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Shi Qingxuan topples forward in an exaggerated salute, showing off the elegant line of her shoulders and her billowing, voluminous sleeves. The fan between her hands sways with the motion. Hua Cheng briefly considers snapping it in half, but something far more important is currently shifting from side-to-side, looking sheepish as he glances about the room.

“Special delivery for Hua Chengzhu,” Shi Qingxuan sing-songs.

Xie Lian waves from behind her, adorably embarrassed. “Hi, San Lang. Sorry to impose, I know you’re busy.”

“Hardly.” Hua Cheng bows to Xie Lian, pointedly ignoring the human hurricane in front of him. “A visit from gege could only be a gift, never an imposition.”

To tell the truth, he hasn’t seen Xie Lian for nearly two weeks now, both of them busy with their respective duties. He was just preparing to spend another night alone, taking out his mood on whichever idiot was stupid enough to annoy him. Ghost City’s gamblers have been losing life and limb lately.

Shi Qingxuan gathers herself closer, eyeing him beadily.

“You’ve been too chicken to go see him, haven’t you?”

Hua Cheng does not look at where Xie Lian is inspecting the writing desk, flipping through the papers with a graceful hand.

“Two lovers, separated and yet yearning for each other…both too shy to make the first move…” Shi Qingxuan continues on, in a world of her own. “It makes sense when it’s Xian Le, I mean, he’s so repressed he might as well be a monk, but what the fuck is wrong with you? You’re the ghost king! The terror of the heavens! Go make out with him already!”

Hua Cheng flattens her with a look. "Are you funny."

Shi Qingxuan squints back at him, having absolutely none of it. "Why, yes. I'm hilarious, just ask your dianxia."

Right on cue, Xie Lian floats over from the desk to stand beside Hua Cheng. "San Lang, your calligraphy is improving," he says warmly. "Have you been practicing?"

Before Hua Cheng can fully bask in the approval and humbly answer that yes, he has been practicing diligently as gege instructed, Shi Qingxuan—rudely!—interrupts. "Xian Le, am I funny?" she demands. "Tell Crimson Rain Seeks Flower here that I'm funnier than him."

Xie Lian blinks—cutely!—and answers, "Windmaster is very funny to those who find humour in shamelessness."

“Gege!” Hua Cheng is delighted. “That was mean.”

“No,” Xie Lian corrects him, “it was sincere.”

Shi Qingxuan sniffs. “I get it. I bring Xian Le all the way out here so you two mooning lovers can get your act together, and all you do is team up on me.”

“Lovers?” Xie Lian echoes.

“Mooning?” Hua Cheng repeats.

“Yeah, you heard me,” Shi Qingxuan waggles her fan at them. “So, Hua Cheng, what do I get for bringing you your favourite person? That’s how these things work, right?”

“Oh?” Hua Cheng raises an eyebrow. “I was under the impression that dianxia was the one who brought you here, not the other way around. Otherwise you’d be dead by now.”

“San Lang,” exclaims Xie Lian, “I’m your favourite person?”

Hua Cheng’s eyebrow shoots higher.

“Gege,” he gestures around the room, “I actually like, like, a grand total of five people. Naturally you’re my favourite.”

Xie Lian beams. “You’re my favourite person too!”

“Oi,” Shi Qingxuan interjects, “what am I, thin air?”

“Do you want to be?” Hua Cheng doesn’t even look at her. “I could arrange that.”

She huffs. “Whatever, I can take a hint. I’m leaving before you two start macking. Thanks for not killing me, I guess.”

“Anytime.”

Xie Lian waves. He’s respectful enough to turn to her when he does it, which Hua Cheng personally feels is showing her a great deal of face already. “Don’t be a stranger!”

Once Shi Qingxuan sashays off, hair swaying dramatically in a breeze that comes out of nowhere, Xie Lian turns to Hua Cheng and grimaces apologetically.

“I’m really sorry, San Lang, Lady Windmaster just kind of showed up and made me bring her here. I know you’re probably busy with all sorts of things…”

“No, gege, it’s okay, I’m glad you’re here,” Hua Cheng hurries to correct him. “I’m never too busy to see you.”

