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A kiss is gently laid on the back of Xie Lian’s neck.

“Your Highness, put that thing away.”

Xie Lian looks down at E-Ming in his arms. Lifting it up to his face, Xie Lian slips it hushed, reassuring words. He’s been carrying it in his arms like an infant, making it tremble and its eye form a crescent shape as he gives it attention. At his wrist, Ruoye sulks, having long abandoned any attempt at dragging Xie Lian’s hand back to itself.

“Your Highness.”

Xie Lian glances over his shoulder, carefully letting E-Ming down. It doesn’t look thrilled as it hops sadly away, but Xie Lian has been petting it for ten whole minutes, so he reckons it’s just being greedy at this point. Not that he holds it against it.

E-Ming hasn’t gone far before there’s the clicking of tongue, and it comes back like it’s been sentenced to death. It disappears from Xie Lian’s line of sight, followed by a sheathing sound.

“Gege.”

“Yes, San Lang?”

“Will gege grant this one a kiss?”

Xie Lian turns until he faces Hua Cheng. He’s got his eye shut, harboring a smile both innocent and cheeky, waiting.

Going up on his toes, Xie Lian pecks Hua Cheng’s cheek.

Hua Cheng scrunches his eye. It wouldn’t look like it to anyone else, but Xie Lian can recognize when Hua Cheng is pouting at not getting exactly what he wants.

Next, Xie Lian kisses his forehead.

Hua Cheng’s pout looks fake now. Xie Lian shakes his head fondly, but cannot resist him for long, even if he wants to.

At finally having his lips kissed, Hua Cheng whispers, “Gege.” His hands come up to Xie Lian’s face, cupping it. He doesn’t kiss back, but parts them, opening his eye to gaze at Xie Lian fitting perfectly between his hands.

Xie Lian is glad to grin at him in turn, the smile broadening until he’s laughing. It’s made worse when Hua Cheng suddenly goes for his sides, fingers searching to tickle. Xie Lian squeaks, promptly running away, out of Paradise Manor’s main chamber as Hua Cheng’s laughter echoes down the hall behind him.

Xie Lian slips inside their room. He sends Ruoye to the bed frame where it loops itself about the post, swaying lightly before it tightens, a common sign that it’s set its mind on sulking some more.

Hearing Hua Cheng’s steps approaching, Xie Lian unceremoniously flops on the bed. “San Lang?”

“Yes, gege?”

Xie Lian pats the spot beside him.

Hua Cheng doesn’t need to be asked twice. He walks leisurely up to the bed, an eyebrow raised, the corner of his mouth lifted.

Hua Cheng sits. “Are we sleeping early?”

“Mh-mh, not yet.”

It’s been a long day without him in Puji Village’s paddy fields, and he’s got other ideas.

Xie Lian reaches out to Hua Cheng’s eye slowly, permitting him time to refuse the gesture, though Hua Cheng has never failed to trust him entirely.

It’s a ritual of theirs, now; each night, Xie Lian takes off Hua Cheng’s eyepatch, kisses his partially closed eyelid, and then sets the eyepatch off to the side.

As Xie Lian does precisely that, Hua Cheng quivers a bit, then gives a small smile. Xie Lian beams in return.

Xie Lian kisses him, one of his hands coming to rest on Hua Cheng’s hip, the other framing his face. Kissing him is so easy; by now, it’s become second nature. He knows Hua Cheng’s lips like he knows his own, their softness as they kiss and caress and nip, sometimes biting enough to pinch, but not enough to hurt—though Xie Lian wouldn’t feel it anyway.

Hua Cheng lets Xie Lian push him down on the bed. Xie Lian straddles his lap, bending low to kiss him on the spot under his ear, hands roaming, mouth roaming too.

Heat pools in his gut at the muffled noises Hua Cheng makes, losing restraint from no more than Xie Lian’s hands and mouth, and his weight on him.

Xie Lian finds it doesn’t take much to excite Hua Cheng. Not quite an incense time, and he’s already growing hard, his touches daring, though they never cross the line of Xie Lian’s established boundaries. He’s waiting for a word, a look, and then—

Rubbing their noses together, Xie Lian gives a small nod of his head. He whispers a single word into their communication array.

That’s all Hua Cheng needs to tease both Xie Lian and himself by crossing those boundaries.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian murmurs, moments later. He’s still sitting on Hua Cheng. He’s hard too, Hua Cheng must know by now. Sometimes, they don’t do anything about it. Sometimes, they do, on their own or together. Tonight, Xie Lian has long since decided he wants to do the latter.

