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“San Lang?” Xie Lian asks, playing absently with the braided lock of his husband’s hair. “Can we have another special day?”

Hua Cheng’s brow furrows: a flicker of stress, there and gone. When he speaks, his voice is smooth, and he makes no mention of his own hesitancies. “Naturally, anything gege wants he should have. What sort of things did you want to do?”

Isn’t that just like him? Xie Lian thinks, rolling that red pearl earring between his fingers. Hasn’t Hua Cheng always been this way? No matter what difficulties he’s facing, he’ll put them all aside without a second thought to attend even the most superfluous of Xie Lian’s desires. It’s the same thing he’s been doing for eight hundred years: this past week, however, the tendency has been especially prominent. 

Hua Cheng is stressed this week, is the thing. Xie Lian doesn’t know this because his husband told him, of course—that sort of forward communication is still beyond Hua Cheng at this point, although he has gotten better about admitting his worries when directly asked. But no, no, Xie Lian doesn’t know his husband is stressed because of any one conversation. He’s pieced it together from the stiffness of Hua Cheng’s shoulders this past week; from the creased lines around his eye when he thinks Xie Lian isn’t looking; from the way he wakes curled up into a nervous ball and the way he sighs when Xie Lian tells him it’s time to get up.

Xie Lian has let it go far enough now, he thinks. He’s given Hua Cheng ample time to confide in him already—it’s always good to allow him the chance to practice these skills. He’s failed to this time, but that’s okay. Xie Lian knows that these things are difficult. (Gods, does he know.) 

“I want it to be a special day for San Lang,” Xie Lian admits, and sees Hua Cheng’s brow furrow yet again. This time it smooths out more slowly. Hua Cheng rarely indulges himself for the sake of himself, but for Xie Lian...“This gege would really like it if he could spoil his husband.”

“Gege spoils this husband all the time,” Hua Cheng says. If it were a day for Xie Lian to be spoiled, he would of course agree immediately. That it is a day for himself throws him off-balance; Xie Lian’s cajoling seems to have done the trick, however, because after a second he adds, “But if that’s truly what you want, I of course won’t complain.”

“How enthusiastic,” Xie Lian teases. “San Lang, if you don’t want to you must say so more clearly.”

Hua Cheng pouts at him. “Gege puts words in my mouth. When did I say I didn’t want to? It’s only…” He sighs, sitting up. His spine curves as he does, his shoulders pulling inward as though he wants to be smaller than he is. “This San Lang is very busy. To take a day off for such a trifling thing is difficult.”

“Spoiling San Lang is no trifle,” Xie Lian reminds him. “This gege loves doing it. You know that.”

“En, I do. It only feels trifling. Not because gege enjoys it! Only because it feels like there are more important things to do than sit around and be pampered.”

Xie Lian leans forward to kiss him for that—such open communication about emotions always deserves a reward. “Thank you for telling me. I know San Lang has been busy recently, and I don’t want to make him any more stressed than he already is. But, because San Lang is stressed, I also want him to take a break with me. It’s important for him to feel happy, too. It isn’t good for him to be so busy all the time.”

“I know,” Hua Cheng says, looking chastened. “I haven’t been spending enough time with gege.”

Xie Lian doesn’t argue the point—he’s seen Hua Cheng only in mornings and evenings, as of recently, and it’s beginning to wear on him. He misses his husband. “I would like to see you more,” he admits. “Tell me, is there anything I can do to help with your work?”

“Gege shouldn’t bother himself with such menial tasks.”

“How can they be menial if they take my husband away from me?” Xie Lian reaches up, touching Hua Cheng’s cheek. “Let this gege help, San Lang, and then we can have a special day together. You can pick the date.”

Hua Cheng hesitates. He still feels guilty, Xie Lian knows, for accepting any sort of help—he’s confessed as much in their conversations before. But it seems that Xie Lian’s persistence is finally starting to overcome those trepidations, because he grips Xie Lian’s hand and presses a kiss to the back, and to each knuckle, before saying, “Alright. This husband is grateful for your help. I’ll go over some of the reports from Ghost City with you tomorrow, and once we get those done I can take a day off.”

Thus, Xie Lian’s plan is put into motion.


The day Hua Cheng chooses is a rainy one. Outside of Paradise Manor, the sky is dull green and ominous and rolling with distant thunder. Xie Lian wakes first, as he usually does, and lingers in bed: Hua Cheng has curled up again, tight and tense beneath the blankets with his forehead pressed to Xie Lian’s side. Humming softly, Xie Lian strokes his hair and shoulders until he begins to relax. 

When Hua Cheng wakes, he wakes all at once—this is unusual for him, but has become unfortunately typical in the past week. His eye snaps open and he twitches, as though startled by his sudden awareness. His muscles tense again, and Xie Lian sighs internally. Ah, Hua Cheng! How fretful! 

“Good morning, sweet boy,” Xie Lian murmurs, brushing several strands of inky hair from Hua Cheng’s face. 

Hua Cheng blinks up at him and then smiles, soft and sweet and surprised. Even after all these years, he acts as though it’s something special to have Xie Lian in bed with him when he wakes. “Morning, gege,” he says, his voice raspy with sleep. “I dreamed of you.”

“Oh? What did you dream?”

“You were cooking. You made the most delicious meal.”

“Sounds like someone is hungry.” Xie Lian can’t help but grin, rubbing his thumb over one of Hua Cheng’s eyebrows. The little hairs bristle against him when he pushes them one way, and smooth back out as he pushes them the other. Hua Cheng makes a face. “What would you like for breakfast?”

“This one will eat anything gege makes.”

“San Lang, answer me properly.”

Hua Cheng pauses for a moment, and then says, “Oh.”

“Mn. Did you forget it was a special day? San Lang will have to be very good.” Xie Lian drags his thumb down the bridge of Hua Cheng’s nose, then pokes the tip. “Does San Lang still want to do this, today?”

“En, gege, I do.”

