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you'll know, you'll fall

Chapter Text

Everything is easy with Hua Cheng.

It's easy for Xie Lian to spend every waking minute thinking about him, about his loose, graceful movements as they walk together, his fond voice calling him gege. It’s easy to get distracted thinking about him, to lose handfuls of minutes at work replaying their conversations until his manager snaps at him, and it's even easier to not care.

It's so easy to talk to Hua Cheng. Xie Lian isn't used to having someone who wants to hear about his shitty temp job and asks him random questions as they lounge on the couch (what was your favorite toy growing up? Where do you most want to visit? Do you believe in ghosts?). Hua Cheng likes the answers too, especially when they're silly. (A wooden sword. New Zealand. Why, would Hua Cheng haunt him?) Laughter comes easily too.

It’s so, so easy to kiss Hua Cheng. Especially because he makes himself so available for kissing, keeping close to Xie Lian when he can, curving his neck down a bit to be within kissing distance, smiling so affectionately that not kissing him is unconscionable.

It's not so easy, Xie Lian is realizing as he falls down on the bed, to push Hua Cheng away.

He tells himself it's a knee-jerk reaction. He's not often on his back, bracketed in, and kissed soundly, so it makes sense that a part of him would be uncomfortable.

“Gege.” Hua Cheng’s voice is as gentle as his hands smoothing up and down his torso, dragging the fabric of his shirt with them. Xie Lian feels lightheaded as Hua Cheng hums against his lips, slots a leg between his knees.

This is not Xie Lian’s first time on this bed, in this apartment. But it is the first time in a while because Xie Lian’s last temp position has been running him ragged for the last month. He’s starting a different job next week, and they’re celebrating with dinner at Hua Cheng’s place. Dinner turned into kissing as they dried the dishes. Kissing led them to stumble down the hallway into the bedroom. Now Xie Lian is here, under the steady, comforting weight of his boyfriend. He wants to keep going. He also wants to stop. He doesn’t know what he wants.

It’s happening. It could happen so easily, like how easy everything else is, if Xie Lian just relaxed and let it happen. The knots in his stomach would uncurl and Hua Cheng would make it so good—it's already so good, as Hua Cheng licks under his jaw. He gasps and shudders and brings his hands up to Hua Cheng’s chest and concentrates at least half of himself on not pushing Hua Cheng away.

But he doesn't have to concentrate for long because there's a still period of breathing and then Hua Cheng is pulling back.

“Gege? Are you okay?” He looks down at Xie Lian sprawled under him. His visible eye is dark with want.

Xie Lian smiles and shivers again. “I'm fine, San Lang.” It is fine. It can be fine.

“Hmm. You sure?”

“Mn.” Xie Lian wants this. He knows he wants this. He's thought about it a lot, and he thought he was ready, and maybe if it just happens now, it would be easier later—

But—oh, no, Hua Cheng is shifting back, sitting on his heels, smiling fondly. Xie Lian already misses the warmth of his body so close over his own.

“Sorry,” he says, before realizing it's almost an admission. “I want to, I really do—”

“Don't be sorry,” Hua Cheng is already saying, reaching out for his hand. Xie Lian takes it and grips its familiar shape.

“We talked about it,” Xie Lian says, hearing the frustration in his voice. “I want to go to the next step.”

“It's okay if you don't—”

“I do! God, I want it so much. I don't want you thinking that I don't. I—I think about it all the time, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng looks pleased, the tops of his cheekbones flushing to match his red shirt, and his thumb strokes the back of Xie Lian's hand.

“What do you think about, gege?” His voice is pitched low, soft, but it's not quite a seduction. He's working to put Xie Lian at ease, using the voice he uses when he hugs Xie Lian to his chest after a bad day.

“I—” Xie Lian thinks. His mind is full of the ghosts of feelings rather than images. He's had difficulty trying to connent the hot, blooming feelings he has when Hua Cheng kisses him with the image he constructs of him and Hua Cheng fucking. He knows it will be good, hopes it will be even better, but he flounders for something concrete to offer his boyfriend.

“We talked about it,” he repeats, voice small.

Because love comes easy for him. It’s sex that’s hard.

Large warm hands cup his face gently, tilting him up slightly as if asking for Xie Lian’s gaze.

“You don't want this right now,” Hua Cheng says, and it sounds so—acceptable coming from Hua Cheng’s mouth.

Xie Lian says, “I don’t.” Then: “I'm sor—” before he remembers that Hua Cheng always flicks his nose when he apologizes when no apology is necessary. “Ah! San Lang.”

Hua Cheng grins, then presses a soft kiss where he just flicked. “We don’t have to do this tonight or next week or next month. I’m not going anywhere, gege. But I never want to do anything you don't want,” he says seriously.

Xie Lian trips a bit over the double negative and then he smiles. “I know.”

Hua Cheng scoots closer. “Now gege has to tell me what he does want.”

“I want—” Xie Lian thinks about what's safe enough but not too safe. “Kiss me more?”

Hua Cheng is already leaning over to take his mouth, and after a moment it turns from gentle to hot and tangled. This—this Xie Lian can handle. He feels on fire but not burning out of control. He clambers into Hua Cheng’s lap, moaning into the kiss.

“San Lang—ah—”

Hua Cheng’s arms come around him, hands curling into the bottom of his shirt. He holds Xie Lian like that, fingers splayed on hips, as they kiss and kiss and kiss and—

Xie Lian is humming. He loves this so much. Anything else they do might be better or worse than this, but he has this, Hua Cheng’s quick mouth and his hot breath and his panting, the hectic rise and fall of his chest and—

Xie Lian pulls back, realizing that he's been pressing closer to Hua Cheng as they've kissed, even hitching his hips a little. Hua Cheng is breathing like a winded racehorse, eye shut.

Oh.

“It's okay,” Hua Cheng breathes, brows pinching together. “I just. Um. Need a minute.”

Now that he's more focused, Xie Lian can feel Hua Cheng’s cock pressing insistently against his ass. Though he's not exactly soft himself—except that's not the point.

“I’m sorry!” he says, crawling off his boyfriend's lap. “I shouldn’t have—” said no you can't fuck me and then humped you while we made out? Yeah.

Hua Cheng’s eye has opened, and he blinks several times. “It’s not your fault, I should have said something—”

“But really I should have—”

Hua Cheng laughs. Xie Lian feels lighter just hearing it. “Let’s agree to not apologize for things that aren’t our fault.”

“Okay.” Xie Lian huffs a laugh, but he still feels bad. At moments like this, he feels like a bad boyfriend, like he's withholding something vital from Hua Cheng, even though Hua Cheng has made it clear that they will go at Xie Lian’s pace. But when has Hua Cheng denied him anything?

“Except…” Xie Lian takes a breath and leans forward to cup Hua Cheng’s erection in his black jeans. Hua Cheng makes a noise like he's been scalded. “Except this is my fault, isn't it?”

Hua Cheng’s eye has rolled closed again, his breathing picking up. “Gege,” he says, and it comes out a whine.

“Is it bad?” Xie Lian asks, his heart pounding like he's run a mile in the last thirty seconds. His entire awareness is focused on that hand, on the heat he can feel through the rough fabric, the harness more firm than Xie Lian had thought it'd be. He feels the urge to squeeze, maybe rub a little, but he doesn't want to push himself too far, doesn't want to find himself in another place where he has to say no, and he can't be cruel to Hua Cheng—especially when he's like this: panting and needy and lurching a little under his hand.

“It's—ah—I really want—”

Xie Lian knows what Hua Cheng wants, and just because Xie Lian isn't ready, it doesn't mean Hua Cheng can't feel good, like he deserves.

He takes away his hand, and Hua Cheng heaves a huge breath.

“Do you want—um—” Xie Lian glances at the bulge in Hua Cheng’s jeans. “To take care of it?” His face feels like he's stuck it in a furnace.

Hua Cheng is staring at him, mouth slightly open, and he squirms a bit. “Yeah. I'd like that.”

Xie Lian reminds himself to breathe as he asks, “Can I watch?”

That dark eye is drifting closed again, mouth agape, and Hua Cheng whispers, “Fuck. Fuck. Yeah.”

They end up scooting to the head of the bed so Hua Cheng can lean back against the headboard, Xie Lian next to him with his legs tucked under him. Hua Cheng keeps sending him small, questioning glances as he unbuttons his shirt, revealing the jade white of his chest and stomach, but he doesn't ask the question, just reaches for the button of his jeans with shaking fingers. He draws himself out with a suppressed groan, and Xie Lian feels a tingling flush cover him all over.

Hua Cheng’s cock is beautifully red and full, and big—not a surprise—and leaking—which is a surprise. Xie Lian finds himself shifting closer as Hua Cheng wraps a pale hand around his cock and lets out a full-bodied groan this time.

Xie Lian has been hard before, but never like Hua Cheng is now. This doesn't look like it will go away with some concentrated meditation and a cold shower. Hua Cheng’s fingers are curled around his cock loosely, and still he's biting his lip until it's red, air rushing out of him in slow gusts.

“Does it hurt?” As soon as he asks it, the question feels childish. But he's watching, hypnotized by Hua Cheng’s movements as he strokes up, pauses to thumb the head, and drags back down. He's so engrossed that he doesn't realize that he's shuffled even closer until his shoulder is pressed against Hua Cheng’s.

“It’s—not exactly comfortable,” Hua Cheng breathes, letting out half a laugh that cuts off when he starts stroking a little faster.

Then why do it? Xie Lian almost asks, but he knows why. He can tell, watching the subtle gripping and loosening of Hua Cheng’s fingers, the slow-fast-slow of his stroking, that Hua Cheng knows himself, knows what he likes and how to make it good. Xie Lian tries to imagine himself doing this and understanding this much about himself, but he can't picture it, and he's convinced it wouldn't be as simple as this: Hua Cheng touches, and touches, and touches again, clearly drawing closer to some critical point like it's inevitable.

Xie Lian is staring, he realizes, but he can't look away. He’s transfixed by the sleek purpling tip of Hua Cheng’s cock and the white liquid beading there. The strokes have taken up a wet sound that he thinks should disgust him, but it's not disgusting at all, combined with the music of Hua Cheng’s quiet little moans.

He looks up, and sees that Hua Cheng is watching him, his eye wide and intent. Watching Xie Lian watch him.

“Gege, I—” he gasps, and Xie Lian is reaching out, wrapping his arms around Hua Cheng’s shoulders. Xie Lian thought he would just be a spectator, a voyeur watching something he shouldn't see—but it's clear as Hua Cheng’s gaze goes heavy and his mouth drops open, still staring at Xie Lian, that he's very much a part of this. This is because of him, and the realization opens something in him.

He's leaning forward almost like it's out of his control, like they're magnets attracting, to press a kiss to Hua Cheng’s cheekbone, above his eyebrow, the edge of his jaw. He kisses and kisses until he's at Hua Cheng’s ear, which he gives an experimental nibble.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng moans.

“Are you close?” He reaches out to hold Hua Cheng’s face, his breaths ratcheting up until they are breathing in tandem.

“Yeah—I—” Hua Cheng surges forward, and they're kissing like they were before, teeth and tongues and hot breath and groans, all over the quickening of Hua Cheng’s hand. “Mm—fuck.”

Hua Cheng jumps like he's been electrocuted and comes, letting out a broken sound into Xie Lian’s mouth. Xie Lian shudders at the vibration of it, pulling back to watch Hua Cheng clamp his eye shut. He trusts the weight of his head to Xie Lian’s hands, and it would be tipped back of Xie Lian didn't keep it upright, their foreheads pressed together.

Hua Cheng looks good like this, Xie Lian decides—a faint pink tinging his cheeks, face slack as he comes down, eye blinking open blearily. And when he can focus his vision again, he breaks out into a smile.

He's—oh. Xie Lian is so in love.

“Hmm.” Hua Cheng hums as Xie Lian caresses his cheeks with a thumb. He blinks hard and his post-orgasm smile turns a little sheepish. “Was that okay?”

Xie Lian chuckles. “Shouldn't I be asking you that?”

“Oh, I had a great time, gege, don’t worry.”

Xie Lian can't help but steal another kiss. “Me too.”

“Really?”

“Mn.” Xie Lian takes the rest of Hua Cheng in—the sheen of sweat around the edges of his hair, his slumped chest, his cock softening on his stomach and the cum there in streaks. What does it feel like, he wonders? Before he can think better of it, he’s dipping a finger down to trace through the cum. It's cooling and more viscous than he thought—but the sound Hua Cheng chokes out suddenly reminds him that he's hard in his pants and has been for a while now.

He kind of wants to ignore it, so he does, and blessedly so does Hua Cheng, silently understanding that this is as far as Xie Lian can go tonight, even though it's farther than he thought he would ever go.

“You're going to be the death of me, gege.”

Xie Lian smiles and presses his face to Hua Cheng’s neck. “You're always saying that.”

-

Every night Xie Lian comes over, Hua Cheng clings to him before he goes.

“I don't want you to go,” he says, and every time it sounds like a confession.

“I don't want to go either,” Xie Lian tells him, truthfully. But what’s the other option, to bum out on Hua Cheng’s couch? That wouldn't be fair to Hua Cheng.

He kisses Xie Lian, and they linger as long as they can.

“Let me know when you get there safe,” Hua Cheng always says.

Chapter Text

They go slow.

They establish a line, sometimes verbally and sometimes not, of what’s acceptable. It usually involves what they’ve done before. They talk about sex more than they do sexy things. Xie Lian enjoys it, and he feels safe because he’s the one who says go forward or not, and that’s not something he thought he would ever have.

They're in Hua Cheng’s apartment—they're always in Hua Cheng’s apartment because Xie Lian’s apartment is cramped and decrepit, and he shares it with someone he's pretty sure is a drug dealer. Xie Lian came over after he cleaned up from work, so he’s actually a little exhausted, and Hua Cheng can tell.

Eventually, Xie Lian confesses that the reason he's been rubbing his shoulder is because he might have accidentally gotten in the way of a collapsing wall at work. It’s not a big deal since he was the one knocking the wall down, but it’s sore all the same. Hua Cheng is worried, then exasperated, and then he offers to massage away some of the soreness, pushing Xie Lian down on Hua Cheng’s massive couch and settling behind him.

“Hnnnn,” Xie Lian groans, eyes rolled back. After a few minutes of this, he feels like a stick of butter in the middle of summer. “Harder, San Lang—right there!”

“Are you doing this on purpose?” Hua Cheng is laughing, and Xie Lian can feel the deep rumble of it traveling through Hua Cheng’s hands on his back.

“Doing what?” Xie Lian lets out another moan as Hua Cheng’s thumbs work out another knot.

“Sounding...sexy.”

“Huh?”

“Babe. You're moaning like a porn star.”

Xie Lian bursts out laughing. “San Lang. Oh my god, really?”

“‘Harder, San Lang, ahhh, right there,’” Hua Cheng mimics, voice comically high.

Xie Lian tries to twist around to smack him, but Hua Cheng pins his arms to his sides, and they tussle like that until Xie Lian’s stomach aches with laughter.

“How,” Xie Lian gasps as the giggles subside, “am I supposed to know what a porn star sounds like?”

“You've never watched porn?” Hua Cheng asks, and this time he lets Xie Lian shift so they can see each other’s faces. Xie Lian wants to know whether Hua Cheng is disappointed or weirded out, but he just looks surprised.

“Um. No?” Xie Lian doesn’t have a computer. And his phone is one of those pay per minute ones you get for your grandparents. He feels the need to defend himself. “But I’m not, like, clueless. I know how it works. Practically.”

Hua Cheng raises an eyebrow quizzically.

“I worked at a strip club once,” Xie Lian explains, and Hua Cheng chokes on his own spit. “As a janitor! San Lang. You didn’t think—”

“Gege would be an amazing stripper,” Hua Cheng says, voice serious, but he has to be making fun of Xie Lian. His eye looks a little too bright and his cheeks are a little too pink. Xie Lian decides to fuck with him.

“Mm. I thought about it. The tips from private dances are unreal! But I’m not good at dancing, so.”

Hua Cheng sputters, and he's definitely blushing now. Xie Lian made him blush, and something warms inside him at the thought, like Hua Cheng had put his hands inside him and coaxed the warmth out the way he did with his massage.

“Anyway,” he says, feeling a blush growing on his neck, “I saw some stuff—a lot of stuff, actually—-in the alley when I took the trash out.”

Hua Cheng’s expression flickers and goes from amused to slightly pained, and Xie Lian is really blushing now, but it's not the nice kind.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng starts, probably gearing up to explain that seeing people fuck in an alley doesn't count as watching porn for pleasure, but Xie Lian doesn't let him finish.

“I know,” he says, trying to smile, that familiar shame-tinged feeling creeping into his stomach like rising swamp water. “I really have no experience.”

The thing is, Xie Lian has no concept of being comfortable with sex. In his mind, it's not something you're comfortable with at all, it's just something you might do. He doesn't like this way of thinking, and he's not sure where it's coming from—except maybe his complete and utter inexperience. Sex is something completely physical and vulnerable, and apparently people are out there having it with their boyfriends and girlfriends, and with strangers even, but he's never been one of them. When he was younger, sex never even entered his sphere of thinking—and all the adults around him praised him for being so focused and mature while his friends went to parties and made out with each other on the bus—and then when he finally did think about it, there was no one around who wanted him. Except for one person, and Xie Lian would rather have lived celibate his entire life than be with that person.

Point is, he doesn't know where the next step is because he has never, ever taken this path before. Not with someone else. Not even with himself. He doesn't really know where to go next, and it's not fair, especially to Hua Cheng.

That shame is building up more than he thought it would, and he moves to shift away because Hua Cheng is too close, and of course he'll see—but Hua Cheng’s arms encircle him again, gently this time, and pull him back against his chest. Just holding. Neither of them say anything, and Xie Lian lets out a shuddering breath, letting himself go limp against Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng’s hands slowly, eventually start following the familiar patterns of the massage he gave earlier, but the motions are less purposeful this time. They touch, smoothing, warming. There's no pressing, no kneading. It's free, simple, easy comfort. Neck to shoulder blades to spine. Forearms to elbows to shoulders. Collarbone to chest to stomach.

Xie Lian’s breathing begins to slow and deepen, his eyes falling closed. That swamp water feeling is already gone, already soothed, either by the hug or Hua Cheng’s hands or the feel of Hua Cheng’s heart beating against his back. Because of course, Hua Cheng would never make him feel ashamed and would never want him to feel that way. He only wants Xie Lian to feel good, and feel this, so he does. It's like Hua Cheng is tracing patterns of light across him, and he's illuminated, neck to rib cage, tingling with it. He lets out a soft pleased sound when Hua Cheng’s hands travel as low as his hips and then skirt down his thighs to his knees and back up again.

Xie Lian is boneless in Hua Cheng’s arms, warmth fluttering all over him and gathering into an interesting knot low in his belly.

“You know, gege,” Hua Cheng murmurs. “I've never been with anyone either.”

Xie Lian knows it's true. Hua Cheng has never lied to him. But he struggles to understand why. Hua Cheng is a wildly successful artist, his sculptures dotting the city. He's beautiful and alluring and honestly just a catch—except that Xie Lian hasn't seen Hua Cheng interact with a single person as if he liked them, which is part of the reason it took Xie Lian so long to realize that Hua Cheng liked him.

“I know,” he says, still slowly filling up with warmth from the movements of Hua Cheng’s hands. “But you've at least…you know.” Hua Cheng makes a small sound of acknowledgement, and he's sure they're both remembering what happened a few nights ago. “I've never even come.”

Since they're probably not counting the given of wet dreams. Xie Lian never really even cared about it, but that was before he met Hua Cheng.

“Do you want to?”

“Of course I do, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng is quiet for a moment, even though his hands don't stop their ministrations.

“San Lang?”

“You know you don't have to change, right?” Hua Cheng’s voice was as gentle as the fingers rubbing circles into his hips. “You don't—we don't have to do anything, gege. I mean that. All I care about is being with you.”

“I don't want—I want to be with you too, but I also want to be with you, and I think we both deserve that.” Xie Lian’s body is suddenly painfully sensitive. He feels like his limbs are loosely connected by thin threads, like any second Hua Cheng will pluck one and it will snap. “And I want—when we do things—I want it to be good. And I don't think I can just jump right in, even if I want to.”

“Go slow,” Hua Cheng says in agreement.

“If that's okay. I want to try.”

Hua Cheng’s hand lifts from his hip to cup his jaw, guiding his head back until they can kiss, slow and deep. Xie Lian gets the feeling that it was meant to be a short kiss, but he refuses to pull back, asserting himself in the kiss until their tongues are tangled and Xie Lian is shifting slightly, asking for more touch. He lifts his hips and gets the weight of Hua Cheng’s hands there again. He arches his back and they come to play over his chest. He parts his thighs to get the hands there and—oh.

His eyes blink open. He suddenly has context for the tangled ball of heat low in his stomach—he's aroused, and urgently.

Hua Cheng must know it, must have seen it from over Xie Lian's shoulder all this time.

“How about right now?” Hua Cheng whispers.

Xie Lian shivers even as he asks, “What?”

“Do you want to try right now?”

He does. He really does. He doesn't want to ignore his arousal this time. He wants to take the path and see where it leads.

“If you want to.”

Hua Cheng buries his face in Xie Lian's hair, his breath like a warm wind. “I want,” he says. “I want very much to make you come.”

He says it just as he slips his fingers under the hem of Xie Lian's shirt, and the feel of skin on his skin makes him shiver.

“Yes,” he breathes.

He doesn't know what he expects—Hua Cheng to open his pants and start jerking him off immediately, maybe—but instead Hua Cheng resumes the wandering of his hands. It seems more charged now, especially when he dips his fingers under Xie Lian’s shirt at the same time that he sucks a kiss into Xie Lian’s neck. It's like this, undemanding and exploring and teasing, until Xie Lian is breathless and chafing under the cotton of his shirt.

Hua Cheng eases them up until they're sitting, hands on Xie Lian’s hip bones, and he asks, “Can I?”

Xie Lian garbles his assent and lifts his arms, flinching at the soreness of his shoulder, and then his shirt is tossed aside and he's bare to the waist. The air suddenly plays strangely on his skin, cool enough to raise bumps but not enough to drive away the heat inside him. He feels slightly exposed until Hua Cheng eases from behind him and lays him down on the couch cushions, then slides on top.

“Is this okay?” he asks and Xie Lian is already saying, “Yes,” but he doesn't mind repeating himself. He doesn't mind Hua Cheng asking over and over. He feels both like he's a live wire and like he's safer than he's ever been.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng whispers, brushing a kiss over his cheek. “You're so pretty, you know that?”