“I think—if you’re willing—I think I’d like to take it further this time.”

Hua Cheng blinks at him, but Xie Lian doesn’t miss the slight, brief hitch of his fingers on his thighs. “Gege, are you sure?”

“Hm hm.” Xie Lian nods. “I like what we’ve been doing. It pleases you, and it pleases me. But, you know I’ve been curious.”

Nothing’s changed; he still doesn’t feel that way about Hua Cheng. But over the months, upon his request, they’ve been testing the waters, taking it slow. Xie Lian often notices in Hua Cheng’s eye that he worries he’s only doing it for him, but each time Xie Lian isn’t afraid to show him that isn’t true. All his life, he never gave sex much thought beyond being silently intrigued when it was brought up by others.

And, before Hua Cheng, he’d never had anyone he felt comfortable with to even consider trying it.

On top of that, there’d been his cultivation vows, deeply ingrained in him from the moment he devoted himself to them. The teachings that, should he give in to such desires even once, his followers would reject him, and thus his cultivation would be ruined. In his ears, it hadn’t been a threat. Truthfully, unlike some of his fellow disciples, he’d never felt practicing abstinence was a loss. He had, after all, chosen this path.

But, when Hua Cheng entered his life, Xie Lian found in him someone to trust with his whole being. How could he have forever resisted him?

In a surprising turn of events, however, Xie Lian’s spiritual power wasn’t hindered or decreased by giving in to Hua Cheng as had been expected. With believers starting to follow them together, if anything, it was made stronger. As if Hua Cheng’s piety was holier than the path of purity.

Just by loving Hua Cheng, it seemed he’d cheated Heaven’s will.

The first time Hua Cheng had intimately touched him, Xie Lian turned a shade of red he hadn’t thought was possible to attain. Touching Hua Cheng in turn had been intimidating, but easier. With time, he’s stopped flushing so freely under Hua Cheng’s hands.

He doesn’t get as nervous anymore. Sometimes, he’s unable to help a rush of embarrassment and he blushes, making Hua Cheng laugh affectionately, but there hasn’t been one time he hasn’t enjoyed it.

Hua Cheng looks at him now with that quiet hunger Xie Lian doesn’t quite understand, but likes to see on his husband’s face. It’s always been strange to fathom that other people could want him sexually—and it’s flattering when it comes from Hua Cheng. He’s grown used to it faster than he could ever have imagined. Hua Cheng knows Xie Lian experiences a disconnection between his absence of desire for him and the enjoyment he gets out of sharing his body with him, and has never once resented Xie Lian for it; and that is more attractive to Xie Lian than anything else could ever be.

“Then, it would be this humble follower’s honor.”

Hua Cheng catches his lips into a searing kiss. Clothes are discarded to the side, taken off through laughs and fumbling touches. Xie Lian’s seen Hua Cheng naked many times since he returned—a few weeks into their relationship, they discovered that they love sleeping naked, pressed against each other as near as one can be—but the sight never fails to fluster him, even just a little bit.

Xie Lian’s not sure when he ended up laid over the mattress, secured on his back amongst the many pillows, Hua Cheng kissing every single part of his face and neck, stopping only when Xie Lian retaliates with equal fervor.

Kissing might be his favourite part of all this, Xie Lian thinks. Or, perhaps, the way Hua Cheng’s hands wander over his body, caressing, massaging. He’s cared for, and giving the same kind of attention to Hua Cheng fills his heart with joy.

Xie Lian decides to be bold. He reaches down between them, wrapping his hand around Hua Cheng, who instantly gasps, leaving a wet mark on Xie Lian’s shoulder as he leans his head in the crook of Xie Lian’s neck.

“Your Highness” he warns, voice hot in the space between their bodies, when Xie Lian moves his fingers in a way he remembers Hua Cheng likes.

Xie Lian chuckles, kissing the top of Hua Cheng’s head. He continues, until Hua Cheng briefly writhes against him in search of a closer contact before stopping the ministrations altogether, gently grasping Xie Lian’s deft hand away and placing it on the ring laying over Xie Lian’s chest.

Hua Cheng looks up, and Xie Lian misses the presence of his head under his neck, the way he held Hua Cheng through the sighs of his name as Xie Lian teased him.

