In the years since Xie Lian had first become acquainted with the Ghost King, the legendary Blood Rain Seeking Flower had never refused him a single thing. In fact, Hua Cheng seemed to take a singular delight in anticipating Xie Lian’s needs and providing in excess before he ever asked. That was probably for the best, as Xie Lian was far more accustomed to simply going without than asking for help. Truly, they both benefited greatly since Hua Cheng had taken on the task of caring for Xie Lian.
In the weeks since his return to the lonely Mount Taicang, Hua Cheng had set to his task with enthusiasm. He hardly allowed Xie Lian to lift a finger! Hua Cheng cooked and picked weeds from the vegetable garden and smoothed the bed sheets. He swept up Xie Lian into his arms and brought him to his parents’ tombs so they could perform their marital bows – after he recovered from the shock of being asked, that is. He told stories and listened attentively to Xie Lian’s. He praised him earnestly until Xie Lian was bright red and stuttering.
He was the picture of devotion.
Then, the unimaginable happened.
The two were lounging in the maple forest at high noon, watching the sunlight play amongst the vibrant leaves. When Hua Cheng released a few silver butterflies from his vambraces, a complicated series of emotions swept over Xie Lian. The scene was so beautiful that he ached, and a part of his mind broke away and began composing poetry on the spot – but like all truly breathtaking things, it also contained a stringent sadness. However beautiful the moment might have been, it was still the first time he had seen those butterflies since Hua Cheng’s disappearance. Xie Lian twisted around, upsetting the arm wrapped around him, and gripped Hua Cheng’s shoulder, touched his face. Hua Cheng met his gaze with intensity.
“Dianxia, don’t be afraid. I’m here."
Xie Lian blinked back the tears that threatened at the corners of his eyes and tucked himself into Hua Cheng’s embrace. He didn’t speak for a long while and simply allowed himself to be held, grounding himself in the comfort of Hua Cheng’s gentle hands running down his back and through his hair. Xie Lian forced his nervous eyes closed once he realized they kept skittering across the crimson robes, scouring them for signs of fading.
“…You’re here,” Xie Lian finally mustered.
Hua Cheng pressed his lips into Xie Lian’s hair. “I will never leave you,” he asserted calmly, as if he weren’t defying the very forces of life and death by saying so. Xie Lian took a deep breath, then released it.
Hua Cheng chuckled. “Is there something that Gege wants?”
Xie Lian pulled away from his chest and looked up at Hua Cheng. He was resting against the base of a maple tree, wind curling gently through loose wisps of his long, raven-black hair. Xie Lian had a moment to take in the wide smile and adoration painted across his features before Hua Cheng clasped his face and drew him into a deep, soft kiss. Xie Lian’s heart was pattering like rain. By the time Hua Cheng released him, Xie Lian’s limbs were all water.
Hua Cheng’s eye twinkled as he combed Xie Lian’s hair back from his forehead. “If San Lang is what Gege wants, then that’s the easiest request of all!”
Xie Lian felt his face heat. “No, no, that’s not, I didn’t… well, no, it is, but…” Xie Lian struggled to collect his thoughts while Hua Cheng laughed happily, head tilted back.
Xie Lian knew exactly what he wanted. He had even known for some time, months before Hua Cheng returned to him this fateful Shangyuan Festival. And yet…
The words were unutterably difficult to say!
If Xie Lian were being honest with himself, he never expected he would actually need to say those words. He had had nothing but time in the past year to reflect over every moment they had spent together, after all; even he gradually noticed the clues hidden in Hua Cheng’s glances and behavior. After much deliberation and quite a few concerning heart palpitations, Xie Lian had concluded that Hua Cheng must have wanted him every bit as much as Xie Lian wanted Hua Cheng.
And yet, Xie Lian thought with desperation, they had been reunited for weeks, they had even married, but Hua Cheng hadn’t stepped a single toe out of line. He was perfectly devoted, perfectly respectful, perfectly adoring. He was even passionate at times, especially when they kissed. But his hands never went anywhere dangerous, his eye never flooded with heat, and Xie Lian was left smoldering in the privacy of his mind.
Hua Cheng must have noticed! He noticed everything, even things Xie Lian didn’t want him to pick up on. In any matter where he could dote on Xie Lian or do some chore for him, Hua Cheng was a veritable mind reader. Xie Lian simply refused to believe that he had missed all of Xie Lian’s shy advances. There must be a reason. Before Xie Lian was eaten apart by doubt about whether Hua Cheng really wanted him after all, he was determined to force the issue and learn the truth.
“Dianxia, darling,” Hua Cheng said sweetly, drawing him from his thoughts. “You look troubled.”
Xie Lian took a deep breath, then another. He fixed his gaze securely on Hua Cheng’s beautiful, open face. “San Lang.” He would never tire of saying that name. “San Lang, I love you.”
Hua Cheng’s besotted expression was a gift. He brought Xie Lian’s hand to his lips, then clasped it with both of his. “Dianxia,” he said, voice thick and low. “Loving you is the only good thing I have ever done.”
Xie Lian smiled. “I know you would do anything for me.”
“Anything,” Hua Cheng swore. A memory fluttered to the surface of Xie Lian’s mind.
“San Lang, do you know why the Brocade Immortal couldn’t control you?”
Hua Cheng’s eyebrow rose curiously, and he shook his head. “Do you, Gege?”
Xie Lian nodded. “I asked Ling Wen, after you… when Feng Xin captured her,” he corrected quickly. “She said it felt aligned with you because you already would have done anything I asked without question.”
