Xie Lian mused, “No wonder General Pei looked like that when he saw that sword.”
"Mm," Hua Cheng agrees. "How humiliating for him to be sincerely offered a sword that was the source of such embarrassment."
"Mm," Xie Lian says. Of course it's humiliating, but he thinks privately that perhaps most people could stand to be a little less prideful. If he really needed, he would be happy to use just about any tool. After all, he has RuoYe.
The pair of them lapse into silence for a while. Xie Lian watches clouds scudding across the sky and lets his mind wander, thinks aimlessly about RuoYe and E-Ming, how the pair of them come from such tragic origins but are so friendly and helpful now.
"Ge ge," Hua Cheng says at last, "I'm sure your hair is dirty from being eaten by the mountain spirit. Let me comb it out for you?"
Xie Lian feels blindly at his hair. It really is dirty, all tangled and full of dust. He looks over at Hua Cheng, already smiling. "Okay," he agrees. "Thank you, San Lang."
"Anytime," Hua Cheng says lightly, as he sits up and slides off his hammock. Xie Lian sits up too and braces himself against the cloth wall of his own hammock as Hua Cheng joins him; it takes some careful maneuvering, but they manage to settle against each other without flipping the whole thing, which Xie Lian is pretty proud of. He ends up with his back to Hua Cheng, who has one leg pulled up close to his body and the other extended next to Xie Lian. He loops one arm around Hua Cheng's bony knee to keep them steady. Hua Cheng presses it closer for a brief second, silent approval.
Then his hands are at Xie Lian's messy bun, carefully pulling his hairpin out and untying the ribbon. Xie Lian reaches back to hold both items while Hua Cheng does his magic, and each one is pressed into his hands as his hair falls into his face. "Ge ge's hair is so long," Hua Cheng says absently. Xie Lian can feel his hands at his back as he runs them down the length of his hair.
"Mm," he agrees. "I'm sure it must have stopped growing at some point, but I'm not certain that it was when I ascended."
"Hm," Hua Cheng says. "I think mine must have stopped growing when I died."
Xie Lian makes a sound of understanding and pulls Hua Cheng's knee closer. He knows, has known, that of course Hua Cheng died; he's dead now, obviously. But he's been very careful not to think about the circumstances of such an event. He doesn't want to think about whatever life and death his friend must have had, to come back as such a powerful ghost.
Hua Cheng starts detangling Xie Lian's hair, starting from the bottom right and working his way up. Xie Lian quickly zones out again, lost in the soft rhythmic tugging at his scalp and the comfortable safe feeling of being tucked so close to Hua Cheng. After a while he starts slumping over in his relaxation, so he tilts himself so he can hug Hua Cheng's knee. It's at the perfect height for him to rest his cheek on. Hua Cheng strokes his hair from his temple to the nape of his neck in response.
"This might be the most relaxed I've ever been while someone combs my hair," Xie Lian admits sleepily.
"Oh?" Hua Cheng prompts.
"Mmhmm. When I was a little kid I used to throw the worst fits whenever my hair needed combing. Everyone always yanked too hard and it made me cry," Xie Lian admits.
"Poor ge ge!" Hua Cheng sympathizes. "I promise I'll be gentle."
Xie Lian laughs and pats his knee. "Thanks, San Lang," he says. "But it's been a while since little things like yanked hair bothered me."
"Still," Hua Cheng insists. "I'll be gentle. You deserve to have people be gentle with you."
Xie Lian hums. He isn't sure about that one, but he's so comfortable that he'll let it slide. He lets Hua Cheng finish combing out his hair, and then he lets him put it into some sort of elaborate series of braids. "This way it won't get dirty as fast," Hua Cheng explains, giving the central braid a pat. "Plus it'll stay out of your face."
"Thank you," Xie Lian says again. Then, because he's comfortable and sleepy and feeling very fond of Hua Cheng, he tips back into Hua Cheng's chest and looks up at him. "Let me do you next?" he asks.
Hua Cheng stares down at him for a beat, and then he clears his throat once, then again, and then he says, "Yeah, sure, if Dianxia wants."
