Hua Cheng was pacing through Paradise Manor, very agitated. His footsteps echoed through the halls, the clicking of his heels amplified by the high ceilings and vast stretches of empty corridor. The feared king of Ghost City, known for his cunning and power, yielding to no one, who had looked even Death in the eye three times and came out victorious, has finally encountered a problem he felt he would break his teeth on.
His husband’s birthday was coming up in seven months. He was absolutely stumped.
Not for lack of ideas! If it were up to him, he would give the whole world to his love on a silver platter and never hesitate for a single moment. No treasure too rare, if his husband said the word, he would stop at nothing to procure it. Exotic swords, the loveliest robes, art and instruments and music, magical artifacts - if Xie Lian wished for it, Hua Cheng would stop at nothing to fulfill his wishes.
But therein lay precisely the problem.
Upon gentle inquiry, Xie Lian declared himself perfectly content, and the only thing in the world he had need for was his San Lang. His eyes were dark and shining, and he reached out to take Hua Cheng’s cold hand into his warm, calloused one, raising it to his lips to press a gentle kiss to those forever-scarred knuckles.
“As long as San Lang is with me, this one is content.”
It had made his heart feel too big for his chest, made him feel like he could weep for the overwhelming, all-encompassing love he felt, buoyant and sparkling and lighting him up from the inside out, a summer’s breeze blowing through his soul. But, to his great consternation, it was also supremely unhelpful.
How do you give a present to someone who declared himself to want for nothing?
Heeding his wishes and simply giving him nothing at all did not seem like a feasible option. Not after Xie Lian had gone to such lengths for Hua Cheng’s own birthday the year prior.
The embroidered belt ranked among Hua Cheng’s most prized possessions - and that wasn’t even mentioning the destroyed locket his Prince had originally intended to bestow upon him. Just remembering the pain his beloved had endured, for him, made him grind his teeth and clench his fists tightly. But neither would mindlessly heaping gold upon his beloved do. No, there had to be intent behind it all.
Stopping in his mad pacing, Hua Cheng made up his mind. He had seven months left to find something that would make his husband happy, and he would find it. No matter what it takes, there must be some suitable offering that would bring joy to his beloved.
Several months later, midnight was approaching and Xie Lian’s birthday was only a few hours away. Hua Cheng was more nervous than he could hardly remember ever being. The gifts he found and later discarded as simply not good enough piled up in an unused room of his manor, while the streets of Ghost City were being readied for a big celebration. Ribbons were hung and flower petals scattered, the citizens of the realm rejoicing with delight and true affection for their Lord’s spouse.
Hua Cheng waded through the overflowing room, picking up priceless treasures and discarding them like trash, exceedingly disrespectful. There had to be something, anything, to show his devotion in a clear, heartfelt, tangible manner.
This was how Xie Lian found him, slipping through the door, almost silently if not for the soft rustle of his flowing robes. He stepped close to Hua Cheng, who had just straightened up after digging through a pile of exquisitely woven wall coverings, wound his arms around his torso and, standing on his tiptoes, propped his head up on his shoulder. Xie Lian’s hair was tickling his husband’s cheek, as they both regarded the horde of treasure, one morosely, the other with gentle interest. Xie Lian made a humming sound. “These look to have taken a while to collect”, he said delicately. “Are you updating Paradise Manor’s collection?”
Hua Cheng tensed in his arms for a second, then went limp. “Ah, Gege should not tease this poor San Lang so,” he lamented. “Gege is smart, he knows full well what this is.” Xie Lian hummed again. “Truly, gifts fit for royalty,'' he remarked. Shifting his head so he could glance at his husbands profile he added, “And yet, as I have told you, the greatest treasure I could imagine is not made from fine metal or expensive silk at all”.
Turning in his love’s arms, Hua Cheng finally returned the embrace. “I know it’s what you said,'' he replied, “and you know that this servant trusts his Dianxia’s words above all. And yet, I still...”
Xie Lian reached up, and cupped his cheek, applying gentle pressure so he would look into Xie Lian’s eyes. “This Lord Chengzhu, he is the most devoted believer of the Flower Crowned Martial God of Xian Le. He has spent his life giving to his God - has given prayers, offerings, even-” he laughed, “even a truly ludicrous amount of lanterns.”
Hua Cheng was about to interrupt - surely, 3000 lanterns did not qualify as ludicrous quite yet- but Xie Lian robbed him of his speech with a quick kiss.
“But,” he said, “San Lang, the husband of Xie Lian… this one, it is alright if he does not offer riches and wonders. Just being San Lang is enough. Just being San Lang is more than enough.“
Hua Cheng stayed still for a moment, then disengaged from their embrace, Xie Lian’s hands still hanging in the air. He took brisk steps towards the pile of gifts and rummaged until he emerged, clutching a scroll in his hands, expression complicated. Returning to Xie Lian’s side, he wordlessly offered it to him.
With a look at his husband, Xie Lian opened the scroll. There was a poem on it, the characters truly crooked and not at all beautiful. But, considering the one who had apparently penned it, it was almost immediately legible - for this masterful feat, it must have taken his husband weeks and weeks of copying the same words over and over.
I want to be your love forever,
Without breaks or decay.
When the hills are all flat,
When the rivers are all dry,
When it thunders in winter,
When it snows in summer,
When heaven and earth combine,
Not till then will I part from you!
Hua Cheng’s visible eye was darting here and there, clearly agitated, not daring to look at his husband’s reaction. It was hardly a princely gift, a poem written in terrible penmanship, really quite silly, and he did not want to see his beloved try to hide his disappointment. The poem was earnest and written straight from his heart, but he had never received a formal education in the arts, and everything he knew, he taught himself, his taste unrefined.
He should know his husband better by now.
“San Lang”, came a soft call.
“Yes, Taizi Dianxia”, he murmured, reverting back to honorifics and titles.
Still not looking up, he heard the rustle of the scroll being set down and then felt his face being framed by a pair of hands once again, small yet strong. Dry lips pressed a whisper of a kiss to his cheek. “My dear San Lan, my sweet, sweet love”, Xie Lian said, voice lilting. Another kiss was dropped to his face, this time to the bridge of his nose. “I adore you,” another one to his chin, “I cherish you,” a kiss to his brow, “I love you,” a lingering press of lips to his eyepatch.
Hua Cheng bowed his head, hands grasping Xie Lian’s hips. Breath shuddering out of him, he replied “And I, you” in a voice so gentle, if anyone else heard him they would not believe a ghost this powerful to be capable of such tenderness.
He dipped down, their lips meeting softly and unhurried, a gentle caress without urgency that suffused Hua Cheng's being with such warmth and peace that he could not for the life of him say how he existed for over 800 years without it.
“Happy birthday, my love”.