Hua Cheng had once said that without loved ones in it, a home was no more than a residence.
He’d always known it to be right, of course, but—seeing, feeling it happen, that transition from residence to home. . . oh, the joy he feels.
They only arrived from Taicang Mountain today, yet Xie Lian’s presence in Paradise Manor already makes Hua Cheng want to finally call it home.
They’re sitting on their large bed—sheets of the finest silk, cushions filled with the rarest feathers—a large plate of various fruit placed next to them. Xie Lian absentmindedly accepts the purple grapes Hua Cheng feeds him, eyes trailing over the parchments he delicately holds in his hands. Juice from the grape trails down his cheek, but he’s so focused he doesn’t seem to notice.
Hua Cheng reaches out, wiping it away with his thumb before licking it clean. It tastes of the richest sweetness.
Xie Lian’s eyes flick up at him, warm and content. Happy. His eyes crinkle at the corners with a smile. There’s some pink from the berries he ate earlier colouring his lips. His hair is still somewhat disheveled from when they kissed earlier. Ruoye is wrapped loosely around his wrist, rippling gently, like it’s mirroring Xie Lian’s state of mind. At peace.
Hua Cheng’s eye takes him all in, drinks in the sight of him. He can’t get enough, like it will never, ever be just that: enough. If he doesn’t blink again, perhaps it would be, but still, he doubts.
“Gege is beautiful.”
Xie Lian had only just gone back to his reading, but his face flushes with a delightful red colour as he gazes up once more, realizing the way Hua Cheng looks at him.
He wipes at his mouth, and it leaves a trail of pink across the back of his hand.
“Hahaha San Lang, how can you say that?” Xie Lian pats his hair down, fixing it quickly. “I’m a mess today. . .”
“Your Highness is always beautiful to this humble follower,” Hua Cheng says matter-of-factly, resting a hand over his heart.
Xie Lian blushes more, staring for a moment before looking away and pushing a lock of hair behind his ear. “You’re very beautiful too, San Lang.”
Hua Cheng freezes in the most imperceptible of ways. Whatever he does, he’s never used to Xie Lian complimenting him on his appearance. Somewhere far, far away in a corner of his mind, there are those voices from long ago, pushing him to the ground, kicking him, spewing horrors in hatred; calling him an ‘ugly beast’. A monster.
But Xie Lian’s words are stronger. They ring with honesty, sincerity; they come from his heart. Like he means it. How can Hua Cheng not believe him?
“Ah,” he says, briefly averting his eye. “Thank you, gege.”
There’s a shift, the sheets rustle under movement, the bed slightly creaking, and suddenly Xie Lian is before him, that soft, gentle smile still lighting up his face, all for him.
While Hua Cheng is sitting cross-legged, Xie Lian is now on his knees, caps brushing Hua Cheng’s bare feet. His fingers, stretched out, hover a few inches from his face. In their private communication array, Xie Lian asks, “May I?”
Hua Cheng shudders. “Gege doesn’t have to ask permission.”
Xie Lian’s fingertips slide like a feather across the side of his face. He leans in for a kiss, a brief caress of the lips before pulling back. Hua Cheng chases their warmth instinctively, but controls himself and stays put.
Xie Lian continues his exploration, laughing as he boops Hua Cheng’s nose, traces the shape of his ear, pushes away the hair falling in front of his right eye. Xie Lian’s fingertips stop over his eyepatch, and Hua Cheng sucks in a breath that goes nowhere. Xie Lian seems to notice instantly.
“I-I’d—” he tries to say, but doesn’t seem to find the words. His fingers brush the edges of the eyepatch. Eventually, he murmurs, “San Lang, would you let me?”
Hua Cheng doesn’t move an inch. He’s glad he’s got no heartbeat to betray him as he replies, smiling weakly. "I'm afraid gege wouldn’t like what he sees."
Xie Lian’s thumb brushes Hua Cheng’s cheek as he laughs, just a bit. “Now, I don’t believe that,” he says quietly, but doesn’t push. Instead, his fingers stray away from the eyepatch and he leans forward, leaving a kiss on the bridge of Hua Cheng’s nose.
Moving into Hua Cheng’s lap, Xie Lian sits in the space between his legs, huddling close. Hua Cheng is then covered in kisses, in light touches. He wants Xie Lian to feel safe at all times, but. . . there’s no denying it, he feels safe in Xie Lian’s arms, too. Not from harm—as if there was anything that could hurt him!—but rather, from himself. The only thing that could hurt him here would be Xie Lian’s own pain; and he would never let that happen again.
He’s seen it all, he thinks, as Xie Lian laughs quietly at the assault of affection Hua Cheng retaliates against him. He’s seen all parts of Xie Lian: his ascension, his fall; his mistakes, his successes; his pains, his joys; his smiles, his tears; his healed scars, his open wounds; his body, his soul.