"Of course I want," Xie Lian tells him logically. "San Lang combed my hair so I should comb his. And anyway we were both eaten by the mountain spirit, so your hair is probably dirty too."
"Ge ge is right as always," Hua Cheng says. Xie Lian grins up at him, and Hua Cheng smiles down in return, his handsome face distorted humorously by the angle. Xie Lian wants so badly to kiss him.
Instead he sits up and scoots himself forward, and the two of them begin the fraught process of turning two people around in a hammock without making it flip. Again; success, although it's probably due more to Hua Cheng's preternatural luck than any real skill. Xie Lian settles in a mirror of how Hua Cheng had been posed, with one leg close to himself and one pressed into Hua Cheng's skinny side. He looks at Hua Cheng's hair and finds that it really is dirty; it's less shiny than usual, and there's the occasional twig twisted into the silky black strands. Hua Cheng hands him his comb, delicate and bone-white. Mother-of-pearl lilies and pink agate peonies decorate the spine of it.
"San Lang, this is beautiful!" Xie Lian enthuses, tilting it in the sun to make the mother-of-pearl flash.
"If ge ge likes it, he can have it," Hua Cheng offers.
"Oh -- that's very kind, but I couldn't possibly," Xie Lian protests, sinking the teeth of the comb into the ends of Hua Cheng's fine dark hair. "I can't have such pretty things, I'll just lose it or break it or something."
"Then you lose it or break it," Hua Cheng says amiably. "I can give you another."
"Ah, Lord Chengzhu is so wealthy," Xie Lian teases him. "Lord Chengzhu has to give jewelry away or he'll simply drown in it."
"San Lang wants to give ge ge the things he wants," Hua Cheng corrects him.
That shuts Xie Lian up. He focuses on drawing the comb through Hua Cheng's hair, long strokes that catch the dirt and make a curtain of the clean hair as it falls back to Hua Cheng's broad shoulders. When he's about halfway through he says, "Remember that first day at Puji Shrine, San Lang?"
"Mmhm," Hua Cheng says. Xie Lian is pleased to note that the hair combing seems to be having the same cozily soporific effect on him as it had on Xie Lian.
"I thought for sure you were a ghost so I kept coming up with little tricks to check you," Xie Lian remembers. "Reading your palm and things. And then I tried to fix your ponytail to see if your hair was real."
"Right," Hua Cheng says, amusement evident in his voice. "And you made it way more lopsided than it had been."
"It hadn't been lopsided at all," Xie Lian admits, and Hua Cheng laughs. "I felt pretty dumb after that."
"No, ge ge is so smart," Hua Cheng protests. "If only I were less powerful, any one of those tricks would have worked."
"Yes," Xie Lian agrees. "But I'd rather feel a little dumb and have you the way you are than feel really smart and not be sure you're safe."
He lifts the comb from Hua Cheng's hair and goes to start another stroke beginning at the crown of Hua Cheng's head. The comb only travels an inch into the new stroke when Hua Cheng makes a rumbling sound in his chest that makes Xie Lian stop immediately.
"San Lang??" he asks. "Is something wrong? Am I hurting you?"
The sound stops as Hua Cheng puts a hand to his own chest in surprise. "No," he says honestly, "You're not, I'm fine -- I don't know what just happened."
Xie Lian frowns. "Maybe you're hungry?" he tries.
"Maybe," Hua Cheng says doubtfully. He shakes his head and relaxes his shoulders again. "Whatever, I'm sure it's fine."
"Hmm," Xie Lian says. He starts combing again.
This time he gets away with almost a minute before the rumbling starts back up again. He stops again and says, "San Lang, are you… growling at me?"
The rumbling cuts out immediately. "No!!" Hua Cheng says. "No, I would never!! I don't know what's going on."
Xie Lian frowns again. "Let me check your qi?" he asks. Hua Cheng turns around carefully to offer his wrists for inspection, his eyebrows creased in confusion. It's always strange to feel Hua Cheng's qi; his spiritual powers are so strong, but since he's dead and has no pulse, they tend to flow more slowly through his body than a living person's might. Right now the flow of his qi indicates that nothing at all is wrong; it's moving smooth and clear through his meridians, like it should if he's really relaxing. Xie Lian looks at his face, his posture. "San Lang, how do you feel right now?"
