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On Our Way to Fall

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What kicks everything off, in the end, is the cat. It's big and black with a little white spot on its chest, and it's only got the one eye, and it looks at Xie Lian like it's expecting answers when he comes back to his shrine in the evening.

 

"Umm," Xie Lian says. "Hi there."

 

The cat flicks its tail. It's lying right on the threshold, so Xie Lian has to step carefully over it to enter the shrine. It bats half-heartedly at his heels. He sets his rubbish bag down on the floor and goes back to the doorway to peer at it. He's concerned, at first, that maybe it's injured, and it sought out the shrine for divine healing or something. But he prods at it a little and it gives him an insulted look and stands up, evidently fine, only to pad two feet over and settle back down with its back to the wall. "Um, alright," Xie Lian says. "You can stay, I guess."

 

The cat doesn't respond.

 

So Xie Lian putters around the shrine like he does most nights and tries to politely ignore the cat. He lights candles, and gets a fire going in the stove, and starts heating water for congee, and then he examines the junk of the day: a chipped pot, a threadbare sack, crumpled paper with school exercises written on it. He thinks maybe he could remove the ink with a minor spell, and then press the paper flat again, and then resell it to families with kids…

 

He's sitting by the stove eating congee and thinking which spells to try first when the cat slinks up to him and sniffs his knee. "Hi there," he tells it cautiously. He's never really interacted with any cats; as Crown Prince he'd had little dogs and a handful of colorful songbirds, but cats were street animals. And then when he, too, was a street animal, he found that people and stray cats like to avoid each other. So he's not really sure what to expect here. Should he offer it congee?

 

The cat settles down right next to him and doesn't look at him. "That's a little rude," he tells it. It flicks its ears at him, as if it's amused. He peers at its little face; one yellow eye, one empty socket.

 

Is it possible…?

 

"Hey," he whispers to the cat, putting his bowl of congee aside. "... Hua Cheng? Is that you?"

 

The cat looks at him blankly for a long moment. Xie Lian feels immensely embarrassed. "Okay, well, cat, if there's anything I can do to help…"

 

The cat looks away. Xie Lian shakes his head and gets up, feeling absurd. There must be thousands of one-eyed black cats out there; there's no reason to believe this one is his friend.

 

He grabs his bowl and goes to wash it out in the stream behind the shrine. The weather's getting colder recently; he should probably rig up some sort of pump soon so he doesn't have to leave the shrine for fresh water. It's only maybe three hundred feet, but that's three hundred feet that he doesn't want to have to navigate in the dark once the snow starts up.

 

He's thinking about how to achieve a pump when he gets back to the shrine, and then he opens the door and almost has a heart attack because Hua Cheng is there, sitting crosslegged in front of the stove. "San Lang!" Xie Lian exclaims, his hand flying to his chest in surprise. Hua Cheng looks up at him and grins.

 

"Evening, gege," he greets. "I heard my name. I like your cat."

 

"Eh!" Xie Lian says, shutting the door behind him. He approaches Hua Cheng and sees that the black cat is curled up like a dumpling in his lap. "It's not mine. I thought… Hmm."

 

"You thought…?" Hua Cheng asks.

 

"Nothing. Nevermind," Xie Lian says, embarrassed. He sits down beside Hua Cheng, who raises his eyebrows at him. He looks down at the cat, then back up at Xie Lian.

 

"You thought the cat was—"

 

"Yes, okay, we don't need to dwell on it," Xie Lian interrupts, flapping a hand at him. Hua Cheng laughs in his face. "Look, it's just—doesn't it look like you?" he tries desperately.

 

Hua Cheng lifts the cat by the armpits so that they can look at its face. It looks a little insulted again, but not murderous. Hua Cheng tilts his head speculatively. "I see it, I suppose," he admits. "I like to think I'm a little sleeker. Less scruffy, you know. Perhaps a longer tail."

 

Xie Lian squints at him. "Are you speaking hypothetically?" he asks, just to check.

 

Hua Cheng grins with all his teeth. "Oh, no," he says. "You know I'm a shapeshifter. Are you really surprised?"

 

"No," Xie Lian says, "I guess I'm not."

 

"You wanna see?" Hua Cheng offers, wiggling his eyebrows and putting the mystery cat down.

 

"San Lang, of course I wanna see," Xie Lian tells him very sincerely. "Be a cat, be a cat!!"

 

"Well," Hua Cheng says, "If you insist," and then there's a kind of very small, very neat explosion, and then he's a cat. His cat form is big and black, which is kind of gratifying because see? Xie Lian was right to be suspicious! But he has both eyes, and they're a darker, more orangey gold than the mystery cat's eye, and his fur really is sleeker, just like he said.

