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Xie Lian would like to think that his luck has improved since his banishment shackles were shattered. He no longer trips over every uneven surface, or stumbles into the most inconvenient situation possible on a given day, or draws the attention of all hostile parties in a surrounding ten mile radius. Sometimes he even has good luck, like that time he went gambling and—without Hua Cheng’s help!—rolled two sixes and won a stack of coins taller than his own husband. (Xie Lian had donated it to charity. Hua Cheng had crowed his praises all night.)

Despite these improvements, however, Xie Lian is not completely without his share of bad luck. Today, so it seems, he has quite a bit of it.

“Really, that’s all I have on me,” Xie Lian says, licking blood off of his upper lip while a barrel-chested robber pats him down. 

“Yeah, right,” the robber scoffs, balling up a handful of Xie Lian’s robes. “Cloth like this ain’t cheap. A guy like you’s gotta be loaded.”

In retrospect, he had told Hua Cheng not to spend so much money on his clothes.

“Ah, ha ha, these aren’t mine, you see, they were a…” He smiles sheepishly. “They were a gift from a very dear person.”

“Is that right?” The robber arches his eyebrow, stepping back and shoving Xie Lian’s money bag into his own pocket. It’s a very threadbare pocket. Actually, everything the robber wears is threadbare; the same goes for his partner, a much scrawnier and sharper fellow. “Hey, that gives me an idea.”

“Yeah, me too.” The scrawny robber spits into the dirt. “Who’s this very dear person of yours, huh? Maybe we oughta send her a letter and let her know we’ve got a hold of someone she might be interested in payin’ up for.”

“Oh, no! Oh, no no no no,” Xie Lian says, his eyes widening. “You really shouldn’t do that.”

The robbers trade sly grins, and Xie Lian’s stomach begins to plummet. 

“I think we may just have ourselves a good idea,” Scrawny Robber says. “If this dear person can afford a quality traveling robe like this, surely she can afford to cough up a coin or two for your life. I bet that kind of money isn’t anything to her.”

It wouldn’t be a trial for Hua Cheng to offer money, Xie Lian knows; it will, however, be a trial for him to resist chewing these robbers down to their bones once he finds out exactly who they’re trying to ransom. He will probably, actually, lose his mind. He tends to do that whenever Xie Lian is threatened.

“Gentlemen,” Xie Lian says beseechingly, “I truly cannot begin to express to you what a bad idea this is. My dear person is not the sort to pay ransoms.”

“Why don’t you let her make that decision, huh?” Brawny Robber says, wrapping his hand around Xie Lian’s elbow and hauling him towards the broken-down wagon their broken-down mule pulls. Xie Lian could knock him off easily, but he doesn’t want to hurt either one of them. Better to control the situation as best he can without violence.

“Hell, I bet she cares a lot more about you than you think. She’ll pay the ransom,” Scrawny Robber points out, scrambling up into the front seat of the wagon. “People don’t buy that kinda cloth for just anybody, you know.”

“No, I know, I know,” Xie Lian says hastily. “He loves me very much.”

“He?” Scrawny Robber laughs. “Cutsleeve, huh? Yeah, you look the sort.”

Xie Lian is not sure whether to be offended or not, and he doesn’t have time to decide because Brawny Robber suddenly shoves him into the back of the wagon. His head cracks against the side, and he winces. There’s already a tender lump there from the robbers’ initial attack—the one in which Xie Lian’s residual bad luck had ensured that he tripped when surprised and slammed face-first into a sturdy rock. Two of his incisors are loose. 

Sighing, Xie Lian struggles to sit up with his hands bound behind his back as they are. The rope bites into the thin skin of his wrists. It shouldn’t bother him as much as it does—it wouldn’t, if only Hua Cheng hadn’t spoiled him to care. He’s gone soft. His nerves have realized, suddenly, that hurt is not normal, and that if they encourage him to cry out then perhaps, now, he will: perhaps, now, someone will answer.

There is a point to pain. 

Still, Xie Lian does his best to ignore it. Hua Cheng isn’t here to stroke and kiss it away, to cover it with sweet words and quiet coos and soft kisses. His own spiritual energy works quickly to heal his wounds, so he settles in and tries to let it. It’s been a while since he’s had to wait through the hurting: he finds himself out of practice. 

“So, this guy,” Brawny Robber says, settling in across from Xie Lian and toying with his rusted dagger, “what’s he like, to spend so much money on you? You one of his concubines or something?”

