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It is not until ten years of his life have passed that Hua Cheng learns the gentleness of another’s touch.

Far before he should have, he had become more than familiar with the cruelty of it—nails digging into his scalp, yanking his hair hard enough to rip out chunks. The sting of a palm making contact with his cheek, sending him tumbling across the dirt. Fingers fisting in his ragged clothing, slamming him into walls and tossing him out into the streets.

He knows the pain of human contact, has tried to inflict that pain upon others in an effort to defend himself.

He does not know this.

An arm reaching out to intercept his meeting with death, successfully clutching him into its grasp with a steadfast strength that promises anything but harm. The grip around him is firm, but tender, and the one holding him shines with power, but also benignity.

Hua Cheng curls into the warmth, body trembling partly from the kiss of death that just barely managed to brush upon his cheek, yet more so due to the intensity of a newfound emotion coursing through him.

The hand cradling his waist, the silken cloth he’s tucked against, the arm supporting his weight.

It feels safe.

Yet none of those feel as safe as the face he gazes up at—unsmiling, but not unkind, lips parted when a breath of relief escapes them, eyes slightly widened as they sparkle in the glow of the sun.

Hua Cheng can’t bring himself to blink, to tear his attention away from this face for a single moment, even as his savior lifts his sword and continues to slash and stab at his opponent. One swing of the sabre comes startlingly close to scraping the arm that clutches him, and Hua Cheng cries out. Not in fear of it striking him, but of wounding the one who carries him.

A hand squeezes him tighter. “Don’t be afraid,” a calm, mellifluous voice reassures.

And for the first time in his life, he’s anything but.

So he fists his dirtied hands into the folds on his savior’s chest, and promises to never let go.

 

 

-

 

 

Not long passes before Hua Cheng finds himself back in the security of those arms.

Light invades the gunny sack. Despite his eyes hidden away as he tucks his head from view, he recognizes the careful press of the fingers on his neck immediately.

His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le scoops him up into his arms, and demands his offender’s arrest. He asks after his wellbeing, moves to check on his wounds, even tries to undo the bloodied bandages wrapped around his cursed eye. Hua Cheng keeps his hands firmly in place over it, reluctant to shy away from his touch but even more adamant to make sure he doesn't see.

What would hurt more than every beating he’d taken, every curse spit his way, would be the disgust of this person who holds him like he is worth something. For the Crown Prince to drop him to the ground, wipe his hands clean of him, and abhor ever saving him in the first place.

If he refuses to let his savior see him, then naturally the doctors won’t be allowed either.

The Crown Prince attempts to whittle him down, asks for his name, his age. Hua Cheng has never been called anything besides worthless, trash, a demon, a curse of misfortune, among other vulgar obscenities. He supposes red is the most acceptable, the least likely to taint royal ears, so he mumbles an embarrassed, “Hong…”

He’s urged yet again to lower his hands, don’t be afraid, the doctors will tend to you. Hua Cheng shakes his head, can only admit that he’s too ugly to be seen, even if it’s undeniably an understatement. How could he simply be ugly? He’s a freak of nature, a spawn of hell, and it’s all made certain by the red of his right eye.

This fact is reaffirmed with the Xian Le Pavilion being bathed in fire, evil creatures drawn towards him like a moth to a flame.

It wasn't him, he didn’t mean to. Don’t hate him, it wasn’t his fault!

“The Star of Solitude,” the Head Priest condemns him, each word more damning than the next. “Destined to bring misfortune and destruction, the kind that evil loves the most. Whoever touches him will have misfortune befall them, whoever gets close will lose their lives!”

Hua Cheng screams, voice bursting with uncontrollable agony. He rushes towards the Head Priest in a blind rage, thrashing and hitting and snapping his jaw at those who move to stop him. It’s not true! It’s not true! Just because of his birth date, just because of his right eye! What do you know about me? How can you determine my life?! I’m not a demon! I’m not a curse!!!