“Oh!” Xie Lian’s mouth curves up even more—Hua Cheng wants to kiss it—and he brightens, stepping forward to put his arms around Hua Cheng’s neck. “I’m glad to be here,” he says, voice muffled in hair. “I missed you, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng carefully fits his arms around Xie Lian, feeling the shift of lithe muscle under soft skin and simple clothes. He’s not wearing his hat today, so Hua Cheng is able to lower a kiss to his browbone.

“I missed you too.” He pulls back, but stops when Xie Lian makes a small, discontent noise.

“It’s dinnertime, gege.”

“Mm. Yes,” Xie Lian says, though neither of them make a move to disentangle themselves.

They stand like that for a while. At last, Hua Cheng clears his throat. His desire to stay in this position is warring with his conscience about letting Xie Lian go unfed. “I can have the kitchens make us some food. You’re welcome to stay the night if you want.”

“Mm,” again. “That’s a good idea. I’m not hungry, though, San Lang. Are you?”

“…No.” Hua Cheng valiantly holds back all the innuendoes that spring into his mind. His skin is warming all down his front where they meet. “I’m not either.”

“Mm,” Xie Lian says for the third time, and starts walking forwards, pushing Hua Cheng back with his face still buried in his shoulder. Hua Cheng is so distracted by how warm Xie Lian is in his arms, he doesn’t realise they’ve come all the way to the bedroom until the backs of his knees hit the bed.

The knowledge that Xie Lian can walk to his bedroom without needing to look does something funny to Hua Cheng’s thought processes.

Xie Lian presses his body downwards, and Hua Cheng goes willingly, falling backwards onto the sheets.

“Sleep now,” Xie Lian mutters pushily, his voice already taking on a drowsy lilt. “Eat later.”

It’s very difficult to arrange the covers over a cuddly martial god, but Hua Cheng isn’t complaining.

-

When Hua Cheng wakes, his mouth is pleasantly fuzzy and Xie Lian is still curled around him like a cat. A quick peek at the windows reveals that darkness has already fallen outside, but he makes no move to get out of bed. It’s criminally comfortable, to be tangled together in the sheets with Xie Lian’s pillow-creased cheek heavy on his chest.

Hua Cheng blinks at the ceiling. Maybe this is too lucky, even for him.

On his chest, Xie Lian is already stirring, roused by Hua Cheng’s own awakening. His eyes open, lashes sticking together for an endearing moment, and grow round as he realises their situation.

“Oh, no. San Lang, I’m so sorry! We didn’t even get to eat…”

“It’s okay, gege,” Hua Cheng soothes, freeing his hands to run them through Xie Lian’s hair. “You’re acting as if you falling asleep on me isn’t literally a dream come true.”

Xie Lian reddens, and Hua Cheng tracks the movement of the flush across his face.

“I’ve just been out of my mind lately. I’m so tired from answering prayers all day long, I was actually about to sleep when Windmaster arrived…”

Despite Xie Lian’s hasty apologies, he doesn’t move from atop Hua Cheng. Emboldened, Hua Cheng suggests:

“Why don’t you make it up to me? I’ll ditch the gambling halls. Stay here tonight and we’ll eat dinner in bed.”

He has a split second to wonder if he’d been too daring, when Xie Lian looks up at him, wide-eyed.

“I’ve never had a meal in bed before. If it’s not too much trouble, can we try it?”

Hua Cheng turns on his most persuasive puppy-dog look. Possibly he can push his luck a little more…

“Will gege feed me, then?”

-

“Here, eat this, it’s tasty.” Still covered in the bedsheets from the waist down, Xie Lian manœuvres his chopsticks around some meat and piles it high in Hua Cheng’s bowl. Between them, several dishes are balanced precariously on a short table: sweet soup, lamb and onion, spicy chicken with peanuts and peppers…

It’s undeniable that Hua Cheng really knows how to live! Xie Lian makes to pick up some vegetables, but pauses when a slender hand plops a round, translucent white fruit into his bowl.

When he looks up, Hua Cheng is peeling a lychee all in one go, but his eye is fixed on Xie Lian. It’s honestly quite an impressive feat of skill.

“Lost in my gaze, gege?” Hua Cheng smirks, fingers pausing on his second lychee.

“Yes,” Xie Lian answers without thinking, and flushes wildly as he realises what he’s said.

Hua Cheng’s smile widens. “Gege is so pretty when he blushes.”

Xie Lian covers his face with his sleeves. “Ah—ah, San Lang, stop that! Why are you staring?! My heart can’t take it!”

