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you'll know, you'll fall

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Hua Cheng’s birthday arrives, and the plan falls into place.

Step one of the plan is to bribe Yin Yu into keeping Hua Cheng busy for the day. It actually takes more bribing than Xie Lian anticipated because not only does he not have a lot of cold hard cash, but Yin Yu also seems to think he’s risking his life with artificially occupying Hua Cheng’s time. So the bribery comes with the promise of vacation days—by which, Xie Lian promises that he will convince Hua Cheng to go on vacation and give Yin Yu a moment’s peace.

“How am I supposed to keep him busy, exactly?” Yin Yu asks, his voice unimpressed even over the phone.

“I don’t know—what motivates him? Professionally, I mean.”

“Jealousy,” Yin Yu says.

When Xie Lian calls Hua Cheng mid-morning on his birthday, he discovers that his boyfriend is slowly wrangling the Xie Lian sculpture downtown to his other studio. The process will take a few hours, and then Hua Cheng wants to work like mad to finish it. He’ll be there all day.

“If I can get it done in a few days, I can convince the public art curator to have it installed at the waterfront instead of another fucking huge dead fish,” Hua Cheng tells him, voice giddy with gleeful spite. “He Xuan will be furious.”

Yin Yu had worked his magic, then. And Xie Lian’s sculpture-self might find a home at the water’s edge. Xie Lian is nervous about it at first, other people looking at that version of him—and then he isn’t, thinking about that contented, beautiful face looking out across the water, bare and vulnerable. The way Hua Cheng sees him.

“They’re going to worship you, babe,” Hua Cheng says.

-

Step two is to buy decorations. Xie Lian goes downtown to get them so he doesn’t have to haul them around on public transit for too long, and he resigns himself to the fact that they will be hopelessly tacky and cheap.

From what he can gather, though, they will be an improvement since Hua Cheng has never had a birthday celebration, except for last year when He Xuan and Yin Yu took him out drinking. He’d gotten so drunk that he woke up the next morning on a park bench.

“And there was an angel sitting next to me,” he’d once recounted to Xie Lian, hamming it up. “Offering me a stale bun because he thought I was homeless.”

“You looked homeless!” Xie Lian said, laughing and cringing at being described as an angel.

“I was wearing designer shoes, gege.”

“Okay, so you looked like a homeless person who’d stolen a rich person’s shoes.”

Xie Lian smiles at the memory as he picks out scarlet streamers and paper lamps and some paints with which to write HAPPY BIRTHDAY on a blank white banner. He goes over the top and buys noisemakers that they’ll only use to be obnoxious and scare E-Ming with and paper crowns that won’t last the night. Even buying cheap, it’s expensive, but he doesn’t care. He’s investing in the look on Hua Cheng’s face when he comes home.

Step three interrupts step two because he suddenly realizes he has no idea where to get a cake that’s not from a convenience store, so he calls Shi Qingxuan.

“A cake? Yes, oh my god.” These days, she's very excited to be helpful. “Wait, where are you? I'll meet you.”

She takes him, despite his protests, to a place that's way outside his budget and insists on buying the cake.

“Just tell Hua Cheng I got it for him, maybe it will convince him to do that collection for me.”

“I will do no such thing,” Xie Lian sniffs as they watch the cake be carefully boxed and wrapped. “You’re not guilting my boyfriend with a birthday cake.”

“Can I guilt you, though?” She regards him shrewdly.

“For what? Isn’t this you making up for exposing my sex life to my ex-best friends?”

She frowns, tossing over her card to the teller. “They’re not—actually. On that point. They talked to me a few days ago. About maybe getting coffee sometime.”

Xie Lian is focused on not seeing the number on the receipt. “Good for them, I guess?”

“With you, idiot.”

Xie Lian blinks. “Oh.” He thinks about the last time he saw them, the things he said. He always thought it would be too painful to see them again, after so many years. But the ice has already been thoroughly shattered with their last phone conversation. And he’s not the same person that he used to be. It might have been a sad thought once, but it isn’t anymore. “Yeah. Okay.”

“Yeah?” She’s grinning, looking like he just handed her the moon. He wonders what it must have been like all these years, being both his friend and theirs, trying to be a bridge. “Yeah! It’ll be like old times.”