Hua Cheng smirked, and the set of his shoulders was proud.
“I love you so much, San Lang, and I’m so grateful for all that you do for me. It’s too much, really, and I actually wish you would let me do more for you. Don’t complain, it’s true!” Xie Lian laughed and covered Hua Cheng’s mouth with his free hand before he could protest. “There’s almost nothing that I want for anymore. I’m truly happy, San Lang, and it’s all thanks to you.”
Hua Cheng’s eye narrowed, and he rose to the bait unthinkingly. “Almost nothing? If there’s anything you want, Gege need only say the word. You know I would give you anything, everything. Please, Gege, tell me, don’t hide this away.”
Privately, Xie Lian felt his heart go soft at Hua Cheng’s earnestness. He seemed so distressed! Xie Lian couldn’t help but peck a kiss on his cheek. “Okay, San Lang, I’ll tell you. I want…” His heart started beating again, loud and erratic. “I want… you,” he finished lamely.
Hua Cheng smiled brightly, but his eyebrows curled in amused confusion. “Gege, you already have me.”
These unspeakable words would be the death of him. Xie Lian shook his head rapidly. “No, I want you,” Xie Lian said with emphasis. He felt his whole face go very warm. Beside him, Hua Cheng was suddenly very still.
“…Dianxia,” he said in the voice of a man who had no idea what to say.
“I, I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m very sure about it.” Xie Lian’s words poured out quickly, worried that he would be unable to continue at all if he stopped speaking. “You said I could ask you for anything, and this is what I want. I just want you.”
Hua Cheng seemed to have gathered some of his senses. “Gege, I’m very flattered, really, I am.” He released one of his hands and hovered his long fingers over Xie Lian’s neck. Except for a familiar silver chain, it was bare for the first time in centuries. “But your cultivation…”
“That doesn’t matter,” Xie Lian insisted. He had suspected that this might come up, and he was prepared. “I spent so many centuries living just fine without any spiritual powers, and since they’ve come back, I haven’t known what to do with them.”
“Gege could learn,” Hua Cheng suggested quietly. “You have such incredible strength, you could use it to save people–”
“If all this power couldn’t even save you, then what’s the point?” Xie Lian quipped. Hua Cheng snapped his mouth shut, looking stricken, still frozen in place. Xie Lian sighed and squeezed Hua Cheng’s hand. “I’m sorry, San Lang, I didn’t mean to sound so bitter. I really have thought about this, you know. I still want to help people, and I’ll continue to do whatever I can for them, but this past year, I’ve been thinking a lot, and I realized something.
“In the past, whenever I used the full might of my power to do what I thought was right, in the end, only terrible things ever happened. Guoshi once told me that the balance of destiny is fixed, and sure enough, whenever I tried to defy it, the scales of fate leveled themselves in unexpected ways. There was so much suffering…”
Xie Lian sighed again. “Now, I know better than anyone that I can’t save the world… but I could save one person. You taught me that, San Lang.” He smiled at Hua Cheng, who wore an unreadable yet intense expression and seemed to hang on Xie Lian’s every word. “The smallest thing I ever did has made the biggest impact. Maybe it isn’t great acts of power and strength that matter in this world. Maybe it’s just normal acts of love and kindness. So I’ll keep helping people, and I’ll keep relying on you to help me, and little by little, I’ll do all I can.”
“You are as noble as ever,” Hua Cheng said after a long pause. While his face may have given little away, his voice was trembling with emotion. “But still, Gege, I… I wouldn’t ever want to take anything away from you. All that I am, all that I have in this world, it’s all for you, to add to you and support you, never to diminish you.”
“Ah, San Lang,” Xie Lian breathed with an amused smile. “You’re only saying that because you don’t know everything about me.”
At that, Hua Cheng’s expression broke. “Dianxia, I know your everything!” he protested.
“Don’t be upset!” Xie Lian cupped Hua Cheng’s affronted face with both of his hands and smiled reassuringly at him, shifting onto his knees to bring their faces a little closer. “I didn’t mean to insult you! Of course you know me better than anyone, no one has ever watched as closely as you. I only meant that even for all your close attention, there’s still something that even you don’t know. That nobody knows.”
Hua Cheng blinked at him. “…What don’t I know, Gege?”
Xie Lian’s mind flooded with sense memories and, for a moment, he was overwhelmed. That beautiful calligraphy in Qiandeng Temple that Xie Lian had smeared with cinnabar ink when Hua Cheng pressed him against the altar. The wandering hands that had lit fires along Xie Lian’s body. The gasps and moans that Xie Lian almost couldn’t believe had escaped from his own mouth…
Xie Lian steeled himself and refocused his glazed eyes on Hua Cheng’s face. He said resolutely, “My passion.”
Hua Cheng looked like he’d been kicked in the chest. His mouth parted and his eye was wide and dark. “Gege…”
“San Lang, I should confess something,” Xie Lian said at exactly the same time as he himself realized. It wouldn’t make sense unless Hua Cheng knew, so he had to tell him. “Before we went to Mount Tonglu, I lied to you. I, we–”
“Qiandeng Temple,” Hua Cheng said softly. He was completely shocked, his responses muted.
“Ah, you figured it out,” Xie Lian said. He felt strangely shy. “At the time, I was relieved that you couldn’t remember. I didn’t want you to feel bad about anything, and… I didn’t want you to know my feelings. I thought you… Ah, that doesn’t matter,” he added quickly, seeing something painful flash across Hua Cheng’s face.