“His husband, actually,” Xie Lian says, crossing his legs neatly in front of him. His fine robes pool in his lap, streaked with blood and dirt. What a waste.

Scrawny Robber flicks the reins, and the mule surges forward in the harness. The wagon jolts. Xie Lian’s loose teeth clack together and his mouth fills with the iron tang of blood. He rolls his jaw and it throbs, spreading an achy pulse throughout his cheek and the side of his blood-clotted nose. 

“Husband, huh?” Scrawny Robber asks from the front of the wagon, his voice raised to be heard over the clatter of the mule in its tack. “Guess you’re right. He really does care about you. Why’d he send you out alone, then, with not even a servant?”

“I don’t like servants,” Xie Lian admits. His swollen tongue makes the words lisp. “I wanted to go alone.”

Brawny Robber’s brow furrows. “You don’t like him, either?”

“What? No! I love him! He’s my favorite!”

“Then why don’t you travel with him?”

“I do! I travel with him all the time. It’s still nice to be alone, sometimes. If we can’t ever be apart, isn’t that—well, isn’t it kind of unhealthy?” 

He had clung to Hua Cheng for months after he’d first returned from his third (third!!!) death. Barely a day had gone by with them parted. Xie Lian had rapidly discovered that being away from his husband for more than a few hours inflicted him with deep dread, a thundering heartbeat, and rolling nausea. He couldn’t do it. 

He couldn’t do it, and that was the thing that convinced him it was a problem.

It’s easier, now, to be apart—they’ve practiced. Xie Lian is confident that, when he returns, Hua Cheng will still be whole and healthy and safe. He won’t vanish for another year (or another eight hundred). He won’t leave Xie Lian again. He won’t die again. It’s okay for them to be apart, to be different people, to be separate people. 

(That’s the part Hua Cheng has trouble with; Xie Lian has been the center of his identity for so, so long. He has confessed to Xie Lian on more than one occasion that he fears to focus himself on anything else—fears that if he moves Xie Lian even an inch aside then there will be nothing else to focus on. Who is he, if not merely Xie Lian’s? Is he anything else at all? If his continued existence is rooted in his devotion to Xie Lian, can there be anything else? It’s a fear the both of them are unraveling, together, slowly.)

“I think,” Xie Lian says, “that being able to be apart is a sign of security in a relationship.”

The robbers scoff. 

“Yeah, right,” Scrawny Robber says. “Why would you wanna be apart from somebody if you love ‘em?”

“Otherwise, it’s codependent,” Xie Lian explains. 

Brawny Robber arches his eyebrow. “Codependent?”

“En. If you can’t be apart, isn’t that bad? If you make your relationship the whole point of you, then what’s left apart from that?” Xie Lian spreads his hands helplessly. These are words he’s said to Hua Cheng time and time again. “A relationship should be supplemental, not central. If you live only because of someone else, what happens to you when they’re gone? You have to care about yourself, too. You have to go out and discover the things that you like—the things that you, just you, want to do. Plus, being apart makes going home that much better.”

Scrawny Robber grins. “Ah, I’ll agree with you there. My little wife always has a nice welcome for me if I’ve been away a few days.”

“See? Separation is healthy,” Xie Lian says, nodding in satisfaction. 

“Well, I sure hope that husband of yours has a warm welcome after paying this ransom,” Brawny Robber says. Funnily enough, he seems like he means it. “Now, what’s his name, again?”

“Um.”

“Come on, don’t be shy. I’ll phrase the ransom note nice.”

“S-San Lang,” Xie Lian says, clearing his throat. “You can just call him San Lang.”

“Aww, ain’t that cute!” Scrawny Robber laughs. “He got a nickname for you, too?”

Xie Lian can feel the blush creeping across the bruised bridge of his nose. “Gege,” he says, “or—or Dianxia.”

Scrawny Robber laughs, again, while Brawny Robber wolf-whistles at him. Xie Lian tucks his chin and sinks further into the wagon wall, his ears burning. 

“A-anyway!” he says quickly. “When you write that letter, you have to add some things in it so he knows you actually have me.”

“Good thinking,” Scrawny Robber says. “What’ve you got written so far?”

“‘San Lang,’” Brawny Robber recites, his tongue poking out of his mouth as he reads his own scrawl off of a piece of parchment. How he writes in such a jarring wagon, Xie Lian has no idea. The characters must be obscure, though in truth he doubts this will matter when his husband receives it. It can’t possibly be worse than Hua Cheng’s own abysmal writing. “‘We currently have your husband’—what’s your name, eh?”

