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transience immortalized

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Despite his centuries of general life experience, Xie Lian had only spent a handful of those 800+ years with access to his own bountiful spiritual energy. During the bulk of that time, he solved most of his problems without it, using quick reflexes and sharp thinking–or in many cases, plain brute force.

It wasn’t really until his third ascension that he became reacquainted with the feeling of borrowed spiritual energy flowing cool and steady through his meridians. Though certainly not unwelcome, even the spiritual energy Hua Cheng provides him in spades doesn’t feel quite the same as the flow of his own.

What the shattering of his shackles return, the intimate reunion with his beloved takes away again. Xie Lian isn't particularly bothered by it, especially since their nighttime activities end up gifting him a surplus of rippling spiritual energy from his magnanimous ghost king. But eventually Xie Lian turns his mind to cultivation once more, if only because he feels he shouldn't rely so much on Hua Cheng's power. When it comes down to it, he decides he has to have his own reserves with which to protect others.

So he sets out on a new cultivation path. It isn’t a difficult task—there are many paths to cultivation after all, and Guoshi had taught him well—so within just a few years time he finds himself with a satisfying store of his own spiritual energy (one that still gets topped off by his husband every other night).

Still, old habits die hard. Having grown so accustomed to just not having any, Xie Lian rarely uses his newly cultivated spiritual energy. Sometimes he forgets altogether that it’s even an option. Those times he does remember though make for especially satisfying spars with Hua Cheng. And yet, it’s not during training with his beloved or running errands for Heaven that he discovers something entirely new and strange about his energy.

It first happens on a rare solitary evening. Hua Cheng is back in Ghost City dealing with something or other, so Xie Lian goes for a walk. The two of them have come up with a fun little game for days like this, when Hua Cheng is too busy to spend time with him in person. He draws a transportation array to Xie Lian with some mystery destination in mind; Hua Cheng comes to fetch him when he's done with his work, or Xie Lian returns back to Paradise Manor on his own when he's done exploring, whichever comes first.

Today, the array has him walking out into a narrow alley half obscured by crates. He can smell the ocean before he sees it, taste the brine on the breeze. Sailors bark orders to each other in the distance, shouting to be heard over the crash of waves, and merchants shout even louder to be heard over the seamen.

Xie Lian isn't sure which town he's in, but the people are friendly and the fish is fresh. He buys some food at a stall to enjoy while he browses. His most exciting purchase of the day ends up being a small satchel of imported tea that he looks forward to sharing with his husband later. He spends the day mingling amongst the people and enjoying the sea breeze. It's been years since he's last visited the shore–so long that he hasn't even remembered to miss it.

By the time twilight rolls around, Xie Lian has enough stories with which to regale Hua Cheng over dinner. Xie Lian toys with the dice in his sleeve as the sun begins its slow descent.

I'll head back in a minute, he thinks as he settles down onto the sand. This part of the beach is empty enough to be peaceful, the general din of the marketplace fading into the background as he stares out at the reddening sky. How many sunsets has he seen in his life? Countless, even if he hasn't stopped to appreciate nearly enough of them the way he does now.

It's an awesome, humbling thing, to look up at the sky and realize not even a god can control its splendor. The sky shifts from yellow to orange to eventually pink with a steadfast determination that Xie Lian would have envied in his youth; in his current state of old age, he just smiles, and admires this journey of the sun.

When the cool blues and purples of evening settle calmly over the shore, Xie Lian takes a deep breath. He feels himself sliding back into his physical body; instead of being constrictive, he feels loose and relaxed, like slipping into a warm bath after a long day.

He shifts his weight as he begins to rise. Only then does he realize there's something digging into his palm. Curious, he lifts his hand only to discover a small glass bead sitting in palm. He blows away the sand on his palm, but there’s not enough light to make out any details. He can tell it’s red though, a crimson probably not that different from the sunset he had just watched. Xie Lian decides to keep it as a memento of his day and tucks the bauble into his sleeve.

He forgets about it until much, much later--after he and his beloved have eaten dinner and retire to their bedroom to sate a different appetite. The bead rolls out of its place as Hua Cheng slips off his robe, though the man barely spares it a glance as he focuses on showering Xie Lian’s pale neck with kisses. He had become especially fond of kissing him there ever since the shattering of his shackles.

