as low this time. “Thank you,” he tells the ghost. “And forgive me.”

The ghost, still just as silent, simply reaches for his veil. His movements are devoid of killing intent and slow enough for Xie Lian to back off if he so wished.

Xie Lian does not. He stands rooted in place, torn between mortification and elation, and his heart thrashes in his chest like a startled bird. This would have been the moment to see his spouse’s face for the first time. If this had been the past, he would have been the one to lift the veil off the face of a woman he didn’t want but had to spend his life with. If this had been his wishful thinking, a man in front of him would have regarded him with a smile and warmth Xie Lian had not known for centuries. But alas, this is no dream – this is only Xie Lian cajoling a stranger into pretending to go through a wedding ceremony without his consent.

It is a despicable thing. He is despicable.

There’s no looking at the ghost’s face. Not now, and not ever, and the moment those pale fingers touch the hem of the veil, Xie Lian recoils as if burnt. Martial god’s instincts are stronger and faster than thoughts. He grabs the ghost’s hand—it’s cold to the touch, so cold, even though Xie Lian has been holding it for a while—and feels the knot of that red thread shift and pulse under his fingers. That alone is warm and alive.

He wonders who’s on the other side of it.

It makes him let go of the ghost’s hand, but it remains as it was right next to his face, hovering just under the hem of the veil. Would it really be so bad to let him lift it? Would he be furious if he realised that the bride he had helped out of the sedan wasn’t even a woman? Surely he must know by now. Xie Lian already spoke, after all, even though it was hardly louder than the sounds of the forest living on around them.

Heavens, why isn’t he saying anything? Why isn’t he laughing at Xie Lian’s expense, why isn’t he raging at his time being wasted like this?

Why is his hand trembling minutely as he holds it close to Xie Lian’s face?

“Your Highness?”

Xie Lian spins in place and tears the veil off his face. In the distance, Nan Feng and Fu Yao are standing motionless, drenched in blood. They’re pointing their weapons at Xie Lian.

“What...?”

“Get away from him!”

Oh. The ghost bridegroom. Now how is Xie Lian supposed to explain that?

The presence behind his back turns from nearly imperceptible to suffocating, oppressingly heavy and dense—but somehow, it isn’t directed at him. Or so Xie Lian wants to believe. After all, the ghost has gone through Xie Lian’s idiotic fantasy-turned-play without a word of complaint. He could have left—but didn’t. He could’ve struck Xie Lian where he stood—but didn’t. He could have laughed and mocked Xie Lian for indulging in a play befitting a child—but didn’t. Instead, he held his hand, led him through a forest right where he was supposed to be, and bowed thrice under the stars as their witnesses.

“Your Highness, run!”

“But... Just wait a moment.” There’s still time to make it right, isn’t it? If only everyone would just stand down and remember that he was caught in the middle, powerless and defenceless, dressed as a bride because there had been no one else willing to act as a bait, it would be highly preferable. But of course he’s Xie Lian—the god who walks hand in hand with misfortune, the god who’s barely even that.

So he turns to face the ghost he just put through a mockery of a wedding ceremony—and sees only a glimpse of someone clad in red from head to toe before he shatters into a swarm of silver butterflies.

Xie Lian saw one in the village, didn’t he? It was just as beautiful as the rest of them are now.

“Your Highness!”

Nan Feng or Fu Yao—it doesn’t matter who screams. Xie Lian simply stands motionless and lets the butterflies circle him a few times. The night’s set alight, painted in silver of the falling stars; a sight more beautiful than anything Xie Lian has seen in centuries. And just like in the village, he can’t help but extend his hands and let a few butterflies land in his palms. They walk all over his hands, tickling and so, so light, while another one brushes against his lips and lands on his nose. Are they the ghost or just something he left behind as he disappeared before Xie Lian even saw his face?

Would he have done the same if Xie Lian let him lift the veil like he had attempted to before Nan Feng and Fu Yao arrived?