“Good. I do, too.” Xie Lian leans down to kiss his forehead, and the sharp point of his widow’s peak. “Then, would San Lang like to answer me correctly now?”

Hua Cheng nods, tucking his face shyly against Xie Lian’s ribs. “This one wants sweet tofu pudding and soymilk, please, gege.”

Ah, he’s so cute, Xie Lian might combust! “I’ll make some right away,” he promises. “San Lang, stay here and rest a little longer.”

“Yes, gege.” 

Xie Lian reluctantly unsticks himself from his husband, then tucks the blankets back in around him. He kisses him once, twice more before heading for the kitchen. When he returns, Hua Cheng has curled up again and is watching the rain splatter against their windows. “It’s stormy out,” he says, as Xie Lian sets down a wooden tray laden with bowls and bottles. “Does gege hurt?”

The old scars ache, sometimes, in the rain. 

“Not right now,” Xie Lian says, truthfully. 

“Let San Lang know if that changes?”

“I will. For now, let’s sit and eat breakfast together.”

Hua Cheng sits up, draping the blankets around his shoulders like a cape and yawning widely. Xie Lian sits next to him, slinging one leg posessively over Hua Cheng’s, before sliding the tray into place on their laps. The warmth seeps through his thighs, and Hua Cheng hums appreciatively and leans against his shoulder.

“San Lang, here,” Xie Lian says, scooping up a spoonful of the tofu pudding and offering it to him. A pink blush creeps across the bridge of Hua Cheng’s nose, but he obediently opens his mouth. “Is it good?”

Hua Cheng chews thoughtfully. “Very good. Maybe it could use less ginger next time, though. It’s pretty strong.”

“I’ll make a note of it, my San Lang,” Xie Lian promises. 

They finish breakfast by trading spoonfuls of the tofu pudding. Xie Lian insists on feeding Hua Cheng each bite, and on holding the bottle of soymilk for him while he drinks, which leaves Hua Cheng brilliantly flustered and confused as to what to do with his hands. They end up wrapped tightly around the breakfast tray, white-knuckled with the determination it takes for him to allow such open coddling. He’s usually eager to be babied and petted (much, Xie Lian thinks privately, like E-ming), but he struggles to accept it in times of stress. Xie Lian gets the feeling that this is going to cause a fuss, later. It typically does when they have days like this. For now, however—

For now, Hua Cheng is docile.

After breakfast, Xie Lian reaches for Hua Cheng’s ebony comb and begins to brush his hair. It falls smooth and heavy between his fingers, and Hua Cheng shuts his eye and sighs in pleasure. His shoulders begin to slump as he relaxes.

“Does it feel good?” Xie Lian asks, pausing to scratch behind Hua Cheng’s ears. 

Hua Cheng shivers, pushing back into the touch. “En,” he says, softly. “Feels good, gege.”

“Do you want more?”

“En,” he says, even more softly. “Please?”

“Of course, my sweet boy,” Xie Lian coos, setting the comb aside to massage circles across Hua Cheng’s scalp and temples. “Of course. Gege always wants to make you feel good.”

Hua Cheng slouches back against him, making little happy noises as Xie Lian pets him. It does little to actually untangle his hair—but sacrifices must be made for the greater good, sometimes. Hua Cheng all but melts when Xie Lian rubs his ears, turning to nuzzle his cheek against his collarbone. When Xie Lian finally does get back to combing his hair, there are more tangles than there were when he first started.

“Oh, San Lang, look at you,” he laughs, and plucks each tangle out with the utmost care. 

Xie Lian dresses himself, next, pulling on a simple set of red and white robes before glancing through Hua Cheng’s side of their closet. He selects soft black robes for his husband and helps him dress before ushering him out of the bedroom and into the study. Hua Cheng almost immediately begins to whine, huddling behind Xie Lian and pressing his face into his hair.

“Calligraphy practice?” he says, distraught. “I thought today was meant to be less stressful for poor San Lang. Gege is truly a demanding teacher!”

“San Lang is a little dramatic,” Xie Lian laughs, sitting down and rolling out a scroll. “Calligraphy isn’t that bad, and anyway it’s been so many days since San Lang last had time to practice. Besides, if he’s very good then gege will give him a reward.”

Hua Cheng sits next to him, beginning to grind the inkstone when Xie Lian hands it to him. “Oh?” he says, looking quite lecherous indeed. “What sort of reward?” 

“If you’re good, I suppose you’ll find out,” says Xie Lian, reaching for his own brush and dipping it into the fresh ink. He drafts a copy page for Hua Cheng, then pushes it over to him. “Get to work, my San Lang. Fifteen copies.”

Sighing morosely, Hua Cheng drags a scroll towards himself and begins to scrawl. As he does so, Xie Lian moves to sit behind him. He starts gently: tracing his nails along Hua Cheng’s spine, over his shoulders, down his ribs. Little, fleeting touches that have Hua Cheng sighing and slumping until Xie Lian taps the small of back to remind him of his posture. The muscles under Xie Lian’s hands are loose, but he can still feel knots of lingering tension in them.

After Hua Cheng finishes his fifth copy, Xie Lian leans forward and hooks his chin over his husband’s shoulder to examine those warped, evil characters. “Sloppy, still,” he sighs. “San Lang isn’t concentrating.”

“How can I concentrate when the world’s prettiest husband is touching me?” Hua Cheng asks slyly. “A truly impossible task. Maybe if we were to do something to relieve the distraction, this student could—”

“Would you prefer I didn’t touch you?”

Hua Cheng’s eyes widen. “What? No, no, gege, not that —”

“San Lang shall have to prove that he can focus, then,” Xie Lian says, tapping the scroll. 

Hua Cheng’s lower lip juts into another pout, and Xie Lian has to fight not to smile. As Hua Cheng turns back to his scroll, Xie Lian reaches around and unfastens the front of his husband’s robes so he can slide them down to his waist. Hua Cheng’s back is exposed to him, lean and scarred and corded with wiry muscle. 

“Gege is not making it any easier,” Hua Cheng says mournfully, twitching when Xie Lian presses fingers to his ribs. “He is being cruel to his San Lang.”