 

Xie Lian, of course, loses his shit. "Ahhh!!!! San Lang!!!!!" he hoots. "San Lang, you're a cat!!!!!!!" He claps his hands in excitement.

 

"I'm aware," Hua Cheng says, amused; except he doesn't really say it, it's more like hearing him through a communication array. Xie Lian reaches out impulsively to touch his ears, and then realizes what he's doing and stops. Hua Cheng rolls his eyes, which looks kind of fucked up in his cat's face, and butts his head against Xie Lian's hand.

 

Xie Lian is charmed. He pats Hua Cheng's head awkwardly. "This is so cute I'm gonna die," he tells him. Hua Cheng laughs at him and goes to greet the mystery cat, which looks harassed, but it seems to accept his greeting. They bump noses. "San Lang," Xie Lian whispers, "Did you just kiss mystery cat? Was that a cat kiss?"

 

"No," Hua Cheng says. "That was just to say hi." He turns back to Xie Lian and jumps lightly into his lap, where he curls up, looking smug. (Or maybe cats just always look smug.) (Or maybe that's just Hua Cheng.) "This is a cat kiss," Hua Cheng says, and then he looks up at Xie Lian and blinks once, very slowly.

 

Xie Lian smiles. "That's really cute!" he decides. He touches Hua Cheng's ears again, intrigued by the soft fur at the base of them. Hua Cheng makes a quiet rumbling sound in his little cat chest, and Xie Lian realizes he's purring. "San Lang!!" he says, thrilled. "How come no one told me how cute cats are!!"

 

"Truly, it's a crime," Hua Cheng agrees. He twists in his lap so his front paws are in the air. "Well, gege, now you know," he says. Xie Lian scritches under his chin and he purrs louder.

 

"You know I don't actually have anything to ask you, right," he says after a while. Hua Cheng cracks his good eye open and the purring stops. "I mean you're welcome to stay!" Xie Lian adds hurriedly, and the purring resumes. "I just meant, if you're busy…"

 

There's another very small magical boom, and Hua Cheng is a man again, still in Xie Lian's lap. Xie Lian goes oouf at the sudden weight. Hua Cheng drapes his arms around Xie Lian's shoulders, which seem suddenly very narrow. "Gege, I'm never too busy to hang out with you," Hua Cheng declares, laying his head on Xie Lian's shoulder.

 

Xie Lian laughs and pets his hair like he's still a cat. "San Lang, you're in a strange mood today," he observes.

 

"Hmm," Hua Cheng says. "You're right. I'm feeling… chaotic. Or something."

 

"Mischievous," Xie Lian suggests.

 

"Mischievous!" Hua Cheng agrees. "Or stir-crazy. — I knew you weren't really calling me," he admits. "I just jumped at the chance to come see you." Xie Lian blushes. Hua Cheng continues easily, "I'm a little sick of being in Ghost City right now."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"Mm. I have no respect for any of those fools," Hua Cheng says. Xie Lian laughs. "What?"

 

"It's just, I knew that," Xie Lian tells him. Hua Cheng pouts at him. Xie Lian pushes aside the cheerful desire to kiss his sweet face and continues, "You're not very subtle, you know."

 

Hua Cheng grins. "I'm not," he agrees.

 

"You can stay over if you want," Xie Lian offers. Hua Cheng blinks at the non-sequitur. He clarifies, "If you're sick of Ghost City you can stay here for the night."

 

"Oh," Hua Cheng says, surprised. "Thanks. I'd like that."

 

"Anytime," Xie Lian says, and he means it. Then, "It's late. You ate, right?"

 

"Mm," Hua Cheng says. "I had just finished when I heard you."

 

"Oh, good," Xie Lian says. "I don't know what I could have offered you."

 

Hua Cheng raises his eyebrows and says lightly, "The joy of your presence is enough, gege."

 

"Uh huh," Xie Lian says doubtfully, but he lets it slide. He gives Hua Cheng's shoulders a little push and says, "Well, now that you're here you can give me a hand."

 

Hua Cheng slides off his lap obediently and says, "Oh?" He rises to his feet and offers Xie Lian his hand, which he takes.

 

"Mm," Xie Lian says, and tells him about the old paper and his plan to clean it. "... You know. In case you forgot I'm a garbage god," he finishes, feeling suddenly self-conscious.

 

Hua Cheng frowns at him. "If it's useful, it's not garbage," he says reasonably. Xie Lian snaps his fingers at him, like, You get it! "And you're not a garbage god," Hua Cheng continues, expression serious. "Don't call yourself that."