Xie Lian suddenly feels the need to lay down ground rules. “If you say a single thing about dildos or sex or me with dildos or sex—or anything I’ve told you about Hua Cheng…”

“I promise, my lips are sealed.” Shi Qingxuan laughs and Xie Lian rolls his eyes because they both know how untrue that is. “Speaking of which. Other than this fine cake, what are you getting him? Did you figure it out?”

“I did,” Xie Lian says, and tells her his plan. “What do you think? Too much?”

“For anyone else, maybe. For you two? It’s perfect. I knew you’d put two and two together, Xie-xiong.”

It seems obvious now, and he wishes he could have thought of it earlier. It would be less of a surprise, but he could have talked to Hua Cheng before, tested the waters. Then he thinks about Hua Cheng saying, if I had my way, I would never leave your side. Those waters have already been tested enough.

“I have another favor to ask,” Xie Lian says to Shi Qingxuan, who has bought a second cake for herself and is digging in, offering him a bite.

“Anything,” she says.

-

Step four is waiting. Or putting all the other steps together. Or also ordering the food. So it’s three steps in one. Xie Lian loses track.

He places calls and orders food and then spends the time waiting for delivery putting up the decorations, which is harder than he thought with E-Ming weaving between his legs and rearing on his legs to bat at the ends of the streamers. After most things are set up and the food is ready and Yin Yu sends a warning text that Hua Cheng is on his way, Xie Lian is trapped in a cycle of pinning the streamers up, E-Ming pulling one or all of them down, and then pinning them up again.

That’s where Hua Cheng finds him, on a chair pinning a streamer to the ceiling, when he opens the door.

“Gege?” Hua Cheng takes in the lamps, the banner, the cake, the food. E-Ming hisses in his friendly way as Hua Cheng shuts the door and stares, eye finally landing on Xie Lian with his arms above his head, teetering on a chair. “What’s all this?”

Xie Lian is flustered. He drops his arms just as E-Ming tears another streamer down and blurts, “San Lang! I got fired today!”

Hua Cheng trips over his feet, mouth falling open. “What?”

“Wait, oops.” Xie Lian grimaces. “That's not what I meant to lead with. Happy birthday?”

“Wait, no,” Hua Cheng says, coming over to swing Xie Lian down, hands on his waist. “Run that by me again.”

“H-happy birthday!” Xie Lian tries again, rising up on his toes to distract Hua Cheng with kissing. Hua Cheng lets him, sinking into the kiss, hands trailing up and down Xie Lian’s back the way he likes. It’s steadying, and when he pulls back, he smiles. “Happy birthday,” he repeats, quietly. “Happy birthday, San Lang.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, that pretty black eye small and soft with happiness. “You didn’t have to do all this.”

“You’ve never had a proper birthday before.” Xie Lian dances Hua Cheng backward, hands guiding his hips until they’re at the table, and he pushes Hua Cheng down onto a seat. “And I really can’t let that stand.”

“And apparently you had the time,” Hua Cheng says dryly. “Care to explain that?”

Xie Lian makes Hua Cheng eat first, picking from the assortment of dishes Xie Lian ordered, all Hua Cheng’s favorites. Hua Cheng reaches for the sweetest things first, which makes Xie Lian smile.

“It’s not so much being fired as—I said I was quitting the same time they said they were letting me go,” Xie Lian starts with a laugh. “The project’s almost done anyway. They don’t need me to knock down any more walls.”

“I’m sorry,” Hua Cheng says, taking his hand. “Something new will come up at the agency. Something where you won’t have to worry about buildings collapsing on you.”

“Yeah, about that.” Xie Lian clears his throat. “I...have an interview.”

Shi Qingxuan had been difficult to convince on this front. She wanted to hand him a job right away. “I’ll call and get the papers right fucking now,” she’d said. And not that Xie Lian hadn’t been tempted, but he likes the idea of earning it just a little.

“Shi Qingxuan?” Hua Cheng asks, his voice a mite dry, but he looks bright, like a newly struck match.

“Yeah. For a position running the charities the hotels donate to,” Xie Lian says. “It’s full time and salaried. I’m...underqualified. It’s true,” he says when Hua Cheng frowns. “I’m a college dropout. My resume is a mess. My highest qualification for the position is that I have actually been homeless. But that and Shi Qingxuan’s recommendation might get me there. It’s practically nepotism.”