“Gege’s heart will get used to it.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Xie Lian declares, still covering his eyes. “San Lang is far too perfect to get used to. Who is this person who has convinced you otherwise? I would like to give them some medicine to fix their judgment.”

“Gege!” Hua Cheng sounds adorably distressed. “You can’t say that! Now I’m covering my eyes too!”

“It’s just the truth. If there’s anyone uninteresting here, it could only be me, not you.”

“What?” Oh, Hua Cheng sounds shocked. He is so cute, to be surprised by the obvious. “No,” he protests, “dianxia is flawless. He is far above the rest of us. I could never compare.”

Xie Lian smiles against his arms. Ah, this isn’t good. For some reason, it feels a little wet.

“See? San Lang is so nice to me; this only proves how incredible you are. To be so generous to someone like me…”

Strong, long-fingered hands slot into his, cool and sticky with fruit juice.

“Dianxia, please,” Hua Cheng says, soft and worried. “Don’t say that. I’m not treating you with anything more than you deserve.” The hands tug gently, but Xie Lian won’t budge. He won’t let him see how his kindness dampens the cloth over Xie Lian’s eyes.

“I can’t believe that.” His voice cracks. He sniffles pathetically. Now the mood is ruined and it’s all his fault. He shouldn’t have said anything in the first place. “San Lang, won’t you call me gege?”

Hua Cheng inhales. “Okay.” Exhales. Those lovely, cool hands move down to cup his elbows, catching slightly at the fabric there.

“Gege, I love you. That being said, don’t you think, in your infinite wisdom, that it’s a bit silly for two people to sit across from each other, covering their eyes and arguing about who is more perfect?”

Xie Lian can’t help his little hiccupy giggle, and Hua Cheng takes advantage of it to guide his arms away from his face. He blinks, red and black merging blurrily in his vision.

“There. That’s okay, isn’t it? Now we can out-compliment each other face-to-face.”

Xie Lian giggles again. Blinks the tears away, with effort. “San Lang’s eyes are like stars and his laughter blossoms like spring flowers.”

“Gege’s eloquence is as fine as phoenix song and he glows with the radiance of the moon,” Hua Cheng counters. “Give it up, you’re never going to beat me at this. I’ve had eight hundred years to come up with adjectives to describe you.”

“Ah, that’s unfair. San Lang had a head start all along,” he slides his hands down to twine his fingers with Hua Cheng’s. “It looks like I’ll just have to spend the next eight hundred years catching up.”

Hua Cheng’s eye widens in momentary shock, before he mumbles, “I told you. As fine as phoenix song.” Seeming to gather himself, he straightens up and braces their arms together. Xie Lian’s skin hums, pressed against Hua Cheng’s from palm to elbow, wrist kissing wrist.

After a moment, Hua Cheng says quietly, “I’m sorry I upset you.” He sounds—miserable.

“You didn’t do anything,” Xie Lian assures. “I just take things too seriously. I’m sorry I cried all over dinner,” he holds back more tears, what is with him today, “this was supposed to be fun.”

“I’d rather have an awful day with you than a fun one alone.” Hua Cheng relinquishes his grasp on one of Xie Lian’s hands to brush the wetness away from his face. Xie Lian releases a shaky gust of air and lets him, but at the first touch of Hua Cheng’s calloused thumb, he instinctively shrinks away.

“What is it?” Alarmed, Hua Cheng draws back, but Xie Lian shakes his head right away.

“No, don’t,” he squeezes his eyes shut. “Don’t, I’m sorry, I just—you touch me really gently, San Lang. It’s not bad,” he hastens to add. “It’s not bad at—at all. I’m just not used to nice things yet.”

Hua Cheng makes a noise low in his throat, but he barrels on. “You’re so good to me and it’s so strange, and I like it, I do, but it’s such a new thing. To be cared for,” he finishes helplessly. He doesn’t dare open his eyes.

“Gege.” The bedsheets shift; Hua Cheng has come around to sit beside him. “Listen to me?” His palm moves to rest on Xie Lian’s shoulders and Xie Lian swallows a sob.

“You saved me. You cared for me when no one else did. I walked through the hardest times of my life by pretending you were next to me. You gave me everything, not because you thought I needed it but because you knew I deserved it.” Hua Cheng’s voice trips. “I’m sorry that it’s been so long since anyone did the same for you.”