 

"I am a little bit," Xie Lian says. He gestures at his dilapidated little shrine and his bag of junk. "I mean, look at this place. Look at me."

 

"I am looking at you," Hua Cheng says. He takes each of Xie Lian's hands in his own, summons Fang Xin from its place in the corner, wraps Xie Lian's right hand around its hilt. Between his own right hand and Xie Lian's left, a white chrysanthemum grows, from seed to bud to dozens of unfurling petals. "There," Hua Cheng says quietly, stepping back. "That's you."

 

Xie Lian doesn't know what to say. After a moment he puts Fang Xin down on the table and looks thoughtfully at the flower Hua Cheng created. Then he steps forward and tucks it carefully into Hua Cheng's hair, behind his ear. Hua Cheng watches him, his expression something intense, illegible, devastating. Xie Lian steps forward again and slings his arms around his waist, rests his face against his shoulder in a mirror of how they'd been earlier. "San Lang," he says. "Thank you."

 

Hua Cheng rests his chin on the crown of Xie Lian's head and pushes his hands through his hair. "No, thank you," he corrects gently. Xie Lian makes an inquisitive sound. "You are a good god," he tells him. "The only god I've ever needed."

 

Xie Lian makes a sound and squeezes his arms around Hua Cheng's chest. He can feel him breathing; he thinks, Strange.  "Someday, I'll know why you're so good to me," he says.

 

"Is it not reason enough that you deserve goodness?" Hua Cheng asks.

 

"You know what I mean," Xie Lian tells him.

 

Hua Cheng puts a hand on the back of his head. "Mm. I do," he admits. "Someday, I'll tell you."

 

Xie Lian smiles into his chest. He doesn't need all the answers right now; he just wants to know that he'll get them eventually. He clears his throat after a moment and pulls away, straightening Hua Cheng's flower. "... Anyway," he says. "Paper."

 

"Paper," Hua Cheng agrees, and Xie Lian looks past him to see that the junk he'd collected today is already neatly laid out on the table, and the paper is spotless, clean and flat like he'd just bought it.

 

"San Lang!!" he exclaims, tugging Hua Cheng by the hand as he goes to inspect everything. "You did this just now?"

 

"Yes," Hua Cheng says, smugness radiating off him.

 

"It's perfect," Xie Lian tells him sincerely. "Thank you. That's my lunch and dinner."

 

"You know I'm loaded, right?" Hua Cheng asks him. "I could throw a feast every day if I wanted. Hell, two feasts. Three."

 

"Alright, you don't have to rub it in," Xie Lian tells him. Hua Cheng rolls his eye.

 

"Gege," he says. "I'm telling you you don't have to go hungry. I know you can't really starve, and the junk collecting isn't just survival. But if you get hungry, or cold, or lonely — you don't have to do this alone. Okay?"

 

Xie Lian blinks. "Okay," he says. He hadn't really been joking, but he didn't think Hua Cheng would take his comment about lunch and dinner so seriously. He's surprised, and a little touched. "Thank you."

 

Hua Cheng shrugs. "When I was alive, I was hungry and cold and lonely a lot," he says. "I don't want that for you."

 

Xie Lian has also spent a lot of time being hungry and cold and lonely; by now he barely even registers his own discomfort. But he likes that Hua Cheng cares. He likes a lot about Hua Cheng.

 

He tips his head backward into Hua Cheng's chest. "Hey San Lang?"

 

"Yeah?"

 

"Let's go to bed."

 

"... Yeah, okay."

Xie Lian steps away and busies himself getting ready for bed. He shoves another couple cords of firewood in the stove, sets the vents so that the fire will burn slow and cool, and rolls out the same single bamboo mat he's had this whole time. He realizes that the mystery cat disappeared at some point; probably it's fine. He turns to glance around, see if it's still in the shrine, and sees Hua Cheng has taken off his belt and red outer robe. The flower and the necklace are gone too; the silver vambraces stay. He looks so different in just his white underclothes.

 

Hua Cheng looks up from folding his robe and sees Xie Lian staring. He raises an eyebrow.

 

"You just — you look different," Xie Lian says, embarrassed. He offers Hua Cheng a bowl of clean water to wash his face and hands.

 

"I frequently look different," Hua Cheng points out, taking the bowl. "I looked like a cat earlier."

 

Xie Lian laughs and shrugs out of his own outer robes. "It's true!" he admits. "It's just that when you're a person you're usually in red, I guess."