And then the butterflies are gone and those two minor martial gods are by his side, yelling as if the world has just ended, but Xie Lian simply looks into the sky and watches the stars.

Funny. Those butterflies were brighter.

 


 

Back up in Heaven, he learns a name: Hua Cheng.

It’s the name that invokes fear and hushed whispers, that speaks of terror too great to ever get used to it. Hua Cheng is the one who makes the gods tremble, all the while they pretend not to. He’s the tempest that crawled out of a volcano that swallowed millions and built himself out of their screams and his own boundless determination and resentment that cracked the ground under his feet. He had been no one who suddenly became the Heaven’s worst nightmare—and that hasn’t changed for nearly a millennium.

He’s someone who indulged Xie Lian in finding out what marrying a man would be like.

“Stay away from Hua Cheng,” everyone and their friend tell Xie Lian. They remind him of a horde of grandmothers who always know best. “He brings only death.”

And so Xie Lian puts on a smile onto his face and agrees, but in his mind remains Hua Cheng’s gentle hold and effortless courtesy, his surprised gasp when Xie Lian bowed to him, and that pale, trembling hand with which he tried to lift Xie Lian’s veil and then stopped just because Xie Lian wanted him to. He remembers the butterflies dancing around him and the ghost-like brush of their wings.

He thinks about Hua Cheng and his heart responds only with curiosity.

Oh well. No one’s ever said Xie Lian was a reasonable person.

 


 

San Lang is, for lack of a better word, a whirlwind.

He carries Xie Lian’s sack of junk for him and sweeps the floor in the rundown shack Xie Lian has taken as a shrine. He makes a door upon a realisation there is none. He climbs all the way to the roof and patches as many holes as he can before Xie Lian ushers him down and feeds him supper. He eats the aforementioned supper and asks for a second serving with a wide smile, and Xie Lian can only relent and indulge him.

He also paints a portrait of the Crown Prince of Xian Le and Xie Lian watches him do it with a tightened throat and something indescribable stirring in his heart. It’s in equal parts endearment and panic, and so he chases San Lang away from the altar before he does something stupid.

They sleep on the same bamboo mat that night, and Xie Lian pretends his thoughts aren’t racing one after another.

And what he learns over the course of the next few days is this:

San Lang listens to him as if every word coming out of Xie Lian’s mouth mattered. He talks with Xie Lian rather than just throw words or orders at him—or to just tell him to go away, because that is something Xie Lian is more than accustomed to after centuries of living in the streets. San Lang is cheeky, reckless, brave in a way that borders on stupidity, and he’s also incredibly, impossibly stubborn, which is something Xie Lian learns after having fallen into a pitch-black pit and right into a pair of waiting arms.

He feels safe in these arms. Granted, they also feel slightly bigger than just moments ago but this is a fact Xie Lian decides to ignore upon a thorough, careful examination of both the arms and their owner’s chest.

It is a very nice chest. At least it feels so under his hands, and Xie Lian has never been more grateful for darkness before as he is now. Even his ears are burning when he finally remembers to keep his hands to himself.

“Ah, San Lang?” he asks but not before clearing his throat again and again. Damned be this desert for making it so dry. “Why don’t you put me down?”

A moment a silence follows, interrupted only by a not-so-distant sound of swords clashing. Who’s fighting whom if San Lang is holding Xie Lian so tenderly?

“No,” he finally says and even his voice is deeper than it was just moments ago. It’s the voice of a man San Lang might become in a few years.

“Why not?”

“It’s dirty.”

That’s... not what Xie Lian’s been expecting to hear. Admittedly, he also hasn’t been expecting San Lang to somehow grow older and slaughter a pit of unslaughterable ghosts within that brief moment that passed between him jumping in and Xie Lian following without hesitation. There wasn’t even a shadow of doubt that he would follow—his heart, terrified beyond measure, wouldn’t have let him stay away.