He laughs and feels himself blushing, but it’s the good kind, the pleased kind.

“I don’t fucking care,” Hua Cheng says, beaming. “You look happy.”

“I am.”

“Then I am too.” Hua Cheng shoves a red bean bun into Xie Lian’s mouth as he laughs, and he chokes a bit and then chews it down, feeling flighty with happiness. Then Hua Cheng swallows and frowns suddenly. “The commute, though…”

Xie Lian can see a small hopeful glint in Hua Cheng’s eye, but Hua Cheng doesn’t say anything, just leaves it at that. Because he’s Hua Cheng. Because he would never push if he thought Xie Lian wouldn’t want it.

“Actually, San Lang,” he says, filled to the brim with fondness. “There’s something else I should tell you. I’m also getting evicted.”

Hua Cheng drops the bun he’s holding. “What?”

“I mean, I’m terminating my contract legally, but my landlord is still mad about it, and he wants me out within two weeks,” Xie Lian says around a mouthful of food. “Don’t worry, it’s not—”

“You can stay here,” Hua Cheng says earnestly. “Of course you can stay here. And I can help you find a new place. If that’s what you want.”

It’s so clearly not what Hua Cheng wants. He looks like a man teetering on the edge of something. Xie Lian could wait to see if he falls off himself, or he could gently nudge them both toward their goal.

“I appreciate that,” he says, trying and failing to not be sly about it. “I think I want something better than my last place, something more from it than just a place to sleep.”

“If you get the job, we can find something you can afford,” Hua Cheng offers.

“I want some place close to work because I don’t like taking the bus if I can help it.” He furrows his brow like he’s thinking hard. “I want plenty of space. I hated my tiny room and my tiny bed. And I want a roommate who’s not dealing drugs.”

Hua Cheng coughs a laugh. “Low bar, but okay. I can look around if you want—”

Xie Lian can’t stop his smile though he does stop his rolling eyes. “San Lang. What if,” he says, taking a breath, gripping Hua Cheng’s hands. “What if I stayed here...and then never left?”

Hua Cheng doesn’t move, and for a moment, Xie Lian’s worst fear—overstepping—rears up. But then Hua Cheng lights up like candles on a cake.

“You mean?” he breathes.

“Would you like that?” Xie Lian asks.

Hua Cheng’s dark eye is glistening, and Xie Lian is clambering into his lap to get a closer look, to trace his fingers over the blinding grin on Hua Cheng’s face.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, his face split and brilliant with that smile. “I would love that.”

“Then happy birthday, my San Lang,” Xie Lian says, feeling caught between laughing and crying but in the best way. “I want to be with you. I want to never leave you.”

Hua Cheng buries his face in Xie Lian’s chest, and Xie Lian can feel the words more than hear them as Hua Cheng repeats them back. Xie Lian has given in to either the laughing or the crying, he’s not sure which, and he’s stroking his fingers through Hua Cheng’s hair, kneading Hua Cheng’s neck, touching everywhere he can. This is the best present he can offer, and Hua Cheng has taken it better than Xie Lian could have imagined.

Hua Cheng pulls back finally, the edges of his eye endearingly red. “I thought you’d never move in, gege,” he says and then laughs, tightening his arms around Xie Lian. "I should have asked, I was just so—"

“I know, I’m s—” Xie Lian stops the words before he gets his nose flicked and settles his forehead against Hua Cheng’s. “I should have asked sooner. I think I knew we both wanted it. I didn’t because—I thought you were too good to be true.”

“And now?”

Xie Lian is smiling stupid wide. “You still are, but I’m keeping you.”

-

They leave E-Ming to the private delight of tearing down the streamers and creep into the bedroom and onto the bed—their bed, Hua Cheng says, and Xie Lian throws himself on it with a whoop.

They’re like teenagers, eager hands removing clothing as they kiss whatever spare parts of each other they can reach. Xie Lian smothers a giggle in Hua Cheng’s knee as Hua Cheng lifts his shirt off. Hua Cheng dips his tongue into Xie Lian’s navel as he negotiates with Xie Lian’s belt. They’re not even entirely bare when they succumb to full, long kisses and hands in hair, trading breath. Xie Lian can’t seem to stop laughing; just the sight of Hua Cheng’s smile sets him off.