 

"Mm," Hua Cheng agrees. He sits crosslegged on the bamboo mat and holds his chin in one hand. "I found a look that I liked and I stuck with it."

 

"It's a good look," Xie Lian says, and then he feels a little embarrassed about it, so he turns away and starts putting out the candles.

 

"Thanks, gege," Hua Cheng says, smile audible in his voice. Xie Lian extinguishes the last candle and goes to sit down next to him. After a moment Hua Cheng reaches out and takes Xie Lian's hands. "May I?" he asks.

 

Xie Lian isn't sure what exactly he's asking to do, so he says, "Sure," and Hua Cheng starts gently cleaning his hands with the water and a wet cloth. Xie Lian hadn't given him a cloth. He thinks it might be his sleeve. When his hands are clean, Hua Cheng reaches out in the dark until he finds Xie Lian's face, and he pulls the cool wet cloth across his face with gentle hands. Xie Lian closes his eyes and reminds himself that he doesn't need to breathe anyway.

 

When he's done, Hua Cheng places the bowl back on the table and lies down. "Goodnight, gege," he says quietly.

 

Xie Lian reaches up to touch his own damp face. "Night, San Lang," he says, feeling some kind of way.

 

He unties his hair and lies down too, his back to the stove, the two of them facing each other. As his vision adjusts to the dark, he can see his friend's silhouette against the blue greys of the shrine. He watches Hua Cheng with half-lidded eyes, sees his sides rise and fall with his breathing. "Hey," he says quietly, before he can stop himself.

 

"Mm?"

 

"How come you're breathing? I noticed earlier too… I thought you didn't need to breathe, like an immortal," Xie Lian says. Back in Banyue, Hua Cheng hadn't been breathing at all.

 

Hua Cheng laughs quietly. "No, I don't need to breathe," he confirms. "But I like breathing. So I do sometimes, if I'm relaxing."

 

Xie Lian props his head on one hand. "Yeah? How come?"

 

"Two main reasons," Hua Cheng says. "The first is that even if we don't suffocate, we still need air in our lungs to talk, right? I like to be ready to talk all the time. If I weren't breathing, I'd need to take time to inhale first."

 

"Huh," Xie Lian says, charmed. "That makes sense, I suppose."

 

"Mmhmm."

 

"What's the other reason?"

 

Hua Cheng hesitates. Then he admits cheerfully, "It's a little silly. Don't laugh, gege."

 

"I'd never!" Xie Lian tells him, smiling.

 

Hua Cheng rolls onto his back and steeples his fingertips together over his chest, evidently feeling a little magnificent. "The second reason is because it's very sexy," he declares.

 

Xie Lian is so surprised that he really does laugh. "Eh!" Hua Cheng says, "Gege! You said you wouldn't laugh!!"

 

"I'm sorry!" Xie Lian giggles. "I'm just surprised — how is breathing sexy?? Everybody breathes!"

 

"Ah, but that's where you're wrong — not everybody breathes! You said it yourself — we don't breathe," Hua Cheng points out.

 

"I mean… I guess," Xie Lian says. "But I still don't get it at all."

 

Hua Cheng rolls back to face him, and seems to come to a decision. "May I demonstrate?" he asks.

 

Xie Lian thinks, Uh oh. But he says, "Sure," because he hasn't had a sense of self-preservation in centuries.

 

Hua Cheng scoots over a little, and then he pushes gently at Xie Lian's shoulder. Xie Lian rolls onto his back obediently, arms above his head, and Hua Cheng moves so that he's braced on his elbows over Xie Lian. "Okay?" he checks quietly. Xie Lian nods. "Okay, so the theory is, if I'm trying to seduce you, for example," Hua Cheng starts, voice easy and casual again, "this wouldn't be very effective, right?" He hovers over Xie Lian, body still, not breathing, just looking down at him.

 

"No, probably not," Xie Lian lies, because he wants to see where this is going.

 

Hua Cheng laughs quietly at him, like maybe he can tell that Xie Lian is full of it. This close, Xie Lian can feel the exhale of Hua Cheng's laughter on his face, and he thinks, Oh, maybe he's onto something. Hua Cheng continues slowly, "But if I start to breathe—" and here he demonstrates by inhaling and exhaling obviously, "— then my whole body relaxes. And that changes how comfortable I am, which changes how comfortable you are." And it's true, Xie Lian finds; Hua Cheng's whole affect is more relaxed, and Xie Lian notices himself responding to that. Hua Cheng dips his face a little closer and says lowly, "And you can feel my breath on your face and down your throat. Touch without touch. That's good, right?"