Xie Lian does know that—everyone has always told him this, and Hua Cheng has even said this before, but there's new meaning behind the words, new potential. He gives a small moan as Hua Cheng bends to press open-mouth kisses up his neck, which he has discovered is very sensitive. Especially right—

“Ah! San Lang.” Xie Lian can't help the moan as Hua Cheng sucks—and sucks and sucks—right below his ear.

This is really a whole-body affair, isn't it? It hadn't seemed like it would be. He’d thought this attention would be concentrated on his cock, but even without a single touch there, he's harder than he's ever been. He can feel tiny places of pleasure opening up on him, on the pads of his toes, the backs of his knees, the underside of his jaw. Nowhere he's ever considered erotic before. Places either touched by Hua Cheng or places where he wants Hua Cheng to touch.

And Hua Cheng seems determined to touch everywhere, hands smoothing up and down and across, from skin to fabric to skin, all while lavishing his tongue on places that have never known a mouth—he's moved south to Xie Lian’s collarbone, where his kisses turn rougher and more open and—

Xie Lian cries out as Hua Cheng’s teeth latch briefly around the bone. The spark of sensation teetering between pleasure and pain ripples through him, and he squirms.

Hua Cheng pulls back. “Sorry, babe, was that—”

“So good!” he moans. “Are you sure you’ve never done this before?”

Hua Cheng grins, the cut of his teeth blinding. “I’m just doing what I think might feel good.”

Xie Lian’s breathing is uneven. “Luckily for you, I don’t think I’m very picky.”

Hua Cheng laughs. “That’s okay. But if you don’t like anything I do, just tell—”

“Yes, yes, I'll tell you, just please do it again.”

The grin spreads, and Xie Lian wants to smack him but he also wants his teeth again, and he gets them, all along his chest, on his nipple once.

Eventually, blessedly, Hua Cheng’s nomad hands come to rest on the top of Xie Lian’s jeans. And Xie Lian is already saying, “Yes, yes, yes,”to Hua Cheng’s unuttered question, then batting Hua Cheng’s hands away to undo the button and the zipper himself and—

There's a powerful sensation of being exposed and a little vulnerable, but it doesn't repel him. His head swims and he shivers, especially when he realizes that Hua Cheng has migrated down so his face hovers over Xie Lian’s belly button. He's gasping, he realizes, as he heaves himself up on his elbows to get a better view.

He has never seen his cock so hard, and almost purple too. Hua Cheng is looking at it like it's a rare and beautiful flower, and the thought startles a laugh out of Xie Lian.

Hua Cheng glances up, hands rubbing tender circles in the flesh of Xie Lian’s thighs.

“I'm okay,” Xie Lian says, forcing another laugh down. “I'm okay. I'm better than okay, San Lang, I—”

Hua Cheng licks a stripe from the top of Xie Lian’s hair to his belly button, and oh. Xie Lian can't seem to keep his eyes open, can't seem to focus his gaze as Hua Cheng starts sucking marks on his hips and the tops of his thighs, so close to his weeping cock that he wants to scream.

What had felt like directionless pleasure before is now pointedly leading somewhere, and he's not sure how he knows but he's close, he's on the cusp of something, and he's trying his hardest not to move because it seems like every tiny movement of his muscles, the rise and fall of his chest, draws him closer to the edge.

Hua Cheng is poised directly over his cock now, his visible eye dark, pupil blown. And then he licks his lips and lowers his head for some reason—and wait—all this time Xie Lian has been expecting Hua Cheng’s hand, his hand—

“Oh my—”

He's aware of one hot, long gust of breath against his cock, the smallest touch of lips and tongue, and then he's shattering apart like that vase of his mother's he knocked over when he was six.

He's in pieces. He's in pieces. He's crying out and clapping a hand over his mouth because he didn't know he could be so loud. He didn't know an orgasm would involve all of him, tremors shaking in his chest and his legs and knocking his knees together—and it's still shivering through him, what the fuck. Will it be like this every time?

He’s sucking in air like a drowning man as he lets it have its way, blinking up at the ceiling, and then a blurry face that asserts itself in his vision as his San Lang, eye bright and fixated on him.

Xie Lian lets out a last little moan, blinking at Hua Cheng, and decides that if it's going to be like this, anything like this, a fraction of this, then he can understand the appeal. And if Hua Cheng will be there looking at him the way he is right now—well. His desires are more goal-oriented now.

“Gege?” It's posed as a question but Hua Cheng is grinning like a maniac, and Xie Lian has to cover his face with his hands, otherwise he'll end up grinning too.

“Gege. Talk to me.”

“That was—” is all he can manage at the moment, other than a sigh, and Hua Cheng must be impatient because he hears shifting and then.

“What—” It feels like a wet paintbrush on his skin, the places where he came on himself. He uncovers his face long enough to get a glimpse of Hua Cheng’s red tongue lapping at him and then slaps his hands closed again. His voice sounds choked. “Are you—oh my g—”

Hua Cheng is still down there, but he sounds concerned. “Was it too much?”

“Yes. No! I can't believe—-oh my god. Oh my god.” He's starting to realize what exactly happened and— “That was so embarrassing.”

Hua Cheng is huffing laughter into his stomach, the feel of it calming after the ravaging of his orgasm.

“Gege, no,” Hua Cheng says placatingly, drawing the syllables out as he presses kisses to Xie Lian’s belly. “It was hot. It was really cute and really, really hot.”

“It was?” Xie Lian is not convinced. “You barely breathed on me and—” Xie Lian uncovers his face, feeling like he's been struck by lightning. “Wait. San Lang!”

“Gege!” Hua Cheng mimics his tone.

“I just came!” He’s grinning, and he’s stunned, but it happened, there's no doubt. And now there’s wetness growing at the corners of his eyes. “Uh. Oh no.”

The tears start dripping down his temples, and at the sight of them, Hua Cheng is surging forward to wrap him up, arms strong and warm. The side of Hua Cheng’s neck is comforting, and he buries his face in it, trying to get a hold on his breathing, but nothing about his body seems controllable right now. He’s still buzzing with the aftermath of coming, and there’s this overflowing inside him, but he can’t seem to grasp what it is.

Hua Cheng is stroking his hair, shifting to cover his body more comfortably. “It’s okay,” he whispers, and Xie Lian clutches him closer. “I’m here, gege. It’s okay.”

Hua Cheng has to know that—“I’m happy, San Lang,” he says into Hua Cheng’s neck, his voice unsteady. “I promise I am, I just...”

“Take your time,” Hua Cheng says because he’s that patient, and he’s turning to press a kiss to Xie Lian’s eyelid.

“I guess—I never thought I’d have this?” He sniffs, blinking away the last of the urgent tears. “And not only the sex stuff. The—everything. You.”

Hua Cheng pulls away so they can look at each other. Xie Lian traces the lines of his face with his eyes, starting to understand what this large feeling inside him is.

“I thought I’d always be alone,” Xie Lian whispers.

“Me too,” Hua Cheng whispers back. “But not anymore.”

Not anymore. And maybe that’s what he’s coming to terms with as the tears subside and he nuzzles the side of Hua Cheng’s face and Hua Cheng gently tucks him back into his pants. He will always have Hua Cheng now, and that lonely person he used to be and sometimes still is will fade into nonexistence, finally able to rest.

He sighs happily, swiping away the rest of the dampness on his face. Hua Cheng has continued to fuss over him, wiping what’s left of cum on his stomach away with his own shirt, smoothing a thumb over what feels like faint bite marks, raising up on his elbows to take the pressure off Xie Lian’s hurt shoulder, which does ache a bit.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m just—” Hua Cheng laughs. “Making sure you’re okay.”

“I’m better than okay, San Lang.”

“You definitely look better than okay,” Hua Cheng replies, and Xie Lian is proud that he doesn’t even blush. Maybe there’s no spare blood left in him to react. “Are you staying over?”

Xie Lian thinks about waiting for the bus and the forty-minute drive across the city to his smelly flat and shady roommate and says, “Can I? I’d love that.” Getting to work tomorrow won’t be fun, but right now, he doesn’t mind.

“I’d love that too.”

They kiss, and at this point, Xie Lian notices that he’s got a thigh between Hua Cheng’s legs, and that dear, sweet, long-suffering Hua Cheng is hard.

“Let’s clean you up?” Hua Cheng says. “And then we can order dinner from that place you like.”

Is Hua Cheng really going to just move on? “Sure,” Xie Lian says slowly, “if that’s what you want.”

“Mn.” Hua Cheng smiles a crooked, fond smile. “It’s been a big night. Let me take care of you a little?”

Xie Lian has the suspicion that more likely than pretend he’s not rock hard, Hua Cheng will sneak away at some point and quietly take care of the issue on his own. Because he doesn’t want to push Xie Lian too far, and he doesn’t want to make this about him, and really. His boyfriend is too selfless sometimes.

“Okay,” Xie Lian says, then raises his thigh until it’s pressed snugly against Hua Cheng’s crotch. “But only if you let me take care of you a little too.”

Hua Cheng inhales sharply and goes very still. He’s staring at Xie Lian as intently as before, but his gaze has taken on a different light, maybe taken aback. Xie Lian tenses the muscles in his thigh, which is all the movement he’ll trust at the moment, and Hua Cheng shivers.

Xie Lian suddenly remembers that desire is a complex thing, which he’s recently learned, and maybe he’s pushing where he shouldn’t.

“Don’t you want to?” he asks. “We don’t—if you don’t want.”

He drops his thigh, but Hua Cheng’s weight follows it, until his hardness is flush with Xie Lian’s thigh.

“Hhh. Babe,” Hua Cheng murmurs. He rolls his hips once like he’s testing, and he must like it because his mouth drops open in that way it does when he’s overcome.

Xie Lian’s hands find their way to Hua Cheng’s hips, thumbs pressing into the firmness of two pointed hip bones. “Like this?” he asks, because he’ll reach inside Hua Cheng’s jeans if that’s what Hua Cheng wants.

“Like this, yeah. Oh.” Another experimental roll. And another.

His heart is pounding again, but this is a different kind of excitement. He’s spent and exhausted, but somehow the only thing that will complete his comfort is Hua Cheng’s pleasure.

“You made me feel so good, San Lang,” he whispers, and drags Hua Cheng’s hips toward him, drags a moan from Hua Cheng’s throat. “Let me—let me—” He does it again.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng, “gege, gege, please.”

HIs hips are ratcheting forward now, movement heavy and jerking, and sometimes Xie Lian feels like his hands are directing the pace, and other times he feels like he’s holding on for dear life. The seams and belt loops of Hua Cheng’s jeans burn impressions into the skin of his palms. The friction between their bodies is heated, and with every desperate roll, Xie Lian can feel the outline of Hua Cheng’s cock. This is better than watching, he thinks—because he gets to see that cute way Hua Cheng’s brows pinch together and hear the whining pitch of his gasps, and he also gets to feel the heat of Hua Cheng’s body and hurl closer to the edge with him. It’s his body doing this, his hands grinding Hua Cheng’s hips against his thigh, his thigh Hua Cheng is going to—

There’s a flash of warmth as Hua Cheng lets out a last lengthy groan. His elbows give out, and Xie Lian lets out a small oof as Hua Cheng collapses on his chest with a murmured “fucking hell, gege.”

Xie Lian laughs and wraps his arms around Hua Cheng’s back. “Now we both need to clean up.”

Hua Cheng mutters something unintelligible into his shoulder as Xie Lian skates his hands from shoulder blade to hip.

“What was that?”

Hua Cheng doesn’t even try to repeat himself, just sighs and presses a kiss to Xie Lian’s bare shoulder, the one that still aches, but he can hardly feel the pain anymore.

“Let me guess,” he says, “I’ll be the death of you, right?”

“Mn. Yeah. That.”

Chapter Text

Hua Cheng’s birthday is a little over a month away, and Xie Lian’s not panicking. Or he’s trying not to panic. He had hoped that he would have more saved up for something by now, but the receptionist position lasted two weeks shorter than he thought it would, and it had been good money. He’s back to knocking down walls at a construction site on the edge of the city, which means not only is he bone-tired and sweaty when he finally arrives at Hua Cheng’s apartment, he’s also not really in a position to buy his boyfriend a worthwhile present.

Which he hates. Hua Cheng deserves the world, and Xie Lian can’t even afford to get him a tie that will look good with his designer suits.

“Don’t touch me,” he’s forced to say when Hua Cheng opens the door.

Hua Cheng looks taken aback. “Uh.” He looks so good—hair gleaming black, wearing a flowing, sheer red shirt that Xie Lian immediately wants to run his hands all over. He can see Hua Cheng’s nipples through the fabric, the silver dots of his piercings—but he immediately drops that line of thought.

“I smell really, really bad,” Xie Lian explains. He’d holding his arms in front of him like a mummy because not only does he have ten hours of sweat and grime on him, but he also knocked into a pedestrian on the way here who was holding a pint of beer. Which is now staining the front of Xie Lian’s shirt.

“Damn, babe,” Hua Cheng says, taking in his appearance. “When you have a bad day, you have a bad day.”

“I don’t do anything by halves,” Xie Lian sniffs as he’s let into the apartment. He kind of regrets coming because while Hua Cheng’s not exactly a clean freak, his apartment is spacious and trendy, and he immediately feels like a stain on the floor that wants scrubbing. He should have gone back to his apartment to shower, but it was an extra fifteen minutes out of the way by bus.

“I ordered stir fry,” Hua Cheng says, like his boyfriend doesn’t smell like a bar.

“San Lang, I really think you’re overestimating yourself if you think you can manage to eat by me.”

Hua Cheng is leading him back into the master bedroom, which is less organized. “How about a shower?”

Xie Lian wants to cry, or maybe laugh. “Can I?”

Hua Cheng laughs and ducks to kiss the top of Xie Lian’s head, but no, that’s not happening, and he dodges it. “Mind if I use your sink? Just to rinse out my shirt, then I’ll put it back on.” It won’t be comfortable, but it will smell nicer.

“We’ll put your clothes in the wash,” Hua Cheng says, stepping into the ridiculously huge closet and coming back with what looks like sweats and a t-shirt. “You can wear these.”

“Thanks!”

But when he grabs for them, Hua Cheng holds them out of reach, taking advantage of the few inches of height he has on Xie Lian.

“San Lang!”

“Gege should give me a kiss for them.”

“That’s bribery.”

“I just want a kiss!”

“I smell!”

“I don’t care!”

Hua Cheng looks ready to swoop in for a surprise kiss, which would be nice but also unpleasant, and Xie Lian doesn’t have a lot of dignity to preserve, so he ups the ante and starts stripping. He kicks off his work boots and shrugs out of his jacket, and then starts peeling off his sticky shirt.

As soon as Xie Lian’s chest is bare, Hua Cheng’s arms go limp and his face goes slack, and Xie Lian uses the moment to steal the clothes from his hands and race into the bathroom.

“Thanks, San Lang!”

“Gege.”

In the shower, Xie Lian’s thoughts stray. From the realization that the sandalwood shampoo he’s using will make him smell like Hua Cheng, to the observation that the water pressure here is really, really nice? And then finally to the problem of figuring out a present for Hua Cheng’s birthday.

He’d made the mistake of asking Shi Qingxuan for advice when they met for lunch a few days ago—which is what Shi Qingxuan called running into Xie Lian on his lunch break stuffing a whole steamed bun in his mouth at a park near his construction site. She’s the last of his old friends who still makes an effort with him, which he appreciates, and she’s always offering him jobs at one of her hotels, which he also appreciates but less. Receptionist. Restaurant manager. This time it had been—“Lounge pianist! You play right?”

He does. But he’d taken one look at his rough and misshapen hands and instead brought up the question about birthday presents as a distraction.

“Hua Cheng’s a fancy motherfucker,” Shi Qingxuan had said, which she’s not wrong about. Hua Cheng is the hottest artist in the city right now. “My advice? Invest in some lace.”

“Lace?”

“Shit, I forgot you’re a virgin,” she’d sighed. Xie Lian almost said, actually, but it’s never a good idea to share too much personal information with Shi Qingxuan unless you want all of your friends from college to know it too. “Lingerie, Xie-xiong. Wrap yourself up like a present for him. You’re at that point with him, right?”

“Um. Yeah.”

She’d given him a look. “I’m really impressed with you, getting a guy like him. I mean, people talk shit about him because they’re jealous, but he’s loads better than that human black hole who used to hang around you.”

Xie Lian hasn't thought of said human black hole in years, and he doesn't intend to now.

“Anyway,” she’d said. “Good on you for catching Hua Cheng. Now you just have to keep him.”

Xie Lian has thought about it. The lingerie and all it might imply. He’s thinking about it right now as he washes himself with the sandalwood body wash—Hua Cheng has body wash, face wash, shampoo, and conditioner, like the rich person her is—and thinking about the way Hua Cheng smells when he pulls Xie Lia close. But he can’t help but wonder if that would be okay. If giving away his virginity—or the penetrative equivalent—is an equitable present. Happy birthday, baby! Tonight you get to do all the work of fucking me!

That doesn’t seem fair. Unless it’s what Hua Cheng wants. And Hua Cheng has made it clear that he only wants what Xie Lian wants.

Xie Lian shuts off the water—which has stayed comfortably hot all this time, and that’s luxury—and drips in the shower for a moment, staring at his toes and thinking.

He’s thinking about desire. Thinking about how before Hua Cheng had kissed him, he hadn’t known he could feel it in that way at all. Before Hua Cheng had made him come, he’d never thought of an orgasm as something you might like so much that you think about it after. A lot. He’s thinking about how much desire is normal. And how is he supposed to know if he’s normal.

Because he has been thinking about it a lot, about the way it had coursed through his whole body and the way Hua Cheng had looked at him, and the way that everything before that had been nice, so nice, but also kind of aimless. He feels like he has an aim now. He just—doesn’t have a means.

He pads barefoot into the kitchen where Hua Cheng is dishing out the stir fry kept warm on the stove. Hua Cheng hears him and turns, holding out a piece of fish with onion. Xie Lian opens his mouth to ask a question and finds it filled with food and—“Mmm,” he moans because this is so much better than anything he can make in his cramped kitchen.

“Like it?” Hua Cheng looks pleased, even though he only ordered it. His cooking abilities aren’t much better than Xie Lian’s, and it’s nice to know that Hua Cheng isn’t good at everything.

“Hhmyesh,” he says around chewing. Then when he swallows, “What?”

Hua Cheng is looking at him with an odd expression, slightly frozen where he stands. Xie Lian pats down his front to make sure he remembered to actually dress before he left the bathroom, and yes, he’s wearing Hua Cheng’s black t-shirt and gray sweats. He’s had to cuff the pants a few times to get his feet clear, but the shirt fits—for the most part. It’s long in the torso, reaching the tops of his thighs, but tight across his shoulders and arms. It must be tailored for Hua Cheng, he realizes, struggling for a minute with the concept of tailored t-shirts, which for him are the most basic of store-bought clothing items.

He tugs on one sleeve, stretched tight across his biceps, and worries his lower lip. He has an image of Hua Cheng wearing this shirt now, swimming in it, the seams all bumpy and ruined. “It’s, um. Sorry. It’ll probably stretch out.”

Hua Cheng is reaching forward out of habit to flick Xie Lian’s nose, and then he says, “It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s...really. Hm. More than fine.”

Oh, so that’s what that look is. Hua Cheng’s eye travels up and down him four times in a row before Xie Lian says, “Do you like the way I look in your clothes, San Lang?”

Hua Cheng coughs and mutters, “Dinner,” and Xie Lian is grinning as they sit at the low table to eat.

They’re both not ones to let food go to waste, so it’s fairly quiet until most of the fish is gone before Xie Lian plucks up the courage to ask, “San Lang?”

“Hmm?” Hua Cheng has been fiddling with the cuffed bottom of Xie Lian’s sweats for a few minutes, fingertips sometimes touching his leg, and that serves as a reminder too.

“How often would you say you masturbate?”

Hua Cheng manages to swallow the last of his food without choking and raises his cup to his lips. It trembles slightly in his hand, and that's the only indication of his surprise.

“Why do you ask?”

“I—is it too personal? I didn't mean for it to be. I'm trying to figure out if it's weird that I've never touched myself.”

Hua Cheng frowns. “Gege is not weird.”

“Ha. Well, you're wrong there and you know it,” Xie Lian says with a smile.

“Fine. You're the best kind of weird,” Hua Cheng allows. “Can I ask you a question?”

His own question has gone unanswered, but maybe that's for the best, so he says, “Sure.”

“When you say you've never touched yourself…”

“I mean,” Xie Lian says, rolling his eyes. “Practically, of course I have. Sexually, on the other hand.”

“Never? Not even when trying?”

Xie Lian blinks because, “Oh. Yeah, I guess I have? A couple times. Once in high school. Once or twice in college? I don't know, I was inconveniently hard and I guess I wanted to make it go away? I—I wanted it, but I didn’t want to want it. If that makes any sense.”

Hua Cheng’s hand slides into his palm. “It does. Lots of people think it’s not okay, but it is, gege. It's completely natural.”

Xie Lian is unfamiliar with this way of thinking, and it certainly wasn't what he was taught growing up, but he doesn't say that.

“Point is, I'm just looking to put myself on a scale, is all,” is what he does say. So he can weigh the damage and get a measurement for how intensive repairs might be. Get himself to a place where he can show his boyfriend the physical love he deserves.

“And I'm the other end of the scale?”

“Um.” He's lost the thrashing end of the metaphor, but it was never really that important. “Yes?”

“What if it's a lot?” Hua Cheng asks, and Xie Lian can't tell if it's the ruddy light from the hanging lamps above them or if Hua Cheng is flushing.

“It wouldn't be a bad thing,” he says. For Hua Cheng. It would mean something about Xie Lian, though. “How much is a lot?”

Hua Cheng doesn't answer, just pushes the last few snow peas around the plate to make a smiley face.

Xie Lian takes a stab. “Once a week?”

Hua Cheng gives him a look, and Xie Lian finds out that no, once a week is not a lot.

“Once a day?” he tries, mouth feeling dry.

“Gege.” Hua Cheng sets down his chopsticks and turns to face him. His face is definitely red now—Xie Lian is torn between feeling bad and being charmed—but he looks serious. “We don't have to match orgasms. You know that?”

Xie Lian frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I mean that—you might not want to get off as much as I do—” Xie Lian opens his mouth to protest, Hua Cheng forges ahead. “And that's okay! Sex drives can be different. It doesn't make you abnormal or anything. And I'm definitely not going to make you do anything you don't feel like doing.”

“But—how do I know what my sex drive is?” Like, how the hell is he supposed to know how often he wants to do something he's never done? “Maybe I'm just as horny as you are, but we just don't know it.”

Hua Cheng laughs, eye crinkled. “I'm not—” he starts but swerves when he sees Xie Lian’s expression— “always horny. I'm not always horny!”