“Xie Lian.”

“‘We currently have your husband, Xie Lian,’” Brawny Robber continues, tapping the edge of his inkbrush on the parchment. “‘He’s safe for now.’”

“Safe? What’s he gonna think when he sees all that blood?” Scrawny Robber demands.

“Here, here.” Brawny Robber grips a cloth and pours water from his waterskin, damping it. With it, he carefully dabs away the blood on Xie Lian’s face.

“Oh,” Xie Lian says, pleasantly surprised. “Thank you.”

“No problem. Now, where was I at?” Brawny Robber sits back and clears his throat. “‘We demand a ransom of five thousand gold coins—’”

“Eh? That’s it?”

“You think he could pay more?” Brawny Robber arches his brow, scribbles something out, and rewrites it. Oops. Xie Lian makes a mental apology to Hua Cheng’s purse. “‘—ten thousand gold coins. When we get the money, we’ll return Xie Lian to you. If you agree, meet us at Puqi Shrine at midnight.”

“Puqi Shrine?!”

“It’s the nearest landmark. What, got a problem with it?” Brawny Robbery grins lecherously at him. “I’d think a cutsleeve like you would get a hoot out of those two gods there.”

“Hua Cheng, isn’t it?” Scrawny Robber drawls. “And that other one—I always forget his name, tsk.”

Xie Lian wilts. 

“Kind of cute, isn’t it?” Brawny Robber sighs wistfully. “The two of you reuniting there, where those other husbands are worshipped. Ironic, too.”

“Yeah,” Xie Lian says, clearing his throat. “Ironic.”

“You know, they say that Hua Cheng spoils his husband what’s-his-face rotten, too,” Scrawny Robber says, with an air of lofty knowledge. 

Xie Lian leans his head against the wagon wall with a gentle thump. “So I’ve heard.”

“You’re lucky you have a guy like that—and rich, too,” Brawny Robber adds.

“I don’t love San Lang because he’s rich!”

Brawny Robber holds his hands up in surrender. “Woah, woah, I didn’t think you did. Just sayin’ it’s a nice bonus.”

Xie Lian huffs. It is a nice bonus, but he’s not going to say that. He’s especially not going to say it around Hua Cheng! His husband’s brain already defaults to believing that Xie Lian loves him for his power, his status, his money—he doesn’t need any encouragement for that foolish train of thought. Even if Hua Cheng were the poorest and weakest and lowest in the three realms, Xie Lian would love him! 

“I wish I was rich,” Scrawny Robber sighs. “Wouldn’t have to do this shit, anyway.”

“Oh! Oh, add that to your letter,” Xie Lian says, leaning forward. “Make sure you tell San Lang that I’m okay, and you’re doing this because you’re poor, and I don’t mind so could he not kill you please and thanks.”

Scrawny Robber and Brawny Robber trade a wary glance.

“...kill…”

“...us…?”

“He can be rash,” Xie Lian says apologetically. “He has a bit of a temper, but he’ll listen to me. Tell him I said not to kill you and you should be alright. Er, if you take these ropes off before he sees, anyway.”

There’s something about seeing Xie Lian bound that sets Hua Cheng off more than anything else—save, perhaps, for seeing a sword through his gut. Xie Lian doesn’t have to think very hard to figure out why that is. He actively tries to avoid thinking about why that is, actually. 

“Xie Lian,” Scrawny Robber says uncertainly, “what kind of man is your husband?”

“Oh, he’s wonderful, really wonderful. He’s so kind and well-educated! He likes to paint and sculpt, and to plant flowers in the garden, and he knows all sorts of poetry. What’s more, he’s also good at cooking! Butterflies are his favorite animal and gold is his favorite color. He’s the handsomest man in the world—just ask Ling Wen. He won first in our bicentennial ‘most handsome immortal’ contest, but then he threw a giant fit about it because I didn’t win and I’m pretty sure he’s going to cheat and stack the votes in my favor next time. Isn’t that sweet?”

“Uh…”

“The only thing is, he can be a little overprotective and he tends to assume the worst about people. So, seeing something like this won’t make him happy. He also has a tendency to get very angry very quickly—he’d never hurt me, but sometimes he forgets how big and strong he is around others, and his attacks can be overbearing. But he’s honestly a great guy! You’ll like him. Just make sure you don’t upset him, okay?” 