“San Lang, San Lang, come back to me. It’s alright!” Xie Lian tipped the rest of the way forward on his knees and touched their foreheads together. It was a gesture that he had learned brought both of them a great deal of comfort. “It’s my fault, I was just too dense to figure out what you meant! And what happened back then, it’s not enough. I was too scared, and you can’t even remember it! I want you to remember, San Lang. I want you to know this part of me. I want to know it about myself! It won’t diminish me, I promise, it’s actually the exact opposite. You don’t have to worry, I promise. San Lang, please… kiss me?”
He finally said the right thing. In a flash, Hua Cheng’s face tipped up and their lips collided, hot and eager. Xie Lian sighed into the kiss as all the tension and embarrassment released from his body. He was with his trusted person, the beloved of his heart, and there was nothing to fear.
Hua Cheng pulled him into his lap, maneuvering so that Xie Lian knelt on either side of his hips, and deepened the kiss. Xie Lian shuddered, unable and unwilling to restrain himself. The last time it had been like this, he was too nervous to actually touch Hua Cheng. He wasn’t in his right mind and Xie Lian absolutely refused to take any advantage of the situation. But this time, everything was different, so Xie Lian threw all caution to the wind and touched.
When Xie Lian’s hands dragged down his chest, rustling the pretty silver ornaments that rested there, the sound that escaped from Hua Cheng’s throat was positively feral. Xie Lian broke the kiss to catch his breath, still pressed close, and Hua Cheng whispered, “Gege… wait.”
Xie Lian froze on the spot; even his breath got caught in his throat. He backed away and removed his hands like they were touching hot coals, dizzy with embarrassment, but the firm wall of Hua Cheng’s arms stopped him from retreating very far.
“Don’t misunderstand me,” Hua Cheng said. “I have no intention of stopping this, Gege. I want this, I want you. I want your everything. I have always wanted you. It’s only because I want you so much that I have to be so careful.” He smiled softly at Xie Lian. “Don’t worry, Dianxia darling, you’ve convinced me.”
Xie Lian listened with relief, but he couldn’t figure out what to do with his hands. He felt restless and full of nervous energy that he didn’t know how to release. Hua Cheng seemed to notice and took Xie Lian’s hands in each of his, then kissed them twice, left right, left right. He looked down at their joined hands.
“I hope that Gege will pardon the interruption, but there are some things I must prepare… first.” Of course, Hua Cheng couldn’t blush, but Xie Lian thought that if ever he could have, it would have been this moment. Xie Lian finally calmed enough to notice how unsettled Hua Cheng himself looked. His brows were creased together and his jaw was clenched. When he raised his eye to meet Xie Lian’s gaze, the unmistakable desire burning there had Xie Lian’s heart doing backflips.
“…Will San Lang be long?”
Hua Cheng glanced up at the red canopy shimmering above them. “If I leave now, I’ll be back by nightfall,” he said, but didn’t move at all.
Xie Lian nodded and took the initiative to stand. He pulled Hua Cheng up, leaning back as he anchored himself with Hua Cheng’s weight. When he righted himself, Xie Lian slipped his arms around Hua Cheng’s waist and crushed against his chest. Hua Cheng immediately folded around him.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” Xie Lian whispered. Hua Cheng gripped him with force.
“Not for long, Dianxia.”
For the first time since the ShangYuan Festival, Xie Lian found himself alone, waiting for Hua Cheng to return. Perhaps this should have been the more peaceful experience, since Xie Lian knew that he was fine and the exact time he could expect him back, yet mere moments after Hua Cheng rolled his dice and disappeared out the door of their small cottage, a fierce restlessness began to torture him.
Xie Lian paced the length of the cottage, looking for something to occupy his hands and distract himself. However, he felt Hua Cheng’s presence in every corner of the room. Everything was clean and tidied, and there was nothing that could bring Xie Lian any relief. He considered reading but didn’t even pull a book off the shelf before he discarded the idea; his mind was simply far too unsettled to focus on anything except Hua Cheng. Xie Lian had seen how high the traitorous sun was when they had walked back to the cottage, and he suppressed the urge to curse at it.
This situation was truly unbearable!
When the doubly practical solution of bathing finally occurred to him, Xie Lian leapt into motion and boiled some water. He stripped out of his robes, stepped into the tub, and scrubbed fiercely at his skin. It was as if he was attempting to purge the impatient anticipation from his body. Somewhat unsurprised at his failure to do anything but bring a bright pink flush to his skin, Xie Lian sighed and attended to his hair instead.
Xie Lian attempted to draw out his time in the bath by cleaning himself a second time, but after the force of his first round, he quickly abandoned the task. He curled his knees up and sunk his torso down until he was submerged up to his nose in the small tub. His long hair fanned across the surface of the water. From this position, it was much harder to stare out the window and watch the sunlight shift imperceptibly, and Xie Lian thought that was definitely for the best.
With nothing left to distract him, Xie Lian’s mind immediately wandered. The feeling of his lips underwater brought a particular memory surging back – crimson and white robes billowing, Hua Cheng’s strong hands on his waist and his chin, bright moonlight fracturing through the water. Their first kiss, from a time when they still pretended to need excuses to kiss each other. Xie Lian touched his lips. An old habit seized control unexpectedly, and Xie Lian found himself halfway through the first verse of the Ethics Sutra before he realized the utter futility of the whole thing. The sense of irony was too great to handle, and Xie Lian was about to laugh when another memory interrupted him.
“I have always wanted you.”