Xie Lian doesn’t know if he should laugh or cry. “I'm just trying to make sense of this,” he says. “I don't even know what sense looks like. I just—”

Hua Cheng leans to press a kiss to his forehead, then his temple. Xie Lian leans into him, and they stay curled together like that. Xie Lian finds that he does smell like Hua Cheng, but also a little like himself, and he likes the smell of both of them combined.

“You're normal,” Hua Cheng says. “If everyone's different, then you're normal.”

Xie Lian isn't sure if that's true, but he wants it to be.

“So,” he says after a few moments of comfortable silence. “Every day, huh?”

Hua Cheng sputters a quiet fuck you and extricates himself. “Not every day,” he says firmly. “Just. When I want to. And sometimes when I need to clear my head.”

Xie Lian is delighted. “You need to clear your head a lot, don't you?”

“Gege.”

Xie Lian loves teasing this man. He's so—perfect and patient and unbelievably sexy. But sometimes, when he’s the one getting teased, Xie Lian forgets how flustered Hua Cheng can get, how quickly and brightly a blush can gather on his nose and be gone within a few seconds. Before it disappears, Xie Lian darts forward to kiss it, and Hua Cheng lets him.

-

“You know,” Hua Cheng says later, when they’re on the couch watching a martial arts documentary, Xie Lian’s head in Hua Cheng’s lap. “If you maybe wanted to try experimenting. I mean, I could help.”

Xie Lian tilts his head back to catch a glimpse of upside-down Hua Cheng. He hasn’t been paying a lot of attention, lulled to almost-sleep by Hua Cheng’s fingers running whisper-soft through his hair.

“Isn’t that what we’re already doing?” he asks when he’s made sense of Hua Cheng’s words. “Experimenting?”

“Yeah, I just mean, if you want to do some on your own. Which isn’t to say that I’m not one-hundred percent rearing to do absolutely everything with you when you’re ready, of course,” Hua Cheng says, and Xie Lian laughs, his belly shaking with it. “I get that it’s really personal, and that you might want to try a bit on your own.”

Xie Lian has wanted that, and he’s brimming with warmth with the knowledge that Hua Cheng would respect it. He hasn’t been very successful thus far, though, in his solo explorations. His flat isn’t the most comfortable or private place, but when he’s been alone, he’s just been at a loss as how to even begin.

“I do,” Xie Lian says. “Want to try. I just don’t even really know where to start. Like—do I need anything?” Oh lord, he hasn’t thought of this before, is there equipment he should be in possession of?

“Well, everyone’s different,” Hua Cheng says. “I—don’t really need much, honestly. But lube is always important. It makes things go smoother—”

“—literally or figuratively?”

“And feel really nice,” Hua Cheng says, shaking with laughter. “And I don’t think that you’ll be into porn, but if you want to try…”

“I want to remind you that I have no computer and only a TracFone. Like, with actual buttons and a screen the size of a postage stamp.”

“Okay, no porn then. Maybe you could get a toy? A dildo or a vibrator. Something you could feel comfortable experimenting with. Learning what you like.”

“Okay,” Xie Lian says. He’s aware of how much more about him this is, especially with the talk of buying things when he still hasn’t figured out what to get Hua Cheng for his birthday. He’ll probably have a meltdown later when he thinks about actually going to a sex shop to get a toy, but right now he’s comfortable and safe, and he knows that Hua Cheng will help him. He sits up suddenly, rotating on his knees to face Hua Cheng. “You know I still want to, um, experiment with you? I still want to do things with you. So much.”

“Mn.” Hua Cheng gives him that crooked smile he loves and kisses him. And kisses him. And kisses him. And gone are the days when Xie Lian was satisfied with just kissing.

They sink down onto the couch, the sounds of the documentary fading into the background until it’s just the black and white credits rolling. Xie Lian gets to run his hands over that sheer shirt like he’s been wanting to, rubbing the hard-softness of Hua Cheng’s pierced nipples until he groans—which is educational—and maybe it’s because of their talk and the application of the term experiment to what they’ve been doing, but Xie Lian is brave enough to slide his hands into Hua Cheng’s pants and pull him out, and then he remembers the quick, confident movements of Hua Cheng’s hand on himself and replicates the movements until Hua Cheng is panting under him and coming all over that pretty red shirt. Xie Lian feels kind of bad about that, but then Hua Cheng is returning the favor, and he doesn’t really have the mental space to dedicate to the state of Hua Cheng’s fancy clothes.

Xie Lian has to leave about an hour after that. If he stays any later, he’ll miss the last bus. Hua Cheng tries to convince him to stay the night, but the distance of the construction site makes sleeping over on a work night impractical.

“Friday,” Hua Cheng huffs against his lips as they linger by the door, reluctant to part.

“Hm?”

“Stay over Friday? And the weekend?” Hua Cheng asks, almost shyly, even though Xie Lian has stayed over before. But not since they’ve started fooling around seriously.

Xie Lian grins. Friday is the day after tomorrow. “I’ll pack a bag,” he says.

-

When he gets to his apartment and climbs blessedly onto his bed, he realizes that he forgot to ask Hua Cheng a very important question. He pulls out his tiny phone and presses the buttons until the line is ringing—several times, actually. He’s about to hang up when it finally connects.

Hua Cheng’s voice comes through slightly muffled, like half his mouth is buried in his pillow. “Gege. You all right?” There’s rustling on the other end of the line, like Hua Cheng is rolling over. Xie Lian can picture him, flat on his stomach like he likes to sleep, eyepatch on the bedside table.

“I woke you up,” Xie Lian whispers. “Sorry.”

“Mmn, don't say sorry.”

“Did you go to bed right after I left?” Xie Lian hasn’t looked at a clock since he got to his apartment.

“Like, an hour ago?” Hua Cheng sounds more awake now. Awake, and a little aghast. “Gege, does it take you an hour to get to your apartment from mine?”

“Not quite,” he lies. “I didn't know you were sleeping, it's not important.”

“No, what was it?”

Xie Lian chews on his lip, focusing on the patterns in the popcorn ceiling. “You know when we were talking about...um. You know.”

“Masturbating, right.” Hua Cheng’s voice is so steady, but Xie Lian knows he's blushing, and that's some comfort.

“Right. Well. When you do it, what do you think about?”

There's silence, static popping on the line. “Well...you.”

Xie Lian laughs, but there’s a tiny marble of that telltale warmth in his belly. Is that all it takes these days, for Hua Cheng to say “you” for Xie Lian to be ready for another round? He’s bemused but also kind of proud. It’s a change he likes.

“Can you be more specific?”

“Uhh,” Hua Cheng chuckles. “How specific do you want?”

“I just mean,” he says, “that I’m lying here alone in the dark, my roommate isn’t home—” thank fuck for that— “and I don’t want to let the opportunity go to waste.”

There’s a beat of silence, and then a muffled groan that sounds like “unbelievable.” Xie Lian is grinning in the dark because he can recognize the excitement in Hua Cheng’s voice.

“Okay,” Hua Cheng says, like he’s steadying himself. “Okay. Well. I...imagine you. I imagine you’re there with me. I picture your face, up close to mine.” Xie Lian is already doing it, shaping Hua Cheng’s face out of the darkness, looming over him with an affectionate smile. “And it depends on what you want. Whatever you want. Sometimes I go fast and I imagine us doing things—that we haven’t done yet.” Fucking. He means fucking. Probably. “And other times I just touch myself and pretend it’s you touching me.”

Xie Lian’s definitely interested, but he’s not half hard yet. And his imagination isn’t as vivid as Hua Cheng’s. He still can’t seem to visualize them doing anything beyond what they’ve already done. He could put his hand on his dick right now, but it doesn’t seem like he would...feel anything.

“That seems...fast,” he whispers.

“Just start—running your hand softly over your stomach,” Hua Cheng says, his breathing already altered. Xie Lian lets his body follow Hua Cheng’s words. “Your chest. Up and down your thighs.”

Xie Lian does it, and it feels familiar. Then he remembers all the times he’s been in Hua Cheng’s lap or next to him, the way Hua Cheng’s hands gravitate to his body and smooth up and down the lines of him.

“Like you like to do,” Xie Lian breathes, and Hua Cheng gasps on the other end of the line.

“Y-yeah. Wherever feels good.”

Xie Lian follows where feels good, half aware that he’s breathing maybe too hard into the phone, but he hears Hua Cheng’s breathing too. He imagines Hua Cheng in his spacious bed with his high thread count sheets, already pulling himself helplessly. The thought spears through him, and he’s—yeah. Sort of disbelieving that it could be this easy, but then again, Hua Cheng’s voice is in his ear, and being with Hua Cheng gets him halfway there anyway.

“I’m going to hang up,” he breathes.

“What?” Hua Cheng sounds like Xie Lian just slapped him.

“I want—to see if I can do it on my own. Is that okay?” he asks, instead of saying sorry.

“Of course it is, gege,” Hua Cheng says, and he sounds like he means it. Of course he means it. Hua Cheng has never lied to him.

Xie Lian grins and says, “I love you,” and then has an idea. “I’m on my bed. On top of the covers. Imaging you touching me. I’m really, really close.”

“Fucking hell.”

And because Xie Lian likes a little teasing, he adds, “And San Lang? I’m still wearing your clothes.”

He listens to Hua Cheng sputter for only a few seconds, and then he hangs up, because he wasn’t making it up, he’s really close, and heady with it. He’s certain that across the city, Hua Cheng is doing this too, and he lets that thought carry him all the way there, Hua Cheng’s phantom breaths still in his ear.

He laughs to himself in the dark after. He feels like he’s collecting precious moments of things that had always been possible for everyone but him. They’re possible for him now.

He falls asleep thinking that there’s no birthday present he can get Hua Cheng that would be better than what Hua Cheng has given him.

Chapter Text

Thursday, before Xie Lian’s shift finishes, he’s knocking down his fifth wall of the day when he hears, “Look at you go, sexy gege!”

He almost drops his sledge hammer as he whirls around to see Shi Qingxuan sauntering toward him, wearing a hazardous-looking pencil skirt and heels tall enough and thin enough to be drill bits meant for puncturing. At least she’s got a hard hat on too. She grins at him and wolf-whistles for good measure.

“Please don’t objectify me in front of my coworkers,” he says. But to tell the truth, he’s glad to see Shi Qingxuan. Her easy manner sets him at ease, which can’t be said for any of his old friends. “What are you doing here?”

“Checking up on the state of my hotel,” she says, opening her arms wide—then she stumbles back, and Xie Lian lunges forward to catch her before she toples over. “Thanks.”

“Your hotel?” Xie Lian cranes his neck to look up at the skeleton of the building they’re demolishing.

“Well. When this thing’s gone, yeah.” She grins. “Business is booming. Can you take a break?”

“Uh,” he says, but she’s already dragging him to the corner usually designated for smoking breaks.

“So,” she says, leaning her expensive shoulder against a concrete wall. “What’s going on? What’s happening? How’s construction life?”

He sighs. “Are you going to offer me another job?”

“We still haven’t found a lounge pianist.”

“That’s unfortunate,” he says. “I haven’t played in years.”

“There are other openings.” She’s trying her best to sound nonchalant, and he appreciates that.

“Yeah, thanks,” he says, “but I have a job.”

“For how long?”

“Until your hotel goes up, I guess.” He smiles, feeling sentimental that she would put business to the side to come check up on him. “Thanks, though. Most people wouldn’t bother. But you do.”

She waves away his thanks like it’s a mosquito. “You know my brother and I own four hotels downtown? Four.”

“Okay?”

Shi Qingxuan rolls her eyes dramatically. “So if you took at job at one of them, you could work a ten-minute walk away from your boyfriend. His studio’s downtown, right? Honestly, you didn’t used to be so stupid.”

“Oh.” Oh. He thinks about this. He still wouldn’t be able to afford a place to live near Hua Cheng, but if he got a job downtown, he could maybe meet him for lunch. Every day. Hold his hand every day, maybe.

“Oh, shit. You’re far gone, aren’t you?” Shi Qingxuan leers at him until he swats her face away. She bounces back. “How are things going there? Specifically in the lace department?”

He’s blushing, but maybe he can hide it behind his work exertion. “There’s no lace…” he says.

“Are you kidding me? Do I need to outline a step-by-step plan for you—”

“Yet,” he finishes, and yeah. His face is really hot.

Shi Qingxuan says, “Oooh,” and then leers so widely, he wants to push her over the concrete barrier.

“Yeah,” he says, his heart starting to pound, because he’s half here and half thinking about tomorrow night, when he’s going to Hua Cheng’s apartment and staying for three whole nights. “Um. About that. I need your advice.”

“Anything. Literally anything. God, please ask me.”

“How do you pick out a sex toy?”

Shi Qingxuan is very clearly trying to school her face into a normal, non-lecherous expression. “Shouldn’t you ask your boyfriend about that?”

“You know, I don’t get the impression that he, uh, needs them? He’s pretty imaginative.”

As soon as he says it, he wants to take the words back and swallow them, because this is Shi Qingxuan he’s talking to.

“Don’t you dare tell anyone I said that,” he says.

“I promise!”

“Not your brother. Not—the others. Not even your goth boyfriend.”

She cackles. “Who’s calling whose boyfriend goth?” Xie Lian has seen He Xuan only once, and it’s because He Xuan is also an artist whose large multimedia fish skeletons decorate the waterfront, and Hua Cheng took to see the installation of one once just to make fun of it. He Xuan looked pretty goth.

He’s regretting so many choices right now, but since Shi Qingxuan’s around, he might as well make use of her. “Can I borrow your phone?”

She unlocks her smartphone and hands it to him, and he flounders around in the apps until he finds a browser. He has to keep one eye on Shi Qingxuan, who has hopped up on the barrier—it’s a forty-foot drop on the other side—and is kicking her crossed ankles back and forth, leaning over his shoulder.

“Are you—searching sex toys?” She sputters and makes a swipe for her phone, but he dodges it and keeps a hand on her wrist in case she tips over the side of the barrier. “This is my business phone! At least use an incognito tab!”

“What does that mean?”

“Oh my fuck. Xie-xiong.”

He’s already scrolling, and if his heart was pounding before, it’s really going for it now, hammering at his breastbone like his sledge hammer against a wall. He knows he’s clueless, but he really was not expecting this.

“Uh,” he says, and then pulls out his phone to dial Hua Cheng’s number. He picks up on the third ring.

“Gege!” Hua Cheng always sounds so genuinely pleased to hear from him, and he smiles despite himself.

“San Lang. When was the last time you Googled sex toys?”

“What,” Hua Cheng says, and he hears some clattering, “the fuck?”

“I thought about what you said, so I’m doing some research, and um. You didn’t say it would be this scary?”

Shi Qingxuan crowds against his shoulder. “Scary?”

“Is—that Shi Qingxuan?” Hua Cheng sounds stunned.

“I’m using her phone.”

“To research sex toys?”

Xie Lian is a little impatient—he’s not like Hua Cheng in that way. “My other option was the library, but Ling Wen would probably kick me out for good.”

“Oh,” Hua Cheng’s voice says. “Good. Don’t look up sex toys at the library.”

“I’m not going to lie,” Xie Lian says, hearing the tinge of vulnerability in his voice as his thumb scrolls reflexively, revealing more horrors with every swipe. “I’m overwhelmed. And this is just the research, I was going to go to a shop toni—” He stops as soon as he realizes what he almost admitted.

“Tonight?” Hua Cheng is definitely smiling, Xie Lian can hear it. “You were going to go tonight?”

Xie Lian catches sight of one toy in particular and groans. “San Lang, this one looks like a sea urchin. It has spikes. Are—are you laughing at me?”

Hua Cheng is definitely laughing at him.

Xie Lian sighs and hands Shi Qingxuan her phone back. She takes it and keeps scrolling. “Sorry. I’m—it’s in the middle of the day, and you’re probably in the studio, and I know you didn’t, uh, exactly subscribe to these sorts of updates—”

“I’m pretty sure I did, when I became your boyfriend,” Hua Cheng says. “Relax, gege. You don’t have to get anything scary.”

Xie Lian lets out a breath. “No spikes?”

“No spikes,” Hua Cheng laughs, and Xie Lian huffs a breath himself. “You know what? Hm.”

“What?”

“Do you trust me, gege?”

“Yes,” Xie Lian answers, no hesitation. Then: “Why?”

“I’m going to get a present for you,” is all Hua Cheng says. And when Xie Lian turns his head, he realizes Shi Qingxuan has been leaning close to overhear.

“Wait, no,” Xie Lian protests. It’s your birthday soon, he almost says.

“Too late. Already decided. I have to go.”

“Okay—” Xie Lian says, but then Shi Qingxuan is shouting, “Tell him to get back to me on my proposal!”

“Proposal?”

“She wants me to curate a collection for her hotel,” Hua Cheng says darkly.

“Oh.” Xie Lian doesn’t know anything about art, but he knows Hua Cheng’s opinions about it, and he turns to Shi Qingxuan. “Yeah, that’s probably not going to happen.”

She pouts, and Hua Cheng chuckles in his ear. “I love you, gege. I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.”

“I love you too,” he says, then hurriedly adds, “Please don’t get me a present—” But Hua Cheng has already hung up.

Shi Qingxuan hops off the barrier, teetering on her ridiculous shoes. “Maybe the present will be a decent phone.”

-

When Xie Lian gets off work Friday night, he’s preparing himself for the trek across the city to Hua Cheng's apartment. But before he takes more than eight steps toward the bus stop, he hears the purr of an engine and swings around to see a black car pulling up to the curb where no cars are allowed to park.

Xie Lian already knows who's inside the car, sees the flash of the red interior when he gets up close and Hua Cheng rolls down the passenger window.

“Hi!” Xie Lian says, the happiness bubbling inside him. He's not half so grimy as he was earlier this week, and he has a bag of clothes slung over his shoulder. He's desperate to be near Hua Cheng, to touch him.

“I was practicing pickup lines on the drive over,” Hua Cheng says, “but you know, I can't seem to remember any of them? You're beautiful.”

Xie Lian feels his face heat and says, “That'll do it,” as he opens the door and slides in. “Hurry up and go before the foreman calls a tow truck for your fancy sports car.”

“Bossy,” Hua Cheng says, sounding pleased.

Xie Lian can’t believe he’s getting a whole weekend of this, days and nights. He’s quietly fixating on Hua Cheng’s gentle voice, on both of them half leaning toward the other and wishing the gearshift wasn’t in the way, on his hand flexing on the shift like he's itching to have it on Xie Lian's knee inches away.

He tries to not let it distract him too much from their easy talking, but he’s suddenly very aware of Hua Cheng’s hands. He usually is, because they’re beautiful and fluid and always looking for a way to touch him, but right now they’re also doing things? Like handling the steering wheel like it’s clay on a wheel. And opening the door for Xie Lian, and slinging his bag over Hua Cheng’s shoulder. Playing with the keys and then storing them so he can slot his fingers through Xie Lian’s.

Part of it is that he knows those hands will be on him soon, moving over his skin in the gentle-playful way Hua Cheng likes. The other part is the sheer fact that his boyfriend has very pretty hands.

It gets him thinking—the way he’s been finding himself thinking these days, like there’s always a part of him attuned to this, always a corner of him craving what he and Hua Cheng have started taking tastes of. He’s thinking as Hua Cheng leads him into the apartment and sets his bag on the dresser like it belongs there and leaves him to shower. He’s thinking as he washes himself, suddenly conscious of where he’s washing and how, and he has to jerk the endless warm water to the cold side to keep himself from getting too excited in here all alone.

He finds Hua Cheng in the studio, which is the space Hua Cheng made by knocking down the wall between the two guest bedrooms. It’s where he works on things before he commits to them, and it’s like a wonderland to Xie Lian. Hua Cheng’s study sculptures rear to life from the floor, made from paper and rubber and clay, a few in rough copper. Hua Cheng is at the table, fiddling with something. Xie Lian doesn’t want to disturb him, so he drifts over to another table laden with sketches, feeling like a child discovering a treasure as he looks quietly through them—and stares.

They’re of him. They’re…all of him. There’s even an entire notebook of him. Xie Lian picks it up and presses his lips together to keep in a squeal, but he must make a noise because Hua Cheng is turning around.

He sees what’s in Xie Lian’s hand and turns a very endearing pink. “Gege—“

“I didn’t mean to snoop,” Xie Lian says around his very wide grin. “Just couldn’t help but notice...San Lang. Do you have a crush on me?”

Hua Cheng is rolling his eyes but he’s also coming forward as Xie Lian turns the pages of his notebook. This person in the images is much more beautiful and graceful than Xie Lian really is, but he doesn’t mind the inaccuracy. He finds one of him wearing just Hua Cheng’s black shirt and lets out a delighted laugh.

“I look amazing!” he says.

Hua Cheng tries to swipe the notebook away. “I only draw what I see,” he says wryly as Xie Lian dodges him.

“Wow, you’ve made me look so sexy.” Xie Lian is turning pages, entranced by his own image in charcoal. There’s one of him shirtless on the couch. “Oh! This one! Hua Cheng, I want you to draw me like one of your French girls!” He strikes a pose, and then he falls into peels of laughter at Hua Cheng’s expression. Then he turns another page.

Him, on a bed, surrounded by tangled sheets. There’s his hair, looking somehow indecent, and his bare skin. More of it than Xie Lian has ever actually shown Hua Cheng. And his expression. Does he look like that, he wonders, when he’s aroused? He thinks about someday seeing himself like that and stalls. One of Hua Cheng’s very pretty hands takes the opportunity to snatch the notebook away.

“I like them,” Xie Lian tells him.

Hua Cheng is pleased, lightly flushed. “It’s—you’re okay with it?”

Xie Lian nods. Vigorously.

Hua Cheng smiles, reaches out to brush Xie Lian’s cheek with those fingers. “I can’t get the expression right,” he says, almost to himself, and oh.

“San Lang,” he asks suddenly because more than just a corner of him has been buzzing with this the last few days. He’s been worried that it was too much because he thought about it as he rode the bus and ate his lunch and swung his sledge hammer. Now he knows it’s just the right amount. He sees Hua Cheng’s hand, swallowing up his periphery. “Is there a part of me you really like?”

Hua Cheng’s brows pinch together. “I like all of you, babe.”

“I mean—” He flushes, and dammit, he thought he was over that. “Any part of me...in particular.”

Hua Cheng’s thumb smoothes back and forth over Xie Lian’s cheekbone as his expression transforms from confused to charmed.

“I like lots of things,” he says.

Xie Lian lets out half an exasperated sigh, but Hua Cheng steps closer until he’s murmuring, voice low, his breath light and warm.

“I like,” he says, “hmm. I like your hair.”

“My hair?” Xie Lian resists the urge to sniff the ends, even though he just showered.

“It’s soft. And always a little wild.” Hua Cheng is smiling, curling his hands around Xie Lian’s sides. “Your turn.”