Xie Lian beams at them. They both look faintly horrified.

“What family is he from?” Scrawny Robber demands. “Is he a famous cultivator?”

“Cultivator? Ah, no, not quite, though he is very adept with spiritual energy. He comes from my family! We’re a family, together. We’ve been thinking about children, you know, but we’re just not quite ready yet. He doesn’t think he’ll make a good dad, but I know he will. He’s gotten better about taking care of E-ming since we’ve been together.”

“E-ming?” Scrawny Robber asks, narrowing his eyes. 

“He’s our, uh, pet,” Xie Lian says, clearing his throat. It’s not completely a lie. “Good practice, for—for children.”

“Well, don’t you worry, gongzi,” Brawny Robber says, patting him briskly on the shoulder. “I’m sure the two of you’ll make great dads! Don’t you fret a second. As soon as we get this money, we’ll let you go back to San Lang and E-ming so you can keep up that practice. We ain’t the sort to tear families apart.”

“You do seem like fine gentlemen.”

“The boss, on the other hand…” Brawny Robber grimaces.

Scrawny Robber draws up on the reins, stopping the wagon outside of a run-down house. “You’ll have to be careful around him,” he says. “He’s not such a friendly guy. Keep your head down and your mouth shut and you’ll be okay.”

So, Xie Lian keeps his head down and his mouth shut as the robbers lead him into their base. It smells like mildew and cobwebs, here, and most of the furniture is askew or overturned. Sitting at a ramshackle kitchen table is a small, mild-looking man in green robes. His mouth curves into a sullen frown when he sees the three of them.

“Who the hell’s this?” he demands, lurching out of his seat. 

“His name’s Xie Lian, boss,” Scrawny Robber says. “We caught him outside of the village. He’s a rich guy, so we thought we might ransom him off to his husband.”

The boss’s nose wrinkles in disgust, and he circles Xie Lian. He comes to a stop in front of him, arms folded across his chest, and glowers. “Xie Lian, huh? Who’s his husband?”

“Some man named San Lang. Not a cultivator, or from a big family, but rich enough to afford these clothes,” Scrawny Robber says, rubbing the smooth fabric of Xie Lian’s sleeve between his fingers. “We’ve already got the letter written, if you’d like to look over it.”

The boss reaches for the letter Brawny Robber offers him, and scoffs as he reads it. “What’s all this? You make this San Lang sound like someone we ought to be tiptoeing around.”

“Oh, no, he’s really very gentle,” Xie Lian protests. “As long as you’re good to him, he—”

The slap is a jolting surprise—though he supposes it really shouldn’t have been. The boss’s hand snaps Xie Lian’s head to the side with a sharp sting, and he blinks at the far wall for a moment before wrenching his head back around. 

“Shut the fuck up, would you?” the boss says. “Nobody said you could speak.”

“Boss…” Brawny Robber says, looking apologetically at Xie Lian. “He doesn’t mean any harm. He’s just a stray traveller, a real nice guy.” 

“He’s a hostage, and he’d do well to remember it,” the boss spits. “Throw him in the cellar. I’ll deal with him later.”

Brawny Robber nudges Xie Lian forward, but before they get very far, the boss’s hand snaps out and grips his shoulder.

“Hold on.” Thin fingers part the collar of Xie Lian’s robes and slide underneath the delicate chain around his neck. They lift Hua Cheng’s ashes into the light. “Got a diamond and everything, huh? You are some kinda rich guy.”

And here is the thing: Xie Lian prides himself on solving problems peacefully. He values being sweet-tempered and mild-mannered, though he knows that others tend to look down on him for it—even Hua Cheng frets about his pacifist nature from time to time. They all think it makes him more vulnerable and, perhaps, they’re right. Xie Lian still finds that he doesn’t care. No matter what, he doesn’t want to be violent. He doesn’t want to hurt people. He doesn’t want to be Jun Wu.

To this end, Xie Lian tolerates many things a prouder person would be unable to. He can take any amount of pain. He can take any insult. He can take spit and vitriol and sneers, and he will do it all with a sheepish smile. There are very few things that inspire true anger within him.

To have someone else touching Hua Cheng’s ashes: he furies.

Xie Lian yanks his hands apart, snapping the ropes that bind them behind his back. He slams the heel of one palm into the boss’s chest; the boss flies across the room and hits the far wall with a sickening thud. He crumples to the floor with a howl of pain, coughing blood. The other two robbers recoil with cries of alarm. 