“Gege.” First, it’s a sigh into his ear, and then, trailing down and down, a sigh that disappears on him. Xie Lian’s hips instinctively buck forward, overwhelmed by the heat of Hua Cheng’s mouth. Hua Cheng doesn’t appear to mind. His hands hold Xie Lian still, lingering at his waist before moving to provide an anchored grip that reminds Xie Lian of that ever-intriguing temptation.

He should be used to this by now; Hua Cheng loves pleasuring him this way, most of the time in the mornings, happily willing to offer and never asking anything in exchange, unless Xie Lian wants to. But, all too quickly, Xie Lian is finding it difficult to stay still, his exhales coming out as sounds that make him want to hide his face behind his hands.

Like he knows, Hua Cheng stops before it gets too much. He kisses his way back up to Xie Lian’s collarbone, mapping his skin. On the way, Hua Cheng kisses Xie Lian where his heart beats.

“His Highness is so beautiful,” Hua Cheng praises in a whisper. “Like him, his body must be cherished.”

“San Lang,” Xie Lian breathes as his cheeks glow. “You say that each time.”

“Gege deserves to hear it every time. Every day,” Hua Cheng insists, a prayer laid into each of his kisses where once, solely pain and blood bloomed. “Am I not too lucky?”

“Not as lucky as I am,” Xie Lian counters with conviction, just as Hua Cheng presses his forehead to Xie Lian’s, eyes tightly shut.

Xie Lian takes the opportunity to effortlessly flip Hua Cheng, keeping them forehead-to-forehead. He buries Hua Cheng in the pillows, kissing the bridge of his nose, then his marred eyelid. Xie Lian grins and inadvertently moves his hips, warmth rushing through him, while Hua Cheng hisses, “Ah,” and tilts his head back, exposing the smooth skin of his neck.

That did something.

Xie Lian cannot resist kissing there, too.

Seeing as Hua Cheng likes both Xie Lian’s lips on him and the friction, Xie Lian tries another roll of his hips, followed by another, and another, until they’re left panting, kisses sloppy and distracted by the pleasure the mere movement procures them both.

Xie Lian gradually comes to a stop. If he keeps going, he won’t last, and judging by Hua Cheng’s sounds—which make it worse for Xie Lian—he won’t either.

He yelps when Hua Cheng takes the pause to rotate positions again. Xie Lian is back under his weight, grounding and breathtaking.

“Gege, this San Lang greatly enjoys answering your burning questions through practice, but even a Ghost King has his weaknesses.” Hua Cheng’s voice comes out carefree, but rough at the edges. His smile is gentle in its mischievousness.

Xie Lian’s eyes crinkle at the edges. “Does he now?”

“Hm, he does.”

Xie Lian squints thoughtfully before offering a final turn of his hips. Hua Cheng groans, placating his hands on Xie Lian to stop him from moving.

“Gege. . .” Hua Cheng says in mock admonishment, though there’s a distinct level of desperation hiding behind it. “Cheeky.”

Xie Lian hides another laugh behind his hand, pleased with his achievements. Hua Cheng’s eye grows impossibly soft, and Xie Lian lowers his hand seriously.

“Do you still want to go further?” Hua Cheng asks, and the sheer affection in his tone might make Xie Lian’s heart burst. “We don’t have to, if you’ve changed your mind.”

“I haven’t,” Xie Lian assures him, shaking his head. He can’t stop smiling, can’t stop thinking how lucky he is, to have someone who minds his comfort so much. “How do you prefer. . .”

“Whatever way gege wants.”

“You have me, then.” Xie Lian can’t believe he’s said that—his self-awareness might swallow him whole.

Truly, he would like to treat Hua Cheng as well as Hua Cheng does him, but. . . if he lets Hua Cheng have him first, he can take notes, and embarrass himself less when he returns the favor later. A foolproof plan.

Hua Cheng’s eye is dark; hungry as he looks at Xie Lian splayed bare for him, yet a tender adoration too great for words flows alongside it. Xie Lian tries for a moment to understand it, before deciding it doesn’t matter. Whether he does understand it or not, the result tonight will remain the same; they’ll have fun, and it'll make Heaven pale in comparison.

“Alright gege.” He leaves a light kiss to the side of Xie Lian’s mouth, then to his lips, before he moves a pillow under Xie Lian’s lower back. “I’m going to prepare you. Don't be nervous, try to relax.”

“I trust you,” Xie Lian says. He reaches for Hua Cheng’s hand, gives it a squeeze.