“Ah, San Lang, just a minute,” he says, half-heartedly pulling away. Hua Cheng’s own reluctance shows plainly on his face.

“Is gege getting shy again? Even after how last night he begged this one to-”

Xie Lian hastily bends to pick up the bead and shove it in front of his husband’s face. “Th-that’s neither here nor there! I just wanted to get this, see? It’s not about being shy.”

Hua Cheng blinks at the bead, studying it for a beat before redirecting his attention to Xie Lian. “It’s very pretty, gege.”

“En, I think so too.”

“Where did you get it?” Hua Cheng asks patiently, even though he still has a look in his eye that says he’d much prefer to be rolling around in bed with Xie Lian right now. It only makes Xie Lian all the more endeared by him, and he makes a mental note to reward his beloved for his patience in a little while.

“I found it on the beach today.”

Even now, studying it in the warm glow of the candles that illuminate their room, Xie Lian remembers with perfect clarity the vibrant hues of that sunset, the mellow chant of the waves lapping at the sand, and the beautiful, humbling serenity that had curled up in his chest in the moment. His smile is soft as he carefully tucks the bead away in a chest holding some of his miscellaneous possessions. It sits on a bed of fine cloth—the folded up robes he had worn on that first night Hua Cheng had found him on Mount Yu Jun.

He’s barely straightened back up before he feels strong arms wrap around his waist. He leans back into Hua Cheng’s chest.

“Gege can tell me all about it tomorrow morning,” he says, already slipping his fingers past Xie Lian’s remaining layers.

“Mm, okay,” he hums, closing his eyes and melting into the touch. “San Lang is right. We really ought to sleep now.”

His lips twitch at the whine he gets for that, a petulant ‘gege!’ that has no place coming from someone as grown as Hua Cheng which is what makes it extra adorable in his eyes. He turns, smothering his laughter against his husband’s lips. They tumble into bed together, giggling and gasping. And then Xie Lian has the distinct pleasure of watching the night return back into the crimson gloaming that is Ghost City’s daytime, wrapped up safely in the arms of his beloved.

---

The next morning, Xie Lian awakens to find a small red bead under his pillow. In an instant, the memories of last night come rushing back and Xie Lian seeks out his husband's embrace twice more before he puts two and two together.

Once he does, planning everything else is surprisingly easy.

---

“Gege got this one a gift? Is it as good as my birthday present?”

Xie Lian flushes at the reminder of his disastrous attempts at embroidery. It had taken months to get Hua Cheng to stop wearing it out in public, and even now the belt holds a place of honor in his wardrobe.

“Actually, this one is better, I think,” Xie Lian tells him. He actually has some pride in this gift. “Hold out your hand for me?”

He obeys, and Xie Lian places the present in his hand. Hua Cheng sucks in a sharp breath.

“There’s a clasp on the end,” Xie Lian explains, fidgeting as Hua Cheng holds up the charm to study it in the light. Three beautiful red beads hang from a silver chain, each one made by Xie Lian’s own hand. He continues, falling into a self-conscious ramble when Hua Cheng says nothing right away. “I can always change it if you prefer, but I kept it simple so that San Lang could fashion it however he pleases. I think it would look nice hanging off your belt, or as a hair ornament, or we could even make it into a necklace if-”

“Gege.”

“Y-Yes?”

“These beads… what are they exactly?” Hua Cheng’s voice is tight, though not displeased. It’s the voice of a man overcome with emotion, which is exactly what Xie Lian had been expecting.

He smiles. “My San Lang is far too keen. They aren’t normal glass, you’re right. They’re actually something I made myself. I discovered a new ability a few weeks ago. You see, by compressing a burst of my own spiritual energy, I can capture moments in those beads, not unlike your butterflies. But these beads of mine are a little different. I can’t step back and perfectly capture everything that’s going on, but I can capture my own thoughts and feelings when it happens. And once I figured that out, I realized that I now have a way to show my San Lang exactly how much he means to me.”