“I—oh.” Xie Lian is suddenly overwhelmed by his options. “I like...the way you sound. When we do things. You get all breathy, and you gasp a lot. You get kind of whiny, actually.”

Hua Cheng’s hands tighten around him, and he ducks his face into Xie Lian’s neck. “Gege. You can’t just—”

“No, wait, I like this,” he laughs. He’s pleased with himself, leaning into Hua Cheng, until they’re pressed together, legs tangled, hips knocking against one another. “Let’s keep going.”

Hua Cheng whispers, his mouth brushing against the skin of Xie Lian’s neck. “I like when you make me a little embarrassed.”

That curl of warmth licks through him, brief but powerful, and Xie Lian really likes this, he decides. “Me too,” he admits, but it doesn’t count, so he adds, “and I like it when you’re gentle with me, and patient. I like that you make me feel safe.”

Somewhere along the way Hua Cheng has stopped hiding himself in favor of nuzzling Xie Lian slowly, his hands kneading. Tiny little movements that speak so loudly, promise so much. Xie Lian has started reciprocating them, mapping Hua Cheng’s back with his hands.

Hua Cheng pulls back to meet Xie Lian’s eyes. “I like when you talk about sex. And how you talk about it? It makes me think that you’re getting comfortable with it, and comfortable with me. It makes me really happy. I like that we’re taking our time.”

It’s like his head is full of champagne, the bubbles popping against his skull in little bursts of light. He’s smiling, and—yeah he’s going for it. “I like the way your cock looks,” he says, and finds that if he doesn’t think about it, the word comes out easily enough, naturally enough. “It’s. I don’t know, I didn’t think it could be pretty? But it is, and I, um, think about it a lot.”

His face must be lobster pink, but so is Hua Cheng’s, who has his lips pressed together, clearly trying to tamp down on one of those whiny moans Xie Lian likes so much.

Then he opens his eye, letting his hands roam more purposefully, grasping Xie Lian’s arms, shoulders, sliding down his back.

“I like,” Hua Cheng says, then hums as if considering. “Your muscles.” As if to prove a point, he circles his hands around Xie Lian’s upper arms, squeezes, lets go.

“You do?” Xie Lian is pleased.

“And I like when you...manhandle me.” Hua Cheng has them pressed together so snugly, Xie Lian can feel the hard press of both of them through their pants. “Like when you moved my hips.”

“Really?” He can’t wrap his brain around it. He’s buzzing around the edges, and any second it’s going to spark into something more urgent.

“Mm. Gege is strong.” Hua Cheng’s sculptor's hands are everywhere—those hands—moving over him like Hua Cheng wants to turn him into a statue of marble. He even reaches down to grasp Xie Lian’s thighs briefly. “Kind of want you to choke me a bit.”

Xie Lian swallows air and coughs. “Bedroom.”

“What?” Hua Cheng murmurs against his ear.

“Unless you want to do it here?” Xie Lian looks around at the neatly organized tables. “I mean, that’s kind of sexy, but I really love your bed—”

Hua Cheng is kissing him, tongue hot and insistent, then backing him out of the studio. They stagger through the hall like they’re fused together until they’re knocking into the edge of Hua Cheng’s heavenly bed that’s the size of a small pool, and then Xie Lian pulls back for air.

“I want—” But he corrects himself, uses the language they’ve chosen for this. “I like the thought of you. Naked.”

It’s definitely something they haven’t done, not completely. He’s seen Hua Cheng’s cock—it’s burnt itself a place lovingly into Xie Lian’s brain—and Hua Cheng took off his shirt that time and explored his torso. But Xie Lian understands that the part of intimacy that requires baring all of yourself is less about practicality than it seems to be.

“I like that too,” Hua Cheng says, voice hoarse.

There’s nothing for it. No way out but forward. No time like the present. The only way out is through. He was the one to say it with his mouth that’s faster than the rest of him. His hands travel to the neckline of his shirt, ready to pull it up and off. His fingers are shaking.

Hua Cheng’s hands cover his, nudge them to the side, guide them back down.

“Do me first?” he asks, holding his arms out.

It would be easy to fall into the frustration—because he is frustrated that he could want something and vocalize the want and then immediately betray himself with hesitation. He wants his wants to be straightforward and uncomplicated. He wants it for himself, and he wants it so Hua Cheng always knows that Xie Lian wants him.

But for now he’ll shelve that for later. He reaches for the small black buttons at the front of Hua Cheng’s shirt, shining like little eyes, and he focuses on dislodging one by one, until he’s coaxing a growing triangle of pale skin into view. Under his hands, Hua Cheng is trying to control his breathing, and when Xie Lian glances at him, he smiles.

It gives Xie Lian the courage to reach around Hua Cheng’s shoulders and push the shirt off, tug it down his arms, and let it fall to the floor. He resists the urge to gather it up and fold it, because it had felt expensive, and focuses instead on the lines of Hua Cheng’s upper body. He’s softly curving marble at times, sharp juts of stone at others. He looks so perfect it’s like he sculpted himself.

“Gege, the things you say,” Hua Cheng groans, color high in his cheeks, and Xie Lian realizes he said that last thing out loud. He’s embarrassed but also charmed by Hua Cheng’s reaction.

“I like how nice your skin is,” Xie Lian admits. “Is that a weird thing to say?”

“So weird,” Hua Cheng says, but he doesn't mean it. He tugs Xie Lian closer, ducks to press his forehead to Xie Lian’s, and says, “Didn’t you say naked?”

This is plenty naked, part of Xie Lian thinks, tapping a finger to one of Hua Cheng’s pierced nipples, which gets him a small gasp. The other part of him is hungry for more. That’s the part of him that reaches for the button of Hua Cheng’s pants and undoes it with trembling fingers. Or maybe his hands are steady and it’s Hua Cheng who’s trembling. Maybe they’re both just vibrating at separate frequencies.

He gets the pants open and curls his thumbs inside the waistband and nudges them down—and he lurches up to kiss Hua Cheng as he does it. Because it’s hitting him that he’s the one doing this, and when the hell did he ever get the courage for it?

When he pulls back, Hua Cheng is completely bare, kicking his pants off his feet. He’s pale but tinged pink at the edges. Xie Lian is mesmerized by the way his ribs expand and contract, by his straining cock and the way it curves endearingly to one side. He thought he’d be freaked out by this point. He’s not. He’s really, really glad.

“Oh,” Hua Cheng says, almost bashfully, and pulls off his eyepatch, tossing it on the pile of his clothes. “There. Completely naked.”

Xie Lian snorts, and then he’s pulling his shirt off his head and shucking off his own pants. He didn’t put on any underwear after he showered—which was presumptuous, he knows, but worth it based on Hua Cheng’s expression alone.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng breathes, his eye traveling hungrily over Xie Lian. Should he be self-conscious? He’s not. He’s not, and it’s weird, and it would worry him except that he and Hua Cheng are closing the distance and kissing again, and that’s distracting because—kissing is different without clothes on. Everywhere Hua Cheng’s hands touch is bare, each touch sending a shock through him, and he bites into Hua Cheng’s mouth when fingers brush the small of his back.

They’ve shuffled closer to the bed, and then they’re crawling on it—and they’re ridiculous because they’re still kissing and it gets messier as they move. It strikes Xie Lian as hilarious as their teeth clank at one point, but he’s too hungry for this to care. They’re slumped together, every new bare place a revelation, when Hua Cheng asks, “What do you want?”

Xie Lian thinks about it. He thinks about all the things they’ve said, all the likes they’ve confessed, and he knows what he wants to feel, but he doesn’t know how to reach it. His imagination is coming up short again, and he says, “I’m bad at picturing things.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can only think of the things we’ve done before.”

Hua Cheng chuckles and squeezes Xie Lian’s thigh. “What’s wrong with that we’ve done before?”

“Nothing, I just want to do something—something new. But I don’t know what,” he adds apologetically.

Hua Cheng looks thoughtful for a moment, then he asks, “What do you like about what we do?”

“Everything?” Xie Lian struggles for a moment before he realizes this is what they were just doing, talking about what they like. He can do that. “I like kissing you. That’s not, like, kinky or anything, I guess.”

“I like that too,” Hua Cheng says, and leans forward to kiss him, stroking Xie Lian’s tongue with his own until they breathing turns heavy. “What else?”

“I liked, the other night? When I was on top of you?”

Hua Cheng groans and sits back to drag Xie Lian forward. Xie Lian straddles Hua Cheng’s thighs, jumping at the contact of skin, and kisses Hua Cheng, wrapping his arms around Hua Cheng’s shoulders. They’re so close. He can feel the heat radiating from Hua Cheng’s skin and touching his own, he can feel Hua Cheng’s pulse in his thighs. Hua Cheng has one hand on Xie Lian’s neck, caressing, and another low on Xie Lian’s ass, where he squeezes until Xie Lian gasps.

“What else?” Hua Cheng repeats, his voice low.

Xie Lian thinks about those pale fingers splayed across his ass and flushes. “I like your hands,” he whispers, letting his eyes fall closed as he says it. “A lot. I like your fingers. They’re—” he can’t think of any description other than— “pretty.”

Hua Cheng takes in a slow breath and strokes across Xie Lian’s lips with his thumb, lightly, then a little harder. It has him gripping Hua Cheng’s shoulders to keep from swaying, has his lips falling open slightly so the thumb catches his bottom lip and drags it down.

“Sometimes I can’t believe you’re real,” Hua Cheng says, almost to himself.

Xie Lian is real. He feels so real at this moment. Every cell in his body is awake, every part of him present. When Hua Cheng’s thumb makes another pass, he darts his tongue out and licks it.

Hua Cheng groans. Then he plants his thumb softly on Xie Lian’s lower lip and just. Waits.

Xie Lian’s tongue tingles. He runs it carefully across the inside of his mouth just taking a beat to relish what he’s about to do. Hua Cheng must think he’s teasing because he rubs Xie Lian’s lip with purpose, his gaze intense. But he doesn’t force anything, because it’s Hua Cheng, but also because he probably wants to see Xie Lian taking what he wants.

So he does. He parts his lips wider and sucks Hua Cheng’s thumb into his mouth and hums around it.

It sets him on fire. It’s also very clearly driving Hua Cheng crazy, his chest heaving, the hand low on his hip clutching at him. But it’s also doing more for Xie Lian than he thought it would. He can feel sweat gathering on his scalp, his lower back, all the places he has pressed against Hua Cheng. He’s kind of at a loss as to why a finger in his mouth makes him feel like he wants to simultaneously rut against Hua Cheng’s stomach until he comes and explode, but it does, and he’s helpless to keep sucking, stroking the pad with his tongue.

“Holy shit, gege,” Hua Cheng says, and Xie Lian grins around the finger. It must do something to Hua Cheng because he pulls his thumb out with a pop, and Xie Lian’s mouth is wet and empty and he doesn’t like it, and then Hua Cheng is placing his index and middle finger on his lips, still gentle, still an offering.

Xie Lian just has to make sure Hua Cheng knows. “I really like this.”

“Ehh, it’s okay, I guess,” Hua Cheng deadpans, but he’s too breathless to carry it off. Xie Lian sputters a laugh and takes the fingers into his mouth.

He finds a rhythm, or they do, together. He’s rocking his hips slightly in time with the fingers pumping across his tongue, and he closes his eyes and feels it, feels Hua Cheng moving with him. His skin feels so sensitive, nerve endings firing off where he didn’t know he had them. He could come like this, he realizes. His cock is barely nudging Hua Cheng’s abs, but it hardly even matters, and the thought pleases him, and he hums around the fingers in his mouth.

The hand on his ass tightens, then readjusts, and there’s a finger that’s close to a part of him he wasn’t paying attention to before, but he is now. He pulls off Hua Cheng’s fingers and gasps, “Wait.”

Barely a heartbeat goes by, and Hua Cheng is going still, pulling his hand back, but Xie Lian catch his wrist and keeps it there, fingers glistening. There’s spit on Xie Lian’s chin, which—is not exactly sexy, but also not gross. He’s tilting forward, either because he’s losing some balance to pleasure or he just really wants to press his forehead to Hua Cheng’s. He does, and after a few breaths, he can speak.

“San Lang,” he says. “I think...I’d like your fingers inside me.”

Is that—sexy? Is that okay? To do it without the promise of something else after? He doesn’t know where it comes from but he wants it.

Hua Cheng’s mouth falls open, his eye clamps shut, and he goes very, very still. “Sorry, I just—one second,” Hua Cheng forces out, and Xie Lian realizes that he’s on the edge, and Xie Lian got him there. Xie Lian wants to preen.

When Hua Cheng opens his eye, Xie Lian can’t help kissing him.

“Are you sure?” Hua Cheng asks.

“Yeah. I really am.”

There’s shuffling and readjusting as Hua Cheng leans over to pull a bottle of lube from the bedside table, and then they settle back into place, Xie Lian straddling Hua Cheng, higher on his knees this time.

They give in to a period of just kissing, slow, amazing kisses that keep the interest tingling but don’t push it too far. Xie Lian always gets lost in it, loses sense of what the rest of him is doing and what Hua Cheng doing, so when slick fingers find his asshole, he jumps a little.

“Is this okay?” Hua Cheng asks. His finger is gentle, barely touching, and it’s not enough. Xie Lian shifts slightly, trying to get more contact.

“Yeah.”

Hua Cheng gives him more, rubbing across his opening, and oh, this is what Hua Cheng meant when he said lube makes things feel really nice. It makes a difference, transforms brief touch into something that can accumulate and build, and the more of this feeling he gets, the more of it he wants. He’s sensitive there, and he didn’t know he was. He wonders if he’ll be sensitive inside too.

“San Lang,” he says, when Hua Cheng’s strokes have him writhing. It’s almost a warning, and Hua Cheng takes the hint, grinning broadly.

The barest press of a finger has Xie Lian panting, and when it grows, he’s dropping his head to Hua Cheng’s shoulder.

“Tell me...Tell me…” Hua Cheng huffs out, but it must be overwhelming him too, because he can’t finish the sentence.

“San Lang, San Lang, San La—ahh!”

Hua Cheng’s finger is long, and when he starts dragging it out and pressing back in again, Xie Lian shudders. His awareness is fracturing into smaller impressions: Hua Cheng’s other hand on his hip steadying him, his own sounds falling from his mouth, the quivering of Hua Cheng’s thighs beneath him. There’s the overwhelming feeling of being full, but it has the promise of becoming even more so.

At one point, Hua Cheng pulls out, and Xie Lian bites his tongue on accident at the feeling of his body struggling around nothing. So far, this is the most uncomfortable part, but Hua Cheng is pouring more lube—there’s a lot of lube, actually, he can feel a stripe of it creeping down the inside of his thigh.

“Is that necessary?” he asks, ducking his head against Hua Cheng’s neck. From here he can see both his cock and Hua Cheng’s cocks, the differences in size and color, so close to each other. He presses forward experimentally and gasps in unison with Hua Cheng when their cocks brush.

“Trust me, gege,” Hua Cheng breathes. “I’ll make it good.”

He makes good on his promise. Two fingers slide in and Xie Lian is helpless to let out a keen. He’s rolling his hips forward—but that’s not right, because his hips are moving of their own accord, chasing the press of Hua Cheng’s fingers, grinding down and rocking back and forth. The movement tips him forward against Hua Cheng’s chest, and they’re pressed close together, moving together.

Xie Lian feels caught between a sigh and a scream. He’s holding Hua Cheng’s face, lost in the dark well of Hua Cheng’s eye, trying to memorize the the desperate tilt of his eyebrows, the abandoned fall of his mouth. Trying to stay present. Trying to feel everything. He shuffles closer until their cocks are rubbing, and Hua Cheng lets out a small sob and presses his forehead to Xie Lian’s shoulder. Xie Lian can only lace his fingers in Hua Cheng’s hair and hold on.

“I like making you feel good,” Hua Cheng is moaning between lavishing his tongue on Xie Lian’s collarbone. “I like it so much, babe, I like you so much, I love you—”

He cuts off sharply and groans, his fingers stilling, and Xie Lian feels a spurt of warmth between them. Xie Lian beams, lets out a breathy little laugh of pure joy, stroking Hua Cheng’s hair as he comes down, feeling fit to bursting, and only part of that feeling has to do with the beautiful fingers inside him.

When Hua Cheng lifts his head, there’s a new light in his eye. He captures Xie Lian’s mouth in a searing kiss and resumes the press of his fingers—but more insistently now, and Xie LIan groans at the feeling. Hua Cheng’s moving like he’s searching for something, his other arm wrapping around Xie Lian’s waist to pull him flush.

“Oh,” Xie Lian says as Hua Cheng jerks him forward almost roughly. “Oh.”

They’ve only just begun to explore the appeals of roughness, so every movement has stars breaking behind Xie Lian’s eyelids. Or maybe that’s Hua Cheng’s fingers, rubbing against some part inside him until he yelps and writhes. His thighs are burning, the small of his back protesting. And it’s altogether too much, and he can’t believe he can take it all, but he can and he loves it and he’s gasping, “Yes yes yes—” until the pleasure peaks and he comes, jerking in Hua Cheng’s arms. He’s clenching involuntarily around Hua Cheng’s fingers, and it makes him groan.

When he can open his eyes again, his head is resting on Hua Cheng’s shoulder, and he’s still sensitive, the aftershocks of his orgasm rising up and falling and rising again.

“Fuck,” he says, and it startles a laugh out of Hua Cheng. This close, the sound rumbles and transfers to Xie Lian, and he’s laughing too.

“I’m going to pull out,” Hua Cheng warns when they’ve stopped giggling.

Xie Lian groans but bears it, and then he gets two large hands, one warm and one slick, running up and down his back. Xie Lian wants to stay like this forever, but his thighs won’t let him. They don’t seem keen on letting him move either. He topples over onto the bed next to Hua Cheng and then curls back into him, touching everywhere he can.

“I really liked that,” he said. “In case you couldn’t tell.”

“Well, it’s nice to hear it anyway,” Hua Cheng says with a smile.

Xie Lian starts pressing kisses everywhere his lips can reach. “I liked it! I liked it, I liked it, I liked it! San Lang, I never thought I’d like anything like this ever, with anyone, but I like it so much with you.” He looks up to see Hua Cheng blushing but also smiling. “Just with you.”

Hua Cheng brushes a kiss against Xie Lian’s forehead. “Only with you.”

Chapter Text

It’s a weekend like Xie Lian hasn’t had in a long time. Maybe he hasn’t had one like it, ever.

He can’t remember the last time he slept in, but it must be the combination of his contented exhaustion and the blissful comfort of Hua Cheng’s bed, because when his eyes blink open the next morning, it’s to see light in the window. He’s had years of dark pre-dawn mornings, and he’s so disoriented that he almost bolts upright. But then a calm part of his brain latches on to the soft, musky scent of the sheets under him and identifies it as Hua Cheng’s scent. Safe. Home.

He falls back asleep.

He wakes some time later when he feels tiny feather-light strokes on his shoulder. When he wrenches an eye open, he can just make out Hua Cheng bent over him, his good eye hovering over his skin. Butterfly kisses. The thought makes him smile.

“Gege, it’s almost nine,” Hua Cheng murmurs.

Xie Lian can only manage a hum in return. Nine is very, very late in the morning to him. He relishes it.

“If you want to go out for breakfast, you have to get up.” Hua Cheng nudges Xie Lian’s arm, like he’s going to turn him over onto his back. Xie Lian burrows further into the bed.

“San Laaang, nooo,” he groans, because wow. He can’t remember the last time he felt this good waking up. Or sleeping. Or lying down in general. He’s filled abruptly with an overwhelming fondness for Hua Cheng and his stupid huge bed.

“I can order in,” Hua Cheng chuckles. “But you’ll still have to wake up to eat.”

“Just pour some coffee in my mouth,” he mumbles, but he’s already begun the climb out of sleep. He keeps his eyes closed, though, because the darkness is comforting and easy. His body feels soft and lovely. Hua Cheng feels soft and lovely. Everything feels soft and lovely.

“You don’t want to have breakfast with your boyfriend?” Hua Cheng is exaggerating a pout.

“Mmm, sorry, I’m in a committed relationship with your bed now. Just decided.”

“Thrown over in favor of furniture. Harsh.”

Xie Lian hums again, suppressing a giggle, but he does roll over until he feels his nose bump against Hua Cheng’s.

“You do that in your sleep, you know,” Hua Cheng murmurs.

“What.”

Hua Cheng mimics a contented little hum, and Xie Lian cracks an eye.

“You’re lying.”

“It’s true!” Hua Cheng laughs. And of course it is. Hua Cheng has never lied to him.

“I’ll believe it when I have proof,” Xie Lian says, opening his other eye and stretching like a cat. He sees the way Hua Cheng looks at him from where he slumps on the side of the bed. He’s already dressed, but in loose, casual clothing. Under the sheets, Xie Lian is still naked, and something about it seems both natural and illicit.

Xie Lian kicks a leg out from under the dark red sheet, exposing up to the thigh, and it’s all Hua Cheng can look at. He reaches out a hand—those long fingers tipped in black lacquer that Xie Lian has come to appreciate intimately—and caresses Xie Lian’s skin from calf to upper thigh.

Xie Lian shifts just so. “You said something about breakfast?”

Hua Cheng lets out a small laugh. “When did you get to be such a tease?”

“Tease? What are you talking about?” He shifts again. “Focus, San Lang. Breakfast.”

Hua Cheng presses himself down onto Xie Lian. “Breakfast can wait.”

-

While Xie Lian had been sleeping like the dead, Hua Cheng was in the studio. After a breakfast of coffee and pastries, Xie Lian pads into the studio after him and gasps when he sees that Hua Cheng has begun another sculpture.

“You’ve done this in just a few hours?” Xie Lian marvels, walking around the sculpture made from roughly applied clay that forms the coarse but also beautiful indication of a person’s torso. He can see the wiring toward the bottom like exposed metal bones, but near the face, the work is cleaner and more refined. It’s his face, simple and expressive and—beautiful. Like Hua Cheng’s sketches.

“Clay is pretty forgiving, not like metal,” Hua Cheng says.

Xie Lian finds the spare clay and presses a finger into it. It’s harder than he thought it would be; it doesn’t seem very forgiving.

“Show me,” he says, which is how he ends up elbow-deep in clay in front of something that’s vaguely in the shape of a head. Hua Cheng’s voice is in his ear, instructing him how to mold the material, how to translate what he sees and imagines into something he can touch. Their hands are covered in drying clay and dust, but Hua Cheng’s fingers guide his into gouging and smoothing, pinching and packing. All the while, Hua Cheng stands behind him, chest pressed against his back.

“Gege is a natural,” Hua Cheng says.

“Stop it,” Xie Lian laughs, reaching up with a block to pound the side of the head until it’s less lopsided. “I’m not an artist. But you are, and it’s amazing to watch you do this. I mean, how do you even make this—” he gestures at the head, which has a rough face-shape with a nose and cheekbones— “look like a person?”