There’s a slowly growing thought at the back of Xie Lian’s mind. It’s right there, waiting for him to acknowledge it and promising answers to questions he hardly dares to ask in the privacy of his own heart. He knows he should confront it but it also means a possibility of having to tell San Lang to leave and that’s definitely a scenario Xie Lian doesn’t even want to consider.

It’s been so long since someone didn’t mind any of his quirks or his very ungodly behaviour everyone scoff at.

“San Lang,” he tries again.

“Gege.” There’s fondness in San Lang’s voice, and also a great deal of exasperation that tells Xie Lian he will not be swayed. And yet he still tries, because try he must and he wouldn’t be himself if he let go too easily.

“You can’t possibly carry me for too long.”

“I could.”

The sound of the swords clashing grows closer. Suddenly, the killing intent spikes, accompanied by an inhuman shriek, and someone wails. Xie Lian knows that kind of wail from the battlefield. It’s the kind of sound after which nothing more ever comes.

“San Lang, the fight—”

“Is nothing gege has to worry about.”

And so Xie Lian lets himself be carried for once and tried not to think about how nice it feels to have someone hold him.

It’s been so long since anyone touched him gently after all.

 


 

Suspicions prove to be true, San Lang turns out to be Hua Cheng and Xie Lian... doesn’t know what to think.

There are so many things they should talk about, starting with apologising for the mad joke he’s played at Hua Cheng’s expense at Mount Yu Jun. So many questions are waiting to be answered, even though every single one of them has the potential of shattering the easy companionship and the unlikely camaraderie he’s so effortlessly found with the most feared ghost of all times.

Who is now sweeping the floor in Xie Lian’s dilapidated excuse for a shrine. Out of his own volition.

(“I still prefer the name ‘San Lang’,” he told him when Xie Lian addressed him by his name.

“All right, then. San Lang.”

And the smile on Hua Cheng’s pale face lit up even his eyes.)

“San Lang?” he calls now. Hua Cheng has wandered off somewhere out of the shrine, but Xie Lian can still hear the rhythmic swish-swish of a broom. “Do you want anything to eat?”

The rustling stops. Hua Cheng comes back to the shrine with the broom in his hand and a few leaves sticking to his ponytail. “I’ll never say no to gege’s cooking.”

Xie Lian hopes he turns around fast enough to hide the smile. This is dangerous. Hua Cheng is dangerous, but in a completely different way the Heaven’s made him appear so. His attentiveness and generous willingness to take whatever Xie Lian can offer do unspeakable things to Xie Lian’s heart. His boyish charm doesn’t help either.

And he hasn’t mentioned the not-wedding at all.

So Xie Lian, in a true Xie Lian fashion, doesn’t say a word either and just ladles a generous spoonful of a stew he cooked. The smell of it made Nan Feng and Fu Yao run. Hua Cheng, on the other hand, happily takes the wooden bowl and eats the food as he stands right next to Xie Lian. No one’s ever been so enthusiastic about Xie Lian’s cooking before.

His heart beats faster. Again. That wretched thing.

When they go to sleep this night, it’s amidst the chatter and laughter and Hua Cheng’s heavy, attentive gaze. Xie Lian nearly squirms under it. His face is on fire—surely he’s gone permanently red by now. Hua Cheng must be aware of it, but thankfully says nothing and just settles down on the too-small bamboo mat; close enough to touch and yet an entire world away. He’s the ghost king, the Devastation who came out victorious from the battle impossible to win, and Xie Lian is...

Xie Lian is just a broken thing the history threw away. He’s dreamt of things he couldn’t have and only ever failed. Hua Cheng is the first person to ever give him some face and for that alone Xie Lian should be grateful.

He studiously ignores the emptiness in his heart as he pretends to sleep.

 


 

He wakes up alone with a ring under his robes and a heavy heart. For once, the silence is unbearable.