Hua Cheng is perfectly still. Xie Lian wonders if he even realizes that he has stopped breathing entirely, not that it matters. His eye, though, is openly emotive, the pupil blown wide and darting around wildly as he stares into the distance.

Xie Lian steps forward and gently pries the charm from his fist. Hua Cheng's hold was careful not to shatter it, but it must have been overwhelming.

"When you say moments…" Hua Cheng begins. He lets Xie Lian take his other hand and place a finger on the first red bead.

"It's easier to understand if we go one by one," he explains warmly.

Now that he isn't touching all three at once, Hua Cheng seems to settle a little, but his eye is still shining with unspoken emotion. He takes a deep breath, less out of necessity and perhaps more of a desire to physically take in more of this moment they're sharing.

"Gege," he murmurs, recognition flashing in his dark eye, "this is from a few days ago, isn't it?"

"En. When San Lang and I- well, you remember," Xie Lian says quickly. His face reddens as the memory washes over him.

“San… San Lang,” he gasps, chest heaving with the need to fill. He sucks in the air Hua Cheng pants against his mouth, greedy in a way he never lets himself be, but it’s not enough. He closes that last inch between them, letting his clumsy tongue express the feelings that weigh it down.

He’s going to go insane, he’s certain of it. He can handle any amount of pain, but this- this pleasure is too much to endure. He feels like he’s going to melt into the core of his own body, thick and hot as molten lava. Or maybe he’ll explode out of his skin like a firecracker only to disperse as flickering specks of light, bright and fading at once like a shower of stars.

He digs his nails into Hua Cheng’s back, arches up to press their chests together. Closer. He needs to be closer. He feels wild with the need, heart so full of want that he really feels he might die if he doesn’t get it. A sound escapes him, and somehow he manages to turn that incoherent noise into words.

“Inside. San Lang, i-inside, please, I-”

XIe Lian steps back with a sharp inhale, clearing his throat as he waits for the wave of warmth humming through his veins to pass. If he followed that memory to its conclusion, they would get horribly distracted.

As it is, Hua Cheng is deathly still, his dark eye glazed over with a familiar look. Xie Lian rushes to pry the bead from his hand.

"Ahaha, well, San Lang remembers that night, I'm sure. No need to keep dwelling on it!"

It's testament to how blown away he is that it takes Hua Cheng a second for his usual slyness to appear. "...Actually, gege, this San Lang needs to refresh his mem-"

"Moving on," Xie Lian interrupts, forcing Hua Cheng's finger down to the next bead.

Hua Cheng's expression shifts again, melting into a genuine smile. The sight of it is so delightful that Xie Lian is tempted to craft another bead right then and there so he can hold onto it forever. Maybe one day he'll craft himself a collection of Hua Cheng's smiles to wear alongside his ashes.

"I didn't realize it made gege so happy to cook together," Hua Cheng says, his eye curving into a happy crescent with the force of his smile. "I feel the same, you know."

This bead contains a simpler memory than the first- a moment of fleeting domesticity that had nearly passed him by entirely had he not taken the opportunity to step back and just… watch. Watch Hua Cheng move around the kitchen, talking and laughing as he told some story about his day. Snacking on bites of the vegetables he chopped up for dinner. Turning to Xie Lian with such a natural easy smile, illuminated by the warm passage of dusk through the window and by the fire of the stove.

"Gege, where did you go? Come try the broth. I think it's even better than last time," he insists, holding out a ladle. Xie Lian's heart squeezes.

There he is: Crimson Rain Sought Flower, scourge of the heavens, king of ghosts, boss of Gambler's Den. He is all of those things even now, dripping with power and confidence that he flaunted more casually than any of his fine jewelry.

But he is also San Lang, Xie Lian's beloved, his most precious person, his dear husband.

And it's here, where twilight bathes him in his namesake while he uses a cursed scimitar to chop vegetables for soup; here, as he paces with his jingling boots, a lopsided ponytail swinging from his head; here as he smiles, all fangs and sharp edges, but still soft enough to kiss, that Xie Lian feels so overcome with love that he immediately squeezes some spiritual energy into his palm, desperate to capture the way this scene makes him feel with something more palpable than words.