He takes the wire modeling tool and uses it to press crude, uneven eyebrows into the face, which makes him laugh.

“Expressions are the hardest,” Hua Cheng says. “It’s as much about—like, what you see on people’s faces when they feel things, and what you know about them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, most people smile when they’re happy and frown when they’re sad. But with you—” Hua Cheng’s voice is gentle. “You’re more likely to smile when you’re sad. I have to know that about you to see what you look like when you’re sad. To put a smile on your face and know that it’s a happy one.”

Xie Lian doesn’t say anything. The modeling tool has gouged crescent eyes in the face too; one looks happy, the other sad.

“I guess,” he says, “I’ve gotten used to thinking that—maybe people will bother with me if it seems like. Like it’s not too hard to be around me?”

“Why would you think that?” Hua Cheng says, stricken.

“Not everyone is like you,” is all Xie Lian can think to say. Not everyone sees me like you do, is what he means. “Other people who have been with me—around me have made it pretty clear that it’s…a lot. It’s easier to pretend, I guess.” He looks down at his clay-covered hands. “That makes me seem like I’m lying to everyone.”

He has just the mouth left, half of it tilting up in a smile, the other jutting down. He pauses when he’s done and realizes he’s ruined the face, and he smears over the lines in the clay. Hua Cheng lets him, but he nuzzles into Xie Lian’s neck.

“You’re not lying,” he says. “I know you, gege. You put on a brave face, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I love you for it. And when you’re vulnerable with me—I love that too.”

Xie Lian smiles. “San Lang. You’re too good to me.” He leans into the touch. Hua Cheng’s arms come around him. Their hands and forearms are crusty, but it doesn’t keep them from clinging to each other.

“Let’s do something today,” Hua Cheng says. “Something you’ve always wanted to do. Anything.”

Xie Lian thinks. “Well. There is something. Not sure if you’d like it, though.”

“Why wouldn’t I like it?”

“Because you’re not good at it.”

-

“You’re right, I’m terrible at this,” Hua Cheng says, lifting up a whisk to watch a too-watery sauce splat back into the bowl.

“We both are,” Xie Lian replies, feeling disgustingly fond.

It was a cooking class. That’s what Xie Lian had wanted to do. And he has learned a lot, like the kind of oil you use does matter. And adding more salt and pepper doesn’t actually make things taste better if the milk you used was expired. And that he and Hua Cheng are pretty much destined to make terrible, terrible food forever.

They’re supposed to be making pasta. Xie Lian was in charge of the noodles, Hua Cheng the sauce. It’s a complete disaster, but they’re having so much fun that neither of them seem to mind. The teacher has already given up on helping them.

Hua Cheng looks into the bowl of white, liquidy sauce, and says with a shit-eating grin, “You know what this kind of looks like?”

“Don’t say it!” But Xie Lian is also laughing. “Can I try?” He opens his mouth so Hua Cheng can give him a taste of the sauce.

“Trust me, yours tastes better.”

“My…?” Xie Lian didn't make any sauce, so he’s confused. Until he sees Hua Cheng’s shit-eating grin widening. “San Lang!”

“I would know, I tasted it this morning.”

It’s so silly, like they’re misbehaving children. Xie Lian is cursing at him and threatening to beat him with a spatula, and he’s also giggling uncontrollably. Hua Cheng smothers his giggles with a kiss, and then they go back to assembling the worst meal ever made.

Xie Lian catches the eye of the woman at the station next to them.

“You two are really cute,” she says.

“Thanks!”

“Gege, the cum sauce is turning gray,” Hua Cheng calls, and the woman looks away. She doesn’t talk to them again.

-

They leave their awful food for the instructors to clean up, and then Hua Cheng drags him to a restaurant where they can eat the same meal they tried to prepare. It’s frighteningly fancy, the kind of place that reminds Xie Lian of the restaurants his parents would take him when he was young. The kind of place that has him glancing at his father’s watch on his wrist, the one he wears every day but can hardly bring himself to look at.

But Hua Cheng settles beside him, and Xie Lian can navigate a little easier around the memories. It’s been happening more often lately, catching uncomfortable reminders of his past, and he doesn’t know why it happens, but Hua Cheng always makes it better. They eat their pasta and lament their future as cooks, and Xie Lian is blisteringly happy.

He leaves to go to the bathroom, and when he comes back, he’s surprised to see Shi Qingxuan leaning over Hua Cheng. As he comes closer, it looks like she’s trying to loom over him for the purpose of intimidating him, but even on her stilettos, she’s small and adorable, and Hua Cheng looks two seconds away from laughing.

Shi Qingxuan beams when he reaches the table. “Xie-xiong! Look at you! On a date! With your boyfriend!”

Her enthusiasm makes him wince, but it’ good-natured. “It’s not like you didn’t know we were together,” he says.

“Yeah but to see it in action is even better,” she says, eyes flicking back and forth between them like she expects them to demonstrate their relationship. She waggles an eyebrow. “How are those sex toys, mh?”

“How’s your search history?” Hua Cheng replies smoothly, and Xie Lian doesn’t bother hiding his laugh.

Shi Qingxuan grins. “So he’s talented, rich, cute, and funny. Xie-xiong, you got a good one.”

“You forgot to mention that I’m in love with him,” Hua Cheng says, taking Xie Lian’s hand in his own.

“Just that alone makes you loads better than—”

Despite the warmth of Hua Cheng’s hand, a coldness crawls over Xie Lian. Shi Qingxuan thankfully realizes what she almost said, her eyes widening, and she snaps her mouth closed. Xie Lian dares a glance at Hua Cheng, who of course is looking at him. He always likes that Hua Cheng looks at him, but right now, he wishes Hua Cheng would look away.

“Anyway! Sorry to spoil your date!” Shi Qingxuan is scrambling to leave, and Xie Lian would feel bad if he didn’t suddenly feel sick. She turns back to him as she leaves and mouths, “Sorry.” She looks like she wants to slap herself.

She didn’t mean it. He knows she didn’t. It was her way of giving a compliment to Hua Cheng, and it’s such ancient history that she probably didn’t think about it, but it still leaves Xie Lian feeling fragile and sour, and he was having such a good time not so long ago.

“Want to head home?” Hua Cheng asks him, stroking the back of his hand with a thumb.

“Yeah.”

Hua Cheng’s apartment is the closest thing he has to home, and he aches for its safety. They walk back and fall into the ease they had earlier, but the rotten feeling in Xie Lian keeps spoiling away at the center of him.

-

Xie Lian knows something’s different as soon as he pushes Hua Cheng down on the bed. He doesn’t have the time to find out what it is, though, and he doesn’t want to anyway. All he wants is this. He has his hands up Hua Cheng’s shirt, his mouth sealed over Hua Cheng’s lips. He’s shocked by how easy this has become, and he’s glad for it. He wants to be distracted and be fully present at the same time. Nothing does that better than sex with Hua Cheng.

It started when he went into the bedroom to take off his father’s watch and came out wearing Hua Cheng’s oversized red sweater, the one that feels like wearing a cloud. Hua Cheng had made him tea to warm him up after their walk in the city, where the nights are still cold even at the beginning of summer, but he’d taken one look at Xie Lian and set the cups down.

“You’re doing this on purpose,” Hua Cheng says, taking in the cuffs falling over Xie Lian’s hands, the neck slumping off one bare shoulder.

“Doing what.” It’s not a question, because he is doing this on purpose for once. This is another facet of himself he didn’t know existed until experiments with Hua Cheng polished it and refined it. He likes seducing Hua Cheng. It’s extremely easy to do, but he likes being the one to cause that sharp spike of heat in Hua Cheng’s gaze.

On the bed, Hua Cheng uses his strength for evil and keeps Xie Lian from rushing, pins his hips to keep from grinding, stops him from immediately stripping off his clothes. Instead, Hua Cheng kisses him slow—in the way that they could kiss for hours, days, both of them both content and starving for it.

“Are you sure—” Hua Cheng asks, but Xie Lian doesn’t understand why he’s asking? He’s made his wants pretty clear at this point.

So he heaves himself on top and breathes a “yes” and starts lifting the sweater off his head. That seems to get Hua Cheng going because he stops Xie Lian’s hands and gets Xie Lian under him again, and then Hua Cheng undresses him slowly, leaves the sweater for last. He stops to look down at Xie Lian, sprawled in the sheets wearing nothing but red.

“I’m pretty sure this is cashmere,” Xie Lian says.

“What?”

“I’m just saying. It’s expensive. Probably don’t want to get it...dirty.”

And that’s all it takes to get Hua Cheng tugging it off and leaving him bare, and now he’s buzzing head to toe, every part of him exposed. He reminds himself that this overwhelming sense of vulnerability will pass, blinks and tries to focus as Hua Cheng starts taking off his clothes.

They’re skin to skin again, kissing again, like they were this morning. But something is different. Something else is here that hasn’t been when they’ve done this. They’ve already changed the sheets, and the edges of his body are still chilled from their outing, so maybe that’s what’s making him shiver. That’s what’s making him tug insistently at Hua Cheng. He’s just desperate for the warmth.

For once, Xie Lian doesn’t feel directionless—he just doesn’t care where they end up. He just wants this and how simple and fun and intimate it’s become between them. Even though it doesn’t feel as simple and fun and intimate as usual, but that will probably come later, with a little patience. He rakes his fingers down Hua Cheng’s back and feels scorched as Hua Cheng kisses down his neck. Hua Cheng seems to want to kiss every inch of him, but Xie Lian needs more than that and lets him know.

His mouth near Xie Lian’s navel, Hua Cheng asks, “Can I taste you?”

Hua Cheng already sucked him off this morning, and he would think that twice in one day is unfair, but Hua Cheng is enthusiastic about showing how much he loves it.

So Xie Lian says, “Yes.” Again. And then he loses himself in the kisses Hua Cheng lavishes on his cock, the gentle suckling he gives the tip, the series of pecks he leaves down the side. Xie Lian is here and he’s not. He’s gasping and stroking Hua Cheng’s hair. He hears himself laugh when Hua Cheng’s teeth find the inside of his thigh. Groans when Hua Cheng starts paying attention to his balls and then—actually kind of shockingly—to the area behind them.

“Yeah, yes,” he hears himself saying, then blinks a few times, not sure which question he’s answering. “What?”

“I asked, can I keep going?”

Xie Lian thought he was getting head. “Where?”

Hua Cheng’s finger brushes his entrance, like he did last night, but his face is down there too, and oh, is that what he means? That’s what he’s asking for?

“Only if you want to,” Hua Cheng says, but Xie Lian isn’t comfortable with the way Hua Cheng is looking at him, like he’s going to pull away and step back at any moment.

“Yes,” he finds himself saying. He has lost the shape of the word in his mouth.

And then Hua Cheng is pressing his thighs back against his chest, and he’s more exposed than he’s ever been, and Hua Cheng is mouthing softly toward his goal, and Xie Lian is losing more of himself than he wanted to because it leaves part of him blank and open and laser-focused on not this, and that’s not what he wants. He wants to be here, he wants to he present behind every sound he makes, every twitch he gives, as Hua Cheng’s tongue licks over him in gentle strokes, and Xie Lian’s eyes are so wide looking at the ceiling that they’re leaking, and the tickling of moisture crawling down his temple is what brings him back, and he gasps.

He thinks, inexplicably, of the face he carved in the clay. Laughing. Crying.

“San Lang, wait—wait—”

Hua Cheng’s mouth is gone in an instant. He’s probably asking what’s wrong, but Xie Lian can’t hear him. His legs are lowered back to the sheets, and with all of him more grounded, his breathing can start to even out.

“Babe?”

“I’m sorry,” he says, passing a hand over his face and keeping it there. “I’m—sorry.” He’s shaking all over, but none of the shivers carry a delicious edge. Xie Lian grits his teeth together.

“Don’t say sorry. Are you okay?” Hua Cheng asks, though judging by his voice, he already knows the answer. And he’s freaking out about it.

Xie Lian hates that he caused that. He just about took something from Hua Cheng—and then took something else when he had Hua Cheng stop. It’s clear now that he never should have let Hua Cheng touch him like this tonight, for both of their sakes, and the realization makes him feel small and stupid.

“I’m—” He almost says okay, but then he’s saying, “annoyed.”

“At me?”

“At me.”

Because he can’t enjoy this and had said yes anyway.

Hua Cheng’s hands are moving from his thighs to either side of him on the mattress, but he scoots closer all the same.

“Gege,” that quiet voice says, “it’s—”

And Xie Lian can’t hear it. “Don’t,” he snaps, uncovering his face. There’s worry in Hua Cheng’s face, and guilt, and love. “Don’t say it’s okay,” he continues, softer. “I won’t say I’m sorry if you don’t say it’s okay. Okay?”

Hua Cheng leans away. “I’m—going to go wash my mouth. Because you probably need a minute, and I want to be able to kiss you.” And then he’s sliding off the bed and into the bathroom, leaving Xie Lian on the bed.

After a few heartbeats, Xie Lian can’t bear his nakedness anymore. He feels like he used to—uncomfortable in his skin, ill-equipped to house desire of any kind. Maybe that’s what’s bothering him, he thinks as he pulls on his pants and Hua Cheng’s sweater. He’s back to who he used to be, and he feels like he was stupid for ever thinking he could change.

He doesn’t want to leave. But he doesn’t want to get back on the bed. He moves to the armchair in the corner and folds his legs under him, breathing carefully until he feels more contained. More prepared to face Hua Cheng when he comes out of the bathroom.

When Hua Cheng does come out, wearing only his black silk robe, he doesn’t look angry. Or disappointed, or distant, or frustrated. And Xie Lian feels bad for expecting any of those things.

Hua Cheng kneels in front of Xie Lian and doesn’t move to touch him.

“I’m sorry, gege,” Hua Cheng says, and he means it, like it was his fault. “I should have noticed.”

But Xie Lian is shaking his head. “It’s—I didn’t want you to notice. That’s my fault.” He’s really messed up this time.

“I’m better now,” Xie Lian says, because he wouldn’t mind if Hua Cheng reached out a hand to put on his bare ankle.

“I’m glad,” Hua Cheng says carefully. “Gege, I don’t want to push you. And if you don’t want to talk about this right now, I understand. But I feel like—I’ll just do more damage than good if I don’t know what’s okay.”

Xie Lian picks at the pattern on the armrest. “I don’t know. I don’t know why it was different? I don’t know why it wasn’t okay. And I’m—I know that’s frustrating.”

“It’s not.” Hua Cheng does reach for him now, and Xie Lian gets the steadying weight of his hand on his knee. “We said we’d go at your pace. I’m not frustrated with that. I never want you doing what you don’t want.”

“I did want it, San Lang.” How can Xie Lian explain it if he doesn’t understand it himself. “That’s pretty much all I know.”

Hua Cheng kneads his knee. “I’m going to say something. And you can tell me to fuck off. But. Is this about what Shi Qingxuan said earlier? Because—when she said it, your face changed. Like, completely.”

That bogwater feeling is back, except it never really left.

“You want to know if this is really my first relationship,” he says.

Hua Cheng is visibly struggling with that to say. “I’ll listen if you want to talk. But you don’t owe me anything, gege.”

“No, you should know.” Xie Lian covers Hua Cheng’s hand with his own. It’s not a matter of owing, exactly. He loves Hua Cheng too much. “This is my first relationship, I promise I never lied about that. It’s my first because—because what I had before wasn’t a relationship. Not really.”

He’s gripping Hua Cheng’s fingers too hard. “We didn’t—I didn’t go out with him or kiss him, or do anything like that with him. None of the things we’ve done, the talking or the dating or the sex. I know you’re not judging, I just need to make that clear.” He takes a shuddering breath. “But he was always around. For years. And at first, I didn’t mind—or I did, but. I don’t know.”

Xie Lian is blinking away tears, and his mouth is shaking around his words. “It kind of turned into hell? He made me feel like shit and I. I wanted to feel like shit. I was the worst person around him. And it kind of ended up ruining my life.” His fingers feel numb, and he realizes it’s because Hua Cheng is gripping his hand back as hard as he was. “I lost all my friends. I didn’t have any family. I’ve been alone ever since.” It’s the tipping point, and the tears spill over. “Um. I’m sorry?” He scrubs at his eyes. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

“Gege—”

He can’t look at Hua Cheng, he just has to get the tears off his face.

“It was a long time ago, I don’t know why I’m—”

“Gege.”

Xie Lian blinks, and he sees tears on Hua Cheng’s face too. He lets himself wrap his arms around Hua Cheng and sink to the floor, where they hold each other until their eyes are dry. Xie Lian feels hollow and threadbare, and that’s a familiar feeling from the past too, but this time, he has Hua Cheng.

“You don’t remind me of him,” Xie Lian says eventually. “I need you to know that. I’m not sure why—why this happened, but it’s not that.”

Hua Cheng hums and holds him, centering him with long strokes on his back. It makes Xie Lian feel sleepy and grateful, and that almost triggers tears again.

“Have you heard about the button analogy?” Hua Cheng’s voice is low and tired in the way crying makes you tired.

“Hm?” is all Xie Lian can manage.

“It’s like...your life is a box, and there’s a button on the inside, and when it’s pressed, you feel pain. And there’s a ball inside the box. At first, it’s so big that every time it moves and bounces, it hits the button. But over time, the box gets bigger—or the ball gets smaller? Until it hardly ever hits the button.” He tightens his arms around Xie Lian. “But sometimes it still will, even years later. It doesn’t mean the box got smaller. It just happens. And that’s o—it sucks. But I’m here.”

Xie Lian smiles, which feels good, and kisses Hua Cheng’s neck, which feels even better. “San Lang?” he whispers just as his knees are starting to ache on the carpet.

“Hm?”

“I was enjoying it,” Xie Lian says, his voice sounding small. “I really liked it. I want to try again sometime.”

Hua Cheng smiles against his hair. “I know.”

“I like everything I do with you.” Xie Lian pulls back to make eye contact. He feels—less like a shitty boyfriend and more like he wants Hua Cheng to know how much he means to Xie Lian. “I feel safe with you. I’ve never felt the things I feel with you with anyone else. I like everything we’ve done, and I want to do everything else. I’m so. I’m rambling. But I mean it. I love you. I love you so much.”

Hua Cheng kisses him, and they end up lying on the floor, just holding each other. They stay like that, talking quietly, until they ache from the floor and crawl to the bed together, laughing.

Chapter Text

Hua Cheng drives Xie Lian home late Sunday night, and more than ever, Xie Lian doesn’t want to leave. And this time, sitting in the passenger’s seat of Hua Cheng’s car, he’s the one to say it.

“I really…don’t want to go. Is that okay to say?”

Last night, Xie Lian had thought the weekend was ruined, but there was something even sweeter in their touches, their laughter. Xie Lian feels more at peace than he thought possible. He is so in love.

Hua Cheng leans across the gear shift to press his forehead to Xie Lian’s.

“I never want you to go, gege.”

“But I have to,” Xie Lian sighs. “Work.”

Hua Cheng looks like he wants to say something for a moment, but all he does say is, “See you soon?”

Xie Lian kisses him and this time, he gets to say, “Call me when you get home safe.”

-

He stays over the next weekend too, and it’s heaven to sleep wrapped up in Hua Cheng. It’s heaven to buy groceries with him and argue over whether the name brand or cheap version is better. It’s heaven to always have Hua Cheng nearby to touch and kiss and pull down on top of him when his wanting gets to be too much.

They spend the weekend mostly in the apartment, and mostly in bed. Xie Lian is relieved to discover that his confession from last week hasn’t killed his desire or Hua Cheng’s. They kiss and fool around and use the giant bathtub Hua Cheng never bothers with. Hua Cheng sculpts the statue of Xie Lian more, and Xie Lian teases that it’s just an excuse to stare at Xie Lian’s arms for extended periods of time. They wear sheets like robes around the apartment instead of clothes and very nearly get caught in a compromising position when Yin Yu comes to deliver some sculpting supplies Hua Cheng had asked for.

“Oh,” Xie Lian says when he opens the door, pulling the sheet around him tighter. “Dear lord. I’m so sorry!”

Xie Lian hasn’t even met Hua Cheng’s PA before, and the fact that this is his first impression—kind of makes him want to die quietly of embarrassment.

Hua Cheng comes up behind him, bare to the waist, and takes the supplies from a stoic Yin Yu.

“Thanks,” he says. “Now kindly fuck off.”

“See you Monday, boss,” Yin Yu says, but there is something mischievous in the way he says it. Like he’s looking forward to reminding Hua Cheng of this in the future.

To his surprise, he’s still learning things about himself, and about Hua Cheng. He learns that he likes it when Hua Cheng lets him take control and take his time, even though it’s halting at first. There’s an extra measure of satisfaction there, when he has sought it out himself.

He learns that Hua Cheng, pale though he is, blushes on his chest and his back and his ass and his thighs when Xie Lian fingers him. It’s like watching one of those timelapses of a flower blooming, pinkness washing over ivory, and it drives Xie Lian crazy, as much as the tight heat around his fingers does.

He learns that Hua Cheng earns more from a single commission than XIe Lian does in an entire year, and he still has no idea what to get Hua Cheng for his upcoming birthday. And it bothers him.

Luckily, he has more time to figure it out. Hua Cheng is going out of town for a gallery opening, and he’ll be gone a week. Xie Lian’s heart sinks an inch or two when he hears, but it lurches back up when Hua Cheng asks him to stay at his apartment while he’s gone.

“Just to keep an eye on things,” Hua Cheng says. “I know it will be inconvenient to get to work, so you don’t have to if—”

“Yes,” Xie Lian says, “of course, San Lang.” Because Hua Cheng doesn’t often ask for help, and Xie Lian loves giving it. He grins. “Anything to sleep in your bed.”

He means that he’s legitimately in love with Hua Cheng’s mattress, but Hua Cheng’s cheeks pink slightly, and that makes him laugh.

“Speaking of which,” Hua Cheng says, standing. “I have something for you.”

“For the bed?” Xie Lian is so confused as he watches Hua Cheng walk away, and then even more so when Hua Cheng comes back carrying a container the size of a shoe box. He settles next to Xie Lian and passes the box over.

“What is it.” Xie Lian resists the urge to shake the box. If it’s something cheap, it will thunk around inside, and if it shatters, it will have been too expensive for him to accept anyway. That’s his reasoning. And he shouldn’t be the one getting presents! It’s Hua Cheng’s birthday soon; what does it mean that Xie Lian is the one getting a gift right now? He must be the most selfish boyfriend—

“Calm down,” Hua Cheng says with a chuckle, as if he can hear Xie Lian’s spiraling thoughts. “Don’t worry, we talked about this.”

Xie Lian frowns down at the box. “We did?” He doesn’t remember. But he does when he eases the lid off and looks inside. Then closes it again.