 

Xie Lian closes his eyes and nods. Hua Cheng is right; his breath on Xie Lian's skin is soft and hot, the ghost of a touch. Their chests press together when he inhales. Xie Lian bites his lip and opens his eyes again. Hua Cheng is staring at him, expression soft.

 

"Okay?" he asks again in a murmur.

 

"Yeah," Xie Lian breathes. "Yeah, we're good."

 

Hua Cheng smiles at him. "We are, aren't we?"

 

Xie Lian inhales. Exhales. Thinks, What the hell. Hua Cheng closes his eyes and tips his face so that their foreheads press together. Xie Lian feels around blindly with his hands until he finds Hua Cheng's knuckles somewhere north of his head, and wraps his fingers around his hands. "San Lang," he breathes.

 

"I'm here," Hua Cheng says quietly. Xie Lian hums and strokes his knuckles, breathes his air, thinks about kissing him. His face is so close that they're breathing into each other's mouths, ghost kisses. Xie Lian turns his head to the side, heart pounding. "Enough?" Hua Cheng asks.

 

Xie Lian shakes his head. "I want—" he starts, but he doesn't know how to finish that sentence. Hua Cheng hums a laugh and presses his face into Xie Lian's hair, noses at his ear, his jaw. Xie Lian exhales shakily, feeling like his face is about a thousand degrees. He skims his hands up Hua Cheng's arms to his shoulders, presses him closer.

 

"Gege," Hua Cheng murmurs. "That's good."

 

Xie Lian pulls his fingertips down his back and turns his face back to Hua Cheng. "Not 'gege,'" he says breathlessly. "Like this I'm Xie Lian."

 

"Xie Lian," Hua Cheng echoes, sounding gutpunched. "Xie Lian."

 

"Mmm," Xie Lian says in approval. "San Lang. Hey, San Lang."

 

"Yeah?"

 

Xie Lian tangles one hand in his hair and says, "I want you to kiss me."

 

Hua Cheng looks at him, surprised somehow even after everything, and then he ducks his face into the space between Xie Lian's shoulder and neck and moans. Xie Lian pushes his hands down his back again and waits. A moment later, Hua Cheng says, "I can't."

 

"You can't?" Xie Lian asks, surprised.

 

"Shouldn't," Hua Cheng corrects himself into Xie Lian's throat. Xie Lian makes an inquisitive sound and pets his hair. "I shouldn't get to kiss you until I tell you why," Hua Cheng explains slowly. "And I haven't figured out how to do that yet."

 

"Someday," Xie Lian guesses, and Hua Cheng nods. He pushes himself up again to look at Xie Lian's face, and Xie Lian reaches up to tuck his hair behind his ear and says, "Okay."

 

Hua Cheng nuzzles Xie Lian's palm. "Don't get me wrong," he says after a second. "I do really, really want to kiss you."

 

Xie Lian laughs and strokes his face. "The feeling is really, really mutual," he says. "I understand. I'll be here when you're ready."

 

Hua Cheng lowers himself down so that his full weight is on Xie Lian's body, presses his forehead to Xie Lian's temple. "Xie Lian," he says. Xie Lian turns his head slightly to look at him. "Thank you."

 

"Mm," Xie Lian says, pushing his hand through his hair again. He teases, "You're special, you know. I wouldn't wait for just anyone. Just for you."

 

Hua Cheng snickers. "I'm glad." He lowers one hand from where he'd been holding himself up and strokes Xie Lian's hair thoughtfully. After a moment he adds quietly, "Me too. It's just you for me too."

 

Xie Lian feels warm all over. "Mm," he says. He draws one hand up and pushes a little at Hua Cheng's shoulder. Hua Cheng rolls off him, and he immediately follows, tucks himself into Hua Cheng's side. Hua Cheng chuckles in surprise and puts his arm around his waist.

 

"It's a good theory," Xie Lian tells him.

 

"What?" Hua Cheng asks.

 

"About breathing being sexy," Xie Lian reminds him.

 

Hua Cheng laughs out loud. "Oh! Yes, I think so," he agrees. "To tell the truth I hadn't tried it before."

 

"Oh? I'm honored," Xie Lian tells him.

 

"Yeah," Hua Cheng says. He brushes his fingertips down Xie Lian's back. "Me too."

 

Xie Lian hums contentedly and closes his eyes. "Goodnight, San Lang," he says, for the second time that night.

 

"Goodnight, Xie Lian," Hua Cheng says.



*



In the morning, Xie Lian wakes up first. At some point in the night they'd shifted so that his back is pressed against Hua Cheng's chest. Hua Cheng has an arm thrown around his waist and he's breathing softly into his hair.