 


 

Oh dear, Xie Lian thinks as he looks at Hua Cheng’s true form. So that’s the chest he so thoroughly examined in the pit. It is truly a very nice chest. It belongs to an incredibly good-looking man (‘Stunning,’ Xie Lian's thoughts dutifully supply and keep going regardless of how hard he tries to shut them down. ‘So handsome.’) who is now looking at Xie Lian as if he was the only thing left in the world. He was already intense in his teenage form, but now the attention he bestows upon Xie Lian is nigh unbearable.

This is the man whom Xie Lian took by the hand and pulled through a mockery of a wedding just so that he could know what it felt like.

Perishing on the spot would have been easier and much, much more welcome.

“Gege is distracted today,” Hua Cheng says as he languidly lounges on the black divan. He plays with the bead at the end of his thin braid. It’s red just like everything around here—like Hua Cheng’s robes and Xie Lian’s face if the warmth he feels on his cheeks is any indication.

“No!” Xie Lian protests more out of habit than genuine conviction. It comes out too loud, too abrupt, and Hua Cheng’s eyebrows shoot upwards. He takes a deep breath and tries to soothe his raging nerves. “No,” he says once more, quieter this time. “It’s not that. It’s just...”

The fact that he’s currently trying to deceive the only person who’s ever been kind to him like the most despicable person in the whole of three realms? Or that there’s a dragon in the room and they’re both trying their best to ignore and pretend nothing happened? Xie Lian doesn’t know.

He doesn’t even know if he wants to pretend it didn’t happen. His heart and thoughts are in disarray, and all it took to make them so was Hua Cheng’s attention and unfairly beautiful face.

“Gege is clearly tired,” Hua Cheng decides and stands up. He extends his hand for Xie Lian to take and for a heartbeat, Xie Lian sees the world through a blood-red veil again. “Come, I’ll show you to the guest room.”

Xie Lian lets himself be pulled to his feet but doesn’t move after that. He doesn’t let go of Hua Cheng’s hand either. “Why are you doing this?” he asks before he can think better of it and now that the words are out, he just throws caution to the wind and goes on. “I’m a god. A useless god, but a god nonetheless, and I’ve intruded into your territory. You should’ve beaten me up like you did all those Officials a long time ago. You shouldn’t be so...”

“So?”

“Nice. To me.”

Hua Cheng’s face goes slack for a moment before it hardens into something expressionless. Immediately, Xie Lian misses the playful glint in his eyes and the smirk that unmistakably turned into a wide grin so often before. And when he lets go of Xie Lian’s hand, it feels like an end of something that hasn’t truly begun.

“I see.” Even his voice is different, deeper and quieter. Colder. “Is this what His Highness thinks of me? That him being a god defines what I think of him? That I would ever raise a hand against him?”

That’s what most gods would think, isn’t it? And that’s what Xie Lian himself would think if he’d only been the god he was after his first ascension. The past is no more, though, and neither is Xie Lian of old. He’s learnt on his own example the power of rumours and reputation that precedes a man. He’s the trash god, the misfortune incarnate, the one who brought death to his own country. He’s the laughing stock of the three realms and the last person someone so important as a Supreme ghost king would ever bother with.

The same Supreme ghost king is now looking at him with something unreadable darkening his only visible eye.

“No,” Xie Lian says when he finally regains his voice. “I don’t think San Lang would do that. He’s too kind for that.”

“Kind?” Hua Cheng laughs. It’s a dry, loud sound that bears no mirth. “Now that’s a first. I’m anything but kind, hasn’t His Highness heard that?”

“I don’t care for rumours. San Lang has only ever been kind to me.”

For a moment, neither of them speaks or moves. Finally, after what seems to be an eternity Xie Lian suffers under the attention almost impossible to withstand, Hua Cheng sighs and rubs his face.

“Gege,” he says and it’s a tired, small thing, his voice. “You really should make up your mind today.”

Xie Lian should also man up and ask the question he truly wants to ask but doesn’t know how. Instead, he just smiles weekly at Hua Cheng. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to confuse San Lang. It’s just that...”