He’s blushing. He can feel the heat on his neck. And he’s also grinning and trying to keep the grin from being too wide, too telling.

“San Lang,” he says, then presses his lips together. He opens the box again, ducking his head to look at the contents.

“Is this okay?” Hua Cheng sounds like he’s fighting nervous laughter.

There are three of them. The smallest is a little thicker than an inch, the next one bigger, and the third one. Significantly larger. They all have flared ends and familiar rounded tops, and the two smaller ones have a uniform shape and color. The largest one—Xie Lian can’t stare too long because Hua Cheng is looking at him and his skin already feels like it’s baking from the inside out—looks almost like a work of art.

“There’s some other stuff in there, lube and condoms. I don’t know if you have them already, I just wanted to make sure—”

Xie Lian closes the box again and sets it aside, and then he crawls into Hua Cheng’s lap.

“Thank you,” he says, words muffled in a kiss. “I’m going to love them.”

Hua Cheng looks pleased but also slightly pained, like he’s just realizing that he has given his boyfriend a box of dildos right before he’s about to leave for a week.

“Are you sure you want to go on this trip?” Xie Lian asks slyly.

Hua Cheng pulls him closer, hands splayed on his hips. “Just be sure to keep me updated on any...developments.”

-

The first day of Hua Cheng’s absence, Xie Lian discovers that the doorman in Hua Cheng’s building knows him. He opens the door for Xie Lian and calls the elevator for him, not even remarking on his work clothes and his packed bag. He also finds out that the cleaning service comes on Mondays, because some time between parting that morning with Hua Cheng and coming back tonight, the place has been rendered spotless.

He also discovers that the apartment is lonely with just him there. Suddenly there’s one extra bedroom and an empty studio and an echoing kitchen. How does Hua Cheng live here on his own? It feels weird to keep all the lights on, but he doesn’t want to waste energy, so he keeps them off and curls up in Hua Cheng’s bed, which is still deliciously comfortable, but a little colder. Just as his loneliness starts feeling more pronounced, Hua Cheng calls him.

“Did you say something once about getting a cat?” Xie Lian asks him at one point, vaguely remembering a distant conversation on the topic.

“Yeah, why?”

“I think you should. It would be nice to have someone else here while you’re gone.”

“We should go to the shelter sometime, then.”

They talk late into the night, until Xie Lian falls asleep. In the morning, he finds that he used nearly all of his prepaid minutes, but it was worth it. If he has to survive a week without Hua Cheng, he’ll need more.

-

The second day, it occurs to Xie Lian that even though Hua Cheng asked him to stay at his apartment while he’s gone, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s okay to use all his stuff? So he swings by his dim little flat after work and packs two more bags with his towels and shampoo an a pillow, and he realizes he’ll need more clothes so he packs pretty much all of them, as well as his own detergent.

It’s only when he gets back to Hua Cheng’s apartment and sees all of his drab, cheap things in Hua Cheng’s space that this was probably all due to a momentary panic. Hua Cheng has always been generous with his belongings, so of course he wouldn’t mind Xie Lian using his towels. Xie Lian washes his things and tucks them among Hua Cheng’s anyway, making a mental note to retrieve them when the week is over.

That night, he opens the box to get more familiar with the toys Hua Cheng gave him. He’s not in the mood to use them tonight, but he does want to look at them more than he did when he got them. He can hold them in his hands and test their shape, learn now can grip them. He’s staring at the big one when Hua Cheng calls.

“Hey, babe!”

“San Lang, did you make this one?” Xie Lian says, forgetting that Hua Cheng isn’t next to him like he usually is.

“Huh?” Then, before Xie Lian can clarify, Hua Cheng says, “Oh. Why do you ask?”

Which probably means yes. “Because,” Xie Lian says, lifting it in one hand to analyze it more closely, “it kind of looks like yours.”

There’s popping silence. “Looks...like I made it? Or—”

“It looks like your cock.”

Hua Cheng sounds like he’s coughing on the other end, or choking. “What?”

“I mean, I can definitely tell you made it now.” Hua Cheng put his signature stamp into the silicon on the bottom, which makes Xie Lian smile and decide to take the piss a bit. “Question is, did you model it after your own, and if you did, is it the same size?—”

“No! Gege, how can you say such a thing?” Hua Cheng is definitely laughing now, and at least half of his indignance is faked.

“Because it curves the way yours does,” Xie Lian says, pleased that he knows Hua Cheng well enough to know this.

Hua Cheng sputters a laugh. “Any resemblance to actual cocks attached to boyfriends is purely coincidental!”

Xie Lian grins. “Okay, but I have a very important question for you.”

“What?”

“Which is bigger? This, or—”

“I’m not answering that.”

Xie Lian is giggling helplessly, and after a moment, Hua Cheng says, “I miss you.”

“I miss you too.” Xie Lian swallows a lump in his throat—it’s only day two! He’s got to get ahold of himself. “Tell me about your day.”

“Only after you’ve put the dildo down.”

“San Lang!”

-

The third day, he works late at the foreman’s request, and he misses Hua Cheng’s call. It depresses him so much that he gets straight in bed when he gets home and falls asleep, curling into Hua Cheng’s pillow and breathing in the smell of him. But he wakes up an hour later when his phone rings, Hua Cheng’s voice low and sweet on the other end.

“Sorry,” Xie Lian murmurs, his eyes still shut, teetering on the edge of sleep, “sorry, San Lang, sorry.”

“It’s okay, gege.”

“I miss you, San Lang, I miss you and I love you.”

“I miss you and I love you too,” Hua Cheng says. He sounds like he’s smiling. “Go to sleep.”

He does.

-

The fourth day, he calls Shi Qingxuan, and she picks up almost immediately with an apology.

“Xie-xiong, I am so sorry, I really am,” she says. “I didn’t mean—my fucking huge mouth—”

“It’s okay, I’m not mad anymore,” Xie Lian says, and it’s true. He was mad, for several days, actually. But that’s left him now, and he knows she didn’t mean anything by it.

But she still sounds upset. “I hate that I reminded you of that time,” she almost whispers. “You looked so happy and I went and. I’m a bad friend.”

“You’re not! You’re one of the best friends I have. And...it needed to happen. I talked to Hua Cheng about it. I needed to get that out.”

“I really like him,” she says. “I mean, he’s arrogant and insufferable around pretty much everyone, but he’s so nice and kind around you. He treats you like a prince.”

“Yeah,” he says, feeling fond and warm. “Speaking of which, that present he got me?”

He tells her. She laughs so hard, he has to hold the phone away from his ear until it dies down.

“I can’t decide if this is the most ridiculous or the most romantic present I’ve ever heard of.”

“Trust me, it’s both.”

Shi Qingxuan is still laughing. “I’m sorry,” she says, except it doesn’t sound like she’s saying it to him. “I’m sorry—oh, Xie-xiong, you’ll never guess who I’m having dinner with right now.”

“Uh,” Xie Lian says. “Can’t be your goth boyfriend, he’s with Hua Cheng.”

“Our old school friends,” she says, and Xie Lian’s stomach jumps into his throat. “Here, I’ll put you on speaker.”

“Wait—don’t—” This is the last thing he needs right now.

“Who is that?” a hard voice asks, slightly distant. “We’re eating.” Xie Lian is expecting one of two voices, and he can easily identify this as Mu Qing.

“Guess!” Shi Qingxuan says.

There’s silence, and it’ll keep going on until Xie Lian says, “Uh. Hi?”

“Xie Lian?” That’s Feng Xin, and suddenly Xie Lian is seventeen years old again, back before—well, back before everything.

“Yeah,” he says, chewing his lip. He hasn’t spoken to them in years, not since everything went bad, and he’s not sure he can handle an impromptu reunion.

There’s more awkward silence, made only slightly bearable by the fact that they’re not face to face.

“Well. How—how are you?” Feng Xin asks. Not exactly friendly, but not exactly unfriendly either. “What have you been up to?”

Xie Lian freezes. He’s a temp. A temp who currently works construction and lives in a glorified cardboard box on the bad side of town. From what Shi Qingxuan has told him, Feng Xin is in publishing and Mu Qing is working his way up as a designer at a fashion house. They’ve both had to work hard, but there’s—some sort of class difference between them now.

“Uh—” he says.

“Currently pining after his boyfriend who’s away on a trip,” Shi Qingxuan interjects. “Speaking of which, you had something you wanted to ask?”

Xie Lian shakes his head, even though no one can see it. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were busy, Shi Qingxuan. I’ll call you later.”

“No, no, you were about to ask me something, weren’t you?”

“Yeah, it’s. Not a question to ask while you’re in public.”

“We’re not, we’re at my apartment.” Her voice is closer now, probably having taken him off speaker. “Why? Oh, is this about—”

“I’ll call you later,” he grits out. He’s sweating. “I’m hanging up.”

“No, don’t! I need to help and make up for the last mistake I made.”

“Well, I need instructions on how to fuck myself with the dildo my boyfriend gave me, can you help me out with that over dinner?” Xie Lian snaps.

He hears faint choking, a clattering sound.

“Probably a bad time to remind you you’re still on speaker,” Shi Qingxuan says.

“Oh fuck,” Xie Lian breathes.

“You didn’t used to swear,” comes Mu Qing’s voice. So Feng Xin must be the one choking.

“Well, I do fucking now,” Xie Lian says, even though he doesn’t make a habit of it. “Shi Qingxuan—”

“We can help with this.” Shi Qingxuan is using her business voice, like they’re discussing a contract. “I’ve been waiting for you to ask, actually. So, how big is it?”

Xie Lian is shaking his head again. Alarmingly, he feels very much on the edge of laughter. “I’m not doing this.”

“Probably fairly standard, I’m guessing. Still, since you’ve never done it, you’ll want to start small—”

“I’m begging you to not—” Xie Lian says just as he hears Feng Xin say, “Shi Qinxuan, what the fuck is wrong with you!”

“What? We can’t let him figure it out on his own. Listen to me, Xie-xiong.”

She goes on to give him a lot of advice, going beyond instructions to care and storage advice, and it’s actually a lot more useful than he thought it would be. Once he gets over the mortification, he takes notes, barely speaking and ignoring all but the most insufferable of her innuendos.

“Any questions? Did I mention everything?”

“I cannot believe you,” Feng Xin growls.

“You can never use too much lube,” Mu Qing says.

Xie Lian chokes on air and coughs. On the phone, Shi Qingxuan is laughing.

“Figured out the problem of the birthday present yet?”

“No.” Xie Lian is happy to change the subject. “He’s impossible to buy for. And my budget isn't great. And then he goes and gives me these and asks me to stay at his apartment—”

“You’re staying at your boyfriend’s apartment? Alone?” This is Feng Xin, and he sounds suspicious. “Why?”

“Uh. Because he asked me to? He’s at that thing with He Xuan.” Xie Lian doesn’t really understand the question.

“He’s another artist, you might have heard of him,” Shi Qingxuan says. “Hua Cheng?”

Mu Qing is the first to shout. “Xie Lian is dating that smug asshole?”

“Hey!” Xie Lian says, but not loud enough.

“Shut up, that’s his boyfriend,” Feng Xin hisses.

“The guy is a bastard!”

“Oh my god. Give me a second.” Shi Qingxuan sounds almost sane as the arguing fades into the background, until it’s just them.

“Thanks for this,” Xie Lian says dryly. “Really want them knowing about my sex life.”

“Oh, come on, we’re all friends. Wait, why are you at Hua Cheng’s apartment by yourself?” Shi Qingxuan asks. “Does he have, like, a security problem or something?”

“Not really…”

“Or a pet to take care of?”

“No. But he’s thinking about getting—”

“Is your apartment flooded? Did it burn down?”

“No! What are you—”

“Oh my god.” Shi Qingxuan sighs. He can almost hear her covering her eyes with a hand. “Xie-xiong. You’re—you know what? You’ll figure it out.”

-

The fifth day, Xie Lian calls Hua Cheng at the time they have taken to calling each other, late enough that work is over for both of them and they're in bed, lonely.

Except when Hua Cheng picks up, he doesn't sound like he's in bed.

“Gege?” he half-shouts.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says breathlessly, then groans.

“Are you okay? You sound weird.”

Xie Lian wasn't expecting to hear a crowd of voices behind Hua Cheng’s words, and he's caught off guard. “I'm—okay. What are you—”

“Hang on, let me get somewhere quiet.”

Xie Lia can make out movement on the other end, a door shutting.

“I thought you'd be in bed,” he says, trying to keep his breath from hitching.

“He Xuan dragged me out to some—are you sure you're okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I am so okay, San Lang.” He cuts off because he accidentally drops the phone. Turns out it's hard to keep a phone pressed to your ear when you're fucking yourself with a dildo. “Oops. Just thought you’d want—that update you asked for. Hhha.”

Hua Cheng goes silent for a moment. “Are you…?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Oh my god.” Hua Cheng is whispering. Xie Lian can picture him, hand pressed over his mouth, eye closed. He hums again and gets heavier breathing from Hua Cheng as a reward.

“Which one,” Hua Cheng says.

“The biggest one.” He groans at the same time Hua Cheng does, and it makes him want to laugh. “Which may—or may not resemble—”

“Not this again—” But Hua Cheng doesn’t sound annoyed. At all.

“It's so good, San Lang. I—kind of worried that I wouldn't like it, like maybe there's a conspiracy where people just pretend to like things shoved up their asses, but—” He lets out a little sigh. “It’s good.”

“Gege.” Hua Cheng sounds like he's choking. “I mean, you took my fingers before, you liked that.”

“That was different,” Xie Lian breathes. “That was you.”

“Fuck. I wish I were there. I want to be there so bad—”

Xie Lian grins, knowing that Hua Cheng can hear the rhythmic shifting of the sheets as he moves. “Does this make you want to come back sooner? Wasn't my plan, but…”

“That, and buy you a phone with a proper camera.”

Xie Lian sputters and moans, thinking of a video of this, of him, sending that to Hua Cheng, getting something in return.

“That's dirty, San Lang,” he says, trying to sound indignant but he just sounds wrecked. He's moving more in earnest now, and he should have known that Hua Cheng’s voice would do this to him. “Ahhh—oh—my—”

“Keep going, oh my god,” Hua Cheng breathes, his breaths matching the ratcheting pace of Xie Lian’s. It makes Xie Lian wonder.

“Are you…?”

“No, but I wish I were,” Hua Cheng says, longing in his voice. There's a muffled banging, maybe a shout.

“Where are you?”

“In a closet, next to a mop,” Hua Cheng says. “I was in such a bad mood, gege, everyone's a pompous ass, and now they're all drunk pompous asses, and I really don't want to be here—” Definitely note banging this time. “Hold on—fuck off, He Xuan!”

Xie Lian is shifting his position, growing more desperate, and he wants Hua Cheng in his ear, but he's also picked the worst time. “Maybe you should go…”

“Don't stop, gege, please don't stop, let me hear you.”

So he does, letting his body find a rhythm it likes, happy that it does know what it likes and can lead him there. He finds an angle that glances his thrusts off his prostate, and he's babbling at Hua Cheng with every movement, saying things like I miss you and I love you and I love the cock you made for me. He can hear He Xuan, presumably, banging on the door, but Hua Cheng encourages him until he can't wait and he ruts against the sheets and comes.

Xie Lian lets out a little whew, collapsing on the bed, unable to say anything.

“Two days,” comes Hua Cheng's voice, quiet and steady like a mantra. Xie Lian imagines him, eye closed, standing in a dark closet, rock-hard. “Just two more days. Just two days, babe.”

“Two days,” Xie Lian murmurs, smiling into the sheets.

-

The sixth day, it’s Hua Cheng who calls him, already started on his own, and just like that, Xie Lian is hungry for it. He’s starting to understand that sometimes, the hunger comes on its own, but not often. Mostly, it’s tied directly to Hua Cheng, in relation to him. He can burn on his own, like hot coals, but it’s Hua Cheng’s voice in his ear that turns him into a forest fire.

-

The seventh day is spent waiting.

-

Hua Cheng takes an early flight, so he’s at the apartment before Xie Lian gets home. Just like it used to be. The lights are on when Xie Lian opens the door, and items and clothes are strewn here and there, like Hua Cheng unpacked in a frenzy. Hua Cheng is nowhere to be seen, but the place feels less empty than it did. Xie Lian creeps into the master bedroom and finds Hua Cheng snoring softly on the bed. Judging by the clothes surrounding him, he fell asleep in the midst of folding laundry.

Xie Lian wants to kiss him awake. He wants to wrap his arms around Hua Cheng and not let go for half an hour. Instead, he quietly folds the laundry and puts it away. Hua Cheng sleeps through it. Xie Lian orders food too, since his cooking would not be a pleasant welcome home present. Hua Cheng sleeps through the doorbell ringing and Xie Lian accidentally dropping a fork in the sink.

Finally, Xie Lian crawls on top of him, brushes hair from his face, and says with a too-loud voice, “San Lang, He Xuan is here and he brought one of his giant fish!”

Hua Cheng’s eye splits open as he jerks awake. He blinks several times before he relaxes and glares at Xie Lian. “Not funny.”

Xie Lian thinks it’s very funny, just as he thinks it’s very funny that Hua Cheng unashamedly thinks He Xuan’s fish skeletons are tacky and just spent a week telling He Xuan exactly that.

“You better wake up now, or you won’t get sleep tonight,” Xie Lian says, leaning down to nuzzle Hua Cheng’s hair. Hua Cheng’s arms come around him and pull him down completely so they’re pressed together from head to toe.

“Hi,” says Hua Cheng.

“Hmm. Hi.”

Xie Lian kisses him tenderly, finding him flushed and warm from sleep, and pliant. He can guide Hua Cheng’s head to the side and deepen the kiss, and Hua Cheng lets him, groaning with it, a gentle, rumbling sound that Xie Lian can feel in his lips and almost taste.

“There’s food,” he pulls back to say, when they’ve kissed each other breathless, sunk down into the mattress. “I ordered dinner.”

“Mmm.” Hua Cheng sucks a mark under Xie Lian’s chin. “Can we reheat it?”

Xie Lian laughs. “Anything for you, my San Lang.”

“I just—really missed you,” Hua Cheng says between kisses, letting his hands explore Xie Lian carefully and thoroughly, like he’s never touched before. Xie Lian returns the favor, pressing firmly over the muscles of Hua Cheng’s back, feeling the smoothness and the imperfections, the ridges of bone in places. “I don’t want you thinking I’m too attached, but.”

“It was a long week,” Xie Lian agrees. “I hated it.”

“You hated staying here?” Hua Cheng laughs, but there’s also an edge of worry there.

“No! No, that part was great. A little lonely, but I like it here. It feels like—” Home, he almost says. “It feels good. And your bed.” He moans the words, pulling Hua Cheng on top of him. “I’ve done some things in this bed, San Lang. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Things like…?” Hua Cheng is fishing for details, just as he’s fishing for the hemline of Xie Lian’s shirt, which he finds and drags upward. Xie Lian grabs it and pulls it off all the way.

“I got naked in your bed,” Xie Lian says, proud that he only blushes a tiny bit at the confession. “And I used the things you got me.” He’s lifting off Hua Cheng’s shirt and rubbing his hands up and down Hua Cheng’s chest, like he’s greedy for the feeling of his skin. “Started with my fingers first. Then I used the smallest one. Worked my way up.”

Hua Cheng groans and kisses him, and Xie Lian loses himself in the tangle of tongues and heaving breaths. He loses himself until he feels Hua Cheng rut against him, and it sends fire shooting through him, pleasure singeing even in his fingertips.

“San Lang,” he gasps, “I’m ready, I want you to fuck me, please, fuck me, fuck me.”

Hua Cheng pulls back sharply. “What?”

“I don’t want to wait anymore,” Xie Lian says. “I’ve—I want it and I think I can have it. With you.” It feels good to say the words, confirming what he has felt recently. That goal doesn’t seem so unreachable now. It would be bearable to go there—better than bearable, now that he knows he can do it. And he wants it.

Hua Cheng gazes down at him with one bright eye, hair mussed, lips kissed red. “Are you sure?” he asks, brushing an errant lock of hair from Xie Lian's forehead.

“I'm sure,” Xie Lian says, grateful that this time, he feels the words as he says them. “I'm really sure. I want this with you.” He leans up, wraps his arms around Hua Cheng, breathing in his scent. “I don't want this with anyone else.”

Hua Cheng bears him down on the bed, their kissing growing heated and more urgent, the promise of it tangling comfortably in Xie Lian’s stomach. At some point, they exchange clumsy, open-mouthed kisses as they shuck off their pants, and Xie Lian laughs when his socks are whipped off in one go by Hua Cheng’s fingers.

They're naked, and Xie Lian loves the feeling, loves being able to touch all of Hua Cheng, watching him shiver as he runs a finger from his hipbone up his side to caress over one dark nipple. Hua Cheng catches his hand and says, “I know you're not supposed to say this during sex, but—I love you.”

Xie Lian laughs. “Since when is that a rule between us?” He clambers up to kiss Hua Cheng's cheekbone. “I love you.” A kiss over his eyepatch. “I love you.” And he continues on pressing kisses that leave slight red marks down his neck, across his clavicle, over the point of his shoulder. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng gasps, a hand gently gripping his hair.

Xie Lian thinks back to a time when love had been the easy thing, and sex had been hard. Now he can't divorce the two from each other. This is an act of love, and he barrels into it joyfully.

Hua Cheng’s hands touch him—a little unsure, actually, which is weird—but don't demand anything of him, so he's the one to push Hua Cheng down on the bed, straddling his legs and pressing down until he can feel the gasps shuddering in Hua Cheng’s stomach. He shivers slightly and reaches to gather Hua Cheng’s warmth, spreading his body to cover as much heated skin as he can. He relishes the growing pink on Hua Cheng’s chest, the press of his sharp hip bones against Xie Lian’s.

“San Lang,” he breathes, even though he has nothing more or less than this to say. He thinks about how soon, he will have Hua Cheng’s fingers inside him, Hua Cheng’s cock, how it will be different but also similar, and how he’s not reluctant or ashamed anymore

Their breaths flicker into each other’s mouths as they kiss, and Xie Lian drags his hips against Hua Cheng’s, almost without thinking. He gasps at the friction of their cocks sliding together and does it again. And again, and again, until Hua Cheng makes a sound into the kiss.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says again, and it sounds different. It’s forced out around a held breath. Hua Cheng usually gasps and whines, but this sounds like—pleading. His voice is ragged in a way that makes Xie Lian pause, more tinged with desperation than Xie Lian is comfortable with.

His hips stop their movement, and he pulls back to look at Hua Cheng’s flushed face. Hua Cheng has one hand over his good eye, his mouth gaping like a landed fish, but he’s not really breathing.

“Are you okay?” Xie Lian asks. “San Lang?”

