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“Gege, what about this one?”

In their cottage of Mount Taicang, Hua Cheng adorns a new robe; its collar is wider, allowing more of his chest to be seen while remaining appropriate and sophisticated. The flowing red tips are adorned with silver patterns that shine in the early afternoon light.

Hot from the blazing summer, Xie Lian, sitting crossed-legged on their bed and fresh from a wash in the nearby river, is only covered with a white sheet over his lap. Atop it lay several scrolls, which he courses attentively through. He glances up from the one he’s just picked up, eyes falling onto Hua Cheng’s new choice of attire.

“Oh, I like it,” he says. Xie Lian has long stopped getting distracted by Hua Cheng’s hectic wardrobe changes, but he gladly helps whenever it’s asked of him. He gestures at Hua Cheng to approach, grabbing the hem of the robe when he gets close enough and tracing the patterns of butterflies and flowers. He gives a final nod. “Yes, this one’s the one.”

Hua Cheng needs not hear anything more; he will always agree with whatever receives Xie Lian’s approval. He bows with a twirl of his hand.

“As gege wishes.”

Xie Lian fondly rolls his eyes at him, tugging absentmindedly at the robe until Hua Cheng finally sits on the edge of the bed.

“What’s the occasion?” Xie Lian asks, moving closer to the center of the mattress to give Hua Cheng more room. Scrolls and crumbs from their lunch tumble from his lap like a trail of nuts carried by a squirrel on the forest path.

Hua Cheng swipes away the crumbs, making them disappear into nothingness, and puts the scrolls aside one by one, until only the one in Xie Lian’s other hand remains.

“What’s not an occasion when I’m with you?”

Xie Lian lets go of the robe to hide his laugh, flushing as though he hasn’t been subjected to such praise for years now. Both the sound and the sight ignite the drowsing flame in Hua Cheng’s stomach; doesn’t his husband deserve all the praise in the world?

In a flash, Hua Cheng is undressed. Xie Lian’s eyes flick away from the scroll for a brief moment before returning to it, utterly unfazed.

Hua Cheng sits on the bed, poking at Xie Lian’s hand.

Getting no reaction, he takes it, kisses it, then pecks his way along Xie Lian’s arm and, upon reaching his shoulder, adds a bit of teeth. Xie Lian’s eyes remain resolutely set on his scroll, brows furrowing at a line of characters, relaxing at the next.

“Gege?”

“Mmh?”

“May this San Lang get a kiss?”

Hua Cheng loves to ask—loves that Xie Lian makes the choice to always say yes.

Yes, I want you, I want to kiss you, I want to touch you; I want you by my side.

Xie Lian lifts Hua Cheng’s chin up, letting show some of that gentle control of his that makes things difficult for Hua Cheng at times, eyes soft as their lips meet. Though Hua Cheng trembles, he doesn’t deepen the kiss; he lets Xie Lian guide him along for a while, happy to follow wherever Xie Lian takes him.

“Gege—”

“San Lang?” Xie Lian blinks at him innocently.

Hua Cheng kisses his jaw, then moves to Xie Lian’s neck, sucking at it sweetly. Asking a silent question.

When Xie Lian lets out a breathless gasp at the contact but otherwise still doesn’t react, Hua Cheng whirls around and flops back onto Xie Lian’s lap in defeat.

Hua Cheng looks up at him pleadingly. Xie Lian looks right back at him, an eyebrow raised.

There may never be hunger in Xie Lian’s eyes but—there’s always love, and playfulness, and his own boundless adoration returned to Hua Cheng.

Hua Cheng had made clear that they didn’t have to go further than Xie Lian’s initial boundaries—built from his lifetime of abstinence and simply his nature—but, after some time, Xie Lian had wanted to try, to relieve both Hua Cheng’s desire and his own curiosity.

Over time, Xie Lian started to—when bored, curious, or solely in the mood to have fun—initiate; sometimes in ways that render Hua Cheng breathless, if he could breathe at all. It always thrills him when Xie Lian enjoys their intimacy, and who is Hua Cheng to deny him anything?

However, Xie Lian’s need for sex is still near non-existent; he could go weeks at a time without initiating anything if it wasn’t for Hua Cheng asking for it, teasing him every few days and happy to see Xie Lian eagerly playing along.

But, sometimes, unable to be spurred into the mood by that mere kind of attraction, Xie Lian would simply not feel like indulging Hua Cheng.