The oil’s scent is so strong it floats right to Xie Lian’s nose before he even sees the bottle; it’s different from the one Hua Cheng uses for his massages. The fragrance is delicate, flowery.

“This oil smells good,” Xie Lian remarks. “It’s really nice, San Lang.”

“Mmh.” Hua Cheng leans down to kiss his stomach. “Only the best for gege.”

“How come you have all this?”

Hua Cheng hums. “You told me you might want to try this someday. I couldn’t disappoint you if you asked.”

“My San Lang could never disappoint me.”

Xie Lian watches as Hua Cheng coats two of his fingers with oil. He exclaims when, too fast to be stopped, Hua Cheng paths a freezing cold finger from the center of Xie Lian’s sternum to his belly button.

“San Lang!”

A low chuckle escapes Hua Cheng. “I’m sorry gege, I couldn’t resist.”

At that, Hua Cheng locks eyes with him, and his expression turns serious.

“If it hurts or you change your mind, tell me and I’ll stop.”

Xie Lian knows better than to remind Hua Cheng the pain wouldn’t affect him at all, and he nods. But, it’s reassuring to know it doesn’t have to hurt.

What does hurt, however, is how much Hua Cheng takes his time.

It’s strange, at first, but Hua Cheng opens him up expertly, distracting him. He sometimes comes back up for a kiss, and Xie Lian likes to keep him there, covering his face with his attention until Hua Cheng reluctantly parts from him, promising to return.

He adds a second finger, murmured praises spilling from his tongue. In the end, Xie Lian blushes more from that than the unusual intrusion.

Suddenly, Hua Cheng’s fingers brush something that sends stars through his vision, and he muffles a cry, his eyes widening at the sensation. Hua Cheng looks enthusiastic, and continues, though he now avoids that spot entirely.

This is, without doubt, the most delightful of tortures.

“San Lang, surely it’s enough now?” Xie Lian’s voice is hoarse from the disuse of words, and he’s surprised to find he’s impatient. He thinks, if it were to last any longer, he will break before they can even get to it. Would Hua Cheng’s unhurried ministrations not kill him, the curiosity will if, after all this, it doesn’t get the chance to be satisfied tonight.

“I have to; if it isn’t enough, I’ll hurt you,” Hua Cheng resolutely says, and Xie Lian needs not hear anything else. He accepts his fate, letting out a shaking breath that turns into a sound not so foreign anymore when soon after, Hua Cheng’s oiled fingers push further in. They slide smoothly, making Xie Lian shiver from the pent-up pressure swirling in his chest, his toes curling.

Hua Cheng sends him a questioning look, to which Xie Lian smiles.

Before he puts Xie Lian’s leg over his shoulder—Xie Lian is quite proud of his flexibility—Hua Cheng places a kiss on his ankle, where his cursed shackle used to be. He lines himself up, and Xie Lian trembles at the feeling; anticipation building up like a tidal wave.

“Your Highness?”

Hua Cheng’s voice is cautious, sincere, and the words are said with so much love that it forms a knot of emotion in Xie Lian’s throat.

“San Lang,” he pants. “Please?”

A tender look and finally, slowly, Hua Cheng pushes in.

It’s a forgettable discomfort at first, a good burn that becomes an all-encompassing bliss that makes his body arch and his mouth open in a silent gasp.

Xie Lian’s thoughts go blank, focused on the stretch, all that he’s sharing with Hua Cheng, and nothing else. Giving himself to Hua Cheng in this way—it’s the sweetest devastation. It’s good. It’s right.

Hua Cheng takes the time he pauses to let Xie Lian adjust to pepper his leg in kisses, murmuring sweet nothings, the brush of his fingertips careful but purposeful.

And then—then he begins to move, and Xie Lian’s lost in paradise.

Oh, this is a different kind of worship entirely; it simultaneously makes him forget himself, and reminds him, like many of his and Hua Cheng’s physical activities, that his once broken body, a vehicle for suffering, can be given something other than the pain it’s so often been subjected to.

Though Hua Cheng starts slow, he finds the perfect pace: one that allows him to control the snap of his hips with precision, and have Xie Lian hear his admirations between the noises they’re both making, the sighs that escape Xie Lian.

Hua Cheng’s arms encircle him, lifting Xie Lian’s waist slightly higher. This way, he slows and bends down to kiss and suck at his nipples, before simply resting his forehead on Xie Lian’s chest, hair splayed out, resuming the pace as Xie Lian wraps his legs around his waist, edging him closer.