It’s when they’ve started their rhythmic movements against each other, the ones that Xie Lian is pleasantly shocked to find he does naturally, that Xie Lian pulls back. He’s riding high, sparks in his palms as he slides them over Hua Cheng’s chest.

“San Lang,” he says, and apparently he’s not over blushing yet. He thought that he’d become shameless with too much of this and never be caught pink again, but it climbs up his face, and Hua Cheng smiles. “San Lang, ah. Will you—please?”

“Will I what, babe?” Hua Cheng asks, curving down to taste Xie Lian’s blush. “Say it.”

Desire opens in him like a greedy mouth.

“Fuck me,” he says. “Fuck me. Fuck me, fuck me. Fuck. Me.”

Xie Lian would keep saying it, but Hua Cheng is kissing him, and he’s got the softness of the pillows at his back and Hua Cheng’s hard body crushing him into the mattress. He clings to the kiss, only rears back when he can’t seem to breathe, and then he laughs.

“Please?” he whispers, a finger mapping the curve of Hua Cheng’s cheekbone just as Hua Cheng frames Xie Lian’s mouth with his thumbs. “Please.”

Hua Cheng is nodding against his hand. “Please,” he agrees and kisses him again.

“Please,” Xie Lian echoes, licking the salt on Hua Cheng’s shoulder.

“Please.” Hua Cheng sounds on the verge of laughter, mouth on Xie Lian’s pulse.

“Please!” Xie Lian yelps when Hua Cheng bites.

They trade pleases and kisses as they kick off the rest of their clothes, and Hua Cheng is gentle and soft and overcome, parting Xie Lian’s legs to kneel between them. His hands knead the muscles of Xie Lian’s thighs, and Xie Lian remembers how much he loves those hands. He loves Hua Cheng, and says so, cutting off a please to do it.

“Hmm,” Hua Cheng says as he pours lube into his palm, coats his fingers. Xie Lian steals some and strokes himself until he’s hard, but it’s somehow still not too urgent, not too demanding. He closes his eyes and sighs, and when he opens them, he takes in Hua Cheng’s expression as he watches. Xie Lian feels...sexy. Powerful. So at ease.

He never thought he’d be here.

Hua Cheng opens him slowly, and they kiss slowly. It’s all deep and slow, fingers and kisses, none of it in any rush. Xie Lian is heady with it, his breaths leaving in hot gusts. There’s an interval of helpless laughter when they both struggle to get a grip on the bottle of lube with their slick hands. Then the laughter turns into quiet murmuring as Hua Cheng presses in, and Xie Lian’s grip on Hua Cheng’s shoulders turns sharp. Then more laughter when Xie Lian decides to gasp, “So that answers that question.”

“What question?” Hua Cheng sounds like he’s got all his teeth clenched tightly.

“About which is bigger,” Xie Lian tries, but he’s already giggling, “your cock or your cock—”

“Oh my god.”

It’s good that they’re laughing, breathless with mirth for now instead of just breathless, because it gives Xie Lian some time to adjust. It helps him relax even as his body tries to tense again. He’s so amazed he’s not losing his mind right now, but then Hua Cheng is saying, “I’m throwing that dildo out when we’re done,” and they’re both lost to laughter again. And he couldn’t overthink this even if he wanted to.

“Is it okay?” Hua Cheng asks. He’s holding himself very still, but Xie Lian can feel even his smallest shifts. And instead of being painful, like Xie Lian thought it might be, it’s—good. It’s good and he wants more but he isn’t sure how to get it.

“It’s,” Xie Lian says, and then he’s moving before he can think, flipping them over so Hua Cheng’s back smacks the sheets. Hua Cheng stares, then turns red, and they both share a moan as Xie Lian sinks down.

“C-careful,” Hua Cheng manages in a voice that’s like sand on hot metal.

“Ahh.” Xie Lian flipped them because he’s done it like this before, but he’s impossibly full, even as he sinks down further. It’s more than he thinks he can handle, and he panics for a heartbeat. But Hua Cheng’s hands grip his hips, the shape and pressure of them grounding him. It steadies him enough that he can feel the pleasure beyond the fullness, and his hunger for it has him lifting up and falling back down again. And again. And again.