“Yeah—I’m—” Hua Cheng’s voice is strained. “Uh.”

Xie Lian sits back on his heels, and Hua Cheng reaches out for him.

“No, don’t, it’s okay—”

“Are you sure?” Xie Lian catches the reaching hand and holds it. It’s trembling. “San Lang.”

Hua Cheng finally looks at him. He lets out his captive breath, sounding a little panicked, a little ashamed. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can—”

Xie Lian is scrambling off Hua Cheng and falling to his side on the mattress. He pulls Hua Cheng close, strokes his hair, feels Hua Cheng’s arms come around him.

“It’s okay,” he says and keeps saying. “We don’t have to do anything, it’s all right.”

“Dammit,” Hua Cheng says, pulling back and scrubbing a hand over his face. “I feel like an idiot. You’re finally ready and asking me, and I—gege, I’m really sorry—”

Xie Lian flicks Hua Cheng’s nose. “I’ve been waiting to do that, you have no idea.”

Hua Cheng sputters into laughter, and it relieves an ache inside Xie Lian to see him smile.

“San Lang, what are you always saying? I don’t want to do anything you don’t want to do. It’s the same for me.”

Hua Cheng sighs. He presses his forehead against Xie Lian’s, the warm breath of his mouth ghosting across Xie Lian’s cheek. “I just—I’m in my own head about it, I guess.”

Xie Lian frowns. “Are you worried?” Sometimes, Xie Lian forgets that Hua Cheng hasn’t been with anyone else either. It would be a first time for both of them, as much a cause for anxiety for Hua Cheng has it was for Xie Lian.

“It’s just—” Hua Cheng looks away. “I’ve liked you for a long time, gege. I can’t...I would never forgive myself if I hurt you.”

“You wouldn’t!”

“What I mean is, it needs to be good for you,” Hua Cheng insists. “It needs to be perfect. That’s what you deserve.” His voice is smaller than Xie Lian has ever heard it.

Xie Lian’s frown disappears and he feels his face smoothing into understanding as he frames Hua Cheng’s face with his hands. “How is that fair? I haven’t been perfect. I haven’t,” he repeats as Hua Cheng makes to disagree. “And you don’t have to be perfect either. I don’t want that. I just want you.”

“I know. It’s stupid.”

“It’s not! As someone who’s done a lot of worrying about this, I can promise you it’s not.”

Hua Cheng lets out a more contented sigh when Xie Lian kisses his forehead. They settle into each other, still naked, a little chilly, but warm enough with Hua Cheng’s arms around his waist, Xie Lian’s around Hua Cheng’s neck.

“I do want to, just to be clear,” Hua Cheng says. “And it’s not like we have to schedule it or anything.”

“Oh, okay, I’ll take it off the calendar,” Xie Lian murmurs against Hua Cheng’s neck, which shakes with laughter. “There’s no rush. I’m not going anywhere.”

Chapter Text

Xie Lian finds himself trekking to Hua Cheng’s apartment every night that week and staying the night too. Either Hua Cheng calls and asks him over, or Xie Lian is the one asking, and the answer is always yes. His commute is not great, but he doesn’t tell Hua Cheng that.

He comes home one night to find Hua Cheng sitting on the floor, scrolling on his phone, surrounded by cat supplies.

“Oh?” Xie Lian says as he shuts the door, taking in the bed, the carrier, scratching post, litter box, toys— “OH? Are you—?”

“You did say it would feel less empty in here,” Hua Cheng says, looking only a little sheepish and excited too. He shows his phone to Xie Lian; he’s looking at pictures of cats up for adopting at a local shelter. “I probably jumped the gun with all this. But I’ve always wanted a pet.”

Xie Lian takes the phone and starts scrolling, cooing at every image he sees. “Why haven’t you gotten one before now?” Hua Cheng is prickly with most people but he’s kind to animals.

“I don’t know.” Hua Cheng fiddles with one of the toys, a fluffy little mouse probably stuffed with catnip that’s inevitably going to be torn apart. “Probably worried about space at first, and then how much attention I could give them. And then I started wondering, what if I got one and they didn’t love me?”

Xie Lian glances up. Hua Cheng has the smallest of frowns on his face, though the rest of him is still giddy. He nudges Hua Cheng’s knee with his socked foot to get his attention, to get that dark eye fixed on Xie Lian.

“Out of everyone I’ve known, you’re the easiest person to love,” Xie Lian tells him. “I probably haven’t told you that before. But it’s true.”

Hua Cheng looks stricken for a moment, and then he smiles, big and beautiful. He pushes the carrier aside to scoot next to Xie Lian and pull him into his lap. They look at the pictures together, both of them murmuring over the little furred faces and their funny names. Then Xie Lian’s thumb pauses over one, a thin gray cat with only one copper eye, staring at the camera like it’s going to hiss the second after the picture’s taken.

“Oh my god,” Hua Cheng is laughing, zooming in. “Can you imagine? We’d be a matching set. He’s my opposite.”

Xie Lian laughs too, but he thumbs over the picture. “He looks—”

“Feral,” Hua Cheng says.

“I was going to say perfect,” says Xie Lian.

-

A few nights later, Xie Lian brings dinner home, and just as he’s juggling the bags and wiggling the key in the lock that sometimes likes to stick, the door opens a sliver, and Hua Cheng does his best to fit his entire body in that sliver.

“What the hell?” Xie Lian says politely.

“I just wanted to give you a heads up,” Hua Cheng explains. “And not let him escape. We’ve been acclimating to the apartment all day. He’s pretty used to it, but he was upset for the first while.” Hua Cheng grins. “He’s—he’s used to me, I think. But I just want to prepare you in case he starts hissing or something.”

“Oh my—he’s here? Already?” Xie Lian beams, and then pauses. “Is it okay if I’m here? I don’t want to—”

It’s kind of his fault; they hadn’t even talked about him coming over tonight. He had just painstakingly texted dinner? on his tiny phone. And Hua Cheng had responded with a smashing of keys that, in hindsight, might not even have been an affirmative answer if he’d had his hands full with a cat.

Though, most of his stuff is still here. He hasn't moved any of it back to his shoebox apartment.

He realizes that he has kind of just inserted himself into Hua Cheng’s life, which feels so natural and so good, but also unfair, because he can’t just keep insinuating himself into Hua Cheng’s space without asking.

“No, you should be here,” Hua Cheng says intently, though his face is almost smashed between the door and the jamb. “He needs to meet you.”

Just as he opens the door, Xie Lian hears a plaintive yowl and dashes in to see him—completely gray, slightly scruffy, smaller and rounder than he’d been in the picture. One wide eye taking in the world like it’s completely and utterly new, which it is, for him, at least the world of this apartment and Hua Cheng.

“His name is E-Ming,” says Hua Cheng, “and he doesn’t like it when I stare, so I’m just going to go about my business…” He takes the food from Xie Lian into the kitchen and starts reheating and plating it, darting glances at where E-Ming is staring at Xie Lian.

Xie Lian goes to the couch and sits. “E-Ming? Who would name him that? He’s too sweet.”

E-Ming trots forward a few steps. Xie Lian draws his feet up from under him, pats his knees. E-Ming’s single eye follows the movements and nudges forward again.

“Hellooo,” Xie Lian coos, and drops a hand to dangle off the couch. E-Ming meanders in that cat-like way of both having a purpose and not giving a shit until he’s a foot from Xie Lian’s hand, which he gives a small sniff.

“He’s purring,” Xie Lian stage-whispers to Hua Cheng.

“He’s warming up to you faster than he did to me,” Hua Cheng says with a grin.

“That’s because he already knows he’s safe with you. Oh!” E-Ming meows and leaps into Xie Lian’s lap, his purring thrumming through Xie Lian like a current. “Oh my god…San Lang.” Xie Lian is smitten, gently petting as E-Ming surveys him and the world, perched on his folded legs.

E-Ming spots Hua Cheng across the room and meows once.

Hua Cheng doesn’t even bat an eye. “That’s your other dad,” he says to the cat.

Xie Lian feels like purring himself.

-

“Our cat is an asshole,” Hua Cheng says a few more nights later, staring at the ceiling.

“Don’t say that,” Xie Lian says reproachfully. He has E-Ming in his arms, the cat peering over his shoulder like a baby, blinking innocently. Like he didn’t just jump up onto the bed right as Hua Cheng reached inside Xie Lian’s jeans.

“He’s cockblocking me,” Hua Cheng insists. “And we were getting along so well.”

E-Ming is currently batting at Xie Lian’s hair, mewling. He’s taken a liking to playing with Xie Lian, but he likes to cuddle with Hua Cheng, which is unfortunate when Hua Cheng is in the mood for a different sort of cuddling with Xie Lian.

“He wants your attention.” Xie Lian drops E-Ming onto Hua Cheng’s lap. The cat immediately stretches out, tucking his paws to his chest and purring loudly. “Because you’re so amazing with him.”

Hua Cheng actually blushes at this, which Xie Lian notices not for the first time. Hua Cheng always reacts to compliments like he’s never gotten one before. The thought lodges in Xie Lian’s mind.

“Amazingly irritated,” Hua Cheng says, which seems to banish his blush, and Xie Lian has to cover his mouth to keep from laughing. He’s still keyed up a bit, and yeah, part of him really wants to get back to that as soon as possible. But he settles back down to watch Hua Cheng glare at E-Ming, rubbing circles into the silky fluff of E-Ming’s stomach.

“Would you believe he tried to bite your hand off when he first met you?” Xie Lian asks, feeling so fond of this cat and his owner that he thinks he’ll burst with it. “I’m in love with him, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng looks considerably less fond, but Xie Lian knows it’s an act.

“Me too,” Hua Cheng says. “But not right now. We were busy.” He drops his gaze to Xie Lian’s lap pointedly.

Xie Lian crosses his legs and smiles. “Don’t mind me.”

“Oh, I really do mind you,” Hua Cheng says, standing and hauling E-Ming with him. “We’re supposed to set boundaries.” Hua Cheng deposits E-Ming just outside the door and shuts it, and then he turns and tackles Xie Lian down on the bed, the force of it shocking a laugh from Xie Lian.

“Quick,” Hua Cheng says around the kisses he’s pecking up and down Xie Lian’s neck while his hands tussle with lifting up Xie Lian’s shirt. “Before he eats through the wall or something.”

Xie Lian laughs helplessly, the desire flaring inside him again almost instantly, fed by Hua Cheng’s desperation.

But they both go still when they hear the yowling begin, followed by the scratching.

“Oh my fucking hell,” Hua Cheng mutters, burying his face in the crook of Xie Lian’s shoulder.

Xie Lian is shaking with laughter. “He’s going to ruin your carpet!”

He’s half on fire and half bursting with contentment, even as Hua Cheng lifts his head and says, “I got him to fall asleep on my chest the other night. That’ll shut him up.”

And then he’s up, going to the door to bring E-Ming back to the bed and murmur to him quietly until he falls asleep, as promised, on Hua Cheng’s chest. They don’t move him after, though. They whisper at each other until they’re also drifting into sleep. Xie Lian really shouldn’t sleep over again, but tomorrow is Saturday, and he blinks awake for a moment to see Hua Cheng fast asleep, E-Ming drifting up and down with his breaths. And he’s helpless to leave this cat and his boyfriend, who really is—despite what Hua Cheng might think—amazing.

“San Lang, have I told you you’re amazing?” Xie Lian whispers. “I don’t think I have enough.” And then he slips into a dream.

-

Come to think of it, Xie Lian considers, Hua Cheng has never been good with compliments. It strikes Xie Lian as odd and then sad.

Odd because Hua Cheng is constantly being praised, either him or his work, by the critics and the public in general. He has more tens of thousands of followers on social media than Xie Lian can count on one hand, all of them clambering to offer adoration. Some of that praise is hollow, but Hua Cheng treats it like all of the praise is. He’s more at home with the criticism.

Sad because Xie Lian doesn't know of anyone more deserving of kind words. And maybe because all the flattery comes from strangers, Hua Cheng isn’t used to sincere compliments from those closest to him.

Xie Lian resolves to remedy this.

He decides to start when Hua Cheng wakes him up with breakfast the next morning. It’s his favorite, ordered exactly how he likes it, and maybe because he’s thinking about all the things Hua Cheng deserves praise for, he sits up like he’s been electrocuted.

“San Lang! Thank you for breakfast,” he says, but hm. That’s not right. “You’re so good at knowing what I want.”

Hua Cheng sets the food on the bed, looking like Xie Lian just slapped him, mouth slightly open.

“I mean,” he says, sounding perplexed, “it’s what you always ask for?”

Not exacting encouraging, but there’s a faint pinkness on the tops of his cheeks, there and gone. Xie Lian sees it and beams. He struggles to his knees and wraps his arms around Hua Cheng’s neck, careful not to knock over the steamed buns and soy milk. He can hear E-Ming purring from where he’s sprawled across Hua Cheng’s pillow.

“And you’re good at listening to me,” he says. He can’t see Hua Cheng’s blush, but he can feel it, the soft bloom of heat that comes and goes across the skin of his neck and face as Hua Cheng’s hands skate up and down his back, then dip down to knead his ass.

“I’ll always listen to you, gege,” he says, and is he breathless because Xie Lian is pecking kisses on his neck, or is it because of something else? He thinks about the way Hua Cheng ducked his face when Xie Lian told him he liked the sounds Hua Cheng makes. He sucks a kiss to the skin of Hua Cheng’s neck, still thinking about it.

Hua Cheng moans, and it wakes E-Ming up. He stretches, still purring like radiator, and meows at them until they separate. Xie Lian laughs.

Hua Cheng does not look amused. “See what I mean about cockblocking?”

-

Xie Lian tries again later, after he eats his breakfast and showers and pulls on that red sweater of Hua Cheng’s that has become his favorite for lazy days, even though it will be summer soon. He plays with E-Ming for a while, still very much enamored with him, and then sneaks quietly into the studio, careful to shut the door behind him. E-Ming among raw copper and furnaces would not be a good situation.

Hua Cheng is standing before the sculpture of Xie Lian. Even facing the back, Xie Lian can see that Hua Cheng has labored over the details, over the way Xie Lian’s hair flows down his back and into the wind. His sculpted self looks—loose, at ease. Blowy and happy, looking into the distance. Hua Cheng has sculpted a transparent robe, the folds of it falling off his shoulders, twisting with into the breeze, leaving the brown of his metal skin bare around his shoulders and legs.

“Wow,” Xie Lian breathes, and it’s involuntary. Hua Cheng looks up from where he was immersed in his work. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I can leave if you—”

“Tell me what you think,” Hua Cheng says, taking a step back, and Xie Lian pads over to him. Coming around the other side of the statue, Xie Lian gets a look at his own face, contented and kind and beautiful and very, very life-like.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, but then stops. He doesn’t have words. Hua Cheng has molded him in bronze, the metal still dark and matte at this stage, but there’s still so much life in it. He can almost believe that this is what he looks like, what people might see when they look at him.

“It’s not finished,” Hua Cheng explains, setting down his wire sculpting tool and shutting off the heating element. “It’ll be—less rough. And I guess—well, he’s not naked, but I didn’t ask if—”

Xie Lian has been gaping at the sculpture of himself and turns to Hua Cheng. His eyes feel wide like coins in his face.

“I love it,” he whispers.

“Really?”

“It’s—” Xie Lian flounders for words. “San Lang, I look—he looks like—” Like both of the versions of himself. Who he was when he was younger, bright and optimistic and self-centered and privileged, but less short-sighted. And who he is now, with Hua Cheng. Older and a little weary but happy and himself and loved.

“Gege.”

And apparently Xie Lian said all of that out loud, because Hua Cheng blinks several times, glancing away at the light streaming through the window. Has no one ever said something like that to Hua Cheng? Xie Lian has seen his other sculptures. They’re all like this, all emotion and love and flowing beauty, though this one is special because it’s him. Still, someone could have said. Someone should have.

“He looks the way you make me feel,” Xie Lian says. And it feels like the right destination.

“He’s you, you know,” Hua Cheng says, looking back at him, that single eye Xie Lian loves so much glistening. “He’s not a version of you. He is you.”

Xie Lian understands this and hopes that he can one day believe it with more than just part of him. He steps toward Hua Cheng to take his hand, which is smudged from working with the copper and smells faintly of hot metal.

“The way you see things is so—” he tries, but it doesn’t work. He tries another tack. “You have something no one else has, San Lang. You see things in ways no one else does.”

“That’s—not—” Hua Cheng sputters, but his hand is hot in Xie Lian’s, and he’s come closer helplessly, resting their foreheads together.

“It’s true. You make things beautiful. You made me beautiful.”

Hua Cheng’s breathing has deepened, quickened, taken on a desperate edge. “You are beautiful, gege, I’m not the only one who sees it.” He’s kissing Xie Lian, stroking the inside of his mouth with his hot tongue, nudging him backward. This is not what Xie Lian intended; it’s Hua Cheng who should be told the things Hua Cheng is breathing in his ear, about how kind and strong and beautiful Xie Lian is.

“San Lang—”

“Please, can I—” Hua Cheng asks, pushing Xie Lian against the wall, just on the edge of roughness. Xie Lian gasps and is reminded that it’s been a few days since they’ve done this. Desire springs up inside him as Hua Cheng crowds him against the wall and kisses him until his lips are bruises. And then Hua Cheng falls to his knees.

Wait, Xie Lian half wants to say, I was supposed to make you feel like this, but Hua Cheng is still huffing, “Let me, please, let me,” into his skin as he draws out Xie Lian’s cock and swallows him down and grunts when Xie Lian grips his hair. Xie Lian gets swept away with it, so swept away that he doesn’t even hear E-Ming’s pathetic mewls from the other side of the door until after he has come in Hua Cheng’s mouth and they’re collapsed against each other and the wall, like all they can do is touch each other and breathe.

-

It’s a lazy Saturday, which Xie Lian appreciates because work is hard these days—they’re pushing the crew to get as much done as possible, and his term on the project is ending soon. He’ll be back at the temp agency before long, looking for another job that hopefully doesn’t involve direct interaction with concrete and rebar. He keeps thinking about Shi Qingxuan and the inherent appeal of a job downtown. And then he feels like he’s taking up too much space and stops thinking about it, and cuddles more aggressively into Hua Cheng’s shoulder on the couch. They had wine with dinner, just a little, and Xie Lian feels a pleasant and containable easiness in his limbs from it.

“So, E-Ming hates TV,” Xie Lian says, alternating between watching the screen and watching E-Ming’s little copper eye peek out around the corner and then retreat and then peek out again. “This is educational.”

“We should get a TV for the bedroom,” Hua Cheng says. Xie Lian’s stomach flutters at the possessive language, that and similar phrases he’s heard lately but doesn’t want to read into. “That’s how I’ll get you laid.”

Xie Lian chokes on his own spit and is wracked with a fit of coughing, and when he can breathe again, Hua Cheng looks mortified.

“I am,” Hua Cheng begins, “so—”

Xie Lian kisses him rather than hear an apology he doesn’t want. When he pulls back, Hua Cheng looks less like he wants an early grave, though still apologetic.

“I just mean that—” he tries again.

“I can’t believe I’m cutting you off twice,” Xie Lian says, like the good, polite person he was raised to be, “but don’t you dare say anything about pushing me or rushing me because I’m really not feeling either of those things right now.”

“I just,” Hua Cheng says, and this time Xie Lian doesn’t stop him. “Didn’t want to assume. That you would want it like that.”

“I—what?”

“I kind of insinuated that you would be receiving,” Hua Cheng says with that matter-of-fact air he's always had about sex, though his hand tightens slightly where it rests on Xie Lian’s waist. “And we haven’t discussed it, so I just want you to know that I’m not assuming anything.”

Xie Lian mulls this over. He has always assumed that it would be him getting fucked and Hua Cheng doing the fucking. The foggy images in his mind that have steadily become clearer with more explorations have always had him under Hua Cheng. He’s not displeased with the image. At all. But when he tries to switch it in his mind, he comes up blank.

“Would you…like…” He’s less of a prude these days, but he still finds it hard to say. “If it were the other way around. Would you like that?”

Xie Lian thinks about how he feels when he’s on top of Hua Cheng, like when he had Hua Cheng’s fingers inside him, and the times he has had fingers inside Hua Cheng. If he combines the two, a new kind of interest starts pricking at him, low in his stomach, nervousness and lust.

“Yeah. I would,” Hua Cheng says, and for a moment Xie Lian wonders if he’s just saying that, but Hua Cheng has never lied to him. “I would be very interested, actually.” And Hua Cheng is smiling tentatively, gaze half gone, like he’s thinking about it right now. Oh.

“You’re really good at talking about this,” Xie Lian says, because he has always wanted that for himself. “You make it seem less scary. And you’re thoughtful. You think about things before I even consider them. It’s like your superpower.”

Hua Cheng gives him that stricken look he gets when he’s taken off-guard by praise. “You keep saying things like that today,” he mutters.

“Do you want me to stop?”

“...No.”

Xie Lian smiles and curls closer. “I’ve been saying these things all day because I just can’t believe how amazing you are. You’re so good to me.”

Hua Cheng smiles this time as he blushes. He’s so pretty. “It's because you deserve it,” he says, and how quickly he'll turn the focus from himself.

“You don't have to explain it.” Xie Lian rests his chin on Hua Cheng's shoulder, gazing up at him like there's nothing else in the room to see. They were watching some show about racing, Hua Cheng explaining all the cars and their capabilities, but now the sounds melt into the background. “You don't have to say why, you can just let me say nice things.”

“Okay,” Hua Cheng says, slipping his arm around Xie Lian so he can tug him halfway into his lap. “Try it again.”

“I keep thinking about that sculpture. How it was just a lump of metal and now it's—it's like everything you touch becomes beautiful,” says Xie Lian. He's close enough to see the tiny silvery remnants of what once might have been freckles under Hua Cheng's eyes and across his nose. “That's your gift, you make things beautiful.”

This close, Xie Lian has a more detailed view of how Hua Cheng responds, sees his pupil dilate as the blush comes, deeper this time. He also sees the edges of Hua Cheng's mouth press together, like he's holding back the impulse to brush the words away.

He doesn't. He flushes hard and grips Xie Lian closer, shifts his legs like he can't sit still. Xie Lian has learned, among many things, the marks of desire when they appear on his boyfriend. He sees them now and begins to better understand.

“You're, um,” Hua Cheng tries, but he ends up laughing. The sound is staccato and nervous and still the loveliest thing Xie Lian has ever heard. “I can't think of anything to say.”

“Then don't say anything.” Xie Lian can feel his pulse in the places where they are pressed together, the delicious closeness driving him. “Your laugh, San Lang. It's one of my favorite sounds. Your voice too, when you talk and—when you do other things.” His gasps, is what Xie Lian is thinking of, already trying to pull one from Hua Cheng. “You're so fucking sexy. You're so good.”