 

It may be the best way Xie Lian has ever woken up. He twists in Hua Cheng's arms to push his face into his neck and hug him back. Hua Cheng makes a sleepy sound and holds him closer, tangling their legs together. Xie Lian likes him so much.

 

"Hey, San Lang," he whispers. Hua Cheng makes a quiet mm sound in his throat. It may be a coincidence. "I really like you."

 

Hua Cheng hums again. "'Really like you too," he mumbles into Xie Lian's hair. Xie Lian grins, his heart a blooming flower. He feels so full of warm delight that he has to move, so he slips out of Hua Cheng's arms and stands up to shake it out of his hands. Hua Cheng makes a disappointed sound, eyes closed still.

 

"I'm getting water for tea," Xie Lian tells him. "You stay there." Hua Cheng throws him a sleepy thumbs-up and curls into himself.

 

Xie Lian grabs his kettle and goes to the door. When he steps outside, however, the morning air is so cool and fresh that he immediately steps back inside and closes the door. He looks around for something to throw on over his under-robes; the closest thing is Hua Cheng's red tunic. He puts the kettle down and wiggles into it, amused at how much bigger it is on him than on Hua Cheng. He doesn't bother belting it, just grabs the kettle and leaves.

 

The morning sky is blue and bright, and Xie Lian notes with almost-forgotten joy that the old flagstones leading up to his shrine are laced with frost. The water in the stream is almost too cold to touch, crystalline-clear. Xie Lian takes a deep breath and splashes his face, pushes up the red sleeves of Hua Cheng's tunic to wipe his face on his own white sleeves. Then he fills the kettle and heads back to the shrine.

 

As he rounds the corner to the front, he's taken aback to see Nan Feng standing outside the shrine's open door with his sword drawn. "Nan Feng?" he calls, and Nan Feng jumps.

 

"Oh!" he says, recognizing Xie Lian. "There you are! Your highness, you shouldn't enter — there's a demon inside!"

 

Xie Lian frowns at him. "I'm aware," he says. "He stayed the night." He watches Nan Feng's face change as he registers his clothes, then Xie Lian brushes past him to enter the shrine.

 

"... but a humble devotee," Hua Cheng is saying to Fu Yao and Shi Qing Xuan, who stand above him with their backs to Xie Lian. Fu Yao also has his sword out. "I'm just here to offer my worship to the Crown Prince of Xian Le."

 

"Horseshit," Fu Yao says. "What could the Crown Prince of Xian Le possibly have to offer you?"

 

Ouch. Xie Lian frowns and steps forward. "My protection, for one," he says, and Fu Yao jumps. "Sheathe your sword, Fu Yao. Hua Cheng is my friend."

 

Fu Yao wheezes a curse and turns to face him, his hand to his chest in surprise. "Your highness!" he greets belatedly. "Seriously, he's your friend? I thought that was a mean rumor."

 

"I told you," Shi Qing Xuan says smugly. She's a woman today, her face half-hidden behind her fan.

 

"Sheathe your sword," Xie Lian repeats. "Or I'll sheathe it for you."

 

Hua Cheng raises his eyebrows. He's sitting pretty on the bamboo mat still, chin propped in one hand like he does. "Gege, so forceful," he says, impressed.

 

"Mm," Xie Lian says. "I'm the only one who gets to have a sword out in my shrine," he decides. Hua Cheng snorts a laugh. "Hi, Windmaster. Thanks for not threatening my friend."

 

Shi Qing Xuan flashes him a pretty grin. "Hi, your highness. I may have threatened him a little."

 

"She did," Hua Cheng agrees cheerfully. "But what's a little threatening among pals."

 

"Are we pals?" Shi Qing Xuan gasps, thrilled.

 

"Sure," Hua Cheng says easily. "Why not? I'm in a good mood."

 

"This is really touching," Fu Yao says. "But I have a question."

 

"Shoot," Shi Qing Xuan says.

 

"Yeah uh what the fuck," Fu Yao says.

 

"Language," Hua Cheng says. "We're in a shrine, man, come on."

 

"Fuck off, demon king," Fu Yao dismisses him, but it's mostly without venom. "Windmaster, why are we even here?"

 

"Yeah," Nan Feng agrees, stepping into the shrine behind Xie Lian. "You never said."

 

"Oh!" Shi Qing Xuan says. "That's easy. I was bored and Ming Yi's busy, so I thought, I'll go see what Xian Le's up to! I bet he's up to something interesting! And so I grabbed you two losers and came down and what do you know — I'm right!"