Xie Lian leans into his touch, unable to help it, and Hua Cheng holds him as he breaks and breaks.

-

He resurfaces to the sound and feeling of Hua Cheng breathing against him, steady and deliberate.

“San Lang,” he rubs at his eyes, voice hoarse. “I got your clothes all wet.”

“Is that so?” Hua Cheng dries his robes with a flick of his fingers. “Gege must have seen wrong. Look again.”

Xie Lian’s wrung-out brain is contemplating a retort when he feels something brush against his neck, and Hua Cheng starts wiping his face with a damp washcloth.

“You can give me that,” he says, reaching for it. “San Lang spoils me too much.”

“Gege fed me earlier. I’m just repaying the favour.” Hua Cheng twists the washcloth to reach into Xie Lian’s ears. “Do you want to sleep some more after this, or do you want to do something else?”

“Hm. Something else, I think,” Xie Lian responds. “Is there anything you want to do? I want to do things that make you happy as well.”

The movement of the washcloth ceases for a brief moment before picking up again.

“How about this,” suggests Hua Cheng. “I’ll get you some water, and then we can go somewhere I’ve been meaning to show you. I’ll glamour us so we don’t have to deal with anybody, and we can sit together and do whatever we want.” He almost looks bashful for a second. “That would make me very happy.”

Xie Lian sighs. “Not having to deal with anybody else sounds lovely,” he concedes. “What’s this place you’re talking about, San Lang? I’ve never heard you mention it before.”

“It’s nothing special,” Hua Cheng demurs. “But if you’re willing, I’ll go fetch a cloak and gege can see for himself.”

-

They slip out the back door in a clatter of dice, and into a grove of maples that Xie Lian hasn’t been to before. Moonlight slants down through the canopy, illuminating the leaves in bars of scarlet.

“This reminds me of the false wedding procession, when San Lang held my hand and led me through the forest.” The woodsy aroma of nature all around, glimpses of silver in the darkness, a sheen of red over his vision. It’s even as quiet as it was back then, although the silence is comforting now, not foreboding.

Ahead of him, Hua Cheng turns halfway to offer him a crooked grin.

“I was just thinking the same thing.”

They walk without speaking for a while, navigating between tree trunks as Xie Lian sucks in slow breaths of the cool night air.

“I used to walk like this during my banishment,” he remembers. “I’d head out of town and onto the road, until the path narrowed and the last lantern was far behind. Eventually you’d hit something like this: a dirt path, lots of trees. Sometimes it was peaceful. More often it felt like a race.”

He almost forgets he’s not talking to himself until Hua Cheng squeezes his hand.

“Does gege know the story of why the moon follows you when you walk?”

“It does, doesn’t it?” Xie Lian muses, humouring him. “Hua Chengzhu is so erudite and all-knowing, why doesn’t he tell me?”

“It’s a simple story. The moon follows gege because it admires you. When it can’t find you, it follows the rest of us hoping that we’ll meet you.”

“…Modesty is a virtue, San Lang.”

“Only one of your many.”

“Well, I rather think the moon is going to be disappointed. I have eyes only for a certain ghost king.”

“Oh? And who might this be?” Hua Cheng teases, playing along.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. He’s known to terrorize heavenly officials with little butterflies. And his favourite weapon is a really cute and clingy knife.”

Hua Cheng’s shoulders shake with suppressed mirth.

“He’s handsome,” Xie Lian continues. “And powerful, and brave, and intelligent. I’m usually unlucky, you know. So I think I really lucked out this time.”

“What were you racing?”

“What?” The non sequitur catches Xie Lian by surprise.

“When you would walk alone. In your banishment. What were you racing?”

“Oh.” Xie Lian contemplates this. “I don’t know. Nothing, I suppose. I was all by myself at the time. No one to run with.”

They move through a gap between two trees.

“I will run with you,” Hua Cheng says.

The woods break upon a plain.

“Oh,” Xie Lian gasps, unbidden, as his field of view suddenly expands. A broad, flat river cuts across the landscape like a ribbon of dark steel. On the other shore, Ghost City sprawls out endlessly, its uneven horizon shining as the sky stretches wide overhead, deep indigo filling the perimeter of his vision.

“Oh, San Lang, it’s stunning. I thought we were walking away from the city, not towards it.”