"I love cooking with San Lang," he says, as if the statement is even necessary before the weight of this memory they’re reliving. "I love eating dinner with him too. And cleaning up. Every moment I share with my San Lang is a precious one to me."

"Gege-"

"There's still one more," he interrupts again, not unkindly. "Would San Lang like to witness it?"

Hua Cheng looks like he has more to say, but he lets Xie Lian move things along with grace. “En. Show me, please.”

All the memories are dear to Xie Lian - evident by their beautiful, crystalline state - but this one is especially precious. He takes a deep breath as he raises the charm, letting the glass catch the light and return it dazzlingly. It really might be his favorite of the bunch.

"The last one is from yesterday's spar."

"Oh? Should I be concerned that gege likes it when we fight so much?" Hua Cheng's laughter trails off as he pinches the last of the trio between his fingers. His eye widens in surprise, and for a few moments all he can do is stand there, blown away by the force of emotion Xie Lian had managed to pack into such a tiny piece of glass.

Xie Lian can't blame him for being speechless. He doesn't even need to touch to remember the way it felt to spar with his husband, but he does it anyway, letting them both sink into the memory.

Light bursts before his eyes as two blades clash. He hops back, nimble, before gliding in for another strike that Hua Cheng quickly blocks. They trade blows again, and again, and again, parrying each other with impossible speed and grace.

Swordplay is exhilarating. The elation he feels is lighter than air, and every quick breath he takes fills his lungs with it. Xie Lian moves so quickly that his robes don't have time to settle. They billow around him as he darts to and fro, fluttering with a levity that dances in his core. He is buoyant, untethered; he bounces on the balls of his feet, ready to jump, to run--and when their swords meet, his heart leaps up and soars.

"Your Highness is in exceptionally good form today," Hua Cheng calls as he puts distance between them. "Was that a seventh of your strength I detected just then?"

Xie Lian grins. "Just an eighth, actually."

Hua Cheng whistles, genuine appreciation in his eye. "Gege is so strong."

Xie Lian whirls around to block the incoming strike that Hua Cheng tries to sneak in behind him. Metal meets metal, and the clang reverberates through the forest clearing they've made their arena.

The smile Hua Cheng gives him is wild and recklessly cheeky. Xie Lian's heart swells even more. "Fast, too."

Time blurs as they battle, buzzing around them so distantly that it seems to lag behind Xie Lian's rapid-fire pace. Their skill is so evenly matched that he can't afford to focus on anything other than his opponent and his own breathing.

It happens in the space of a blink. One minute they're dancing around each other, the next Hua Cheng is knocked off his feet. In a real fight, Xie Lian has no doubt he would have rolled and leapt back up to keep fighting. Here though, the stakes are low; Hua Cheng accepts his loss with an owlish blink of a surprise.

He tosses his head back and laughs. The sound is as bright as the silver that swings on his boots, as rich as the robes that drape his figure. It's full and happy and so, so satisfied. It squeezes its way into Xie Lian's heart, filling in what little space remains after such an exhilarating fight. His heart very well might burst from how much love he feels.

So Xie Lian sits on the ground and laughs. He laughs and laughs and laughs, letting all that happiness and adoration and elation float up his throat and out into the open air to reunite with Hua Cheng's joy.

In the present, Hua Cheng has gone perfectly still, looking as inhumanly beautiful as the statues he so painstakingly carves. Xie Lian smiles and sets aside his gift in favor of taking up his hand. As he intertwines their fingers, he wonders if Hua Cheng's heart also skips a beat.

Hua Cheng just stares for a moment, for once seemingly lost for words. Xie Lian is patient though. His thumb strokes lightly over the back of his hand while he waits.

"While it's true that this one never doubted your love," Hua Cheng says. That breathy whisper takes on a note of awe as he continues, "I never would have dared to imagine that the way gege feels is--"

"Is what?" Xie Lian prompts when his darling ghost king drops his head and says no more.

"I had always known that if your Highness felt a tenth, a hundredth, even a thousandth of what I felt for him then I would be more than satisfied," he murmurs.

Xie Lian's heart aches at the confession.

"But?" he urges, reaching up to cup his darling's cheeks. "You know now, don't you? It's not a thousandth or a hundredth or a tenth."

