Hua Cheng deals in absolutes, in luck, in chance. So he knows better than most what the insurmountable odds are that a hideous thing will be loved.
It is far more likely for this hypothetical unseemly creature to reach into his own chest and take out the meager or perhaps, for a very fortuitous few, bountiful amount of love he was born with. To press it carefully into the hands of another with complete surety that it will never be returned.
Hua Cheng has seen this, has done this.
And though he wasn’t born to be lucky, he is blessed to be so now.
“San Lang has such pretty hair,” Xie Lian comments with a sincerity so startling that Hua Cheng is struck weightless by the words, as if the ground has been pulled out from under him and he can only try to stay afloat by the sound of his beloved’s voice alone. “I’m glad he lets me touch."
Hua Cheng’s eye flutters closed as Xie Lian threads careful fingers through the long dark strands, still damp and tangled from the lazy afternoon bath they shared.
“Gege is allowed to put his hands on any part of this San Lang,” Hua Cheng murmurs by instinct. His brain has long gone fuzzy and Xie Lian’s answering snort is the only thing that makes it through the haze of unworthy contentment.
He thinks it’s a wonder that Xie Lian desires to touch him at all.
But Hua Cheng dares not say such a thing aloud. Not unless he wants to see Xie Lian’s eyebrows pull together and his face fill with the hesitant sadness that always courses just beneath his hard-won thick skin.
Hua Cheng refuses to be the reason it comes to the surface.
So he waits until his treacherous feelings have hardened and flaked away, brushed off by the same hand that unknowingly brings them forth, before he slowly blinks his eye open and leans back into Xie Lian’s welcoming embrace.
Warm skin and lean limbs, flushed from the bath, drape over Hua Cheng’s ever-chilled back and curl around his freezing chest. Xie Lian radiates heat enough to share.
Hua Cheng has been dead for longer than he ever was alive and can only give himself the appearance of warmth, can only pretend to sweat and blush and pant breathlessly.
Like an actor in a play. Like a statue.
Like a corpse.
He has no breath to lose.
“I wasn’t done with your hair,” Xie Lian admonishes without bite. He presses a kiss into the dip between shoulder and neck, so close to where a living person’s pulse should be. Hua Cheng drags a breath in through his nose and holds it for longer than someone with a beating heart is able to, just because he can, just because he’s feeling spiteful and jealous of those who have no choice but to expel the air they breathe.
Not of Xie Lian though. He deserves to be alive, truly alive and with all that entails, far more than anyone Hua Cheng has ever met. Hua Cheng tilts his head to the side, letting it fall back gently to rest on Xie Lian’s shoulder as his husband continues to lay sweet kisses on dead skin.
Xie Lian’s lips are soft and bitten, not dry but there are slight bumps where healing never quite gets to finish. He worries at them often, clenches down on the tender flesh to muffle the sounds Hua Cheng loves to wring out of him.
“We’ll have to take another bath if gege keeps that up.”
“Who says it’s going to escalate...” Xie Lian grumbles.
“This San Lang apologizes for being presumptuous.”
“But I’m sure gege knows I can feel him against my back?” Along with the subtle indent of the precious ring that hangs forevermore from the chain around Xie Lian’s neck.
“...Gege did not think about it.”
Hua Cheng smiles, his dour mood lifting. Xie Lian’s desire is a glorious thing. To be allowed to witness, to worship, to be a part of it...ah Hua Cheng truly is lucky beyond measure.
And to be the cause of it…
Hua Cheng finally lets out the superfluous breath he’d taken.
Hua Cheng’s heart is a messy thing.
Pieces torn away and given freely and borrowed.
The pulpy remains stick to his ribs, useless and difficult.
But Xie Lian gathers the scraps, holds what’s left between his palms as if protecting a gem of unparalleled value, and adds a piece of his own broken mess to the remnants.
It’s the only priceless treasure Hua Cheng cares for.
Xie Lian’s callused hands trace over the lean muscles of Hua Cheng’s stomach, up his chest and shoulders and neck. Hua Cheng is bare before him and under him, a blank canvas for Xie Lian to do with as he pleases.
It’s his true form, blemished and lacking. Nose too prominent, the scarred remains of his right eye and the small freckle at the base of his neck are on full display. Things he fixes and smooths out in his various other skins.
Things that Xie Lian always takes great care to kiss and caress and love.
Xie Lian’s thighs are on either side of Hua Cheng’s waist and they squeeze slightly as he strokes his thumb along Hua Cheng’s jaw.
“Does gege like what he sees?” Hua Cheng asks with practiced insouciance. But there’s still a shy lilt to his voice that he can’t quite manage to hide fully, not in front of his beloved. Not with Xie Lian’s compassionate eyes observing his uncovered face as if savoring the most delicious milk candy, swirling it slowly, giving it ample time to dissolve as subtle sweetness coats the tongue. Hua Cheng desires nothing more than to be on the receiving end of such a look for the rest of his existence.
“Mn. I do,” Xie Lian smiles and dips down to capture thin lips in an unhurried kiss. “I like everything about my San Lang."