Hua Cheng’s dark voice echoed out from the back of Xie Lian’s mind. He shivered in the cooling water. “I was right,” he said softly, his voice distorted as air bubbled up to the surface.
It was just as Xie Lian had come to believe after all his ruminations. Hua Cheng wanted him. Wanted him. Every touch, every kiss, from the very beginning, had been something charged and powerful for him. Perhaps even his early reluctance to touch Xie Lian at all might even be explained by this confession beneath the maple trees. Xie Lian resolved to touch Hua Cheng as much as possible once he returned.
Feeling that his skin was beginning to prune unpleasantly, Xie Lian rose from the tub, toweled himself off, and routinely began to dress. An unstoppable glance out the window took him by surprise; the shadows of the maple trees were much longer than before, and the light was undeniably a deeper shade of red. Xie Lian’s heart picked up its pace and he quickly finished fastening his robes. He used a burst of spiritual energy to dry his hair before tying it back into a loose half-bun; although the act was incredibly frivolous, Xie Lian couldn’t help but think it would have made Hua Cheng smile.
Within a few minutes, Xie Lian emptied the bathwater and returned the room to its pristine condition. He couldn’t think of anything else to do, so he sat on the bed and sighed. Xie Lian’s eyes watched the sky gradually purpling through the window, but his attention was focused on a blur of other places and times. Without realizing it, he drew out the clear ring from within the folds of his white robes and spun it absently around its silver chain.
Eventually, Xie Lian was roused from his drifting state by the appearance of a silver butterfly on the window frame. His heart stuttered as he scrambled to his feet and threw the door open. A bright swarm of fluttering wings rushed around him like a gust of wind as soon as Xie Lian stepped outside. He extended his arms in front of him, and countless butterflies immediately settled there, darting up and down from their resting places erratically. Xie Lian smiled widely, and his heart was soft. “You’re back,” he whispered.
The butterflies soon ascended back into the air, trailing towards the main compound. Xie Lian followed them, admiring the beauty of his surroundings. It was twilight, and the waxing moon was already visible in the colorful sky. Although the majority of the structures that Xie Lian remembered from his youth had long since burnt and fallen into disrepair, the temporary housing of the heavenly court atop Mount Taicang had resulted in a fair amount of rehabilitation. There had been numerous repairs of various sizes, including the complete rebuilding of some halls and temples. Xie Lian wasn’t sure if the officials had undertaken the projects for their own sakes or for his, but either way he was very grateful.
As soon as Xie Lian passed through the gates, he was surprised to see the street lit up by dozens of hanging lanterns. The butterflies forged ahead, leading him deeper into the Xianle Pavilion, reflecting silvery light across the stone path. Finally, they halted before a restored temple and the hundreds of butterflies came to rest on every surface nearby. A pair fluttered their wings lazily upon the establishment plaque; it read: Huangji Temple.
Suddenly, there was a distant memory of a young, bandaged boy standing in a destroyed temple of the Flower Crown Martial God. “I won’t forget! I will never forget you!” he had cried out to Xie Lian.
Xie Lian blinked, somewhat startled. Had that been this temple? His memory was too faded from pain and disuse to say, but he suspected that Hua Cheng would remember exactly. He smiled. Truly, there had never been a single person as sincere as Hua Cheng.
Xie Lian ascended the few steps, pushed the grand doors open, and crossed over the threshold. The rebuilt temple was not as grand as the one it had replaced, but once he was inside, Xie Lian thought that he had never seen another so beautiful. The room was bathed in the warm glow of candlelight, illuminating the many flower petals scattered across the tiled floor. Between the red pillars hung silk drapes which rustled in the soft breeze that swept in through the open doors. Sweet incense filled his nostrils. A tall man in crimson robes stood facing the altar, and before he knew it, Xie Lian was running across the room.
He tackled Hua Cheng from behind, burying his face in the valley between his shoulder blades. “San Lang!”
Hua Cheng stepped forward from the impact but quickly steadied himself. He hugged the arms wrapped around his torso. “I hope that Gege didn’t miss me too much,” he said with a smile in his voice.
“I missed you so much!” Xie Lian whined into his back. Hua Cheng laughed with his whole body.
“Gege, I promise I’ll make it up to you. I’m prepared to give you anything you want.” Hua Cheng was bright, almost nonchalant, but his words sent a shiver down Xie Lian’s spine.
Hua Cheng gently untangled himself from Xie Lian’s arms and turned around to face him. In the brief moment that they were parted, Xie Lian noticed something behind Hua Cheng and leaned over to peek around his side. His mouth fell slightly open.
That grand altar had been cleared off and was now completely covered with blankets!
In that moment, the reality of the situation finally sunk in.
“Gege,” Hua Cheng said, and guided Xie Lian’s chin up towards him. His eyes followed a moment later, foggily. Hua Cheng’s hands were like ice against Xie Lian’s burning face. He leaned into the cool touch and his eyelids fluttered.
“Do you like the decorations?”
Xie Lian’s eyes jolted open. Hua Cheng was fishing for compliments now, of all times?! Only after a moment did he spot the playful glint in Hua Cheng’s eye and parse the exaggerated tone of his voice.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian scolded mildly, his lips curling into a small smile. Hua Cheng looked delighted, not rebuked in the slightest, and pressed a kiss to Xie Lian’s forehead.
“I’m very glad that Gege is so happy!” Hua Cheng said cheekily, and Xie Lian finally pfft-ed a laugh. It cascaded into another, and another, until finally Xie Lian leaned against Hua Cheng’s chest and gasped for air while they both rocked with laughter.