“Fuck,” Hua Cheng breathes.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian pants. He can’t quite keep his eyes open, can’t quite see clearly. “It’s—I’m so—” It’s too much. It’s not enough. He is torn between the two. He is torn himself.

Hua Cheng’s fingers grip him tightly enough that he feels the ache, the possibility of bruises, and Xie Lian gasps. Always mindful, Hua Cheng loosens his grasp, smoothing over where his hand leaves a quickly blooming print. Xie Lian misses the pressure instantly.

“Harder,” he insists, catching Hua Cheng’s wrists. “You can hold me harder.”

So Hua Cheng does, and it’s enough that Xie Lian begins moving in earnest, rolling down. He blinks and pants and meets Hua Cheng’s smoldering gaze, and he grins.

“Look at you, sweetheart,” says Hua Cheng, with wonder and the flash of a smile. The word makes Xie Lian throb, heart and cock both. “Look at you—go on, do what feels good.”’

Xie Lian can’t keep the sounds he makes inside him. He knows what he likes, knows that his body wants to speed up, run full-tilt at the approaching pleasure. But he knows that if he goes slow, it will be better. There’s a part of him detached enough to recognize that it’s almost a miracle, being so aware of what he wants and how to get it, so content and hungry and happy. Utterly naked. Getting fucked by his boyfriend.

He laughs, but it turns into a sob because he’s trying to control the rolling of his hips and he can’t. His legs are shaking, and so are the hands on Hua Cheng’s wrists. His movements are growing jerky just as a bead of sweat trails down his forehead. He’s going to come soon. He doesn’t want to yet.

“San Lang, I need—” His hips stutter, and he falls forward, hands on either side of Hua Cheng catching him. A few inches more and he could kiss Hua Cheng, and he wants to, but he’s shaking, elbows wobbling. “Not yet,” he says, a plea.

Hua Cheng’s hands leave his hips to bear him down onto the bed, and then Xie Lian can’t look anywhere but at Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng, who rakes a hand through his dark hair, mouth agape with his breathing, his iris completely black.

“Still okay?” Hua Cheng asks, fingers running down Xie Lian’s arms. “Still good?”

Xie Lian nods until the whole world shakes. “Keep going, San Lang—”

Hua Cheng moves then, a purposeful press forward. Xie Lian’s skin feels like it’s burning, feels stretched tight like skin on a drum. Hua Cheng’s thrusts are measured, even as his eye rolls closed, as he fucks Xie Lian slowly. It has Xie Lian aching, trying to keep his lips locked closed, hoarding his gasps, suddenly aware that he has no control over his expressions, his noises, his body. He must look so wrecked.

Overwhelmed, he hides his face in the crook of Hua Cheng’s shoulder and tries to keep quiet as he falls apart. It’s his turn to grip Hua Cheng hard enough to bruise, clenching his legs around Hua Cheng’s middle.

“I—” He had meant to say how much he likes this, in case it wasn’t clear, but he has lost the ability. “Oh—oh oh oh—oh—”

Hua Cheng is stroking his hair, talking him through it, his voice low and slightly broken. “It’s okay, gege. It’s okay, that’s it—” But he sounds like he’s the one that needs comforting. Xie Lian comes up for air to offer it just as Hua Cheng drags forward at the right angle.

“OH—yes—” comes out of Xie Lian involuntarily, and Hua Cheng takes the hint, hunting for that again until Xie Lian is moving with him, taking in the pleasure, overwhelmed. Taking pleasure in being overwhelmed.

Hua Cheng keeps muttering, “That’s it, that’s it,” clearly not even hearing himself, smearing his lips everywhere they can reach, and Xie Lian is smiling at their sloppiness. The pleasure builds inside him, but it’s not sharp enough yet. He bites the inside of his mouth and moans.

“More.” Xie Lian is begging and he doesn’t care. “More, please, more.”