Hua Cheng lets out a soft sigh against Xie Lian’s neck, on which he’s been peppering a trail of tender marks. When he sits back and looks at him, something akin to concern dawns on Xie Lian’s features, but Hua Cheng doesn’t leave it any time to spread; his hands find Xie Lian’s flank and briefly attack.
Ticklish as he is, Xie Lian squirms away from the touch, but he only laughs more. “San Lang!” he scolds. His eyes shine, reflecting his smile.
Resting one hand on Xie Lian’s hip, Hua Cheng smiles back. He catches Xie Lian’s left hand in his own, and brings it up to his eyepatch. Xie Lian takes a sharp intake of breath.
“San Lang. . . are you sure?”
“Gege, you deserve to know all parts of me,” Hua Cheng says. He lets go of Xie Lian’s hand, leaving it there. Just like I think I know yours.
“It shouldn’t be about what I deserve.”
“Perhaps. But, have you considered that I want you to?”
At that, after a short pause, Hua Cheng feels Xie Lian’s fingers slide to the back of his head and close around the knot; tugging lightly, but not untying it quite yet. Xie Lian’s eyes search his own, and Hua Cheng holds them solemnly; his decision is made, his permission given.
The eyepatch falls.
Hua Cheng firmly closes his eye.
Hua Cheng knows what it looks like; his eyelid is partially closed, blocking the way into his empty socket. It’s ugly. It’s unbecoming. Unworthy of one such as His Highness, the Crown Prince of Xian Le. His skin crawls thinking about it and, instantly, that shameful, buried part of him regrets letting Xie Lian see.
“Gege. . .”
Soft lips press over his eyelid in a tender kiss.
Whatever he meant to say falls back to the bottom of his throat, and his eye snaps open. His throat tightens. Where his still heart rests, a gentle warmth blooms; fierce, familiar. It’s always, always there but. . . tonight it flares, swallowing him whole.
His arms fly up, wrapping around Xie Lian, bringing him closer into his embrace. He hides his face in Xie Lian’s hair; it feels like silk and smells of autumn and spring combined. Pressed against him, his steady heartbeat resonates inside Hua Cheng’s own chest. The ring hanging from the silver chain around Xie Lian’s neck has no more space to sway.
“Haven’t I told you?” Hua Cheng says, voice rough. “You will be the death of me.”
Xie Lian parts from him, and he’s still got that smile, those loving eyes. He looks at him the exact same way as before.
“San Lang is very beautiful,” he repeats, but his mouth doesn’t move; he’s talking in their communication array and, somehow, it sounds even more sincere than it was earlier. He pecks Hua Cheng’s eyelid again, light and careful. “The most beautiful. Perhaps I have some luck after all.”
Hua Cheng kisses him.
Fiercely first, then slowing down when Xie Lian grins against his lips, kissing back. There’s so much he wants to do, but it’s still all so new, and while Hua Cheng has read much, Xie Lian hasn’t; there's no need to rush.
They can take their time; they’ve got their whole lives for it, and their lives know no end.
Hua Cheng slides his hands under the back of Xie Lian’s night robes. He does so step by step, parting the cloth slowly, clear in his intent should Xie Lian wish to stop him. But he only laughs, and warns, “No tickling, please.”
“No tickling,” Hua Cheng promises.
Then his hands are running up Xie Lian’s back, holding him close as he repeats the motion. Xie Lian practically purrs. Hua Cheng can’t resist a kiss to his jaw, his neck, as close enough to his collarbone before Xie Lian’s robe stops him. But Xie Lian parts it for him, and Hua Cheng accepts the invitation with much eagerness.
When Xie Lian returns the favor, Hua Cheng thinks that maybe, though he can’t die, this might be enough to kill him for good.
“San Lang, your clothes, they—”
He grins, both playful and mischievous. “Don't let them stop you.”
Xie Lian shoves his shoulder humorously, but he indeed doesn't. He struggles so much with them that Hua Cheng has to help and then smooth the lines of embarrassment on Xie Lian’s face with slow circles of his thumb. Xie Lian is bright red—both from his failed attempt and seeing Hua Cheng’s bare chest so close—and looks, Hua Cheng daresays, adorable.
“Can I ask something, San Lang?” Xie Lian inquires offhandedly while he lets Hua Cheng take off his night robe. His voice gets muffled when it goes over his head. Hua Cheng tosses it aside further away on the bed before, slowly, he takes the sight in.
“Anything,” Hua Cheng replies earnestly. He commits every inch of Xie Lian’s body to his memory, glad to look if only for a little while. Only the silver chain remains, and here it is again; the feeling of being exactly where he was always meant to be.
He’s almost disappointed when Xie Lian comes back for a kiss, his arms coming to rest on his shoulders. But still, he kisses back eagerly, the warm skin of Xie Lian’s chest like the sweetest burn against the coldness of his own.
“Is it okay, if we only do this?” Xie Lian, at last, asks as he pulls away, slightly out of breath. He seems a little apprehensive, and it’s enough to make Hua Cheng furrow his brow.