Instantly, Xie Lian reaches for the ashes around his neck and enfolds them within one hand. They’re warm and solid, unbroken. His heart races. San Lang, he thinks. San Lang, you’re alright. 

“Xie—Xie Lian?” Brawny Robber asks, his eyes wide with shock.

Xie Lian forces himself to breathe deeply, relaxing his shoulders and easing his spiritual power. “Forgive me,” he says, nestling the ring beneath his robes and looking back at them. “I don’t mean to frighten you. It’s only that this ring is precious to me and I can’t stand to see it mishandled.”

Outside, there is a rumble of thunder followed closely by the wet splatter of rain. How odd. It had been sunny mere minutes ago. Looking more intently through the dusty windows, Xie Lian sees that the rain is darker than it should be. The door slams open on a gust of wind and the hot, iron taste of blood coats the back of his tongue. 

Joy fills him.

Hua Cheng moves like a lick of fire, flashing and bright. Across the room, the boss’s head shatters beneath a heavy heel. Xie Lian moves quickly to put himself between his husband and the other robbers, spreading his arms to guard them. A mere second later, Hua Cheng skids to a stop before him, wide-eyed and wicked with fury.

“I’m alright,” Xie Lian soothes immediately, reaching out to touch E-ming’s trembling blade where it is held tightly at his husband’s side. Its eye rolls wildly before locking onto him. “It’s alright, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng’s jaw tightens—almost certainly, he’d like to argue, but to Xie Lian’s relief his attention is still half-held by the robbers cowering against the wall. His lips pull back from his fangs. His pupil shrinks to a predatory slit. Xie Lian hastens to gentle him before his new friends meet an unfortunate and untimely end.

“They didn’t hurt me,” he says, making placating motions with his hands to draw Hua Cheng’s burning gaze back to himself. “They’ve been very kind.”

“What did they do?” Hua Cheng demands. Then, to the robbers: “What the fuck did you do to him?!”

“San Lang, shh, don’t be mad. They tried to rob me, but they didn’t hurt me. Really! My face only looks like this because I fell into a rock!”

Hua Cheng wilts slightly: this is devastatingly believable.

Unfortunately, it is still not enough to erase all of his husband’s ire.

“You tried to rob him?” Hua Cheng snarls, and E-ming’s eye narrows sharply. “You worthless trash! I ought to carve you into pieces.”

“We didn’t—we d-didn’t know he was—” Brawny Robber starts, but Xie Lian motions quickly for him to be quiet. 

“You can have everything back.” Scrawny Robber frantically empties his pockets, dropping Xie Lian’s moneybag and jewelry to the floor. “That’s all, that’s everything, you can have it all back.”

Hua Cheng does not look pacified in the least. “You think that’s all I’ll take from you?” he demands, taking a step forward. The chains on his boots rattle—a shimmering, ominous noise in the fragile air. He leaves bloody footprints behind. “For what you’ve done to Dianxia, I’ll take everything you are and then some. It’s the least you owe him.”

“San Lang, San Lang.” Xie Lian steps forward, wrapping his arms around Hua Cheng and pushing. He knows that if Hua Cheng doesn't want to move, he won’t; he also knows that Hua Cheng will. The second Xie Lian puts pressure on him, he yields and takes a step back. Xie Lian reaches up to rub his back in slow, firm strokes. “I don’t want you to hurt these two.”

“They hurt you,” Hua Cheng hisses. His growl is a low rumble above Xie Lian’s head.

“They didn’t. Not really.”

“They took from you. They frightened you. They forced you to go with them.”

“I could have left at any time. I chose not to because I didn’t want to hurt them. San Lang, please leave them alone.” 

Hua Cheng’s knuckles blanch against E-ming’s hilt, but he drags in a ragged breath and slams the scimitar back into its scabbard. “You’re lucky,” he snarls at the robbers, “that my god is so merciful. Get the hell out. If I ever see you scum again, I’ll flay you alive.”

Xie Lian hears the scrabble of shoes against hardwood, and then the slamming of a door. He sighs and presses his face against Hua Cheng’s chest: his heart forgets to beat in times of fear and fury, and there is silence there now. As soon as the robbers are gone, Hua Cheng leans down to nuzzle anxiously into his hair. 

“Gege is hurt,” he says unhappily. “Let me take you back home?”