“Heaven can rot. So can the gods. All of them.” Fire comes to life in Hua Cheng’s eye and Xie Lian can’t look away. Maybe he never could. “But gege? I would burn the world for gege if he so wished.”

Can his face get any hotter? Xie Lian wasn’t sure but here he is, proven wrong once again. Even his ears are on fire. “San Lang,” he wheezes like a disaster he is, and he barely hears himself over the sound of his madly beating heart. “You can’t...”

“Forgive me, gege, but I can. And I will.” He bends at the waist to kiss the back of Xie Lian’s hand, and Xie Lian’s heart soars and sings at that. “Now go rest. You look like you’re about to pass out.”

No wonder about that, he thinks hysterically but doesn’t argue. Neither does he ask even though the time seems right. What if the answer isn’t what he hopes it to be? What if Hua Cheng simply indulges him just like he did at Mount Yu Jun? After all, no one knows what Blood Rain Seeking Flower thinks—and certainly not Xie Lian.

And so he goes and then the world falls apart in a blinding ball of fire that devour what moments ago used to be Hua Cheng’s home, and just like that, the right time is gone as if it’s never come.

 


 

Hua Cheng comes for him with darkness and a swarm of deadly butterflies that shred to pieces everything and everyone on their way.

Except for Xie Lian.

He cradles a stray butterfly in his palms before a cold, familiar hand grasps his and pulls him into the darkness and out of Heaven. Xie Lian should care—but he doesn’t. Amongst the gods, he faces nothing but judgemental stares and mistrust that never really goes away. It’s understandable, really, with the kind of history he and Heaven have, but it wears on him nonetheless. He’s an old man, after all, too tired to indulge in political games and vying for power he didn’t have the heart for even the first time around. The smile on the face and the dagger in the hand hidden behind one’s back—that’s what most gods are. Xie Lian’s had enough of stabbing to last him a few lifetimes, and even the metaphorical kind is enough to make him retch.

So he tightens his grip on Hua Cheng’s hand, feels him do the same, and for once he doesn’t want to look back.

Before the cover of darkness even lifts, Hua Cheng stops and puts his hands around Xie Lian’s head. “Long time no see,” he tells the gods yelling over one another in the communication array. Xie Lian can hardly hear them over the roar of his blood. “How’s everyone doing?”

Silence is his answer. How Xie Lian wishes his heart would settle so, too.

“Let me tell you just one thing.” Only a finger would be enough to establish the connection. Hua Cheng certainly doesn’t have to hold his head so gently in his hands. “Next time you dare to touch my husband, I’ll slaughter you all. Now get the fuck out of his head.”

The world stops. It’s a good thing Xie Lian is a god who doesn’t have to breathe, because his lungs have ceased functioning. His heart, on the other hand, lurches and races forth like a wild horse. His stomach twists. He doesn’t know if it’s pain or maybe elation he’s feeling, but it leaves him trembling and nauseous. Underneath all that, there’s a life-old terror of his deepest desires being known to the world.

“San Lang,” he croaks in a voice that’s not at all his own. It reminds him of those days on which he screamed himself hoarse at the indifferent world. He’s had more of those than he can count. “What...”

“We need to get out of here first.” In the darkness, there’s no way of knowing if Hua Cheng is even looking at him. The only anchor is his cold hand wrapped around Xie Lian’s. “Then we’ll have to deal with this mess.” He stops for a moment. “And then we’ll talk.”

And so Xie Lian can only follow, and every step echoes in the roar of his blood.

 


 

Later—much, much later, within the familiar walls of his shrine, Xie Lian sits on the bamboo mat with Hua Cheng by his side and RuoYe draped across their knees.

Somewhere outside, Qi Rong is yowling but no one pays him any mind. After all, it’s just Qi Rong. It’s been a long time since Xie Lian lost any patience to deal with him. Heaven is silent in Xie Lian’s head and no god has come to ensure he’s well. And it’s fine. He’s not so sure he wants to see them anytime soon.