“It’s important for one to be able to concentrate in the face of distractions,” Xie Lian says sagely, pressing a kiss to the top of Hua Cheng’s spine. 

“Concentrate on calligraphy?” Hua Cheng wonders. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, and digs his thumb harshly into a tightly-wound knot below Hua Cheng’s right shoulder blade, “is still not focusing.”

Hua Cheng gasps at the sudden pressure, his brush stuttering across the scroll in a smear of ink. “Gege,” he says, “gege, gege—”

The knot unspools beneath Xie Lian’s touch, and he smooths his palms soothingly across Hua Cheng’s back. “Write,” he orders, and Hua Cheng hastens to comply. 

Hua Cheng’s calligraphy is minimally better, this time, and he completes the next five copies without complaint. Xie Lian rubs his back as he writes, warming the skin beneath his hands with sturdy pushes of his palms. Whenever Hua Cheng becomes distracted, he unerringly locates another knot and digs in until it releases. Hua Cheng whimpers and squirms and inevitably messes up on his next few characters. 

“Better,” Xie Lian says, upon examining the next copies. “Only five more, my San Lang. Hand me one of those brushes.”

Hua Cheng obediently hands him a brush, and Xie Lian sets it next to himself. Then he piles Hua Cheng’s hair into a bun and presses his thumbs in at the nape of his exposed neck. With a tiny whine, Hua Cheng bows his head. Xie Lian rubs his thumbs across the tight muscles there, and only permits Hua Cheng to raise his head when they’ve relaxed.

“Good boy,” Xie Lian murmurs, and Hua Cheng shudders. “The last five copies, now, and then we’ll be done for the day.”

As Hua Cheng resumes his shaky practice, Xie Lian dips his brush into the ink and begins his own writing: he scrawls sweeping, elegant characters across the planes of Hua Cheng’s back. He takes extra care around the gnarls of scars—especially around the deathscar near the center—and presses soft kisses to the ink once it’s dry. Hua Cheng’s breath hitches whenever the bristles of the brush near his ribs or the backs of his armpits, and Xie Lian would linger there if only his husband’s ticklish squirming didn’t risk smearing the characters on his skin.

“Beautiful,” he decides, once he’s finished. “Are you done, San Lang?”

“Yes, gege.”

“Let me see.”

Hua Cheng’s calligraphy is…well, the worst it’s been so far, this time. But at least he tried and didn’t complain! And Xie Lian knows he really didn’t make it any easier. With that in mind, he presses a kiss to his husband’s shoulder and hums thoughtfully.

“It’s a little better than it was a few weeks ago,” he says, finally. “San Lang is improving. This gege is proud of him.”

Hua Cheng relaxes, turning his head to nuzzle Xie Lian’s cheek. “What did gege write?”

“Would you like to see?”

Xie Lian helps Hua Cheng up and watches, amused, as he circles and whines and circles again when he can’t read the writing on his own back. 

“San Lang, San Lang,” he says, hiding his smile behind a hand. “Use your butterflies, beloved.”

Hua Cheng pauses and blinks, as though this had not occurred to him—he always does get a little silly after so much of Xie Lian’s affection. Several bright silver butterflies shimmer into existence, fluttering behind Hua Cheng to share their view with him. Xie Lian knows the moment he begins to read, because it is the same moment his breathing stops. In stark black characters, Xie Lian has written: clever, dedicated, determined, loyal, passionate, brave, and (across that brutal deathscar) beloved. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, wretched. 

“Every word is true,” says Xie Lian, reaching forward to trace the lines of ink. He sighs wistfully. “Ah, I don’t want to wipe them off, but I’m afraid they might smear with what we’re doing next.”

Hua Cheng scrubs his eye surreptitiously and leaps on the change of subject. “What we’re doing next?”

Xie Lian reaches for one of the butterflies, and it alights on his finger. He whispers for it to take a recording—something for his Hua Cheng to look back on later—before he hugs Hua Cheng from behind, nuzzling into the sharp column of his spine. “Let’s spar, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng brightens immediately, wiggling in Xie Lian’s hold. “Really?”

“Really. We haven’t had the chance to do that for a long time. I want to see how San Lang has improved. Besides, he bought me that pretty new sword and I’d like to try it out.”

“I’ll go and get it for gege right now,” Hua Cheng says eagerly, already fumbling to tug his robes back up. 

“Wait, wait.” Xie Lian laughs, reaching for a cloth and beginning to wipe the ink off. “I don’t want to get so much ink on your robes. Hold still a moment.”

Once Hua Cheng is clean, and his robes rearranged, he spins to face Xie Lian and bounces enthusiastically on his toes. It is times like this he reminds Xie Lian most of little earnest Hong Hong-er. “Can I go now?”

“Alright. Go and fetch my sword; meet me in the training hall. Don’t do anything else.”

“Yes, gege!”

As soon as Hua Cheng is gone, Xie Lian turns to gather up their calligraphy supplies. He puts them away for later, then gathers his hair into a high ponytail and makes his way to the training hall. Hua Cheng is already waiting for him, elegant E-ming on his hip and a straight sword in his hands. He presents it to Xie Lian with a bow and a flourish.

“Thank you, San Lang,” Xie Lian says, taking the sword from him. It’s a beautiful weapon, in truth—all the weapons Hua Cheng offers him are. It’s perfectly balanced, just the right size for him, and polished to a deadly gleam. Its hilt is laced in gold, and its pommel crusted with rubies. “This truly is an exquisite weapon.”

“This one is glad Dianxia approves,” Hua Cheng says, his eye curving up around a smile. 

E-ming shivers with excitement, straining towards Xie Lian, and he steps forward to pet its hilt. Its eye squints shut. Hua Cheng scowls, but he knows better than to argue now—especially on days like this, when Xie Lian is unequivocally in charge. 

“Good morning, E-ming,” Xie Lian coos. “Are you ready for a spar?”