This earns him a small moan, hands tighter at his hips. Xie Lian nudges his leg further across Hua Cheng's lap and is gratified to feel Hua Cheng getting hard.

Hua Cheng already looks half in abandonment, lips parted and red from being briefly bitten. True to his word, he doesn't say anything, but the way he looks at Xie Lian—he is completely at Xie Lian’s mercy right now, and he's so beautiful.

Xie Lian tells him that, leaning in to whisper it and peck a few kisses to Hua Cheng's ear. “You're so beautiful. It's like you're one of your own works of art.”

This time, Hua Cheng doesn't moan. He pulls back, brows punched together.

“How much wine did you have at dinner?” he asks.

Xie Lian sputters a confused laugh. “Less than you. Why?”

“Because you just called me beautiful,” Hua Cheng says, as if this is supposed to make sense.

“And? You are.” Xie Lian scans his memory. It occurs to him that maybe all those times he said it or something like it, Hua Cheng didn’t believe him. “I’ve said it to you before. And I meant it.”

Hua Cheng looks—not distrustful, exactly, but there is more disbelief in his face than Xie Lian likes. It’s actually becoming a solid pain in his chest, round and hard and growing. He knows he can’t make Hua Cheng believe he’s beautiful, the way Hua Cheng can’t make Xie Lian come to see his sculpture-self as his real self. But he can at least make sure Hua Cheng knows that Xie Lian believes it.

“I’m not just saying these things, San Lang,” he says, cupping Hua Cheng’s face, which is still faintly heated, his pupil still wide. “I wouldn’t do that. I genuinely think you’re the most beautiful person I have ever seen.”

“I—” Hua Cheng says. “I know you wouldn’t lie to me. But…”

“The person I see is you,” Xie Lian says, echoing what Hua Cheng told him. “Not a version of you.”

Hua Cheng kisses him. That magnetic way of lips needing to connect leading to Xie Lian throwing his leg over Hua Cheng to straddle him properly, suck into his mouth properly. Under him, shirt open and falling off his shoulders, Hua Cheng’s skin is like hot sand. Xie Lian can touch it, but the heat spears him, and he has to shift, has to feel more, has to gather all the heat he can from wherever he can.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng moans into his mouth, singing low. He has his hands on Xie Lian’s ass, pulling him forward, surging him back.

“You kiss me so well,” Xie Lian says. The words tangle, lost in the battling of their tongues. “Like I’m the only one you want to kiss. You’re so good.”

Hua Cheng lets out a broken sound and pulls back, his breath rough and uneven. “Gege, if you keep saying things like that—”

“You’ll do what?” Xie Lian breathes. His smile is uncontrollable.

Hua Cheng laughs, and he really is so beautiful. He looks filthy and angelic, lips swollen and wet, his whole face lightened with laughter.

“I’ll put E-Ming in the spare bedroom,” he says, and it’s a threat Xie Lian likes the implications of.

They turn off the TV, and apparently they won’t have to lock E-Ming away after all, because he races around the corner as soon as the sound is off and settles into his cushioned bed by the couch, looking completely uninterested in moving again.

They’re laughing and then kissing again, and then Xie Lian whispers the filthiest thing he can think of at the moment—which is pretty filthy, actually—and suddenly Hua Cheng is making a sound that’s not fully human and gripping him hard. Xie Lian pitches backward for half a second and then realizes Hua Cheng has lurched them up, and he’s standing. Holding Xie Lian. In his arms.

“Oh my—” Xie Lian gasps, clutching Hua Cheng’s shoulders. He’s pretty strong himself. They’ve never tested it, but he could easily lift Hua Cheng despite his height, and they both know it. Hua Cheng might be an artist, but he works with metal, and he’s fit, and he’s currently supporting Xie Lian’s entire body weight, what the fuck.

“This okay?” Hua Cheng says, and he’s so smug. Xie Lian wants to kiss him or smack him or both, but he can’t do either because he’s holding on for dear life as Hua Cheng maneuvers them down the hallway to the bedroom and kicks the door closed behind them.

Xie Lian is muttering horny nonsense the entire way. “I can’t believe you’re doing this, you’re so strong, I’m so turned on right now, you’re amazing—”

Hua Cheng drops him on the bed and crawls down after, and Xie Lian hums in approval when he gets Hua Cheng’s comforting weight on him, pressing his hips into the mattress. Hua Cheng rolls his hips hard, making them both gasp, and then slower and more gentle. He lets out a moan into Xie Lian’s mouth, and something about it reminds Xie Lian of what they were just talking about. Of the image he couldn’t quite picture, Hua Cheng below him, receiving, as Hua Cheng had put it.

Xie Lian grips Hua Cheng’s shoulders and uses his strength—his turn to be smug—to flip them. Hua Cheng is breathless among the pillows, hair askew. His eyepatch is half off, and Xie Lian tugs it free completely. Hua Cheng opens his mouth as if to say something, but Xie Lian is already kissing his throat.

“You’re really hot, you know that?” he says over Hua Cheng’s adam’s apple. He watches it bob as Hua Cheng swallows.

“Tell me what you want,” Hua Cheng says. He almost always asks this, in some way, looking for permission or direction, wanting to know what’s okay.

Xie Lian continues his quiet, steadfast kissing, along Hua Cheng’s jaw, over his racing pulse, along his clavicle, once he’s unbuttoned his shirt enough to view it.

“I want to tell you how pretty you are, San Lang,” Xie Lian says. “Can I take off your clothes?”

“Please, babe, fuck,” comes out in a rush from Hua Cheng, and Xie Lian grins. He peels off Hua Cheng’s shirt, staring down at the white of his chest, his dark red nipples, the glinting of the studs peeking out of both.

“Pretty,” Xie Lian whispers, his mind quiet as he takes Hua Cheng in. Then he has to keep kissing, he has to, because when he kisses, the white blooms pink as Hua Cheng’s whole body is helpless to stop blushing. The skin over Hua Cheng’s heart is smooth, already sweating, and Xie Lian makes sure Hua Cheng knows how much he likes it. He gives an experimental lick and enjoys the way Hua Cheng jerks.

It gives him an idea—not an original one; he’s thought about this for a while because Hua Cheng’s piercings are very alluring, and it’s practically a crime that Xie Lian is just now licking over one, making Hua Cheng groan loudly.

Xie Lian likes this, he finds. He likes it a lot, feeling Hua Cheng squirm under him as he sucks on nipple and rubs the other, then switches. Hua Cheng has hands in his hair, both restraining Xie Lian and egging him on. He honestly hadn’t expected this to make Hua Cheng sweat as much as he has.

He could do this forever. He could make Hua Cheng come like this.

His mind is so empty that he’s resorted to whispering the litany in his head. “I like this so much, I like this so much.”

Hua Cheng is begging him, so Xie Lian travels further down and unzip’s Hua Cheng’s pants. He laughs for a moment, remembering his first time and Hua Cheng’s tender worshiping coming to a climax with one breath.

“What?” Hua Cheng asks, voice rough.

“Hmm,” is all Xie Lian says before he takes Hua Cheng in his mouth.

And it’s Hua Cheng’s turn to come embarrassingly quickly.

It’s a little while later that Xie Lian feels triumphant when he sits back, swallowing the cum. It’s not exactly tasty, but it is sexy, and that’s a relief to him. Hua Cheng gasps for air in the afterglow and slowly blinks his eye open as Xie Lian is lifting off his own shirt, taking off his pants.

“Was that okay?” Xie Lian asks, feeling enamored and hot, like he’s burning a personal fire inside him.

“I want you to fuck me,” Hua Cheng says.

Xie Lian freezes, his mind trying to decide whether he should laugh or cry or cough or make an unintelligible noise. His body, on the other hand, is firmly decided.

“Okay,” he says.

Xie Lian sees surprise cut through the haze of Hua Cheng's pleasure, like he expected to have to beg more for it. Hua Cheng lifts himself up on one elbow, eye bright.

“You want to? We don’t have to—right now.”

Xie Lian is naked now, kneeling before Hua Cheng. His mouth tastes like cum and he's still hard, but it's not pressing. It's not needful. Not like the part of him that wants to return to the different but equal pleasure of making Hua Cheng feel good.

“I really, really want to,” he says. His cock throbs at the same time he's struck with anxiety—this needs to be really good for Hua Cheng, Xie Lian won't accept anything less—but it lessens when Hua Cheng beams and surges up to kiss him, then rolls to get the lube.

Xie Lian spends a quiet eternity opening Hua Cheng up on slick fingers, one at a time, careful and deliberate. Hua Cheng's gasps are small and sweet as he grips Xie Lian’s sides, fingers fitting into the spaces between his ribs.

They keep their foreheads pressed together, kissing and breathing and sharing heartbeats, murmuring softly as Hua Cheng shifts and takes Xie Lian's fingers with growing ease. At one point, Xie Lian lets out a small laugh.

“What is it?” Hua Cheng asks, though he seems pleased to just hear Xie Lian laugh.

“I was just—going to say something about me never having done this with anyone,” Xie Lian explains, caught between the feel of his two fingers sliding easily and Hua Cheng's blissful expression and his desperation to make this good. “But it's the same for you.”

“You're my first,” Hua Cheng gasps. “My—only. Just you.”

“I'll need you to help me,” Xie Lian admits. He's easing in a third finger, Hua Cheng groaning with it. He’s reminded of Hua Cheng saying that he’s just doing what he thinks might feel good, so that’s what he does. He focuses on that and hopes it’s enough.

“I'll tell you—I'll tell you what feels good, gege.” Hua Cheng's eye rolls back, and apparently it is enough. “This is good—ahh.”

Xie Lian’s own desire has very quickly shifted to the background for him, a persistent flush of pleasure, but it’s not half so interesting to him as watching Hua Cheng react to the movements of his fingers. He’s going to be inside Hua Cheng soon. The thought skitters down his spine, and he presses into Hua Cheng more firmly.

“I’ve been thinking about this for months,” Hua Cheng says, half a gasp, half a confession.

“You mean, since we started—?” Doing this. Trying things.

He fixes Xie Lian with his single intent eye, and his voice is volcanic. “For months.”

Xie Lian is a slow-moving forest fire, his entire consciousness focused on his fingers. Three are moving easily now, Hua Cheng hitching his hips with every thrust, and finally, Hua Cheng grips his wrist to keep it from moving.

“I’m ready,” he whispers. His breath is feverish. “I’m ready, gege, please, please.”

Xie Lian carefully withdraws his fingers, starts to roll on a condom. Takes him a second, but he gets it.

“Like—like this?” he asks, but he means something different; he means, does Hua Cheng want it like this, on his back. Xie Lian wants whatever Hua Cheng wants, not knowing what is best himself.

Hua Cheng is turning over, baring his long pale back, his ass. He spreads his legs, and Xie Lian’s mouth goes dry.

“It might be easier,” Hua Cheng says—his voice is already ruined—“like this.”

Xie Lian forces himself to breathe, forces his limbs to move. He can appreciate that the part of him that wants and the part of him that’s scared are both vastly outweighed by the part of him that needs. Hua Cheng looks needy like this, on his hands and knees, spreading himself, making himself vulnerable, red in the face, pink flushing down his back and on his ass.

“Are you okay?” Hua Cheng asks. “We can stop if you want.”

“That’s what I should be asking,” Xie Lian answers. “You. I should ask you that.”

Hua Cheng looks at him over his shoulder. “We’re both doing this. We should both be okay with it.”

“I’m so, so okay with this,” Xie Lian says, almost before Hua Cheng finishes talking. It earns him a grin.

“Me too.”

Xie Lian feels compelled to touch. He ghosts his hands up the back of Hua Cheng’s thighs, over the swell of his ass, up the valley of his spine to the twin wings of his shoulder blades. Is he babbling? He might be babbling. He tends to get disconnected from his voice when he’s overwhelmed. He thinks me might be saying, “God, you’re so beautiful. I can’t believe I have you. I want this to be good. You have to tell me how to make it good.”

“It is good, it’s so good, it’s—” is what Hua Cheng is saying when Xie Lian presses into him finally, finally.

Hua Cheng might still be talking. Xie Lian can’t tell—his vision has gone white, like the blaring flash of a camera, except the entire room is swallowed by it. He’s easing in slowly, so slowly, like he can’t control how fast or slow, and at some point he stops. It’s. Tight. He moves easily, but it’s still tight. He has to stop. If he doesn’t stop, he’ll—

“Hhhaaa,” Hua Cheng says, his head dropping low, then lifting back up to look at him. He’s smiling, his eye a crescent moon. “Gege.”

Xie Lian is realizing very quickly but maybe not quickly enough that he’s walking a razor-thin edge. He goes completely still, forcing himself to stop quivering, because even that is nudging him toward the edge.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says again, only this time his voice has taken on a desperate whine. “Please—please move, I need—”

Xie Lian doesn’t listen. He shuts his eyes. His hands on Hua Cheng’s hips might be leaving bruises. He should worry about that in a minute. When the roaring need in him dies down. Hua Cheng’s hips nudge at him and then suddenly jerk back, and the sudden smooth movement makes Xie Lian cry out and tamp down on Hua Cheng’s hips even harder.

“San Lang,” he says, “San Lang, wait, wait wait wait—”

“Are you okay?” Hua Cheng’s voice is concerned, but he’s gone still. “Gege?”

Xie Lian exhales, long and slow, and loosens his grip, rubbing over marks his fingers have made. “I just—wanna make this good and I’m already too close,” Xie Lian says, and then bursts into laughter. “You’re too good, San Lang, I almost came.”

Hua Cheng gives a breathy laugh. “Sorry—” but then he groans because Xie Lian has enough strength now to begin the back and forth, a slow and measured version of the movement his body is screaming for him to follow. It takes him a while to get the rhythm right, to find a rhythm at all, but he finds it.

“Is it okay?” he hears himself ask, because he knows the sting and the burn, and it would kill him if Hua Cheng were in pain right now when he’s so intensely in pleasure.

“So good, fuck me, gege, please,” Hua Cheng moans, falling down to the sheets.

Xie Lian loses himself. But it’s a good kind of being lost, because he’s lost in Hua Cheng, completely in love with him like this. Hua Cheng has fallen down against the bed, one arm reaching to clutch the edge of the mattress, the other crooked underneath him so he can look back at Xie Lian with his good eye. His mouth is open and gasping and smiling.

“Gege—yes—fuck—ahh—”

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, and it hits him that he’s here, doing this, with Hua Cheng. He never thought, or never let himself think, that he was capable of this. This is intimate—the sounds and the heat and the nakedness, the look of being overcome on Hua Cheng’s face that no one else will ever get to see. “San Lang, San Lang, look at you, I love you—sweetheart—”

Hua Cheng cries out. Somewhere along the way, Xie Lian has picked up momentum, moving faster and pressing harder, until there’s a slapping sound that makes him flush to the bottoms of his feet. The pleasure is attacking him now, and he’s defenseless against it.

Xie Lian is utterly overwhelmed, but all he wants now, really, is to kiss Hua Cheng, which he doesn’t know how to do like this. He curves forward anyway, a hand sliding up Hua Cheng’s back. It drives his thrusts at a different angle, and Hua Cheng arches his back even further. His hand clutching the sheet above his head is white to the knuckles.

“Gege, I’m—” He must be as far gone as Xie Lian. He bites off his words and starts to stroke himself quick and hard, and then he shouts into the sheets as he comes, one last flaring blush going through him as he shakes.

Xie Lian feels the razor’s edge cutting close again and leaps for it, burying himself deep in Hua Cheng and letting the sensation overtake him. Hears his own voice choke on Hua Cheng’s name—“San Lang—Hua Cheng—” And then that shattering. That sweet brief blackness. That trembling in his limbs. That final sigh.

-

He has to take a moment after. After he finds himself pliant and plastered to Hua Cheng's back, Hua Cheng humming tunelessly, their fingers interlocked. It's not that he's not content, or filled with delighted wonder, or so happy he thinks he'll burst from it. It's just that he needs a moment, so he separates himself from Hua Cheng and goes into the bathroom to wet a washcloth. He breathes and notices the panic waiting in the wings of his mind, ready to take over, to shame, to blacken him.

But he understands what a relic that feeling is, what a product of the years it is, built up over time, layer by layer like countless strata in the earth. Every heartbreak he's had, every loss he's suffered has wrapped itself around him in a cloak meant for protection. But he doesn't need any protecting. He thanks it, and puts it aside, and finds himself smiling at his reflection, because he looks like someone who just fucked his boyfriend, and Xie Lian likes it.

Hua Cheng looks at him when he comes out, eye piercing and worried, and Xie Lian towels him down gently.

“I’m okay,” he says, meaning it. “How are you?”

Hua Cheng smiles languidly. “I’m—really in love with you.”

“Sap.”

Later, they’re tangled together, Xie Lian’s head resting right over Hua Cheng’s heart. They don’t talk for a while, and the silence seems holy somehow. They’re whispering now, having changed the sheets and opened the door in case E-Ming wants to creep in later.

“So,” Hua Cheng says, caring his fingers through Xie Lian’s hair. “I kind of. Sprung that on you a bit.”

“A bit,” Xie Lian hums. “It was a good springing. I didn’t mind, is what I’m saying.”

“Me neither. I just wish I had helped you more, I guess? Given you more time.”

“You’ve given me so much time, though.” Then Xie Lian blinks. “Wait, why? Was it bad? Oh my god, San Lang, did I just ruin your first—”

Hua Cheng smothers Xie Lian’s mouth with his hand, kissing the top of his head. “Wow, gege, I didn’t know I was that hard to read. I loved it. I kind of ascended? Your cock made me ascend, babe.”

“Stop it.” Xie Lian is giggling, shoving Hua Cheng’s hand away but then grabbing onto it because he liked the shape and weight of it cupping his face. “I really liked it too,” he says into the warmth of Hua Cheng’s palm.

“It wasn’t too much?”

“No. I mean, it was a lot. I feel like I kind of unraveled there in the middle. But I got put back together again somehow.” Xie Lian tilts his head up so he can see the shadow of Hua Cheng’s missing eye. His words are slurring, but he’s determined to say them. “We can do it again, if you want. Because I want to. And...I also want it the other way too, if you do.”

Hua Cheng strokes Xie Lian’s cheek. “I do. I want you in every way.”

“Me too. You.” Xie Lian sighs happily, on the cusp of sleep. “‘M drifting.”

Hua Cheng laughs. “Good night. Sweetheart.”

Xie Lian makes gives one last strangled laugh, one last small blush, and falls asleep.

-

Tuesday night, he’s back in his cold, lumpy bed at his apartment, shivering because he suspects his roommate didn’t pay the utilities, and the nights still get cold even though spring is nearly over. He has just found a path to sleep when his phone bleats from where it teeters on the windowsill, and he grabs for it.

When he picks up, it’s to disconsolate yowling.

“Hear that?” says Hua Cheng’s voice. “It’s been like that ever since he figured out you weren’t coming home.”

“Oh, no,” Xie Lian says, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “E-Ming…”

“He’s right here,” Hua Cheng says, sounding a little distant, like he’s holding the phone to E-Ming’s ear.

“Baby,” Xie Lian croons, and he gets a pathetic little meow in response. “I’m coming back in a few days, I promise. Let San Lang get some sleep.”

“You know, I already tried explaining and he’s just not having it,” Hua Cheng says. “He got used to both of us.”

“Dammit. I should have thought of that, sorry.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just that maybe I shouldn’t have been around so often while he was acclimating,” Xie Lian clarifies. “So he’d get used to you as the constant. Now he thinks that I’ll always be there.”

“Wait—what?” Hua Cheng’s voice comes through sharp even on Xie Lian’s shitty phone. “That’s not what this was. I wasn’t trying to guilt you.”

“I know you weren’t.” Xie Lian hasn’t heard this kind of voice from Hua Cheng before—or he has, but never directed at him. “I’m just—saying that I didn’t think about how me being around would affect him.”

“How would it affect him? You love him. And I wouldn’t want you to stay away so he’d get used to being without you.”

“But isn’t—isn’t it cruel to get him attached to me and then—”

Hua Cheng is quiet for a beat. “Are you planning on not being over here as much?”

Xie Lian feels like he stuck his finger in an electrical outlet. “What? No!”

“Then...why can’t E-Ming get attached to you.”

“I—” He rubs a hand over his face and stares at the ceiling, his eyes finding the familiar nightmare shapes he’s picked out in the popcorn patterns. “I just worry. And this might just be one of those irrational worries. But I worry that I take advantage of you. And your space. And I didn’t get E-Ming, you know? So do I even have a right to have him miss me?”

There’s more static-filled silence. Xie Lian wishes desperately that they were having this conversation face to face. He also wishes they weren’t having it at all. He wishes he hadn’t said anything.

“I feel selfish sometimes,” he says. “Like I want too much.”

“Gege.” Hua Cheng sounds significantly softer now, and it makes Xie Lian want to cry. “You can always come over and stay over, for however long you want. You’re not taking advantage of anything. I always want you here. In fact—”

“What?”

“Nothing. Just. I get that maybe you’ve had people in your life not want to be around you, but that’s not me. I can’t imagine not wanting you around. I want you around all the time. Apparently so does E-Ming. And of course you deserve for him to miss you, and for me to miss you too.”

The tears are coming now, but Xie Lian’s voice still sounds fairly steady, for which he is grateful. “I know that, I do, it’s just that sometimes I convince myself that maybe you don’t?”

And he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know why he does it, and he doesn’t like it. He remembers when he thought that love was the easiest thing and sex the hardest, but maybe they’re both hard.

Hua Cheng’s voice is suddenly clear, almost like he’s right next to him.

“Xie Lian,” he says, and Xie Lian blinks at the name he rarely hears. “If I had my way, I would never leave your side. We’d live together and I wouldn’t worry about you traveling across the city by yourself and eating terrible food on your own, and you would never worry about taking up space around me.” Xie Lian can hear his own heart thumping loudly, louder almost than the words. “That’s the future I want—E-MING, YOU ASSHOLE.”

Xie Lian jumps at the sudden shout and the indignant yowl behind it. “What—are you okay?”

“Sorry, yes, I’m fine! Just bleeding a bit.” Hua Cheng sighs. “I have to go. I love you.”

“I love you,” Xie Lian echoes quietly. He keeps the phone pressed to his ear long after Hua Cheng hangs up.

“I love Hua Cheng,” he says to the ceiling, to his quiet room, empty of what few possessions he has because they’re all at Hua Cheng’s apartment, in the space Hua Cheng has made for him, and he’s here, alone—but he doesn’t feel stupid or sad or lost; he just feels like he’s been seeing things blurrily, scared of looking at them head on, but now he has rubbed his eyes and taken a look, and it’s nothing to be scared of. It’s nothing to be scared of at all.

He knows what to get Hua Cheng for his birthday.

Chapter Text

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.”