Hua Cheng’s eye is bright as he gazes up at his god, his husband, his best friend. The remarkable man who delights and relishes in his devotion, who allows him to pray on his knees and worship in ways no one else will ever be able to.
“And I like everything about my Lian’er.” Hua Cheng’s hands gravitate towards their rightful places, one rests at the small of Xie Lian’s back as the other moulds to the tempting curve of his hip.
Xie Lian’s cheeks flush a charming pink and Hua Cheng basks in the satisfaction that this sight is just for him.
It is only during times like these, when he is entangled with his beloved, that Hua Cheng doesn’t despise his own body.
His lips can bring forth a blush, his hands are able to hold and help and pleasure, his face is meant to be seen and caressed.
He is beautiful in Xie Lian’s arms.
Happiness is a strange mixed bag that Hua Cheng is used to keeping closed tight and stuffed beneath his crimson breast. The taut string has loosened merely a handful of times over his long unlife, spilling hints of a genuine smile here or a careful kindness there.
It is only Xie Lian who has the power to pull the bag apart at the seams and drag out all of the shining joy trapped within.
Hua Cheng revels in its undoing.
“Hold still,” Hua Cheng chides, voice low and quiet. His hand is splayed on Xie Lian’s firm abdomen, long fingers press down on heated skin. His tongue darts out to wet lips he makes swell artificially, just because he knows his husband enjoys the visual, and glances up from the divine space between Xie Lian’s thighs. “Gege promised he could.”
“Ngh, San Lang–”
“This husband is devout. Please bear with his whims a moment longer,” Hua Cheng says. His mouth returns to Xie Lian’s body, treating it with absolute reverence.
“Ah,” Xie Lian sucks in a trembling breath and rolls his bottom lip between his teeth.
Hua Cheng can feel the stomach beneath his steady hand quiver slightly in the strenuous effort to keep from jolting forward. It’s admirable, he thinks, that Xie Lian is able to last this long.
Hua Cheng doubts he would do as well if their places were reversed.
He knows it, actually. Takes pride in it.
To be undone by his husband is nothing less than holy.
When no place exists to accept Hua Cheng as he is – an unwanted aberration in all of his unrighteous splendor – he carves his own.
It’s what he’s always done.
But no amount of skill can sculpt a home where there is none. A house, certainly. But not a home.
It’s fortunate, then. That he’s managed to find one.
“Gege, I’m fine,” Hua Cheng barely ekes out before a fit of coughing overtakes him. His shoulders shake as he curls inward to try and obscure the worst of his symptoms.
“San Lang, it’s okay to be sick.” Xie Lian rubs small circles into his back. A comforting, repetitive motion that Hua Cheng clings to. “We’ll go out when you’re better.”
Hua Cheng groans. How dare the world allow him to be ill when he’s been dead for this long. Shouldn’t sickness be unable to take root? What kind of horrifically weak ghost king is he?
A cool hand rests on his pounding forehead and Hua Cheng blinks at the sensation. He’s unused to being warmer than his husband. It’s...strange.
He likes it.
Xie Lian clicks his teeth sympathetically. “You’re burning up. Hold on, I’ll get you a cold compress.”
He makes a move to stand but Hua Cheng grabs his hand, keeps it pressed against flushed skin.
“I’ll be right back,” Xie Lian assures.
“No. If you stop touching me I’ll–” He doesn’t have an end to that thought, he only knows that Xie Lian needs to stay. Hua Cheng brings Xie Lian’s hand down and presses his lips against smooth knuckles. “Don’t go. Please.”
“...Alright.” Xie Lian takes a seat on the edge of their bed. “The fever isn’t bothering you?”
“It’s not like I can die from it.”
“I know but…” Xie Lian frowns and Hua Cheng almost reaches out to smooth the furrow between his handsome brows. “I hate seeing you in pain.”
Hua Cheng’s still heart plummets to the bottom of his stomach. Hurting Xie Lian, even inadvertently, is out of the question.
“I was wrong, gege can get me whatever he wants.”
“But he has to take me with him.” Hua Cheng pushes himself up and holds out his arms.
“You want me to carry you?” Xie Lian lets out a quiet huff of laughter. “Ah, such a spoiled young master.”
“Come here, then.”
Hua Cheng is lifted with ease, his taller frame curls around Xie Lian’s firm physique and he spares no time in burrowing his face into the crook of Xie Lian’s neck.
It’s a familiar position. One that he hasn’t been in since he was much smaller, but the emotions that swirl within his hollow chest are the same.
“Let me know if you want to get down.” Xie Lian gives his back a gentle pat. Hua Cheng’s mumbled response is lost against the soft skin of his neck. “What was that?”
“Never,” Hua Cheng repeats. “Gege has to hold me forever.”
“Okay,” Xie Lian says, a smile in his voice, as he adjusts his grip and begins his careful trek.
And Hua Cheng knows he would.
Hua Cheng wonders sometimes if his luck will ever run out.
If the good fortune he wears like a second skin, the blessings his husband presses against his unworthy body, will someday disappear in the wind.
Hua Cheng locks his fingers behind Xie Lian’s back and presses a kiss to the forehead that tilts up in expectation.
As long as he has his beloved, it’s fine if it does.