E-ming begins to unsheathe itself, until Hua Cheng makes a disgruntled noise and shoves it back into its scabbard. Xie Lian retreats to the far side of the hall and draws his own weapon, looking hopefully at Hua Cheng. When E-ming is finally drawn, it shakes with delight. 

The actual spar is, as always, brilliant. Hua Cheng is a beautiful fighter and a cunning swordsman—as expected of the Ghost King himself! The two of them have long since learned to read each other, and are quite evenly matched. The only advantage Xie Lian can play on is E-ming itself. The scimitar always refuses to strike him with full force (fearful, still, of drawing his blood again) and so Hua Cheng must often resort to tricks in order to gain the upper hand. And tricks he has no small amount of! 

But Hua Cheng is yielding, today, and altogether too willing to be defeated. What sort of husband would Xie Lian be if he didn’t indulge that? So, in the end, it is he who pins Hua Cheng to the training hall floor. Hua Cheng’s face is flushed, sweat beading along his temples and chest heaving. There is a wide grin on his face.

“As expected,” he exclaims, “gege’s swordsmanship improves every day!”

“As does San Lang’s. You almost had me in the second round—if it hadn’t been for E-ming’s hesitancies, you might have even—”

The doors to the hall swing open, and both of them startle. Xie Lian scrambles off of Hua Cheng’s hips and, flustered, tries to smooth out his own robes. Hua Cheng stays on the floor, a sullen scowl creeping across his face. In the doorway, Yin Yu stands. 

“Hua Chengzhu,” he says apologetically, “forgive me for the interruption, but a matter of importance has come to my attention and requires your input. Some of the merchants in the city are protesting the tax increase, and the most vocal are threatening to—”

“Have Liu Chen deal with it,” orders Xie Lian.

Yin Yu pauses. “...Dianxia?”

“Have Liu Chen deal with it,” he repeats, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice. He knows he really shouldn’t be so upset; part of Yin Yu’s job is, after all, to keep Hua Cheng informed of the activity in the city. But seeing the way his husband’s shoulders had tightened, the way his eye had darkened, the way his face had fallen—it isn’t fair! It isn’t fair for people to keep demanding so much of him. Today is a day for him to rest, and by all the gods Xie Lian is going to see that he does!

“What do we have a minister of finance for, if not to deal with these things? Wasn’t he the one who passed the tax increase anyhow?” Xie Lian continues. “Have him call a meeting and allow the merchants to attend. Sort things out together.”

Yin Yu’s eyes flick nervously towards Hua Cheng, but Xie Lian steps protectively in front of him. 

“Hua Cheng is busy today,” he says firmly. “No one is to trouble him again until tomorrow.”

If Hua Cheng truly wants to sort this out himself, then of course Xie Lian won’t stop him—but it will require a safeword, first. As long as Hua Cheng permits Xie Lian to be in control, then he’ll expect his orders to be followed, and nothing will stop him but Hua Cheng himself. His poor husband deserves a break, and Xie Lian will give that to him as long as he’s able to. 

“Yin Yu,” Hua Cheng says, climbing to his feet and dusting off his dark robes, “do as Dianxia says. To do otherwise should never even be a possibility in your mind.”

Relieved, Xie Lian reaches back and takes Hua Cheng’s hand. He squeezes, once, and Hua Cheng squeezes back.  

“Of course, Hua Chengzhu,” Yin Yu says, bowing neatly to the both of them. “Apologies, Dianxia. I’ll contact Liu Chen at once.”

“Thank you, Yin Yu,” Xie Lian says, more softly. “We really do appreciate it.”

As soon as Yin Yu is gone, Hua Cheng stoops and presses his forehead to Xie Lian’s shoulder with a groan. “Dianxia,” he says reluctantly, “maybe I really should—”

“No.”

“If those trash try to destroy something in the city—”

“I said no, San Lang,” Xie Lian says sternly. “Those things aren’t yours to worry about today. I won’t hear about this again from you.”

Hua Cheng doesn’t look up, but Xie Lian can practically feel the frown on his face. “I know Dianxia means well,” he starts, tactfully, disobediently, “and this morning has really been wonderful. But it is not necessary for you to coddle this servant. I appreciate it, of course, but in the face of our responsibilities it can hardly be our highest priority.”

Ah, so it’s time for Hua Cheng to fuss, now, is it? They usually make it at least a little longer, but he supposes Yin Yu’s interruption was a reminder of certain things for his poor husband. Anyway, Xie Lian is as well-versed in this as he is in Hua Cheng’s swordsmanship. He knows exactly what Hua Cheng is asking for when he argues this way, but even so…

“San Lang,” he says, gently, turning to face him. “Is there something specific you’d like to say to me?”

An out, if he’d like to take it—a chance to safeword, to step back and talk outside of the scene. Hua Cheng doesn’t even hesitate. He steps forward again, pressing his face to Xie Lian’s hair, and shakes his head.

“Verbally, please, San Lang,” Xie Lian requests. He can often accommodate for Hua Cheng’s difficulties in communication, but in this there can be no confusion. In this he must be absolutely clear.

“I don’t want to say— that ,” Hua Cheng murmurs. “Dianxia can keep going. Please.”

Xie Lian sighs, content, and begins to untie his husband’s bun. “Alright, San Lang, thank you. You know what to say if you want me to stop.”

“En.”

Hua Cheng’s hair falls down his back, and Xie Lian smooths it with his fingers. Then he takes Hua Cheng’s hand and tugs him out of the training hall, back towards their bedroom. Hua Cheng follows meekly, until about halfway there. Then he digs his heels in, pulling back and putting pressure on Xie Lian’s hand as he does. Xie Lian stops and looks back at him, arching an eyebrow.

“Yes, San Lang?”

“I still think I need to talk to Yin Yu,” Hua Cheng mutters, unwilling to meet his eyes. 

“You think my plan wasn’t good enough?”

“What?” Hua Cheng’s eye widens in horror. “No! No, Dianxia was correct, as always, but this one feels guilty leaving his ministers to—”

“To what? To do their jobs?” Xie Lian shakes his head. “Nonsense. My San Lang only feels guilty for resting.”