Which is precisely, it seems, Hua Cheng’s torment today. Or, at least, the one he likes to pretend to endure.

He stirs like a cat, exposing his neck, stretching the defined muscles of his chest. His hair splays handsomely around his face, draping Xie Lian’s lap in a black veil.

Xie Lian appears unable not to look, always mesmerized by Hua Cheng in a way Hua Cheng never entirely understands; it’s become easier to accept it, but a buried part of him, sticking out like a resilient weed in a field of flowers, doesn’t quite comprehend how Xie Lian always tries to grab it and pluck it out.

The way Xie Lian looks at him now, full of fondness and adoration, makes him pause; perhaps he’s worthy of him indeed.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian chides kindly, “You’re very pleasing to the eye, but don’t you know—” He taps Hua Cheng’s nose like he would a misbehaving child. “Even if you could somehow be more handsome, it still wouldn’t do it.”

“May Your Highness forgive me,” Hua Cheng says apologetically, eyeing Xie Lian’s torso up and down appreciatively, “But how can this lowly one not make an attempt when facing such a sight?”

Xie Lian hums. “It’s really a shame.”

Hua Cheng groans, muffling his face in Xie Lian’s bare stomach.

“Won’t gege show any mercy?”

His body’s interest isn’t anything that can’t pass on its own, or be suppressed with a snap of his fingers, so Hua Cheng doesn’t say more about it. Yet on his words, Xie Lian makes a point of taking Hua Cheng’s hand and placing it there, not even looking up from his scroll.

“Gege is ruthless,” Hue Cheng scoffs pitifully.

Xie Lian keeps a straight face, but Hua Cheng can see it; there’s a light quiver to his lower lip—he’s barely succeeding.

Hua Cheng watches in wonder; the slight squint of his eyes, the twitching of held back laughter in the lines of his mouth. Hua Cheng’s adoration grows, ever so steadily.

How lucky, he thinks.

In place of other desired areas, Xie Lian’s fingers find Hua Cheng’s hair, combing it carefully until the laughter building up in his chest subsides, and his focus returns to the scroll. Hua Cheng gazes at Xie Lian; his parted lips as he enunciates a complicated word, the stray lock of hair drifting in the wind through the window, the ray of sunlight turning his eyes gold.

Hua Cheng reaches up, tucking that lock of hair back into place. Distracted by the movement, Xie Lian’s attention strays from the scroll once again. He gives a smile, bright and crescent eyed.

Hua Cheng doesn’t need rest, but the delicate movement of Xie Lian’s fingers through his hair makes him sleepy all the same. He struggles to keep his eye open; to admire Xie Lian, bathed in heavenly light as he reads this boring report, determined to take it seriously.

The minutes fly by, Hua Cheng content to observe. Still, he's getting bored, his mind itching for a distraction.

“Gege?”

Xie Lian doesn’t spare him a glance as his finger traces over the paper, following the characters.

“Gege,” he calls again a moment later.

Xie Lian’s mouth upturns at the corner. He can never ignore Hua Cheng for long, but his determination keeps him from obliging.

“Are you almost done?”

“Soon,” Xie Lian replies softly. He’s silent for another minute, then asks, “What do you want to do?”

“Sing to me.”

“You can sing better than me,” Xie Lian counters.

“Then dance with me.”

Xie Lian’s smile returns. “Only if you sing.”

Hua Cheng grins back. “Gege sure knows how to make a deal,” he says. “Perhaps he should join me in Gambler’s Den more often.”

At last, Xie Lian lays his scroll atop the others to the side and gazes at Hua Cheng. Propping himself up until his head hangs right over Hua Cheng’s face, his hair falls in a curtain around them.

“I could,” he whispers. “But for now, I’d rather be here.”

As Xie Lian bends down, Hua Cheng raises himself up to meet him in a kiss. He follows the movement until he’s sitting. Parting reluctantly, he stands up, offering Xie Lian his hand.

Xie Lian takes it. He leaves the bed, the sheet rolling off his lap, revealing him entirely. He flushes, as though someone might enter the room and see them at any moment.

Grabbing the sheet, Hua Cheng drapes it around both their frames, holding it close where he wraps his arms around Xie Lian’s neck.

Xie Lian huddles closer despite the summer warmth; close enough that no part of their bodies do not touch, his hands resting on Hua Cheng’s hips.