Hua Cheng leads Xie Lian to sit down by the water.

“Well, you know, the ghost world does occasionally have great views. Usually we’re all about waterfalls of blood and caverns of sin.”

“I’m not so sure about the blood,” Xie Lian muses. “We could try the caves, though.”

Hua Cheng chokes.

“Is gege sure? Caverns of, ahem, caverns of sin—”

Xie Lian cuts him off with a kiss. Hua Cheng, very sensibly, shuts up and kisses him back.

When they part, Xie Lian tucks his thumbs into Hua Cheng’s collar. “I’ve been wondering when you were going to do that,” he murmurs. His mouth is buzzing.

Hua Cheng huffs a chuckle. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I wanted to be a gentleman.”

“Oh? Is that why you brought up ‘caverns of sin’?”

“That was unintentional!” Hua Cheng kisses him as he says it, however, so Xie Lian isn’t too convinced. Two kisses, three, four, and Xie Lian feels brave enough and safe enough to broach the subject that’s been circling in his head since dinner. He draws back, lingering sweetly for a moment before parting. The air between their bodies is warm and close.

The words spill from his mouth.

"Can I ask you something?"

Hua Cheng looks at him, river water making patterns off the silver at his wrists and ankles, and all of a sudden he is intensely, unbearably beautiful.

I can’t believe I get to have this, Xie Lian thinks dizzily; he glances away from where the night is pooling in Hua Cheng’s collarbones. Something like grief rises in his throat.

"What is it, gege?"

Xie Lian swallows, and decides to go for broke. "I know you want to cheer me up, but I—I’m still trying,” he admits. “It’s not easy, being happy.” He ducks his head, hoping the words come out nonchalant. “You know everything, San Lang, why don’t you teach me?” How to live with yourself.

Hua Cheng's mouth lifts at the corners when Xie Lian looks back up at him, so Xie Lian keeps looking. It’s making his chest hurt with beauty. "It’s easy for me to be happy, gege. I think about you."

"What about when you're not thinking about me?" Xie Lian studiously ignores the flush rising in his cheeks. "And don't say you always are!"

"I am, though. I could make a count of all the times I think of you in a day, if you want."

Xie Lian buries his face in his hands and yelps. "You're too sweet! How am I supposed to be sad now?"

"What's making gege sad?" Hua Cheng isn't smiling anymore. "I'll kill it."

"That's almost romantic," Xie Lian mumbles through his fingers. He sighs, hands cupping his chin. Hua Cheng waits beside him, as patient as always.

"I don't know," he says eventually. "Please don't kill anything on my behalf—I am happy, right now. With you. And—and I'm happy when I'm thinking about you, too."

“I’m very glad,” Hua Cheng says. “I want you to enjoy the time we spend together.” Hua Cheng brushes a hesitant hand over his sleeve. Xie Lian takes it in his own, feeling the imprint of their matching red strings in his palm.

“I do, San Lang. I do.”

Hua Cheng strokes over Xie Lian’s knuckles, skin rasping on skin. He is uncharacteristically quiet when he speaks again, the words slow to emerge from his mouth.

"Gege—you know that you don't have to be happy, right?"

Xie Lian starts. "What?"

"I mean it," Hua Cheng insists. He's looking out at the river, at the glittering lights hanging over the far bank. "Gege doesn't have to be happy, or benevolent, or strong, or beautiful. What's important is you, not the state of you, remember?"

Xie Lian stares out at the water. He wonders if both of them are looking at the same set of lights. Ghost City never sleeps; possibly there is another couple across the river, holding hands, gazing back out at them.

"But I'm not a good person," he says. "I'm just a trash god. The things I've done—is that really okay?"

Hua Cheng's hand stiffens in his. Thankfully he doesn't argue the point, though Xie Lian can sense he wants to. Finally, he speaks:

"Gege, do me a favour?"

"Of course."

"Keep looking over there."

"...Okay." Xie Lian keeps his eyes fixed on the other shore. Is Hua Cheng going to play a game? How sweet of him.

"Now look angry."

"San Lang! You can't just say that! Now I don't know what to do with my face."

Hua Cheng's laugh rumbles, low and soothing as the waves lapping at their feet.

"Try looking sad, then."

That's much easier.