Hua Cheng looks suspiciously at him. “Yes,” he agrees, warily. “San Lang does, because San Lang is responsible for Ghost City. It’s kind of Dianxia to offer him a break, but it’s been long enough now.”

“And if I asked you to stay for me?”

“Then—then of course I would,” Hua Cheng says, his brow furrowing, “but this isn’t for Dianxia’s enjoyment. He only does this because he pities San Lang.”

Xie Lian tightens his grip on Hua Cheng’s hand and yanks him forward, towards the bedroom. Hua Cheng stumbles after him in surprise. “San Lang knows better than to say something like that. This gege doesn’t spoil you out of pity, but out of love.”

“Either way, this worthless ghost is undeserving,” Hua Cheng mumbles. “Dianxia shouldn’t waste his time.”

Hua Cheng knows exactly what sort of response to expect from that, and Xie Lian is more than ready to give it to him. He hauls Hua Cheng into the bedroom, shutting the door firmly behind them before fixing his husband with a glare. 

“San Lang also knows better than to say that,” Xie Lian says, his jaw set. “Go sit on the bed.”

“Dianxia—”

“What part of that was a request, San Lang? Go. Now.”

Hua Cheng slinks towards the bed, and Xie Lian kneels beside their dresser. He rummages through it, pulling out the things he’ll need and setting them out on the bedside table. As Hua Cheng watches, his breathing begins to speed up and his pupil dilates. When Xie Lian returns to his side, the first thing he does is grip his husband’s jaw and lift his chin—gently, but with irresistible strength. 

“San Lang knows how angry it makes me when he says such things about himself,” Xie Lian says. “How sad it makes me.”

A flicker of guilt crosses Hua Cheng’s face, and he starts to pull back—Xie Lian tightens his grip and refuses to let him. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian continues, “is my dear, precious, beloved husband. There is no one more deserving of this. But if he needs a reminder, then of course this gege will be happy to give him a very thorough one.”

“Dianxia,” Hua Cheng breathes, “I don’t—”

“Be quiet, San Lang. If you can’t say anything nice about my beloved, then don’t say anything at all. Keep your chin here.” Xie Lian squeezes his jaw, then lets go and reaches for the first item on their bedside table: a smooth collar made of supple black leather. On the outside, Hua Cheng’s name has been embroidered in silver. On the inside, Xie Lian’s name is embroidered in gold. As he buckles the collar into place around Hua Cheng’s throat, he feels the shakiness of his husband’s breath. “Maybe this will help you remember who you belong you—who else you insult with such cruel words about San Lang.”

Hua Cheng brings a hand up, touching the collar with reverent fingers. Xie Lian guides his chin back down, then takes a seat next to him on the bed. Once he’s settled, he seizes the robes at the back of Hua Cheng’s neck and pulls, dragging his husband into place across his lap. Hua Cheng goes without a struggle, making a soft, wretched sound as he buries his face into his own crossed arms. He’s already trembling. 

“Does San Lang have any apologies to make?” Xie Lian asks, bracing a hand on the small of Hua Cheng’s back. With his other hand, he unties the eyepatch and sets it aside; he wants Hua Cheng to feel his vulnerability, for this.

“San Lang is sorry to have offended Dianxia,” Hua Cheng says at once. It isn’t what Xie Lian wants, and they both know it. “He did not mean to force Dianxia’s hand. I know it is an inconvenience for Dianxia to teach his servant this—”

Hua Cheng’s voice breaks around a surprised yelp as Xie Lian brings his hand down, swatting it firmly across his backside. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says calmly, “is still misbehaving. No part of this is an inconvenience for me. I delight in giving San Lang what he needs—even this. Twenty to start, San Lang. Count them aloud.”

Hua Cheng, to his credit, counts steadily until the tenth swat. There is something to be said for a martial god’s strength—Xie Lian takes every bit of care not to actually hurt Hua Cheng, but he accounts for Hua Cheng’s own strength with each strike and doesn’t go gently. This lesson must be learnt well: Hua Cheng is not allowed to speak ill of himself. 

By the twentieth swat, Hua Cheng is gasping and squirming with discomfort. That’s good. If he were stoic, Xie Lian would be far more concerned—his husband only ever resists that much when he’s feeling truly awful. Right now, each helpless movement grinds Hua Cheng’s hips against Xie Lian’s thigh, and he can feel his husband’s growing hardness there. It is of little concern to him at the moment. Far more concerning is—

“San Lang,” he says, resting one hand posessively on the swell of Hua Cheng’s ass. “Will you apologize properly?”

“San Lang apologizes,” Hua Cheng gasps again. 

“To who?”

“Dianxia,” he says, breathlessly—an answer or a plea or both, Xie Lian isn’t sure. 

“And of course I’ll always forgive you,” Xie Lian soothes, petting Hua Cheng’s shoulders. “San Lang doesn’t have to worry about that. But isn’t there someone else San Lang needs to apologize to?”

Hua Cheng tangles his fingers into the bedsheets, shaking his head. “I can’t,” he says, his voice thick. “Dianxia, gege, I can’t.”

“You can,” Xie Lian sighs, pressing a kiss to the center of Hua Cheng’s back. “You will.”

He urges Hua Cheng off of his lap, then, and Hua Cheng scrambles and clings. “Dianxia,” he says, frantic. “Dianxia, what are you—?”

“Shh. We’re not finished, sweet boy, don’t worry. I just want you to take off your robes.”

Hua Cheng shudders but sheds his robes, then crawls back over Xie Lian’s lap to sprawl across his thighs. Xie Lian guides his hands behind him, crossing them at the wrists and tying them with a length of smooth red rope. Hua Cheng is often obedient in the first few minutes, but after that...well, after that, he tends to get overwhelmed. He’ll want to struggle.

“Comfortable?” Xie Lian asks.