Hua Cheng dips his head until their foreheads touched. Xie Lian presses a soft kiss to his lips.

"I love you," he whispers. Wholeheartedly. Fiercely. Tenderly. With everything he has.

Another kiss. "Your Highness…"

"San Lang," Xie Lian sighs. The name always tumbles out so lightly, buoyant and playful and loving. "San Lang, my San Lang."

Their murmurs lead to more kisses which gives way to them falling in bed together again. Hours later, when they curl up together for sleep, clusters of glass beads will clink against each other on the sheets.

---

"This way," Xie Lian says, tugging on Hua Cheng's hand to lead him through the stalls selling fresh fish and imported wares. They dodge sailors and merchants and children that dart around everyone’s legs. Xie Lian buys some fruit and doesn't even make it ten steps before giving it all away to the aforementioned children.

“Gege is too kind for his own good,” Hua Cheng says with a click of his tongue. “I’ll buy some more.” He makes to return to the fruit vendor, but Xie Lian stops him with a hand on his wrist, shaking his head.

“It’ll be evening soon. Let’s just get to the beach.”

Hua Cheng looks like he might protest at first, but it only takes another tug on his arm for him to yield. Xie Lian doesn’t let go until the ground beneath their feet gives way to sand that muffles their steps. Hua Cheng still jingles as he walks though, all silver chains and tinkling glass. Xie Lian had worried once that the beads would shatter if worn around so often (he had accidentally broken a few himself just practicing his craft), but Hua Cheng had assured him it would be fine. A gentle brush of his hand was all it took to cast a protective spell over them, allowing them to clink against each other freely as he moved.

And clink they do, the chain of beads strapped across his waist nearly long enough to be a second belt at this point. Xie Lian always gave his gifts freely, but sometimes there were moments when Hua Cheng would stare at him, apparently finding something in Xie Lian’s expression that would make him request another. It was always so earnestly requested, like there was nothing he wanted more in the world than to see what his husband was thinking about him.

They reach the shore just in time to catch the sun as it slips below the horizon, painting their faces in the warm hues of dusk. Xie Lian looks away from the ocean to glance at Hua Cheng, only to find him already staring his way. They both smile, and Xie Lian can’t help but note that sunset is a beautiful color on him.

“What is gege thinking about?”

The question had become a familiar one as of late. “What else but you?”

Hua Cheng looks pleased with the answer. “What about me?” he urges, failing to hide his smile. He’s pushing his luck, as is his wont to do, and they both know it. And Xie Lian will indulge him, as is *his* wont to do.

“About how blessed I am to have you.” In a hushed voice, he adds, “San Lang looks so pretty in this light.”

“This humble one pales in comparison to your beauty.”

“San Lang.”

“I mean it,” he insists. “Gege is so beautiful in the glow of the sunset. I can’t decide what I want to do more– paint you or…”

Xie Lian raises a brow. “Or?”

Hua Cheng gives him a meaningful look.

”Oh."

It’s normally the sort of line that would fluster him, but the moment they’re living in is so intimate and fleeting that his normal shyness has no time to settle here. He shuffles closer, delighted when Hua Cheng's arms come up to wrap around his waist.

They kiss as twilight rolls in like fog that soon disperses under the moonlight. When they part, the pale reflection of the moon lights up the waves.

Xie Lian had always thought of love as a constant--a plentiful, but placid lake that holds the depth of their shared history. He realizes now his love is the sea, as far reaching as the horizon and as endlessly deep as the sky is high. Their past fills its currents, and their future shimmers on its waves. Sometimes the tide is low, and his love for Hua Cheng is just a pleasant hum in the back of his mind while he goes about his day. But when the tide is high, his love crashes over him like a wave, threatening to send him to his knees.

Right now the tides are high, and Xie Lian clutches onto Hua Cheng's robes like a lifeline.

For one brief, beautiful second, Xie Lian thinks of capturing the scene. It would only take the tiniest pulse of energy and then he'd have this moment memorialized into one of his lovely little beads to be cherished forever. But he gets only as far as a twitch of his fingers before relaxing once again. He'll let this pass. For now he's content to simply live in the moment. They have a lifetime of this ahead of them.