“Ah, San Lang, yes,” he said between laughs, “I’m very happy, you’re right! The happiest!”
Xie Lian tipped up onto his toes and kissed Hua Cheng’s cheek. He was beaming and his eye was full of fondness.
“San Lang, are you happy, too?”
“Of course,” Hua Cheng replied easily. “If Gege is here with me, how else could I be?”
Xie Lian smiled up at him, the kind that crinkled the corners of his eyes. “I feel the same way.”
Thanks to Hua Cheng, he was completely relaxed again, all his nervousness forgotten. Xie Lian still felt too warm, but he was starting to think that it might be caused by a different kind of tension, one that would probably persist and even grow stronger…
Seeming to read his mood perfectly, Hua Cheng dipped down and kissed Xie Lian with parted lips. He was cool and sweet. Xie Lian melted into his arms.
After Xie Lian’s thoughts had long since turned to mush, Hua Cheng drew back. Xie Lian chased his lips instinctively, but Hua Cheng just smiled and held him in place, hands firm on Xie Lian’s hips.
“Dianxia,” he said carefully. “May I undress you?”
There seemed to be some sort of weight behind those words, but Xie Lian was too thoroughly distracted by the fireworks going off in his mind to notice.
“Y-yes! San Lang!” Xie Lian exclaimed breathlessly.
Without pause, Hua Cheng lifted Xie Lian up and sat him atop the pile of blankets on the altar. He barely seemed to exert any effort. Xie Lian shivered as Hua Cheng slotted himself between his knees. Like that, the two were exactly the same height, and it was peculiarly striking for Xie Lian that he could stare so levelly at Hua Cheng’s face.
Hua Cheng cradled Xie Lian’s face and kissed his forehead, then loosened the ribbon holding back his hair. It cascaded down around his shoulders, tickling against his cheeks.
“Dianxia,” Hua Cheng said, low and close to his ear. Xie Lian’s heart skipped a beat. “Don’t be afraid. I will take care of you.”
Xie Lian’s mind went completely white when Hua Cheng ducked his head down, but he regained some composure when he saw Hua Cheng drop all the way down to the floor. He had one knee up in a worshipful stance. He took Xie Lian’s right foot into his hands and began slipping off his boot and sock. Xie Lian had to physically hold himself upright when Hua Cheng pressed his lips to the top of his foot, then the inside and outside of his ankle. He repeated the process with Xie Lian’s left foot. Every action was slow, deliberate, and methodical. They were the careful prayers of a devoted believer pressed upon the body of his god, and Xie Lian was unraveling before him.
Hua Cheng rose and moved in to kiss Xie Lian’s lips. There was a hunger in the coaxing of his tongue that Xie Lian very much reciprocated. While they kissed and nipped at each other, Hua Cheng’s hands found his waist and started working at his belt.
Xie Lian couldn’t help but be transported back to the broken-down Temple of Wind and Water in Fugu Town, where Shi Qingxuan had merrily ordered Xie Lian and Hua Cheng to strip each other. Hua Cheng had been so careful then, never touching Xie Lian’s body unnecessarily, holding a carefree expression on his face to comfort and calm him. To compare the two situations, now with their tongues dancing together and Xie Lian’s fingers knotting in Hua Cheng’s hair, it was really as if they had been given a second chance to explore each other on their own terms.
When Hua Cheng pushed the outer robe from Xie Lian’s shoulders, he pressed his splayed hands from the center of Xie Lian’s chest up along his collarbones and back over his shoulders, letting the robe drop down to his elbows. Hua Cheng unfastened the ties of the inner robe and peeled it slowly open. His lips moved from Xie Lian’s mouth, releasing him to gasp a trembling breath as Hua Cheng kissed along his jaw and down his neck.
“San Lang…” he breathed into Hua Cheng’s hair. “Gege,” came the reply from his shoulder. Hua Cheng’s dark voice made Xie Lian shiver with pleasure.
Hua Cheng was moving down Xie Lian’s arm, making Xie Lian feel like one or dozens of his silver butterflies had made their way beneath his skin with every kiss, filling him with a fluttering sensation that lifted all the tiny hairs on his arm at once. Hua Cheng disentangled Xie Lian’s hand from his hair, took it into his own, and lifted it to his lips. He pressed his butterfly kisses to each knuckle, to his open palm, to his fingertips. When he reached Xie Lian’s wrist, Ruoye quivered as if it, too, had been affected by its master’s slow unraveling.
“Ruoye, you can go for now, it’s alright,” Xie Lian soothed. Ruoye hesitated, seeming reluctant, but after a moment it unwound from Xie Lian’s forearm, brushed against Hua Cheng’s cheek, and rushed across the room to curl up around E-Ming’s scabbard.
There was a small smile on Hua Cheng’s face as he maneuvered both the robes off of Xie Lian’s arm at once. He removed the non-sentient wrappings on Xie Lian’s left arm, and a short moment later, Xie Lian was bare from the waist up, clad only in white trousers. Hua Cheng inhaled sharply, even though he neither spoke nor needed to breathe. His eye wandered hungrily over Xie Lian’s exposed body with an intensity that could start fires. Xie Lian’s eyes followed suit and dropped down from Hua Cheng’s face–
“San Lang!” Xie Lian could die of embarrassment that it had taken him this long to notice, but now that he had, it could no longer be ignored. “I… you’re still… let me undress you, too!”
Hua Cheng looked amused and smiled at Xie Lian. “No need to trouble yourself, Gege.”