He stomps his feet and throws fists and howls, “I’m not! I’M NOT!! I’M NOT!!!!”

A flash of white kneels behind him, arms sliding around his waist and pulling him close.

“You’re not. I know you’re not. Don’t cry, now. I know you’re not.”

Hua Cheng swings around and grips onto the sleeves like a lifeline, biting his lip so harshly he tastes the metallic drip of blood on his tongue. All the anguish he’s suffered builds heavily in his throat until it becomes too excruciating to hold back. Globs of tears slide down his face, snot stuffs uncomfortably in his nose. Hua Cheng throws his head back and wails.

He’s drawn even closer, his face pressed firmly into the Crown Prince’s chest. A heartbeat, as steadfast and secure as the person holding him, is all Hua Cheng can hear beyond his own misery. A hand rubs up and down his back, while another caresses its fingers through his mangled hair.

“It’s not you. It’s not your fault,” that same voice promises, tinged with warmth yet also immovable conviction. Not placating, but honest.

It’s the first time someone’s believed him, and the crushing relief the words bring him only propel Hua Cheng further into hysterics.

 

 

-

 

 

Hands that caught him midfall, arms that held him close. A voice that told him not to be afraid, a promise that it was not his fault. An umbrella left in the rain, a lock of hair tied around his finger. A white flower offered, a name etched into skin. Warmth that only came with his touch, then grew to come at the thought of him as well.

A wish to forget, a vow to never.

A reason to live.

This is what Hua Cheng remembers as the arrow drives straight through his heart.

It’s raining, drops beating ruthlessly onto his body as he shivers. But he doesn’t feel cold, not as he thinks of His Highness, and all he has given him. All he has sworn to give back.

Trembling fingers pull a red pearl from his tattered robes, fist curling around it protectively. His other hand reaches out towards the sky.

He wants to see him.

A solitary tear escapes from his lashes as Hua Cheng takes his last breath.

 

 

-

 

 

His Highness saves him again, as a measly little ghost fire, and Hua Cheng prays to never rest in peace.

It is love that ties him, the desire to protect the hands that taught him how to be capable of it.

But Hua Cheng is useless in the end. His form is small, no larger than a butterfly. He has to concentrate in order to make contact with the world, and when he does his fire burns cold, not hot. He cannot warm His Highness as he is curled in the to-be pit of a grave, cannot help him climb out.

“God, please wait for me, just wait for me…” He begs, his form flickering with the force of his despair. “Please give me a little more time…let me…let me…”

Let me protect him.

But he stays as a feeble ghost fire, powerless in stopping what is bound to come.

 

 

-

 

 

When Hua Cheng regains a physical form, he does not feel triumphant or hopeful, as he thought he would.

Because in his hands he cradles what doesn't appear to be human anymore.

Too late. He was too late. He couldn't protect him. If this is what it took to regain his body, he didn't want any part of it, didn’t deserve any inch of it. Why did he only get it back after His Highness had experienced the worst suffering in the world? What use was he now?

His Highness deserves better than a failure like him.

 

 

-

 

 

Wu Ming doesn’t allow himself to long for His Highness’s touch.

He exists as a vessel, a means to carry out his God’s wishes, a weapon to cut down those who oppose him. He remains a respectful distant, drops to one knee, and bows his head. He leaves a white flower in the palm of a burnt statue. He swears an oath to die a second time to protect his God, to follow him to the ends of the earth—and if His Highness wishes to see the world burnt to ashes, he will light the first match.

In the end, it doesn't come to that. Wu Ming never thought it would. His Highness possesses a kindness that doesn't stop at his heart, but rather reaches down to the core of his very soul.

And it is so easy, to take on the flaming, endless fury of all those resentful spirits in his place. In what Wu Ming knows will be the last time he will ever get to see His Highness, he smiles.

 

 

-

 

 

The stone is rough in his hands.