Hua Cheng’s breaths sound less human, more desperate for oxygen. And then suddenly, Xie Lian is folded in half, thighs against his chest, knees hooked over Hua Cheng’s shoulders. Hua Cheng’s eye is dark and wide. Xie Lian can see his own feet hanging in the air, jostling with each thrust—and then the thrusts are impossibly deeper, impossibly better, just impossible, all of it.

“I’m going to come,” Xie Lian gasps, shocked. He feels like his chest is breaking open with sunlight. He can’t even look at Hua Cheng properly with all the emotion swelling in him. He wants to hold on tight to this but the rest of him is letting go. “San Lang, I’m going to come—”

Hua Cheng kisses him, and he comes with a sigh. It’s sudden and wrenching, like being dropped from a great height, and he lets himself fall. The tension in his body melts away until he’s boneless, still being kissed, still being fucked, but he’s rising back up through the haze, shuddering. His face is slack and stupid and probably completely flushed and blotchy, but he’s smiling.

“Hah,” he mutters, so pleased. “San Lang.”

“Holy shit,” Hua Cheng whispers, like he just witnessed a miracle, and then he goes completely still, eye shut tight as he comes. Xie Lian kisses Hua Cheng’s gasping mouth, taking on Hua Cheng’s weight as he collapses forward, spent.

Xie Lian can feel himself humming, almost unconsciously, like the way he strokes Hua Cheng’s hair. He’s still folded in half, the straining of his muscles starting to get demanding just as Hua Cheng lifts himself to ease down his legs, massaging as he does.

They’re silent, breaths slowly calming. E-Ming is scratching at the other side of the door but the yowling is distant. Xie Lian marvels for a moment that he’s covered in sweat and cum, sticky and slick, but he’s so comfortable. Like this is normal, like they were meant to do it.

Xie Lian doesn’t feel—different. Like he thought he would. All this time he thought sex was a finish line to cross, that getting to it would change him. If he has changed, it’s been slow enough that he doesn’t see it. He’s so utterly content with who he is and where he is. This wasn’t a finish line. It was a beginning.

“San Lang,” he whispers, because the buildup of emotion is too much. He can’t not say it. “you know, I used to see other people in relationships, kissing and touching. I didn’t even miss it. I didn’t long for it. I didn’t care. I was so sure that wasn’t something I could have. But being with you—it’s like longing and not longing at the same time. I already have you, but I still want you. So much. Always.”

Hua Cheng raises his head. His hair is a riot, sweaty at the roots. He has the aftermath of a blush splotched on his cheeks. He looks so well-fucked, bless him, his smile languid and easy. So very easy.

“You already have me, gege,” he agrees. “You can have me forever, if you want.”

-

“Can we use your bath?” Xie Lian asks at some point.

“I don’t know,” Hua Cheng says, raising a sly eyebrow. “Can we use our bath?”

He keeps doing that, making Xie Lian call things theirs. It makes Xie Lian roll his eyes, but he goes along with it, secretly giddy as he turns the taps on their bath, tests the temperature of their water, pulls out the biggest, fluffiest of their towels.

“Stupid,” he whispers to himself, grinning like a maniac.

Hua Cheng opens the door to let a frantically lonely E-Ming into the room, and then he and Xie Lian sink into the tub together, the whole thing crowded with bubbles because Xie Lian put in too much soap.

They’re slotted together, cleaning almost as an afterthought, kissing and tasting suds and the remnants of sweat. E-Ming leaps onto the edge of the bath, sniffing the bubbles, and Hua Cheng goads him until he almost falls in and scrambles away with a howl.

Xie Lian is so happy, and he says so. Hua Cheng kisses him sweetly.

“I’ve waited so long to see you this happy,” he says. “Welcome home.”

Hua Cheng keeps saying that to Xie Lian, his birthday all but forgotten. Xie Lian keeps reminding him, prodding him, and Hua Cheng keeps saying it. Like this day will be special to him for a different reason from now on.

“Welcome home,” as they towel each other dry, soft and reverent until it devolves into tickling.

“Welcome home,” as they pad into the kitchen, where the floor is littered with torn streamers, to eat the uncut cake with forks, E-Ming burrowing into Xie Lian as he perches on the counter.

“Welcome home,” whispered into his hair as they press close, close like they’ll never be anything but this close again, wrapping their arms around each other, warm and sated and blissfully content.

“Welcome home.”