Hua Cheng looks back at him. "I feel fine," he says, puzzled. "I feel -- good, actually."
"Hmmm," Xie Lian says, as a theory forms nebulously in his mind. He picks up the comb again and pulls it slow and gentle through the hair at Hua Cheng's temple. It takes a couple strokes, but sure enough, Hua Cheng's eye slides half-closed in pleasure and the rumbling starts again. This time Xie Lian doesn't stop, just keeps running the comb through his hair.
"San Lang," he says, still combing his hair.
"Mmm," Hua Cheng says through the rumbling.
"I think you're purring," Xie Lian tells him.
Hua Cheng's eye opens and he raises his eyebrows skeptically. "Ge ge, no offense, but that's preposte--"
Xie Lian reaches up with his free hand and drags his fingers through Hua Cheng's hair, and Hua Cheng interrupts himself with a purr so loud he can't speak anymore. Xie Lian laughs in delight and drops the comb in favor of slipping both hands into Hua Cheng's soft cool hair. "Face it, San Lang, you're purring," he says.
Hua Cheng looks at him pathetically, but he doesn't pull away. "I don't purr," he says, garbled over his own purring. "I've never purred. Why should I purr? I'm not a cat demon."
"Maybe Mount Tonglu is affecting you," Xie Lian suggests. "Doing something to your ghostishness. Do you remember anything like this happening the last time you were here?"
"No," Hua Cheng says. "But the last time I was here I was alone and scared and a lot of the time I was so angry I could barely think. So. Probably less purring going on."
Xie Lian looks at him, startled by his honesty. Hua Cheng avoids his gaze, evidently embarrassed. Xie Lian wants to kiss him all over, but again he ignores it. Instead he pulls Hua Cheng into a clumsy embrace; both of them are twisted uncomfortably to face each other in the hammock, and Hua Cheng ends up with his face kind of pressed into Xie Lian's chest because of the distance, but his arms come up immediately to hug Xie Lian back and his purring gets louder, so probably he's fine.
"Ge ge," Hua Cheng says into his chest.
"San Lang also deserves to be treated gently," Xie Lian tells him, dragging his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry that you were alone for so long."
Hua Cheng makes a sound that Xie Lian isn't sure how to categorize. "Ge ge," he says again. "Isn't it scary? Or weird?"
"What, being alone? Sometimes it's scary," Xie Lian says. "I don't think it's weird, though."
"No, I meant the purring," Hua Cheng says.
"Oh! No, it's not scary or weird at all!" Xie Lian says. "It's cute, San Lang, it's like you're a big cat."
Hua Cheng chokes a laugh over a pleased rumble. It's louder with his mouth open.
"I find it a little hard to read you sometimes," Xie Lian admits, brushing his fingers through his hair again. "So it's nice to know you're enjoying yourself."
"Of course I'm enjoying myself," Hua Cheng says lightly. "I'm so clingy, I'm so happy when ge ge holds me."
Xie Lian laughs, his cheeks warming. "Come here then," he says bravely, giving Hua Cheng's bony shoulders a tug.
Hua Cheng hums and shifts in his embrace, eases his long legs out from underneath himself so he can push closer. The two of them wriggle around until they're comfortable, wrapped around each other with Hua Cheng's face tucked into Xie Lian's throat. His purring is so loud up close like this, and with their chests pressed together Xie Lian can actually feel his chest vibrating. He's so comfortable.
"If I could purr," he mumbles, "I would be purring right now."
Hua Cheng laughs breathlessly and holds him tighter, twists his hands into Xie Lian's hair. He takes a deep breath and then purrs comically loud, like: I'll purr enough for both of us! Xie Lian laughs and squeezes him, rocks him back and forth in delight.
"So cute," he says, "San Lang is so cute like this."
"I'm always cute," Hua Cheng sniffs as he liquefies in Xie Lian's arms.