“En. Please.”

The rattle of dice, a flicker of light, and they’re in Paradise Manor. Hua Cheng scoops him up, hooking one arm around his shoulders and the other below his knees, and carries him to the bed. Xie Lian doesn’t protest—why would he? It’s nice, to be loved this way, and he gets the feeling that Hua Cheng needs it even more than he does right now.

Hua Cheng sets him down, then waves a hand to materialize a damp washcloth. Slowly, carefully, he wipes the remaining blood and sweat from Xie Lian’s face. A cold compress is pressed to his swollen nose afterwards, and a flurry of butterflies alight—one beside the compress, one on his bruised cheek, and two on the rope burns around each wrist. “A rock?” Hua Cheng asks skeptically. 

“Oh, but San Lang, it really was,” Xie Lian says. “I tripped.”

“I should have sent you with more luck.” Hua Cheng leans forward to kiss him, and Xie Lian feels the cool trickle of his husband’s spiritual energy across his tongue and down the back of his throat. It eases the ache in his teeth and jaw, and he sighs appreciatively into Hua Cheng’s mouth. When Hua Cheng draws back, however, there’s still a worried glint in his eye. “Was gege scared very badly?”

“Hm? By the robbers?” Xie Lian smiles, touching Hua Cheng’s cheek. It’s cute that he thinks a pair of bandits could bother Xie Lian after everything else he’s been through. “No. Not at all. I know you don’t believe me, but those two really were kind. Only the third was very unfriendly, and—well. San Lang dealt with that. It could have been much worse.”

Hua Cheng eases the cold compress away, looking critically at the bridge of Xie Lian’s nose. “Does it hurt anymore?”

“No. The butterflies worked very well. Although…” Xie Lian hesitates, but Hua Cheng does ask so little of him. The least he can do is be honest about his pain, the way his husband always pleads with him to be. He points sheepishly to the back of his head. “I bumped it here, too.”

Hua Cheng lets a butterfly crawl onto his finger, then guides it to perch on Xie Lian’s head. “Thank you for telling me.” He leans forward, nuzzling their noses together. “I know it isn’t easy for gege.”

Despite this, there is still an unhappiness in the set of his shoulders when he draws back. He fetches Xie Lian a clean set of robes and helps him dress, then sits behind him to comb the leaves and tangles from his hair. 

“Thank you, San Lang,” Xie Lian murmurs.

“Of course,” Hua Cheng says graciously. “This servant will always help. But…”

“Hm? What is it?”

When Hua Cheng speaks again, his voice is quieter. “Why did gege not call for me?”

“Ah, San Lang.” Xie Lian winces, looking down at his lap. Ruoye stirs beneath his sleeve, peeking out at him, and he runs a finger over one end of it. “It’s like I said. There was no real danger, and I didn’t want those robbers to be hurt.”

“You thought I would hurt them?”

Xie Lian peeks back at him. “Wouldn’t you have?”

“Not if gege told me not to.”

Xie Lian laughs, leaning back and resting his head against Hua Cheng’s shoulder. “Would you have given me time to tell you anything? My dear San Lang, if I had been the one to contact you in our communication array, would you not have immediately known something was wrong? Would you not have come immediately to help, without even waiting for an explanation?”

“Of course I would have. Gege never uses my password unless it’s an emergency.”

“Then, how would I have stopped you?” Xie Lian kisses the crook of his throat. “San Lang is too quick for this old god, sometimes. He reacts without thinking.”

Hua Cheng tucks his head against Xie Lian’s and is quiet for a long, somber moment before saying, “Then this one apologizes, Dianxia.”

“No! No, San Lang, it’s alright. I know why you do it.” Xie Lian reaches out, squeezing his husband’s fingers. Ruoye snakes from his wrist to Hua Cheng’s, coiling around his forearm in a hug. “The world has been cruel to my San Lang. It is hard for him to react calmly sometimes.”

“But you do. Even after everything you’ve been through…” Hua Cheng shakes his head. “I don’t understand it. My god, this follower wants to understand your everything, but he cannot fathom this. Those robbers meant nothing to you. They were less than the dirt under your heel. They insulted you, and took from you, and hurt you, but you still wanted to help them.”

Xie Lian brings Hua Cheng’s hand up, kissing the back of his knuckles. “Mn, I did. Something like this...how to explain? It isn’t easy. San Lang knows I haven’t always been so gracious. In fact, I’ve been very cruel before.”