“Ah—San Lang,” Xie Lian chokes out. “You’re very good at this? How come you’re so good at this?”

Hua Cheng glances up, and smirks. “Don’t you know, gege? I read a lot.”

Like that’s all. Xie Lian laughs. He gives a small, weightless slap to Hua Cheng’s shoulder, just as Hua Cheng hits the spot that sends Xie Lian’s body arching again, and the slap becomes a vice-like grip. “Oh.”

Xie Lian clenches around him; Hua Cheng quakes.

“There?”

“Yes. Yes, there.”

He finds it a second time, and Xie Lian cries out, his vision blurry, one hand grasping uselessly at the sheets, the other on Hua Cheng’s wrist like it’s a lifeline. His legs tighten about Hua Cheng’s waist, trying to intensify the sweltering ache that’s risen all the way to his throat, inviting Hua Cheng impossibly deeper.

From then, Hua Cheng balances the aim of his thrusts, catching his name in Xie Lian’s mouth with his own.

In a brief instant of clearheadedness, Xie Lian makes the resolution that while he’s glad to let Hua Cheng fulfill his wish of tending to him tonight, he is going to worship Hua Cheng just as well someday.

Hua Cheng has always treated his body with the utmost devotion, but there’s an even stronger emotion to his lovemaking now. Hua Cheng’s not scared to break him, but every touch, every burst of pleasure that he sends coursing through him, Xie Lian gets the sense that Hua Cheng is trying to ease his body’s past sufferings.

The thought makes Xie Lian’s eyes burn. Hua Cheng notices, but Xie Lian smiles before he can worry. “I’m fine,” he says. “Ah—better than fine.”

Heat is building up, and up, and up. Soon, he’s unrestrained. Xie Lian doesn’t let Hua Cheng only make love to him anymore; he meets him halfway as he cradles Hua Cheng’s face between his hands. He kisses his eyelid, followed by his lips, deep and earnest until he’s frantic for air.

“San Lang.”

Hearing his urgency, Hua Cheng picks up the pace as he chases both their completions, gege and San Lang repeated like holy words, gasped and whispered, intertwined through hot breaths.

“San Lang, I—”

“I know,” Hua Cheng interrupts softly, and he abandons Xie Lian’s lower back to take him in hand, urging him on as he exclusively focuses on that sensitive spot at the same time. “Gege, let go.”

Xie Lian loses himself entirely, safe in the knowledge that wherever he ends up from here, Hua Cheng will be there to catch him.

Xie Lian releases first with a last cry of Hua Cheng’s name, and upon hearing it, Hua Cheng follows with his head in the crook of Xie Lian’s neck, a moan muffled in his hair.

As Hua Cheng lies on Xie Lian’s chest for a little while, his own rises and falls with the calming rhythm of Xie Lian’s breathing. He pulls out, eagerly kissing Xie Lian; his lips, then between his brows, repeated tender pecks.

They bask in the quiet, the time necessary for Xie Lian to regain his senses.

Their eyes meet, and Xie Lian can’t help tucking stray strands of hair away from Hua Cheng’s face, so he can better admire it. Hua Cheng is always handsome, but—with his features relaxed, the affection plain in his eye, the slight dampness of his hair. . . he’s truly beautiful like this.

“Gege, how do you feel?” Hua Cheng asks quietly as, ever so gently, he caresses the side of Xie Lian’s face. “I hope you’re not disappointed—is your curiosity satisfied?”

Xie Lian laughs. He’s not sure why, but he does, and he’s happy. “Very much so.” Truthfully, the thought of doing it again in the future doesn’t sound so bad. “And good. I feel very good. There’s truly nothing San Lang isn’t skilled at,” he says playfully, though he still doesn’t dare look at the mess he made. Then he grows solemn. It was also Hua Cheng's first time doing this, after all. “Was it alright for you as well?”

Hua Cheng gazes down at him, an elbow above Xie Lian’s shoulder and his head propped in his hand.

“In this one’s humble opinion, perfect would be more appropriate.”

Xie Lian flushes. “I really didn’t do anything, though.”

“Nonsense,” Hua Cheng murmurs. “Besides, just being yourself is enough.”

Xie Lian hides his face behind his hands before he can turn redder than Hua Cheng’s usual choice of clothing.

“Gege, don’t be embarrassed, it’s the truth.”