“Mn.” Hua Cheng shuffles closer to him, pressing his side tightly against the warm plane of Xie Lian’s belly. Xie Lian feels an overwhelming surge of affection for him, and he has to blink back the sudden sting in his eyes. Ah, his precious San Lang! “‘m really sorry, gege.”

“For what?” Xie Lian asks patiently. 

“For making you do this,” Hua Cheng says helplessly, “for being—being—”

Xie Lian resumes his swats with fervor, and Hua Cheng breaks off with a startled cry. The skin of his ass is already flushed red and hot beneath Xie Lian’s palm, and he can’t help but sigh in sympathy as Hua Cheng arches away from the blows. If he didn’t know how much Hua Cheng wanted this, he would indeed feel badly!

But there’s something nice about it, too, in what Xie Lian suspects is a truly dangerous way. It’s nice, having Hua Cheng here on his lap—bound and submissive and safe. Like this, he can’t go anywhere. Like this, he can’t get into any trouble. Like this, he can’t go and die again. If Xie Lian kept him like this—if Xie Lian kept him just like this—

But no—no, of course he would never. Hua Cheng is his own person, and must be allowed the freedom to make his own choices (even if those choices are, occasionally, foolhardy and dangerous). Xie Lian would never actually want to take his independence from him. It’s just…

It’s nice to pretend, sometimes, that he can keep Hua Cheng this secure forever.

“For being what?” Xie Lian prompts, once Hua Cheng is breathless again. “What was San Lang going to apologize for?”

“For—for being—ah! For being bad!”

“Bad? No, that’s not right. San Lang is never bad. He only makes bad choices, sometimes, like choosing to call himself worthless and undeserving. That’s not true, is it?”

Hua Cheng makes a frustrated little noise, and so Xie Lian aims his next few swats at the tender curve where his thigh meets his ass. His husband is much more amendable, after that.

“Why does San Lang think he’s bad, hm? Certainly not for this, I hope,” Xie Lian says, watching the gorgeous flex of Hua Cheng’s sweat-slick muscles as he strains against the rope. “San Lang is allowed to want things, to ask for things. If he wants gege to remind him how loved he is this way, then of course gege will oblige him. I only wish San Lang could ask in a way that didn’t insult himself. Wouldn’t that be easier?”

Hua Cheng kicks—a little, jerky movement that’s less about escaping and more about helplessness. “Shouldn’t,” he says, his voice cracking. “I shouldn’t want this.”

“Want what, my San Lang? Want to be treated this way? Want to be told how deserving you are? Want gege to take care of you? Ah, San Lang, of course you should. Everyone wants things. Why would you be any different?”

“Not—not good enough for this,” Hua Cheng chokes out. “I’m never—!”

The next few swats are the hardest yet, and they have Hua Cheng writhing in his lap. “That’s enough of that,” Xie Lian says firmly. “I won’t hear it. San Lang is good. San Lang is always good. He may not feel like he is, but this gege will always assure him otherwise. San Lang is my good, sweet husband—my good, sweet boy.”

This, at last, has Hua Cheng breaking. He crumples against Xie Lian, his chest heaving around a broken sob. Xie Lian quickly gathers his husband into his arms, tucking him close and cooing softly. Hua Cheng cries hard—harder than he has in quite some time, tears rolling down his face and dripping off of his jaw. 

“Sorry,” he wails, “gege, gege, I’m sorry!”

Xie Lian rocks him, pressing kisses to his face and nose and temples. “Shh. Shh, San Lang, it’s okay. I’ve got you, it’s okay.”

“I feel—I feel bad,” Hua Cheng tells him, shaking, blinking furiously against his tears. “Gege, I feel bad.”

“I know. Oh, my sweet boy, I know you do. San Lang has had a very hard week. He must have been so stressed, and then today, with Yin Yu…” Xie Lian clucks his tongue, squeezing Hua Cheng to him. “Of course my poor San Lang would start thinking awful things about himself again, and working himself into such a state. Can you tell gege about it?”

“I feel like I’m not doing enough,” Hua Cheng says, hiccuping around another sob. “I’m never doing enough for—for the city, for the ghosts, for you. I haven’t had time to spend with gege all week! I’m an awful husband, I’m the worst—”

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, warning. “That’s not true. You feel that way.”

“I feel like an awful husband,” Hua Cheng amends, a fresh wave of tears streaming down his cheek. Xie Lian thumbs them away gently. “And now—now I don’t even get to take care of gege, it’s gege taking care of me! I’m so—I feel so selfish. I neglected you all week and you’re still being so nice.”

“San Lang hardly neglected me,” Xie Lian chides. “It was only a week, and he was very busy with the city and the upcoming festival. I only wish you would have let me help you. Then, San Lang would have been less stressed and we could have spent more time together.”

“Gege shouldn’t be made to deal with this one’s worthless work. He should—he shouldn’t have to work at all! It isn’t fair! I brought him here to provide for him, and if I can’t make him the happiest, then what good am—?” Hua Cheng bites his lower lip furiously, and Xie Lian makes a pained noise and leans forward to pry Hua Cheng’s mouth open with his own. He tastes the salt of tears and the wet, heavy pants of a crying man. 

“San Lang does make me the happiest,” he insists, when he draws back. “But we can’t be the happiest all the time! Sometimes life is stressful. We’re supposed to help each other through it. When we married, San Lang, didn’t I promise to share your burdens with you? I want to be equals. I don’t want San Lang to try to do everything by himself just because he thinks he should be better for me.”

“Gege should have punished me,” Hua Cheng whispers. “I haven’t been good to him this week.”

Xie Lian straightens up immediately, alarmed. “Is that what you think this was for? San Lang—”

Hua Cheng shakes his head quickly. “No! No, I know gege wouldn’t do something like that. He’s too merciful. Instead he—he wanted a special day, and I can’t even do that right. I’m messing it all up right now.”

“Messing it up? San Lang, days like this are for taking care of you. Whether that’s making you food, or teaching you calligraphy, or holding you while you cry—it’s all taking care. I want to do all of it. This is still part of our special day. Gege is still happy to be here, helping you.” Xie Lian rubs his hand over Hua Cheng’s arm, then guides his head into the crook of his shoulder. “It makes me feel good to help you like this.”