 

"Are you serious?" Fu Yao says.

 

"Yep," Shi Qing Xuan says. Hua Cheng goes pffft.

 

"Bye," Fu Yao says, and he really does just walk out the door.

 

"Yeah, not that I agree with Fu Yao about anything, but I'm outta here," Nan Feng says, looking irritable. "Windmaster, this is stupid, you should have just come on your own."

 

Shi Qing Xuan shrugs. "I thought I'd introduce a little excitement into your lives," she says. "You're too high strung."

 

"Are you sure you don't want to stay for tea?" Xie Lian asks, gesturing with the still-cold kettle. Hua Cheng makes grabby hands at it, so he hands it over, and Hua Cheng puts it on the stove and flips the vents to make the fire burn hotter.

 

Nan Feng squints at them. "You two are seriously friends?" he asks.

 

"Oh, very seriously friends," Hua Cheng says, schooling his expression into an exaggerated grimace.

 

"Yeah, we never joke around," Xie Lian agrees, scowling too. "Only serious business allowed here."

 

Nan Feng rolls his eyes. "Whatever. I don't care. Yeah, I'm gonna skip the tea. I have work to do, you know."

 

"Oh yeah?" Shi Qing Xuan challenges him. "Like what?"

 

"You know," he says evasively. "Stuff."

 

"Uh huh," she says, rolling her eyes. "Bye, loser. I'm gonna stay and drink tea with my cool friends."

 

"BYE," Nan Feng says, and leaves. He slams the door behind him.

 

"Rude," Hua Cheng and Xie Lian say at the same time. They look at each other and snicker.

 

"It's probably for the best that he didn't stay for tea anyway," Xie Lian remarks. "I only have the two teacups anyway. I can go without, but it would be rude to make one of you go without too."

 

"Nonsense," Hua Cheng tells him. "You and I can share."

 

"You don't mind?" Xie Lian asks.

 

"Of course not, gege," Hua Cheng says.

 

"You two are sweet," Shi Qing Xuan says. Xie Lian blushes. "What a strange pair you make."

 

"Ah, you know me," Xie Lian says, unsure what precisely she thinks the nature of their relationship is. "If I like someone, I like them."

 

"Mm," Hua Cheng says, looking at him with his eye half-closed in fondness. The kettle whistles then, and Xie Lian busies himself with preparing the tea. The three of them sit around the little table at the back of the shrine and Shi Qing Xuan produces little citrus fruits from her sleeves. Hua Cheng takes one and peels it in one long strip, and then he places the peel on Xie Lian's head. "Now you make a wish," he says.

 

"Um, okay," Xie Lian says. He's never encountered this practice, but he should probably take any chance for a wish he can get. "I wish —"

 

"Gege, you can't tell us!" Hua Cheng interrupts him. "Or else it won't come true. Aiya, who taught you how to make wishes!"

 

"Eh, maybe that's been my problem for so long," Xie Lian mutters. Hua Cheng laughs at him. He closes his eyes. I wish… I wish… What do I wish? "I can't think of anything to wish for," he admits after a moment, opening his eyes. "I have everything I want."

 

"Hm," Hua Cheng says, sounding pleased. He reaches behind Xie Lian's back to tug on his hair where Shi Qing Xuan can't see.

 

"I always wish for luck in love," she suggests cheerfully. Xie Lian blushes and clears his throat and doesn't say anything.

 

"I have an idea," Hua Cheng says. "Wish for a slice of fruit."

 

Xie Lian smiles at him. "Okay," he says, and closes his eyes.

 

"Put your hand out."

 

"Okay."

 

Hua Cheng puts a slice of fruit in his palm and closes his fingers over it. "Okay, you can open your eyes now."

 

"Wow!" Xie Lian says. "My wish came true!"

 

"It's a miracle," Hua Cheng tells him.

 

"My luck really is turning around," Xie Lian says, popping the citrus into his mouth. Hua Cheng laughs a little.

 

"So did you two fuck or what?" Shi Qing Xuan asks. Xie Lian chokes. Hua Cheng pats his back. "Because I thought your cultivational practice was all about abstinence."

 

"Nooo," Xie Lian wheezes. "I mean, yes, it is, and no, we didn't — not that it's any of your business."

 

"Hmm," she says. "It's not, I just have eyes."

 

"Don't be fucking rude," Hua Cheng tells her, gesturing at his eyepatch. Xie Lian chokes again. Shi Qing Xuan laughs, delighted.

 

"San Lang, oh, my god," he says. Hua Cheng grins.

 

"I'm just saying," he says. He sips his tea, then offers it to Xie Lian. "I'm right here."