In a flash, Hua Cheng quickly removed his vambraces, ornaments, and belt, his movements perfunctory and unsentimental, and was pulling his red outer robe over his head before Xie Lian finally processed what he was doing. He clasped onto Hua Cheng’s hands before they reached his white inner robe, blinked several times, and finally exclaimed, “It’s no trouble, San Lang, I want to!”
Hua Cheng held still and watched him carefully as Xie Lian fiddled with the ties at either side of his waist. He looked somewhat like he couldn’t believe what was happening. When Xie Lian’s hands first slipped inside his inner robe, Hua Cheng’s expression was all wild and full of desire. The robe dropped to the floor.
There was a shared sense that the calm before the storm might soon be ending. Xie Lian wriggled his robes out from beneath him while Hua Cheng shucked off his boots and socks. They were careful not to touch each other, and Xie Lian’s heart raced.
Finally, finally, Hua Cheng pushed Xie Lian back onto the altar and climbed up beside him. For a few breathless moments, they were a messy tangle of shifting limbs and wandering hands, and when they settled, they were wrapped in each other’s arms, lying down the length of the altar. Hua Cheng pressed Xie Lian into the blankets, knees straddling his hips in an exact inversion of their position that afternoon.
Xie Lian touched Hua Cheng’s eye patch, a silent question. When Hua Cheng nodded and turned his attention back to kissing his neck, Xie Lian quickly untied the knot secured at the back of Hua Cheng’s head and set the eye patch aside.
At that exact moment, Hua Cheng’s hand wandered fatefully over the soft skin on Xie Lian’s chest. Pleasure shot through him like a bolt of lightning. He moaned and involuntarily bucked his hips up, pressing the heat of his arousal firmly against Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng made a truly obscene sound and rolled his hips down desperately, yet somehow maintained the presence of mind to keep twisting and pinching that tender skin in order to coax more pretty noises out of Xie Lian.
“Dianxia,” Hua Cheng growled into his ear, then caught his earlobe between his teeth. Xie Lian gasped and panted and moaned, trembling with arousal, seeking friction with his hips.
“San Lang,” he begged between gasps. “San Lang, ah, I want… more!” Xie Lian had never experienced so much pleasure in all his hundreds of years, and although it seemed to already be completely overwhelming him, he was recklessly determined to push his body to its absolute limit. Perhaps this impulse is what had made Xie Lian such a successful martial god.
Hua Cheng obeyed without question and lowered his head. On one side of Xie Lian’s chest, rolling fingertips had already been making him slowly lose control. Now, on the other, Hua Cheng added his lips and teeth. For a terrifying moment, Xie Lian’s vision went completely white with shock. His entire body shook violently. He twisted and squirmed beneath Hua Cheng’s relentless touches as his own hands scraped across Hua Cheng’s back and pulled down on his hips. It was exhilarating.
“You’re… so good, San Lang,” Xie Lian said breathily. “So, hnn, good…”
Hua Cheng smiled into Xie Lian’s skin. He left that tender spot and migrated his gentle bites and kisses all around Xie Lian’s torso. The strands of Hua Cheng’s long hair and the coral bead fastened to his braid trailed across his skin. Xie Lian forgot how to breathe when Hua Cheng kissed the protrusion of his hipbone.
“Gege, Gege, breathe, don’t be afraid.” That low voice was the most irresistible thing Xie Lian had ever heard. He drew a shuddering breath as Hua Cheng lifted his hips and pulled off his trousers. The only thing remaining on his body was that clear ring on a silver chain.
Hua Cheng readjusted himself between Xie Lian’s knees. There was a forceful hunger in his eye, and for a short, crazy moment, Xie Lian thought he might actually–
He gasped. Hua Cheng had… he had…
Everything Xie Lian had felt since entering Huangji Temple had been the best experience he’d ever had, surely the best possible feeling that existed. Even after Hua Cheng proved him wrong again and again, Xie Lian was still completely unprepared for this. Hua Cheng had met his arousal with his lips and taken him deep within his mouth. Xie Lian’s back arched, his toes curled. He could no longer recognize the sounds escaping his own mouth. Everything in his head was smoky and hot.
Xie Lian had long since stopped entreating Hua Cheng for more, simply because he stopped believing that it was possible, but Hua Cheng must have taken his words to heart. While he fucked Xie Lian with his mouth, Hua Cheng’s hands explored every bit of Xie Lian that he could reach. He palmed heavily across his hips, his legs, his inner thigh, taking Xie Lian apart piece by tiny piece while he moaned incoherently into the back of his hand and clenched a fistful of Hua Cheng’s hair. Radiant warmth pooled in Xie Lian’s dantian and threatened to overflow. Xie Lian tensed, feeling like he was surrounded by harsh edges and about to fall.
As if he sensed that Xie Lian’s pleasure was beginning to crest, Hua Cheng did something obscene with his tongue. Xie Lian gasped. His hips pitched up once, twice, and then every nerve in his body exploded.
When the last aftershock rolled through Xie Lian’s trembling body, Hua Cheng raised his head and smiled at Xie Lian’s wrecked appearance. With a wicked gleam in his eye, Hua Cheng swallowed and licked his lips – Xie Lian was just going to die from shock, he was certain! How could something so perverse be so attractive?! Hua Cheng chuckled deep in his throat, but Xie Lian barely heard it over the roar of his own blush around his ears.
“Gege, should I stop?” he asked, crawling up close to Xie Lian’s face, body suspended just over his flushed skin.