“I don’t understand,” Hua Cheng says, sniffling, “how you can like it. Nobody ever—nobody else ever—”

“Oh, San Lang.” Xie Lian’s voice breaks, this time, and he presses his face against Hua Cheng’s hair to breathe in the smell of him. “I’m sorry. People have been so cruel to you. But I promise taking care of you isn’t a burden. I promise I want to do it! So, next time, let me help you more. Don’t wait until you’re feeling this badly to tell me.”

“En. I’ll try. I’m...not very good at it.”

“I know. And if it happens again, we’ll deal with it, okay? All I ask is that San Lang tries.” Xie Lian kisses the part of his hair, reaching down to pet his hitching stomach. “Is San Lang doing okay? Does he want to take a break?”

“I want—I—” Hua Cheng squeezes his eye shut, leaning forward to tuck his head more securely beneath Xie Lian’s chin. He has to bend over quite a bit to do so, tall as he is. When he speaks again, his voice is very small. “I want gege to keep taking care of me, please.”

“Oh, San Lang, of course. Of course gege will. Gege’s going to get you cleaned up and comfortable in just a minute, okay? But first, can you tell me something important?” Xie Lian brings his hand up, thumbing gently below Hua Cheng’s eye. “Can you tell me why gege disciplined you this time, so I know we’re on the same page?”

Hua Cheng hitches his shoulder up, wiping his eye against it. “It’s because I—’cause I said bad things about myself.”

“Good. Good boy, San Lang. And those bad things weren’t true at all, were they?”

Hua Cheng shakes his head minutely.

“That’s right, not true at all,” Xie Lian sighs, hugging Hua Cheng a little tighter. “My San Lang is worth so much to me, and he deserves all of the care I can offer. He’s been working very hard this week, and needed this break. I’m glad he told me how he was feeling. That was very brave of him. Now, can San Lang please apologize to himself for what he said?”

“Sorry,” Hua Cheng mumbles.

“Who are you sorry to?”

“...to San Lang.”

“Good,” Xie Lian croons. “Good, good, good. That’s it. All done, sweet boy, all over. Gege’s going to put you down now, so he can get you comfortable.”

Hua Cheng whines, clinging to him more tightly. 

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, laughing. “Alright. Just a few more minutes.”

Xie Lian cuddles his husband close, swaying gently with him until he begins to relax. Then he unties Hua Cheng, rubbing his shoulders and arms to drive away any lingering stiffness. He reaches for the bedside table after, picking up a washcloth and using it to carefully wash the dried tears from Hua Cheng’s face. He kisses each eyelid, and Hua Cheng lets out a shaky little sigh. Only then does Xie Lian put him down, nestling him into the blankets on his stomach. He makes a sympathetic noise at the sight of poor Hua Cheng’s backside, still flushed red and sore. 

“Does it hurt badly, San Lang?” he asks, reaching for the soothing cream and beginning to rub it in. Hua Cheng winces, then pushes himself back into the touch when Xie Lian hesitates. 

“It‘s fine, gege,” he says. Then, more slyly, he adds, “I like it.”

“Well, that’s—that’s good, then.” Xie Lian’s face heats, but he sticks to his work with a determined effort. Once Hua Cheng’s skin has been liberally coated in the cream, he sets it aside. He starts to climb off of the bed to fetch a cup of water for them both, but Hua Cheng wiggles and draws his attention back.

“Gege missed a spot,” he says, forlornly.

It takes a minute.

Then, Xie Lian claps his hands to his face as his blush creeps down his neck. “San Lang! Really, now? Aren’t you sore?”

“I already told gege I like it,” Hua Cheng says, peeking over his shoulder. “Please? Wasn’t I good?”

“San Lang must be feeling better, if he can be this forward,” Xie Lian observes, leaning over Hua Cheng’s body to kiss the corner of his mouth. “He was very good, though. He deserves a reward. But, you must tell me if it hurts. This gege wants to be gentle with you today.”

“Yes, gege.”

Xie Lian wipes the remnants of the cream from his fingers and replaces it with a healthy amount of oil. He reaches down, pressing the pad of his finger to the furl of muscle between San Lang’s cheeks. He rubs there slowly, indulgently, and Hua Cheng sighs in bliss. He squirms when Xie Lian slides a finger in, rubbing himself against the mattress in greedy little movements. 

“Slowly, San Lang,” Xie Lian soothes, stroking his finger leisurely along Hua Cheng’s walls. “Gege will make you feel good. Just relax.”

Hua Cheng tries his best to still himself, after that, although he can’t seem to help the little hitch of his hips whenever Xie Lian slides a second finger in alongside the first. He scissors them slowly, feeling Hua Cheng relax around him. His own arousal is a low, simmering thing in the pit of his belly. 

“Does San Lang want me inside?” Xie Lian asks, running his other hand up and down Hua Cheng’s flank. Then he reaches around, tucking his hand below Hua Cheng to grasp his length and tug it in slow, steady motions. Hua Cheng’s thighs tense, and he shifts restlessly beneath Xie Lian. “Or does he want to come this way?”

“Inside, gege, please, please—”

“Anything San Lang wants,” Xie Lian says, crooking his fingers until he finds that spot inside that—yes, that one, the one that makes Hua Cheng cry out and clench around him. He rubs it slowly, firmly, and savors the way Hua Cheng squirms. He adds a third finger, pressing them in as deep as they’ll go just to hear Hua Cheng whimper. He draws all three back, raking them across that spot again, and Hua Cheng muffles his wail against the pillows. 

“Gege,” he gasps. He can only push himself back onto Xie Lian’s fingers, or forward into the tight grasp of his hand. Trembling, he holds himself still. “Gege, I can’t, I can’t—”

“It’s okay if you want to come, sweet boy,” Xie Lian soothes. “Gege won’t stop. He’ll make you come again and again until you’re satisfied. You’ve been so brave today, so good—that’s what you deserve, isn’t it?”