 

"Pffft," Xie Lian says. He takes the tea. It's the perfect temperature.

 

The three of them chat until the tea is gone. It's early enough still that normal people haven't started stopping by the shrine yet, thank goodness. At last Hua Cheng claps his hands together and says, "Ah, I should probably get going. I have, you know, responsibilities, I suppose. Gambling to oversee. Morons to punish."

 

Shi Qing Xuan laughs again. "You're a cool guy, Crimson Rain Seeks Flower," she decides. "It was nice to hang out with you with minimal fighting."

 

"Yeah, you too, Windmaster," Hua Cheng agrees. He reaches over to shake her hand. "I'd say any friend of gege's is a friend of mine, but he's so friendly and I'm a huge bastard, so."

 

"Eh! You're not!" Xie Lian protests. At Hua Cheng's raised eyebrow, he elaborates, "You're more like a medium bastard."

 

Hua Cheng laughs. "Alright, I'll take it. Thanks for having me over, gege."

 

"Mm," Xie Lian says. They stand up together. "Thanks for coming."

 

"Anytime," Hua Cheng tells him seriously.

 

There's a moment of hesitation, where Xie Lian doesn't know how to say goodbye to him. Not a kiss, but — something? A hug? He notices that Shi Qing Xuan is very pointedly deeply absorbed in peeling another citrus.

 

Hua Cheng takes Xie Lian's hands in his own. "Gege," he says. "I have a very important question."

 

"San Lang," Xie Lian says.

 

"Can I have my tunic back?" he asks.

 

"OH," Xie Lian says.

 

"Not that it's not a good look on you—" Hua Cheng continues, laughing, as Xie Lian thunks his head into his chest in embarrassment, "—because it is, you're very cute, you should wear my clothes more often, but I do have an image to uphold, you know."

 

"Yeah, okay," Xie Lian says pathetically. He pulls away and wriggles out of the tunic. "Since you insist."

 

"I'm afraid I must," Hua Cheng says, taking it from him. He pulls it on over his head and lets Xie Lian fix his hair afterwards as he summons his belts over and straps them on. He presents Xie Lian with his butterfly necklace and dips his head as Xie Lian stands on his tiptoes to place it around his neck. Then he tucks the chrysanthemum into Xie Lian's hair. They look at each other.

 

Xie Lian hears a rattling sound, and realizes E-Ming is shuddering in its scabbard.

 

"Eh! E-Ming was here this whole time!" he says in surprise. "And I was just ignoring it! Sorry E-Ming," he tells the sword, giving it a pet on the hilt. E-Ming's eye rolls and it stops shuddering, evidently appeased.

 

"Ah, it can deal," Hua Cheng says. "You'll spoil it."

 

"E-Ming!" Shi Qing Xuan says, suddenly interested again. She twists to look. "That's your sword, right? Can I take a look?"

 

"Hmm," Hua Cheng says, putting his hand over Xie Lian's on the hilt. "I don't know that you can, actually. We're pals, Windmaster, but I don't trust you."

 

Xie Lian is worried that that might offend her, but Shi Qing Xuan just shrugs amicably and says, "That's fair." She turns back around to her fruit and waves a hand at them. "Okay, you can go back to your romantic goodbyes. I'm not paying attention anymore."

 

Hua Cheng snorts and lets himself be led to the door. At the doorway Xie Lian can't think of anything else to do, so he pulls him into a hug, which earns him a pleased hum. Hua Cheng pets his hair, rests his cheek on the crown of his head. They breathe together for a long quiet moment. Then Xie Lian realizes what he wants to do, and pulls away a little to make eye contact.

 

He blinks once, slowly.

 

Hua Cheng's mouth drops open a little in surprise and an actual, real blush creeps over his cheeks. He seems genuinely flustered, but he blinks slowly back. Xie Lian says, "Hm!" in satisfaction.

 

"You're cute," Hua Cheng mumbles, stepping away. "See you later, gege."

 

"See you later, San Lang," Xie Lian says. He leans against the doorframe and watches Hua Cheng leave. When he seems to think he's out of sight, Hua Cheng does a kind of extremely cute full-body wriggle, evidently in excitement. Xie Lian laughs to himself and turns back inside.

 

Shi Qing Xuan is sitting sideways at the table, watching him with an expression of amusement on her face. "You got it pretty bad, huh?" she asks.

 

"Yeah," Xie Lian admits. "I kinda do."

 

"You wanna tell me about it?" she offers, patting the table across from him.

 

Xie Lian thinks about it. "You know what?" he decides. "I think I would."