Hua Cheng’s mouth is at the perfect height to press light pecks to Xie Lian’s forehead. He begins to hum an old, forgotten song of Xian Le; a lullaby his mother used to sing for him. It’s one of the few precious memories he has of that time when everything was awful, but he still had her. He was too young to remember her face, or what her touch felt like—but he remembers her lullabies, forgotten songs from a forgotten time.

Guiding Xie Lian along, Hua Cheng sways to the melodic rumble of his throat. Xie Lian’s breath falls rhythmically over his neck. Eventually, he lays his head on Hua Cheng’s shoulder, sighing contentedly.

When the song comes to an end, Hua Cheng doesn’t stop swaying. He holds Xie Lian, takes the time to feel him; his warmth, his heartbeat reverberating through his own, silent chest. He savours it, like he doesn’t get to be near every day; cherishing each hour, each minute, each second with Xie Lian he is lucky enough to be gifted with.

In their communication array, Hua Cheng asks, “Gege, pray this San Lang may ask you a question?”

“Yes?”

“Can he get another kiss?” he pleads aloud, then before Xie Lian can agree, smirks. “Wherever gege wants.”

Xie Lian weightlessly slaps his arm.

“Joking, gege, I’m joking.”

Xie Lian huffs humorously, shaking his head at him, but kisses his lips for his trouble.

“However,” Hua Cheng purrs, “May I be so bold as to ask for compensation?”

“Compensation for wh—San Lang!”

Hua Cheng suddenly lifts Xie Lian up, carrying him back to the bed. The sheet that had been covering them slips to the floor. Xie Lian ah’s as his back hits the mattress. Too swift to be avoided, Hua Cheng lies over him and breathes out against Xie Lian’s stomach, making an unkingly sound. Xie Lian shrieks, wriggling in an attempt to escape the bullying as it tickles him.

But Hua Cheng holds him in place in a vice grip, carrying on his onslaught.

In the same instant, here it comes—Hua Cheng’s favourite sound; Xie Lian’s laughter, echoing through the cottage, deep and heartfelt.

“San Lang!” Xie Lian hiccups, “S—stop!”

He’s still laughing, swatting at him without heat, so Hua Cheng continues with a devilish grin until it sounds like Xie Lian soon won’t be able to keep breathing.

Laying his chin on Xie Lian’s stomach, Hua Cheng peers up at him innocently.

“Are you satisfied?” Xie Lian scolds, still struggling to catch his breath. He trembles with remnants of laughter, wiping the happy tears at the corners of his eyes.

Hua Cheng pretends to think for a moment, tapping Xie Lian’s side thoughtfully. “Yes,” he concludes. Both in his life and death, he never had time to be a child—being childish around Xie Lian. . . it’s a gift, and one they learned he’s ready to abuse. “This is acceptable.”

Xie Lian snorts, pushing Hua Cheng off of him until he can sit crossed-legged.

Hua Cheng wastes no time settling right behind him.

The sunrays falling through the window and onto them are peppered in sparkling dust. Bending over the bed to retrieve it, Xie Lian covers his lap with the sheet of white silk again. It shimmers in the light. From the bedpost, Ruoye slithers as though awakened from a nap by all the noise, and wraps itself around Xie Lian’s arm.

As Xie Lian pets it, Hua Cheng snaps his fingers silently, and Xie Lian is suddenly showered in white flowers.

Chuckling, he glances over his shoulder at Hua Cheng.

“Where do these come from?”

“Hm, I picked them this morning while gege slept,” Hua Cheng explains as he parts Xie Lian’s hair, unable to resist tickling the back of his neck. Xie Lian’s not as sensitive there, so he squirms but pushes against the contact instead of avoiding it, a request for Hua Cheng to kiss it.

“They’re very pretty,” Xie Lian remarks, picking one up and twirling it between his thumb and forefinger. He brings it up to his nose, sniffing it. “Smells good, too!”

Though Xie Lian can’t see him, Hua Cheng smiles. It doesn’t matter whether what he does for Xie Lian is big or small; if he’s happy, then— “I’m happy gege likes them.”

Hua Cheng braids the flowers into Xie Lian’s hair one by one, humming the same song as earlier. When he’s done, he moves the braid over Xie Lian’s shoulder, so he can see it.