Pieces chip and fall away with every strike, demanding a patience that he has to force himself to give. It grounds him. Pulls Hua Cheng out of his insatiable desire to destroy and pushes him to create. To remember who he is here for.

His Highness’s face stares back at him, and he finds himself being coaxed from the edge, guided back into a place of sanity. The cloud of despair that plagues him lifts, clearing so he may bask in the promising radiance of His Highness’s smile.

Hua Cheng brushes his thumb along the cheek.

The statue is cold.

Of course it is, for it’s only a cheap imitation that barely captures the brilliance of the intended subject. Hua Cheng could never hope to ever encapsulate even a fraction of His Highness’s warmth, as much as he craves to.

But he still tries. Until a dozen statues grow to a hundred. Until a hundred become a thousand.

A vow to never to forget, a devotion stronger than life or death.

It is all for him.

 

 

-

 

 

Eight hundred years pass in which Hua Cheng does not feel a shred of warmth.

His contact with others is limited to them on the receiving end of his sabre or his equally sharp tongue. None dare to touch him, and those who do meet a gruesome end.

Almost a millennium without any warmth, and now there are nimble fingers interlocking with his own, allowing him to guide them out of the bridal sedan and into the darkened forest.

His heart has not beat for just as long, yet he thinks he may feel it stutter in his chest. The point of contact burns hotter than the eruption that deigned him king of the dead, than the thousands of temples he had condemned in a single night.

His Highness stumbles forward, and Hua Cheng catches him like it is the most natural thing in the world, like he exists solely to keep him from falling.

He does.

Matching His Highness’s pace is easy, keeping an arm alert and in position to steady him should he trip again is even simpler. When the wolves attempt to emerge from the shadows, he taps a single finger twice on the back of the tensed hand as a silent comfort, as gentle and soft as possible. To his delight, the desired effect is instantaneous, and it adds a pep of confidence to his already steadied steps.

He can protect His Highness now, will crush anything before it can even come close to harming him. The skull that turns to dust beneath the heel of his boot isn't even worth a glance.

An umbrella appears in his hand, and Hua Cheng uses it to shield the person who had once gifted it to him. A tilt to the side ensures not a drop of blood will tarnish His Highness, and if the result is a splash of it on his own right shoulder, it’s hardly a sacrifice at all.

Affections run deep through his dormant veins as he leisures on forward, not wanting this moment to end but also daring to hope it is only the beginning. Faith is what brings him to a stop, releasing the warmth cradled between his fingers in exchange for the warmth that waits beneath the veil. A face that is his life incarnate, beautiful beyond measure, as dazzling as the rising sun.

Hua Cheng only catches a glimpse of it before-

Thousands of silver butterflies erupt where his form shatters, fluttering erratically from the deluge of love that fills their master to the brim and pours over the edges of his very being.

One ventures close enough to catch the attention of His Highness’s eyes before vanishing into the night sky, a trace of silver trailing in its wake.

Only the beginning indeed.

 

 

 

 

+

It is a wondrous thing, how Xie Lian’s touch is something he cherished because it was finite, yet now he is the one who receives it infinitely, and cherishes it even more.

Xie Lian touches him and it is as if he heals all of Hua Cheng’s invisible scars, like the stroke of his fingertips erases every place Hua Cheng has been hurt and replaces it with unconditional love until there is room for nothing else. And with this, Hua Cheng learns to treasure the body Xie Lian pours his love into, value the sunken eyelid he presses his lips against.

He can never get enough—of the arms that embrace him as they sleep, the hand that covers his as they practice calligraphy, the hip that bumps his own when his teasing becomes too shameless, the shoulder he rests his chin on while Xie Lian stirs a bowl of oddly burnt sludge. Each touch, every way their bodies connect, no matter how fleeting, is more than he could ever dream of.

Yet it is his, and he will have it.

Everyday from now beyond forever, a red string tying them together, hand in hand.