“Stop?” Xie Lian echoed blankly. A quiet voice in his mind whispered, ‘There’s more…?’ Hua Cheng smiled devilishly, and for the length of a heartbeat Xie Lian thought he might have actually spoken aloud.
“We can stop anytime you want,” Hua Cheng assured in a voice that was too seductive for his words. “But if Gege isn’t too tired, there is another thing I’d like to try…”
He knew he was being baited but it was far too late for Xie Lian to care about losing face. “Yes! San Lang! I mean, no, don’t stop, we shouldn’t ever stop, let’s try, please, I want to – mnn!”
Hua Cheng kissed him deeply, cutting off Xie Lian’s scattered babbling. He noticed that Hua Cheng’s mouth was saltier and warmer than before and wondered if he had absorbed some of Xie Lian’s own excessive body heat. Xie Lian heard the wet sound of their lips parting and stared helplessly at Hua Cheng, who looked very pleased with himself.
“Gege is already agreeing before you know what I have in mind,” Hua Cheng purred. “Wouldn’t you like me to tell you first? I would of course be happy to describe it in great detail.”
“S-San Lang!!” Inexplicably, Xie Lian’s body twitched in response to those words. He covered his face with his hands. “Oh my god, I really don’t think I can handle that right now,” Xie Lian muttered, shaking his head rapidly. “Maybe it’s better if you just… we just…”
Hua Cheng laughed, grinning ear to ear. He propped his chin up on his palm and twisted a lock of Xie Lian’s hair between his fingers. “I’m very happy that Gege trusts me so much.”
“…Mm,” Xie Lian said shyly. “San Lang is very good.”
A flash of teeth shone in Hua Cheng’s smile. “I can be even better. Have you rested enough, Gege?”
Not trusting himself to speak, Xie Lian nodded.
“Then turn over.”
With just those few words, Xie Lian formed a strong impression of what Hua Cheng’s intentions must be. He rolled onto his stomach and hid his blush in the blankets. His heart had begun to race again.
Hua Cheng shuffled around behind him. A moment later, there was a sound of fabric crumpling onto the floor. When Xie Lian peeked back, he saw a very beautiful and very naked Hua Cheng kneeling at the end of the altar, staring down at his body. Their eyes met and Xie Lian turned quickly away, finding it suddenly much more difficult to breathe.
Breathing was both easier and harder when Hua Cheng touched him. He splayed his palms and massaged across Xie Lian’s back, thighs, and ass, methodically chasing away the tension and reactivating all the nerves that had blown out. Xie Lian hummed his satisfaction as Hua Cheng elbowed his knees further apart. Hua Cheng brought his lips to the small of Xie Lian’s back, which arched automatically. In Xie Lian’s moment of distraction, Hua Cheng’s fingers crept up his inner thigh and gently pressed against his entrance.
Xie Lian moaned. An acute wave of arousal coursed through his body, and he fisted the sheets beside his head as he fought the urge to roll his hips.
Hua Cheng removed his hands unexpectedly and leaned towards the back of the altar. He retrieved something small and opened it with a soft clink. When Hua Cheng brought his hand back to that hidden place, his fingers were slick and slippery.
Hua Cheng was patient to a fault, massaging and stretching carefully until Xie Lian was completely loose and relaxed. Xie Lian was also more aroused than he had ever been, and little tremors rocked his hips erratically while he breathed and waited. He held out as long as he could, but finally, when he thought he would go mad with desire, Xie Lian choked out, “San Lang! Please, a-ahh… I want to, mmnn, feel you… deeper… please, San Lang!”
“Yes, Dianxia.” And then, one of those long, slender fingers slid inside of him. Xie Lian lost track of everything except that indescribable drag as Hua Cheng slowly fucked him. He felt it in his fingertips and at the base of his neck. Time stopped existing; everything happened in an instant and every instant was forever. Xie Lian hissed when the second finger was added, but by the third, he was moaning and rocking into Hua Cheng’s hand, having brought himself nearly to his knees, back deeply arched.
“Gege, Gege,” Hua Cheng said, smooth as honey and dark as midnight. “Gege…”
Distantly, Xie Lian thought he sounded almost as wrecked as Xie Lian felt. He had never once described anything as sexy, but there truly was no better word for how intoxicated and lustful Hua Cheng’s voice was in that moment. Hua Cheng seemed to have reached a decision and withdrew his hand. Xie Lian immediately groaned his disapproval, but before Xie Lian could form the words to ask him to continue, Hua Cheng appeared over him like a shadow and something wet and hard pressed slowly into him.
“San Lang!” Xie Lian gasped at the pleasure-pain. As Hua Cheng slowly worked his way deeper and deeper, the stretch brought tears to Xie Lian’s eyes. Hua Cheng trembled above him and brought his lips to the side of Xie Lian’s neck. Unlike the motions of his hips, Hua Cheng’s kiss was not gentle. The sharp sting on his neck distracted Xie Lian from the overwhelming sensations lower in his body. In the corners of his vision, Xie Lian could see Hua Cheng’s hands planted firmly beside his shoulders, and his black tattoo and red knot danced in the tears that were now spilling down Xie Lian’s face.
“Dianxia.” Hua Cheng was very close to his ear and spoke with only the faintest breath. “It’s alright. Dianxia, Gege, darling. Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m… not!” Xie Lian insisted breathlessly. “San Lang… please, fuck me!”