“Of course. Anything gege wants.”
Only this, Xie Lian asked, so only this Hua Cheng does.
He returns to his ministrations, keeping it the exact same way as they’ve done up till now.
Xie Lian places a hand in the center of his chest, and Hua Cheng stops, worried he’s done something wrong. He can’t have hurt his beloved? he thinks—but Xie Lian is looking at him just the same, only faint insecurity in his eyes.
Pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth, he smiles, almost apologetic.
“San Lang, I really mean. . . only this.” He kisses Hua Cheng again, before burying his face in the crook of his neck. Hua Cheng’s arms embrace him, keeping him close, so close. If there was blood in Hua Cheng’s heart, it would’ve burst. “If you want more, that’s alright. We can try. I—” Xie Lian interrupts himself, sighing like he’s embarrassed.
Oh. Hua Cheng understands.
He doesn't feel that disappointed. . . how could he care? How could he care, when Xie Lian, the single light in the darkness of his life, is holding him so close? Kisses him so soundly? Looks at him with nothing but love and adoration? It can be enough. It is enough. It’s already more than he ever allowed himself to dream of, not so long ago.
“Gege, this is alright. In fact, it’s more than alright. We do not need to do anything gege isn’t comfortable with.”
Xie Lian smiles, bright and heartfelt, and oh, here’s that feeling again. I get to have this. Wake up to this. This beautiful thing from my wildest dreams; my most beloved, shining his heavenly light on me.
“I think I'd want to try, someday. Just. . . not so soon?” Xie Lian continues, and Hua Cheng settles more comfortably, bringing Xie Lian with him. “Don’t get me wrong, San Lang! I feel very safe around you. The most loved. I just. . . it’s been a long time. It’s been always, actually. I’ve never considered breaking my cultivation vows. You're the first—the first one my body betrays me for, but still, there's no desire spurring me on to act on it.
“But I do want you, in a way; I want to experience everything with you, I just don't feel—I. . . ah, it's difficult to explain. I'm only curious. Very curious, sometimes.”
Xie Lian interrupts his ramblings, laughing nervously. “Forgive me, I talk too much, don’t I?”
Hua Cheng parts them, only so he can cup Xie Lian’s cheeks between his hands, wipe stray hair from his face, and make their eyes meet.
“Gege never talks too much,” he says softly. “And, this one understands. Gege, if you just want us to kiss, we will. If someday you want to do more, we will. And if you never do, we won’t.” He kisses Xie Lian’s forehead. “Anything that makes you happy makes me happy.”
Xie Lian stumbles on his next words. His hands come up to close around Hua Cheng’s wrists like he wants to hold him there for as long as he can.
“You don't—you don’t think I love you less if I don’t feel that way about you?”
Hua Cheng blinks slowly. “Of course not. Just like desire can be without love, love can be without desire. It doesn't matter in which way you'll have me, I—Gege?”
The rim of Xie Lian’s eyes is red. Oh, has he said—Hue Cheng is left with no time to do, say, or worry about anything; Xie Lian lets go of his wrists to gently hold his face, kissing him deeply.
“Does San Lang know how much I love him?” he fervently asks between kisses.
Hua Cheng laughs, welcoming them gladly and returning them just as eagerly. “Yes, he knows,” he says, and as Xie Lian places a kiss on his closed eyelid again, adds in a breath, “This San Lang cannot possibly be worthy.”
Xie Lian shakes his head, as though saying, “No. He is; he's worth everything.”
For a while, Hua Cheng only holds him. Just this, he thinks, even just this would be enough. When he tries to part again, Xie Lian makes a small noise of protest, hanging on tighter to him. Hua Cheng smiles, and gives a light squeeze to his shoulders.
“Your Highness, if you do not let go, how will you show your most devout follower what he can do to please you?”
Xie Lian instantly pushes himself away, and looks up with what Hua Cheng can only describe as stars in his eyes. They trail all over him, don’t stop once on his messed up eye. He only looks at Hua Cheng with the utmost adoration.
Hua Cheng chokes on the feeling that builds in his throat at the way Xie Lian takes his head between his hands again, and his eyes are a window to his heart, brimming with a happiness he’s so long been denied.
“Well, you can keep kissing me—like this.”
“Hold my hand and kiss it too—like this.”
Another, to his palm.
“Hold me, as close as you want—like this.”
His arms, his chest, warm and pressed against him, to the furthest point that they can go.
“Touch me right there—like this. . .”
Xie Lian continues, displaying the actual extent of everything he wants Hua Cheng to do to him. Sometimes when he notices Hua Cheng liking something too, he repeats it, for the sole purpose of doing it again.
Hua Cheng feels—he feels like he receives as much as he gives. Briefly, he glances at his eyepatch, forgotten to the side, and feels the sheer freedom of being allowed to show himself fully, to the only person who matters.
And in front of him, talking and talking without restraint, is this same excited person, glowing as Hua Cheng pushes him onto his back, and kisses him in a sigh of his name.