Hua Cheng is silent and motionless, but Xie Lian’s fidgeting for two.

“I’m so—”

“Forgive me.”

Hua Cheng snorts inelegantly. “You first, gege.”

That’s exactly what Xie Lian was afraid of. “No, no, it’s fine, why don’t you go first?” Perhaps it’s not what he fears it is. Perhaps the dragon in the room will forever remain just that, something never meant to be touched. Perhaps his friendship with Hua Cheng will remain untouched. “I shouldn’t have—”

“Gege, you’re trying to avoid the subject.”

He can only hang his head low. “I know.”

For a moment, only silence rules in Puji Shrine. Xie Lian wishes he could turn back the time all the way to Mount Yu Jun. Maybe if he did that, he could slap some sense into his silly little heart and stop himself from making such great a mistake.

“Is it so bad?” Hua Cheng finally asks in a surprisingly steady voice. Only the slightest tremble betrays his fraying composure. Xie Lian wouldn’t even recognise it if he didn’t know him so well already. “Being... being married to me?”

Xie Lian whips his head up so fast, his neck starts to hurt. “What?”

“Is it such an inconceivable idea that you can’t talk about it?” Hua Cheng is staring straight ahead, at the mould-eaten walls and the uneven table that passes for the altar. “Fuck, you can’t even look at me.”

“But... San Lang.” Is it his head spinning or the world itself falling off its axis? “San Lang, we’re not m-married.”

Now he’s looking at Xie Lian and in his eye are reflected the fires that made him. Only his mouth is half-open, slack in incredulity written all over his face.

“Gege,” he says slowly and every syllable is a knife he unknowingly plunges into Xie Lian’s heart. “We bowed three times.”

Oh no. No, no, no.

“It was a joke!” Xie Lian shrieks because he can only act so fast before everything he holds dear turns to dust. “Just a joke! I was curious, I’m sorry I—San Lang?”

He sees the exact moment something in Hua Cheng shatters. His eye goes dark, lifeless, and his face closes off. It’s the face of a Devastation holding onto life with resentment greater than the world itself. It’s what those thirty-three gods must have seen before death came to them on the wings of butterflies and wrapped in robes redder than blood.

“A joke,” he repeats and it’s lifeless, colder than the steel kiss of a sword. “I see. I...” He shoots to his feet without a word. RuoYe falls to the ground before it slithers back into Xie Lian’s sleeve. “I shall take my leave, then. I will not bother His Highness again.”

Is he... leaving? Oh Heavens, he’s leaving, and Xie Lian can’t run to him soon enough.

“San Lang, wait,” he says insistently into his back. Hua Cheng is rigid in his arms and Xie Lian’s heart races at his own boldness, but he couldn’t care less. There are many things he can take, but not this. Not this. “San Lang, let me explain. Please.”

No answer comes, but he feels more than sees a curt, rapid nod. If only he could convey what he has to without words, but... No. This has gone on for too long, though.

“I wanted to know what it would be like,” he says quietly. Damned be he and his longing that has brought them only the pain of misunderstanding. “It was the only way I’d ever find out. I didn’t even know San Lang at the time. If I did, I wouldn’t have done that at San Lang’s expense. I can only hope he eventually finds it in his heart to forgive me.”

Slowly, so, so slowly, Hua Cheng raises his hands and puts them atop Xie Lian’s. It’s not an answer and neither is it absolution, but at the very least it’s a start and Xie Lian will take what he can.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng sighs. “I could’ve been anyone.”

“I know.”

“You would’ve bowed to anyone?”

Xie Lian was so, so stupid. “In my defence, I wasn’t expecting to ever meet you again. And... and it was the only wedding I’d ever get, so—”

“Gege.” All of a sudden, Hua Cheng turns in his arms and puts his hands on Xie Lian’s shoulders. His expression is stormy but it’s infinitely better than the emptiness that came over him after Xie Lian’s earlier words. “What nonsense are you spouting?”