Xie Lian laughs again and presses a kiss to his forehead before it occurs to him not to. Hua Cheng purrs louder again. "So this is all it takes to defeat the mighty Ghost King Crimson Rain Sought Flower, huh," Xie Lian teases him. "You just have to pet his hair a little and tell him he's cute and he turns into a ragdoll."
"No bones San Lang," Hua Cheng agrees sleepily. Xie Lian kisses his hair. Hua Cheng lifts his face and presses his own sleepy kiss to Xie Lian's jaw, and then another to his cheek, a third to his forehead. Xie Lian's breath catches in his chest. He pushes his fingers into Hua Cheng's soft hair and pulls his head closer so he can kiss Hua Cheng's cheekbone, his chin, his eyebrow just over his eyepatch. When he pulls away Hua Cheng slumps back against his chest, his head on Xie Lian's shoulder, staring at Xie Lian with one rapidly-tearing-up eye.
"San Lang??" Xie Lian says. Oh, god, they shouldn't have done that -- has he ruined everything? "I'm sorry, am I making you uncomfortable? I'm so sorry, please don't cry, I'll stop!!"
"No!" Hua Cheng says at once, "No, please -- don't stop, I'm not upset," although a tear falls from his pretty eye just then. "Listen, I'm still purring," he says wetly, and it's true, he's purring like thunder, he's just also crying.
"San Lang, I don't think I understand," Xie Lian tells him.
"Me neither," Hua Cheng laughs. "I'm happy, ge ge, please believe me, I'm so happy I don't know what to do with myself. That's why I'm crying."
Xie Lian reaches down to brush his tears away. Hua Cheng's eye slides closed. "You really aren't upset?" Xie Lian checks.
"I'm really not upset," Hua Cheng confirms. "I'm just… I'm never this happy. It's strange."
Xie Lian turns his head to kiss his temple. Hua Cheng makes a sound like ah. "When I'm full of feeling I like to rock," Xie Lian suggests slowly. "And hum, and shake my hands." He frees one hand from its place in Hua Cheng's hair and wags it in the air to demonstrate. "And I like to be held!" he adds.
"Hm!" Hua Cheng says, smiling at Xie Lian's hand above them. He pushes his face into Xie Lian's throat again and squeezes Xie Lian's body tight. Xie Lian squeezes him back and wiggles a little, rocking them back and forth in the hammock. "You're so smart, ge ge," Hua Cheng says into his hair, "that does feel good."
"It does!!" Xie Lian agrees, squeezing him again. The pressure on Hua Cheng's chest makes him purr louder, which is so cute that of course Xie Lian has to kiss his hair again. Hua Cheng leans up and kisses him back, a dozen little joyful dry kisses all over his face. Xie Lian grins up at him, thrilled and comfortable and in love. "San Lang, you make me really happy," he whispers.
"Ge ge," Hua Cheng says breathlessly, pressing their foreheads together. "Ge ge, I want to kiss you," he presses a kiss vibrating with the force of his purring to Xie Lian's cheek, "all the time," his chin, "I like you so much," his ear (!), "you make me so happy," his eyelid.
Xie Lian sighs happily, twists his fingers into Hua Cheng's hair. Realization makes his heart beat hard in his chest. Just to check, he asks, "And how does San Lang's beloved feel about this?"
Hua Cheng ducks closer and sucks a cool wet kiss to the soft skin under his ear. It makes him shiver and knead at Hua Cheng's shoulders, his neck. "I don't know," Hua Cheng murmurs, "how does he feel?"
Xie Lian smiles up at the sky, squeezes his thighs around Hua Cheng's skinny legs. "He feels really, really good," he says. "So good. He wants San Lang to kiss him all the time too. San Lang is his fourth person, his most trusted friend, you know."
Hua Cheng moans softly, presses his tongue to Xie Lian's throat. Xie Lian pulls him impossibly closer, drags his fingers down Hua Cheng's vibrating back.
"San Lang," he whispers, "My San Lang, come kiss me," and Hua Cheng raises his head and does what he's told.