With a hungry, desperate noise, Hua Cheng hitches his hips forward and drives his cock along the calloused length of Xie Lian’s palm. Xie Lian follows him forward, grinding his fingers in and against that perfect spot. Hua Cheng comes with a gasp and a shudder, digging his fingers into the sheets and rutting against Xie Lian’s hand. 

“Good boy,” Xie Lian says, drawing both hands back once Hua Cheng has slumped into the mattress. “That’s good, San Lang. Hold still now.”

Xie Lian slicks his own cock with oil, then slides slowly into Hua Cheng. He’s still pliant from orgasm, and he moans softly as Xie Lian nestles inside. 

“San Lang feels so nice inside,” he sighs, bowing his head and biting the nape of Hua Cheng’s neck gently. He moves up to mouth along the collar, relishing the taste of sweat and leather and what they mean: Hua Cheng belongs to him. “He makes his gege feel so good.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng gasps, tilting his head so Xie Lian can nip and nibble the side of his neck. “Gege can move already.”

Xie Lian draws back a mere inch, then bumps his hips forward again—tiny, slow thrusts that make Hua Cheng whine with want. He takes his time, unwilling to rush and grinding himself as far into Hua Cheng as he can. When he slides a hand beneath Hua Cheng’s belly again, he can feel that his cock is still soft. 

“San Lang?” he asks, nipping the back of Hua Cheng’s ear. “Does it feel good?”

“Yes, yes, gege please don’t stop—”

“Shh. Gege won’t stop as long as you don’t want him to. If San Lang wants this all night…”

Hua Cheng moans, arching his back and allowing Xie Lian to grasp his cock more firmly. He strokes it back to full hardness over the span of several minutes. Then he releases it to plaster himself more fully against Hua Cheng’s back, pressing him down into the mattress. Hua Cheng’s neck and shoulders are a mess of lovebites, his collar slick with Xie Lian’s saliva. His back heaves as he gasps, and when Xie Lian comes he sinks his teeth into the taut muscle of his husband’s shoulder. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng pleads, “gege, gege, gege.”

Xie Lian reaches underneath him again, stroking his cock and shoving his own hips forward before he fully softens. Hua Cheng comes shortly after, shivering with pleasure and rolling over to wrap all of his limbs around Xie Lian. It leaves a sticky mess of cum between them, but—well, Xie Lian was planning on a bath later, anyway. Hua Cheng’s eye is wet, again, a damp streak on one side of his face, and Xie Lian coos when he sees it.

“Oh, sweet boy—gege didn’t hurt you, did he?”

Hua Cheng shakes his head adamantly. “Just felt good.”

“That’s okay, that’s okay.” Xie Lian kisses the drying tears, rubbing his fingers along Hua Cheng’s collar. “San Lang can cry whenever he needs to.”

They lay together for several long moments, until the drying stickiness between them becomes unbearable. Xie Lian reluctantly untangles himself from his husband, wiping him off with the washcloth before pressing a cup of cold water into his hands. He drinks deeply, then nudges Xie Lian to do the same. As they snack on a bowl of fresh fruit, Xie Lian waves a hand to fill their bath with steaming water—it isn’t often he uses his spiritual power for such an inane thing, but he can’t be bothered to part from Hua Cheng right now.

Carefully, he scoops Hua Cheng into his arms and carries him over to the bath. He slides in behind him, then washes his body with gentle hands and citrus-scented soaps. Hua Cheng basks greedily in his touch, leaning back to rest his head on Xie Lian’s shoulder and bare his throat. He whines when Xie Lian removes the collar, but really, it was a mess! Xie Lian promises to give it back once it’s clean, anyway, and does exactly that once they climb out of the tub.

“San Lang,” he says, buckling the collar, “let’s make lunch together.”

As they cook, Xie Lian issues instructions and Hua Cheng follows them to the letter—mostly, Xie Lian thinks, so he can hear the effusive praise Xie Lian offers him whenever he obeys. Xie Lian feeds him lunch, the same way he’d fed him breakfast, and then the two of them retire to their bedroom again. 

“Gege?” Hua Cheng asks, tugging on Xie Lian’s robe. “Can this one make a request?”

“Of course, San Lang.”

“Can I kneel for gege?”

Xie Lian strokes his fingers through Hua Cheng’s hair, lifting the strands and letting them fall through his fingers. “For a little while,” he decides, “but then I want San Lang to take a nap. He hasn’t been sleeping well this past week.”

Hua Cheng doesn’t argue that he doesn’t need sleep, which is, Xie Lian thinks, a victory in and of itself. He takes a seat at his desk, preparing to draft correspondence for the upcoming city festival—one less thing for his Hua Cheng to fret about after today—and tosses a pillow down beside him. Hua Cheng drops to his knees on the pillow, huddling up against Xie Lian and resting his head on his thigh. Xie Lian settles a hand in his hair, touching him absently as he writes. 

By the time he’s finished, Hua Cheng’s shoulders have slumped and his breathing has grown slow and deep. He blinks lazily at Xie Lian when Xie Lian tips his chin up, and Xie Lian smiles fondly at him. “Was that good, San Lang?”

“En. Gege, I want to stay here.”

“We can do more later. Right now, it’s time for San Lang to rest.”

Xie Lian sits in the bed while Hua Cheng naps, flipping through one of his favorite novels. The rest of the day, he knows, will pass in a similar manner: Hua Cheng will be soft and sweet and obedient, and Xie Lian will care for him as best he knows how. Tomorrow their stresses will return, and Xie Lian will have to do everything he can to help Hua Cheng with the city’s business until things slow down again. But as long as the two of them are working together, what can’t they do? Things are going to be okay.

“They’ll all be okay,” Xie Lian murmurs to his sleeping husband. “Alright, San Lang?”

Hua Cheng doesn’t respond, but if the easy posture and gentle smile he offers to Xie Lian the next day are anything to go by—well, he knows.