Later on, Xie Lian would find it hard to deal with his memory of the sound that then ripped from low in Hua Cheng’s chest. It would slip into his mind at strange, often inconvenient times, and it would cause his face to flush and his body to shiver. Hua Cheng would tease him about it for days.
In that moment, the two were completely frenzied. Xie Lian thrust his hips back just as Hua Cheng thrust forward, and they collided in a euphoric wreck. There were strangled gasps from both of them. After the shock of the impact passed, their hips fell into an urgent rhythm, and Xie Lian quickly learned that the dragging sensation of Hua Cheng’s fingers was simply nothing compared to this.
Just as Xie Lian began to adjust to the experience and find his bearings, Hua Cheng upended his world once more. While maintaining the relentless tempo of his hips, Hua Cheng shifted his balance onto just one hand, brought the other to Xie Lian’s chest, and squeezed him mercilessly. Xie Lian collapsed down to his elbows in shock as his body was overwhelmed with pleasure from every direction. However, the surprises were not all revealed until Hua Cheng’s very next thrust, when the new angle brought him into contact with something that physically shook Xie Lian’s entire body and rolled his eyes back.
“Yes!” Xie Lian cried desperately. “Don’t stop, San Lang!”
Hearing this, it was as if Hua Cheng stopped holding back at all. He slammed their hips together and brought his hand to Xie Lian’s erection. Xie Lian thrust between Hua Cheng and his hand, drugged on the waves of pleasure. His first semi-coherent thought was the realization that he wouldn’t last much longer like this.
“Dianxia, let go,” Hua Cheng growled behind his ear, and Xie Lian did.
Within moments, Hua Cheng followed him with a violent shudder that passed all the way through Xie Lian’s body.
Hua Cheng wrapped his arm around Xie Lian’s waist and pulled their bodies together, pressing his forehead between Xie Lian’s shoulder blades. Xie Lian’s chest was heaving and his vision was hazy. Around the time when Xie Lian’s thoughts started to shape themselves into basic words, Hua Cheng carefully withdrew himself, and the two finally collapsed back-to-front onto the altar.
Hua Cheng curled around Xie Lian and held him close. He combed through his hair and whispered softly into his ear long before Xie Lian had the presence of mind to understand him. When he could finally listen, Hua Cheng was saying all manner of shameless things – “Dianxia, I love you,” and “Gege, I was good right? You were great,” and “I really love you so much.” When Xie Lian squirmed with embarrassment and hid his face in his hands, Hua Cheng laughed.
“Ah! You came back, Dianxia,” he teased, pressing a kiss to the back of Xie Lian’s head.
“It was that good, huh?”
“Don’t worry, Gege, I’ll only tease you a little bit.”
After a moment, Xie Lian sighed, and smiled. He drew his hands down and rolled over in Hua Cheng’s arms, propping himself up on his elbow so that Hua Cheng had to look up at him. Xie Lian brushed his fingertips across Hua Cheng’s right cheek, then leaned forward and gently pressed his lips to the hollow socket above. As soon as he drew back, Hua Cheng tipped up and caught his lips with his own. The kiss was tender, and Xie Lian’s heart ached. The expression he found on Hua Cheng’s face when they parted further disarmed him. He looked happier than Xie Lian had ever seen him, brimming over with love, but there was something melancholic hiding there as well.
“San Lang? What’s on your mind?”
Hua Cheng blinked and schooled his features, as if remembering that Xie Lian could see him. “Ah, Gege, it’s nothing to worry about,” he said too-casually. “You’re so good to me. Sometimes… it can be hard to believe that this is real, and I get a little stuck sometimes, that’s all.”
Xie Lian’s heart surged with affection, and he couldn’t help but push Hua Cheng down and shower a flurry of kisses across his face. Once he recovered, Hua Cheng chuckled happily. “Gege,” he said affectionately.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian replied, smiling down at him. He took Hua Cheng’s right hand in his left and brought it up between them. Their red threads were pressed between their hands; the beauty of that picture struck Xie Lian deeply.
“If you’re feeling that way and I’m not around for some reason, I want you to look at your hand,” Xie Lian said. “You’ll see what’s tied there and you’ll know that I’m real, that I’m okay, and that I’m coming back to you, no matter where I am or how long it takes. I’m always going to come back to you, San Lang. But if I am around, please tell me if you’re struggling! I’ll remind you myself that everything is okay.”
There was a dangerous glimmer in Hua Cheng’s eye, and just from that, Xie Lian already knew he was feeling better. “And how will you remind me of that, Gege?”
‘So childish!’ Xie Lian thought with a smile. He decided to try surpassing Hua Cheng’s expectations, curious to see what would happen.
“I’ll do anything you want until you believe me, San Lang. I’m prepared to give you anything you want.”
Without skipping a beat, Hua Cheng grinned and said, “Okay! Gege, kiss me.”
Laughing, Xie Lian did.
And so, the Scrap Immortal and the Ghost King fell asleep entangled in each other’s arms, lying atop the Scrap Immortal’s own altar in a temple covered in flowers. When the dawn light crept in with the morning breeze, they drew on their inner robes, returned to their cottage, and quickly undressed, lost in each other’s bodies once more.
For the next several days, Blood Rain Seeking Flower teased the Flower Crown Martial God relentlessly, asking him for endless kisses. Some of his requests were urgent with heartache, and some weren’t. Across weeks and months, he found that fewer and fewer of his requests were the former sort, and eventually the last anxious restraint around his heart collapsed into dust. In the constant company of his heart’s beloved, he finally believed that his eight hundred years of loneliness had truly come to an end.