“San Lang.” He smiles softly but it’s a brittle thing, the one he always feels in the muscles of his face as it pulls and pulls on them until he must look like a lunatic. “Look at me.”

And Hua Cheng does—from head to toe and back up again. The intensity of his gaze reminds Xie Lian of a starving man staring at a feast. It’s in equal measure terrifying and exhilarating.

“I am looking at you, gege.” He tucks a wayward strand of hair behind Xie Lian’s ear. “My god, I’ve never stopped looking.”

Xie Lian whispers his name—or thinks he does. Maybe nothing comes out of his mouth in the end, with how dry and tight his throat is and how quickly his heart races.

“Anyone would be honoured to marry gege,” Hua Cheng goes on because apparently he holds no regard for Xie Lian’s weak heart. “Anyone. Even though they don’t deserve gege. He should only ever settle for the best. Someone who can make him happy. Who can protect him. Who—”

“Someone like you?” he blurts out because he’s Xie Lian and apparently his second banishment has stripped him off what little self-control he had left before.

Hua Cheng smiles wistfully and just brushes his fingers over Xie Lian’s cheek. He doesn’t even allow himself to linger and Xie Lian’s left with a shadow of what could have been.

“This lowly servant could never deserve His Highness. It doesn’t mean he can’t dream.”

Now that’s utter nonsense. And he had the audacity to call Xie Lian out on that; this horrible, horrible man who holds Xie Lian’s heart in his hands and isn’t even aware of it.

Once upon a time, Xie Lian took a ghost’s hand and let himself be led. Now—now it’s up to him to lead, so he smoothes out the lapels of Hua Cheng’s tunic and fixes the belt that doesn’t need fixing. Unevenly chopped strands of hair cover the right side of his face, so Xie Lian pushes them away and gazes upon the face of the man he’s wronged and almost lost.

“San Lang makes me happy,” he says and ignores his burning cheeks and the sickly churning of his gut. “San Lan can protect me. San Lang is the best. And I don’t deserve him, but perhaps one day he’ll forgive me for what I’ve done and maybe... maybe even look at me with a willing heart.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng whispers, stricken beyond measure. “Gege, what are you...?”

Xie Lian doesn’t let him finish. He wraps his arms around his waist and pulls him close with all the strength he can muster. For the longest while, Hua Cheng does nothing and then, out of nowhere, he embraces Xie Lian with just as much might and even more determination. His hands are shaking; his entire body is trembling like a leaf and it only makes Xie Lian holds onto him even tighter. It’s such a nice feeling, to have someone hold him gently. The last time another person touched Xie Lian, it was to put a sword through his chest.

“Gege, gege,” Hua Cheng keeps saying above him, voice broken and choked up. He sounds wrecked and Xie Lian hasn’t even done anything yet. “Gege, is this a joke, too? Please tell me this isn’t a joke.”

“My San Lang.” With his fingertips, Xie Lian chases away the lines of worry from Hua Cheng’s face. He deserves only those from too wide a smile and too great a joy. “This is definitely not a joke.”

He beams; brighter than the sun, more beautiful than any of the princesses Xie Lian’s parents could have ever found for him. And he’s Xie Lian’s.

“Gege,” he says now, “wanna get married?”

Every fibre of Xie Lian’s being wants to say ‘yes’, and yet... “I think you should kiss me first,” he says instead. “That’s quite a necessary prerequisite, don’t you think?”

Hua Cheng wastes no time in diving in and stopping a hair’s breadth from Xie Lian’s lips. “My gege,” he murmurs against them, “so bold.”

“San Lang...”

“So beautiful.”

“San Lang!”

“So mine.”

And finally, finally, he closes the distance between them and kisses Xie Lian away until neither of them remembers what the question was, but the answer to it is, without a doubt, ‘together’.