He hears no more than a pleased gasp. Xie Lian turns around until their knees are brushing, beaming, and Hua Cheng feels a little weak. There’s no getting used to this, and he doesn’t want to.

“Here,” Xie Lian says, tucking the flower he’d been holding behind Hua Cheng’s ear. “You should have one too.”

“His Highness is too kind,” Hua Cheng murmurs. Xie Lian’s hand hasn’t left his face just yet; it’s gently caressing his cheek, his jaw. Hua Cheng cannot help leaning into the touch.

“I just want San Lang to have what I have.”

Hua Cheng lies back down, taking Xie Lian with him. Xie Lian nestles against him, his warmth as addicting as it is comforting; for many years, Hua Cheng had only known the cold, and he hadn’t missed warmth until he’d gotten it back like this.

“I have everything I’ve ever wished for,” he says.

“Surely there’s something else you want,” Xie Lian muses, tracing random patterns over Hua Cheng’s unbeating heart. “For example, I want to dig a pond tomorrow.”

Hua Cheng chuckles, shaking his head. He lays a kiss to the top of Xie Lian’s head.

“Should the pond have fish?”

“Of course! And frogs.” Xie Lian sounds excited, tapping Hua Cheng’s hand instead of his own. “San Lang, you should choose what kind of fish!”

Hua Cheng opens his mouth to answer—when the door abruptly flings open.

“Your Highness!”

When it’d been just the two of them sharing a moment a second before, Feng Xin now stands at the threshold, his eyes slowly widening as he takes in the scene before him.

While Hua Cheng merely raises a menacing eyebrow at the intruder, Xie Lian yelps unceremoniously. He hastens to shield not his own body from view, but Hua Cheng’s.

“Oh, fuck.”

The door slams closed.

It takes a moment for Xie Lian to shake himself off his stupor and stumble out of bed. He quickly slips into his robes while Hua Cheng begrudgingly stands up as well and adorns the new one they’d picked earlier in the blink of an eye, flashing a grin at Xie Lian’s appreciative gaze.

Outside, Feng Xin is pacing by the small vegetable patch, appearing as though he’d give anything to clean out his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he apologizes as they approach, though he’s only addressing Xie Lian. “I didn’t think I might interrupt, uhm, things.”

Xie Lian stares at Feng Xin like he doesn’t know what he's talking about, but his cheeks’ sudden change of colour betrays him.

“Actually, we weren’t doing anything,” he blurts.

Feng Xin frowns. “But you were naked?”

Xie Lian pauses, brows furrowed in confusion. “So?”

“Then—why were you naked in the middle of the day?”

“Because it was hot today, and it’s more comfortable like this?” Xie Lian replies like it’s the most obvious answer. Which, really, was simply the truth.

Hua Cheng tsks. He’s still got the flower behind his ear. Feng Xin stares at it.

“This is private property. If you don’t want to see, then it’s your own fault for barging in.” After all, they could have been doing ‘things’, as Feng Xin so eloquently put it—they certainly have before. Hua Cheng bites back a mocking laugh. “Evidently Xuan Zhen is yet to show you any bedroom etiquette.”

Feng Xin glares at him, looking like he’s about to throw hands.

“Can you—can you two not—” Xie Lian pinches the bridge of his nose. “Anyway, let’s not talk about it anymore. Just knock next time, alright?”

“Don’t worry, Your Highness,” Feng Xin mutters, shooting daggers at Hua Cheng, who pointedly ignores him, like he’s no more than a harmless ant. “I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

“Perfect!” Xie Lian says, clapping his hands once together and tilting his head to the side, eyes closed in satisfaction. Hua Cheng likes it when he does this; both for the sarcasm and how cute it is. “Why are you here?”

Feng Xin looks embarrassed. “Well, you see. . .”

Turns out, he’d purely been excited to show Xie Lian his latest discovery; an old sword they’d pawned centuries ago, which Xie Lian is thrilled to see again.

Xie Lian passionately explains to Hua Cheng how special it is, seemingly unable to stop blabbering about what a wonderful surprise it is, and how he often wondered where it had ended up.

For that reason alone, Hua Cheng decides Feng Xin can get away with interrupting their leisure time together, just this once.

Feng Xin doesn’t stay for long; when Xie Lian offers that he stay for dinner, he flees, claiming he’d only come to gift the sword, and he has matters of the utmost importance to attend to.

Hua Cheng shrugs when Feng Xin has disappeared. Xie Lian bears a complicated expression, marked with disappointment.