“This San Lang understood you more then. To destroy the world—Dianxia would have been justified in doing so.”

“No, I don’t think so. People are cruel sometimes, but to be cruel in return—what would that change?”

“It would teach people to be cruel to you no longer,” says Hua Cheng.

“Ah, as I’m sure Crimson Rain Sought Flower understands better than anyone.” Xie Lian smiles up at him. “I don’t blame San Lang for what he’s done. This kind of choice is very personal. I don’t want to hurt people—not even when they hurt me, not unless I have to in order to save my life or someone else’s.”

Hua Cheng rubs his cheek against the top of Xie Lian’s hair, an edge of frustration to the movement. “I still don’t understand. Husband, I fear I will never understand.”

“Shh. It’s okay. I know it frightens you, but—” Xie Lian closes his eyes, breathing deeply. “I won’t change, San Lang. Not for Jun Wu. Not for you. This is how I want to be.”

“This one knows. This one would never ask you to change,” Hua Cheng says adamantly, wrapping his arms around Xie Lian and squeezing. It is like being hugged by a particularly dedicated python. “Dianxia is perfect. It’s only this servant who is lacking.”

“Not lacking. Never lacking. San Lang has had to fight for everything he has from the moment he was born. He has never known a peaceful life. He has never known another way to live. I won’t ask him to change, either—I will only ask him to respect my decisions, and he always does that. He let the robbers go when I asked him to today.”

“En. Dianxia’s decisions are always his own, even if this one doesn’t understand or agree with them.” Hua Cheng nuzzles his hair again, more gently now. “It only bothers me when you get hurt unnecessarily.”

“I would prefer that hurt to the pain of killing another person,” Xie Lian says. “I’ve had enough of that to last me another lifetime, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng sighs deeply, tucking his nose behind Xie Lian’s ear. “The world is not worthy of Dianxia.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Xie Lian says, chuckling. “Anyway, San Lang, how did you know I was in trouble today? I didn’t contact you.”

Hua Cheng mumbles something inaudible—which is a real feat, considering his mouth is right next to Xie Lian’s ear.

“Hm? San Lang, again?”

“Felt it,” Hua Cheng mumbles. “Felt that guy touching my ashes and knew it wasn’t you.”

Xie Lian blinks at the far wall. Then, with delight: “San Lang, you can feel your ashes!!”

“Mmrk,” San Lang says.

“I didn’t know that!! San Lang!” Xie Lian laughs, pulling the ring out from under his robes and rubbing a thumb across it. “You can feel it when I do this?”

“En.”

Xie Lian brings the ring up, nuzzling it against his cheek. “And this?”

“...en.”

Xie Lian kisses it, gentle and chaste. “And this too?”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, the tips of his ears pink. Xie Lian can feel his heart beating again—a happy, steady thump behind him. 

“I’m sorry I let that man touch them,” Xie Lian adds, more seriously.

“Gege punched him.” Hua Cheng sounds far too satisfied.

“Well.” Xie Lian sniffs. “Well, that was life or death. He could have taken you. He could have—could have even—”

“Ah, gege shouldn’t think about such trifling things anymore.” Hua Cheng squishes their cheeks together, wrapping his hands over Xie Lian’s where they cup the ring protectively. “Nothing happened. This one is safe and sound and will not leave his gege ever again. Anyway, that man was lucky. If gege had been using even a tenth of his real power in that punch, I wouldn’t have had any work to do when I arrived.”

“It was a very dramatic entrance.”

“Thank you,” Hua Cheng says, pleased. “But, gege, all this running around has made me hungry. What would you like me to make for you? Or will gege spoil this one and make something himself?”

In the end, they make dinner together, and the rest of the evening passes in relative peace. Hua Cheng is a shadow for the next two days, unwilling to part from Xie Lian for more than a few moments. Xie Lian indulges him in this; he knows how frightening his husband finds it when he’s injured. He does, however, have to part from him eventually lest they fall back into unhealthy habits. In leaving, he takes a day trip back to Puqi Village, with promises to keep San Lang updated every couple of hours. He brings a pouch of gold.

The robbers’ house is deserted, but Xie Lian steps inside anyway. The gore has been cleaned away, and a thin layer of dust covers the furniture. He leaves the gold on the table and hopes that the robbers might return, someday soon, and find it here. Even if they don’t, someone in the village will—someone who, undoubtedly, needs it more than he.