Xie Lian does his best to comply as Hua Cheng walks him through a series of complicated expressions. He’s quite sure he hasn’t thought this much about his facial muscles since he was learning court etiquette as a youth.

"Is gege having fun?”

He restores his face from ‘exasperated’ and turns to look at Hua Cheng, prepared to say something witty and vivacious, but the words die in his throat. Hua Cheng isn't looking at the river anymore. Instead, his bright eye is fixed on Xie Lian's, and he's—smiling?

Xie Lian loves his San Lang because he is wonderful and capable and brilliant and kind. Xie Lian saved his life, once, and so Hua Cheng loves him in return. It has nothing, he thinks privately, to do with any personal merits.

But Hua Cheng is still smiling at him, the love in his expression almost too much for Xie Lian to hold in his mind.

"There you are," he murmurs, impossibly gentle.

"Have you been like that this whole time?" Oh, gods, Xie Lian didn't make a single good face! He's a terrible actor!

“Like what?”

“You know. Like—like that. Smiling.”

"I will always smile at you,” Hua Cheng tells him, like it’s so simple, like it’s something he only has to say. “Point yourself at the world, gege, or wherever you wish, with whatever face you wish to wear. Point at the world and I will point myself at you."

"San Lang." Xie Lian can’t say anything else. The earnestness in Hua Cheng’s voice is reverberating around his skull.

“I want you to believe me this time. I’ll say it until you do.”

Xie Lian thinks.

“I do believe you,” he says slowly. “I trust you, San Lang, but I don’t know if. If that’s okay for me to do.”

“It’s okay,” Hua Cheng assures him. “It’s more than okay, it’s the best. I’m glad, gege. I’m honoured to have your trust.”

“I’m honoured to have your trust, too.” Xie Lian smiles. It’s not a great smile, so he closes his eyes. Tries again, to better results. “I’m trying my hardest for you, San Lang. Forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” Hua Cheng says immediately. “I mean it.”

“And I feel the same way about you, you know that, right? Everything you said, it’s like that for me as well.”

“I know,” Hua Cheng replies lowly. “It’s all right. We’ll get there together.”

“That sounds like a plan.” Xie Lian yawns despite himself. “San Lang,” he babbles, “you’re so safe. Your voice, your scent, your hair—ah, you make me so relaxed, I’m going to fall asleep on you again.”

Hua Cheng swings their hands together like a child. "Are you tired, gege? The moon is fading, we can go back.”

"No," says Xie Lian stubbornly. He lets himself nestle against Hua Cheng. He wants to stay here until the dawn breaks over their skin, wants to watch it wash the water with gold. "Let's keep talking. You're so good at talking, San Lang, you're good at everything."

"I only pale in comparison to you."

"A natural talent at flattery, too." Xie Lian chuckles despite himself. "When we get back, let me make breakfast? To thank you for your hospitality."

Hua Cheng hums, clearly pleased, and wraps an arm around him in a move that shouldn't be half as suave as it is. "You're welcome here anytime you like, gege, but I will certainly not refuse the joy of tasting your cooking."

"What would you like? Congee? Oh, but I should make some for the servants too, they work so hard..."

The arm around Xie Lian tightens. "Gege," Hua Cheng whines, "I thought you were only making breakfast for me! They can get their own!"

Xie Lian laughs. "Is my cooking really that good?" He’s unsure if Hua Cheng truly wants it all to himself, or if he’s trying to spare his staff from food poisoning.

"It's delicious," Hua Cheng replies, completely straight-faced. "You should be the god of culinary arts."

Xie Lian only laughs harder, tilting his head up so that his forehead knocks into Hua Cheng's chin. At this angle, he can see the sky above the horizon changing shades.

"San Lang," he says with the air of imparting something tremendously important, "I adore you. I really, really like you.”

“Gege,” Hua Cheng half-wails. “You’re so amazing, your talents are unparalleled. You’re going to kill me! You’re going to be the first person in history to give a ghost a heart attack and Black Water will cackle at my funeral.”

“Hm,” Xie Lian agrees, satisfied. “That’s no good. Let’s try again, then.” He reaches up with his free hand until his fingertips find the edge of Hua Cheng’s brow, and lets them skate down to sketch eyelid, lashes, cheekbone, mouth.

“Love you,” he decides. “San Lang, I really love you,” and dawn breaks, stretching over the city in strange, familiar corners.