“Don’t worry gege, he doesn’t know what he’s missing out on.”

“Haha. . .” Xie Lian sighs, smiling sadly. “San Lang, I doubt that.”

“Gege’s cooking has improved,” Hua Cheng reassures, but what he means is, Gege’s been healing.

Xie Lian’s smile turns into a careful grin. It’s true; Xie Lian improvises less, allowing himself to follow Hua Cheng’s helpful instructions whenever he’s around to give him a hand. Slowly, Hua Cheng has noticed him letting go of his habit of reproducing his mother’s cooking.

Hua Cheng slides his hand in Xie Lian’s. Gently, he tugs him towards the vegetable patch. They head back in with the setting of the sun, having tended to the garden and picked what to eat tonight.

Inside, E’Ming happily peels and slices the vegetables, and soon enough the smell of Xie Lian’s unique cooking drifts through the cottage.

“Our pond should have a white fish, and a red fish,” Hua Cheng announces in Xie Lian’s ear as he embraces him from behind. He hums approvingly when Xie Lian reaches for a reasonable amount of spice and throws it into the pot. “And, I’ve thought; there’s something else I want.”

“Oh?” Xie Lian turns in the embrace. He’s got flour on his cheek that Hua Cheng wipes away.

“A—”

“Don’t say a kiss,” Xie Lian interrupts, an authoritative finger on Hua Cheng’s lips. “A kiss doesn’t count.”

Hua Cheng fakes an attempt at biting the finger, and Xie Lian withdraws with an offended gasp.

“I do want a kiss,” Hua Cheng says, grabbing Xie Lian’s hand and pressing his lips to it. “But that’s not it.”

Xie Lian takes on a very serious, though sparkling expression. “I’m listening.”

Hua Cheng leans forward to murmur into his ear.

“Gege, let’s get married?”

Pushing him away to better stare at him, Xie Lian narrows his eyes, amused. “San Lang, we’re already married.”

“Again. Let’s get married again.”

Though his lips are already turning up, Xie Lian reasons, “But it wouldn’t be as special as the first time, would it?”

“How could it not be more special, when every day I love you more than the last?” Hua Cheng counters. Then, he feigns being pained. “Is gege refusing my proposal? This San Lang feels very embarrassed.”

Xie Lian blushes, trying to hide his face behind his hands, but Hua Cheng catches them as they come up, pressing them over his chest.

“You’re being silly now.”

“Gege asked what I wish for. There’s nothing I would wish for more than to marry you again and again,” he says solemnly, then, seeing that Xie Lian hasn’t said anything, adds mournfully, “Ah, but this humble one thought gege loved him. . . I suppose I will have to be going, to reflect on where I went wrong. Or perhaps, gege is merely too mean to his poor San Lang?”

Xie Lian puffs out a laugh at Hua Cheng’s teasing, kissing him to shut him up, which only makes Hua Cheng’s grin wider.

“Alright.” Xie Lian smiles, freeing his hands from Hua Cheng’s grasp to turn around and grab a spoon of stew. He takes a sip of the broth to taste it, then feeds the rest to Hua Cheng, who lets out a delighted sound. Xie Lian’s eyes shine. “Let’s get married. Again.”

Hua Cheng beams. E’Ming gets so excited it pushes a jar of spices off the counter, sending it clattering to the floor along with Xie Lian’s new sword—that, Hua Cheng is sure, was on purpose. Thankfully the jar doesn’t break, but E’Ming receives a harsh swat from Hua Cheng, which Xie Lian immediately smoothes over.

Kissing Xie Lian, Hua Cheng presses their foreheads together.

“There’s one more thing I wish for,” Hua Cheng whispers, and Xie Lian blinks curiously at him. So close, so real. . . For a moment, Hua Cheng forgets what he means to say. Then, as he remembers, he gets as close to shy as he admits he can get. “Gege, do you remember when you brought home water chestnuts? I liked that very much.”

Wrinkles form at the corner of Xie Lian’s eyes. He cups Hua Cheng’s face between his palms. “If my San Lang wants more chestnuts, I’ll be glad to get them for him. How about we go pick some tomorrow after we’ve dug the pond?”

As an answer, Hua Cheng smiles and puts his hands over Xie Lian’s, kissing his lips; they taste of the vegetable stew made from their garden, savoury and sweet—just like their days together.