After everything is all said and done, when Hua Cheng returns and Xie Lian allows himself to leave Mount Taicang, quiet nights spent in the warm embrace of each other’s arms are of the most precious commodities.
This particular night is one of those, unspectacular and unassuming in a way that belies how treasured it is by Hua Cheng and Xie Lian. They know, now more than ever, that even an immortal life is fleeting, and so time spent together is special no matter how mundane the circumstances.
They’re facing each other in bed, arms over waists and hands behind necks in ways that will prove uncomfortable come morning light. The light of the moon breaks the darkness enough that they can just about see one another, the world whittled down to nothing but the two of them and that ethereal silver glow.
Hua Cheng strokes the warm skin of Xie Lian’s bare back, an absentminded up-and-down that he’d be content to repeat until his next death day rears its head.
“The day you caught me was the first day I fell in love with you,” Hua Cheng says softly, the gentle reminiscence made louder by the hush of night. He brushes his thumb over Xie Lian’s face, tracing the freckles that trail from the bridge of his nose to his temples. “And every day after that.”
“San Lang,” Xie Lian breathes, voice laced with quiet awe. He tilts his head to the side and presses a kiss into Hua Cheng’s palm, reverent. “But you’ve suffered so much in my name. I should’ve given you more.”
Hua Cheng pulls Xie Lian closer so he can bury his nose into the crown of his head. His unbound hair is soft and smells faintly of smoke, a reminder of the meal they shared earlier that evening. Charred as it was, as Xie Lian’s cooking tends to be, Hua Cheng has never tasted anything better.
“Impossible,” he whispers, words muffled and lips brushing against Xie Lian’s scalp, “Gege has given more than I could have ever imagined.”
Xie Lian adjusts slightly, pulling back just far enough to meet Hua Cheng’s gaze through sleep-lowered lashes. They look at each other for a moment, then two, content to simply breathe together and share a comfortable silence with the one they love most.
Xie Lian reaches a hand up, carefully smoothing over the line of his eyebrow and following the band of his eyepatch to the simple knot at the back of his head. The string blends in with Hua Cheng’s hair, black as ink and soft as silk. He brushes down the length of the string with his hand splayed, fabric and hair running through his fingers like the stream that winds its way through the trees behind Puqi Shrine.
With careful fingers, Xie Lian undoes the knot. The loosened string falls against the side of Hua Cheng’s face, dark against the pale jut of his cheekbone. He lifts the eyepatch away and sets it to the side, exposing the gnarled skin of Hua Cheng’s missing eye to the cool night air. His eyelid, with its jagged edge and missing pieces and thick scar tissue, twitches over an empty socket. Whether dressed-down and barefaced or done up in all his finery, Hua Cheng is the most beautiful sight Xie Lian has ever witnessed in centuries of existence.
Xie Lian weaves his fingers through the hair at the nape of Hua Cheng’s neck and pulls the other man’s face closer to his. He gently kisses the tip of Hua Cheng’s nose, his cheek, the center of his forehead. Xie Lian pushes a loose piece of dark hair away from Hua Cheng’s face, his touch so light that his fingertips barely brush the cool skin of his cheek.
Hua Cheng closes what remains of his right eyelid as Xie Lian leans in to kiss it gently, soft lips warm against the rough scar tissue. With the eyepatch on, his missing eye is a signal of his strength, a reminder of the danger he poses. Like this, however, next to his beloved with the most vulnerable parts of his soul bared, none of that is of any consequence. Xie Lian has seen him beyond his reputation, has known him for more than his deeds, and has loved him all the same.
Of all that his good fortune has afforded him, Hua Cheng has never felt quite so lucky as he does in this moment.
As Xie Lian pulls away, lips trailing slowly across Hua Cheng’s skin as if he’s reluctant to leave his lover’s face unkissed for even a second more, Hua Cheng kisses his mouth lightly. It’s impossibly soft, nothing more than the barest brush of lips, yet it steals the breath away from the both of them.
The kisses shared between them remain chaste, little things that live and die in an instant without leading anywhere in particular. The moon rises further in the sky and time passes in a hazy blur, years and hours lost as breaths and gasps are traded. Eight centuries of strife and bloodshed and falling past the brink of death are worth it for this—the simplest expression of love.
Eventually, they break apart, though the space between them is still but a hairsbreadth. Xie Lian lifts his hand and traces the contours of Hua Cheng’s mouth, then thumbs at his bottom lip. Hua Cheng’s mouth would be reddened, had he been anyone but a ghost king, but as it is the paleness of his lips is amplified by the bright crimson string tied around Xie Lian’s finger.
Hua Cheng opens his mouth slightly, and Xie Lian pushes his thumb in further, then raises his other hand to do the same. His hands, confident and loving despite the threat of pain, find the sharp points of Hua Cheng’s fangs. Xie Lian presses the pads of his thumbs against the sharpened points of the fangs, hard enough to leave stinging indentations but not enough to draw blood.
Xie Lian removes his hands and replaces them with his lips, another sleep-soft kiss that Hua Cheng returns with just as much chaste affection.
They kiss and kiss again until Xie Lian’s eyelids droop and his hold on Hua Cheng’s neck grows slack. Hua Cheng smiles at his beloved, unbeating heart so full of fondness that it’s about to burst. He presses one last, lingering kiss to Xie Lian’s brow.
“Goodnight, gege,” he whispers into the still night, not expecting a response.
“Goodnight, San Lang,” Xie Lian murmurs in response, his quiet voice already halfway into a dream. “Won’t you kiss me again in the morning?”
Hua Cheng smiles again and hugs Xie Lian closer to his chest.
“For you, love? Anything.”