With that, a warm, wet cloth rubs gently at the skin of his stomach. Xie Lian doesn’t know where it comes from, and has long since learned not to ask. Hua Cheng takes his time cleaning him up, humming. Now, he knows this part, and it might be the one that he cherishes most; Hua Cheng’s worship of his body is as Divine as three-thousand lanterns set through the night sky. Tonight, Hua Cheng proved he could take it on a different step which, Xie Lian has to admit, he hadn’t thought possible, despite having gotten a taste for it over the months.

When Hua Cheng is done, he kisses the tip of Xie Lian's nose.

“How does gege feel about a bath?”

Xie Lian smiles for an answer, and Hua Cheng snaps his fingers. Somewhere in the manor, a little ghost must be hurriedly drawing a bath, nervously following Hua Cheng’s precise instructions.

Meanwhile, Xie Lian cuddles up, drawing Hua Cheng into his arms.

They could simply lie there for all eternity, and he’d be content.

“It must be ready now, let’s go,” he says later through a yawn.

“Mmh.” Hua Cheng hugs Xie Lian petulantly, not willing to let go. “But gege is so comfortable?”

Despite Hua Cheng’s words and though he misses the warmth right away, Xie Lian disentangles from Hue Cheng’s grip and gets out of the bed, rolling his eyes fondly. He stumbles a bit, not expecting his legs to be so wobbly, his waist sore.

Playing along with his childish temper, Xie Lian all but drags Hua Cheng out of bed.

Xie Lian slips into the bath first. The water’s hot and, when Hua Cheng tips in some bath oil, it smells of flowers.

Hua Cheng joins him, and washes him, using a cloth and soap, a cup to pick up water and pour it over Xie Lian’s head, shielding his eyes with his hand. The feeling of Hua Cheng massaging his scalp with skillful fingers sends him to another plane of paradise, soothing and familiar. His hands ache to do the same, and it’s only his patience that allows him to wait until Hua Cheng’s done, enjoying every second of the attention bestowed upon him.

When he’s finished, Hua Cheng peppers kisses over Xie Lian’s spine. Xie Lian glances over his shoulder to give him a smile.

“Turn around, please?”

Hua Cheng obeys. Their backs are pressed together, and Xie Lian tips his head until it rests on the base of Hua Cheng’s neck. He closes his eyes, smiling.

“San Lang?”

“Yes, gege?”

“Thank you.”

There’s a pause, devoid of any weight. Xie Lian listens to his breath, the clip-clop of the water against the edges of the bathtub as he moves, adjusting his position.

“Why does Your Highness thank me?” Hua Cheng asks, voice temperate.

“For loving me,” Xie Lian says earnestly. “All of me.” There’s so much he wants to say, but those words say enough for now. He likes to know he’s got eternity to speak them all.

“Then it is I who should thank you for doing the same,” Hua Chang replies in a heartbeat, though his tone is still low.

Xie Lian frowns. When Hua Cheng says it, it doesn’t feel so right.

Hua Cheng lets out a small laugh. Though he doesn’t see it, Xie Lian hears Hua Cheng’s matching smile as he adds, without a second for Xie Lian to protest, “See? There’s no need for thanks. Gege, loving you is the easiest thing in the world.”

Xie Lian feels a warmth pool in his heart that has nothing to do with the bath. Hua Cheng has said many things of the sort during their time together, but now, he finds that he doesn’t know what to say. It’s one thing to love and be loved; it’s another to be able to put one’s trust in someone, and never be afraid. In place of words, Xie Lian shifts, some of the water splashing out of the tub, and he lays a kiss on the spot where his head rested a moment before.

He then takes the cup, coursing water over Hua Cheng’s hair. They’ve bathed together countless times before, yet Xie Lian never grows tired of it. He loves the sheer intimacy of washing each other; the care with which Hua Cheng tends to him, listens to him, cleans sweat and dirt on his feet from a day well spent in paddy fields, and doing the same in kind—how the world seems to still as they talk in hushed voices, like speaking louder would break an invisible veil, their laughter alone allowed to disturb it.

After, he sets his chin on Hua Cheng’s shoulder and embraces him. The water is getting colder, but he doesn’t mind.

When Xie Lian sleepily asks if next time, Hua Cheng wouldn’t mind having him be on top, Hua Cheng shudders. As he brings Xie Lian’s hand to his mouth for a kiss, it’s in the shape of a keen smile.

That’s good; Xie Lian believes he’s taken enough notes.