Xie Lian is standing on the battlefield, while Xian Le and Yong An clash around him. There’s blood on his white robes, splattered across his face and dripping from his sword. The air smells like iron. Something knocks against his ankle and Xie Lian looks down to see a fresh corpse slide to a stop against his leg. A Yong An soldier shouts in victory. Xie Lian cuts him down without glancing at him and kneels down to the corpse.
He grasps it by the shoulder and rolls it over to look upon the face of a young San Lang.
Xie Lian doesn’t wake up screaming, doesn’t wake up making any sound at all. He just opens his eyes and stays exactly where he is, paralyzed. His heart is heavy in his chest.
He knows where he is. He also knows he doesn’t deserve to be there.
Their bedroom was an opulent space, something like Xie Lian would have expected back when he was crown prince. It had been like this since Xie Lian first stepped foot inside of it, though he suspected it had not always been this way.
He wonders what else in Hua Cheng has changed in his life for Xie Lian.
He brings his hands up to cover his face and finds his cheeks warm and wet. The tears must have leaked out without his noticing. He wonders what else he hasn’t noticed.
Hua Cheng’s love is a vast and impossible thing and Xie Lian feels lost in it sometimes, consumed by it, undeserving of it. He loves Hua Cheng back with an intensity that scares him, but Hua Cheng is worthy of every bit of his love. Hua Cheng is brilliant and brave and strong. Every action in his life was because of love, and a determination to protect his beloved.
Xie Lian has made a million choices in his hundreds of years of life, and he has chosen the wrong path again and again. His mind skips over the worst of them usually. Even eight hundred years was not enough to process them so that they don’t hurt him still.
Today, Xie Lian curses his cowardice and forces himself to remember.
Where to even begin? His people were the first to see him as he really is when he descended to defend them. He had killed so many from Yong An and caused the death of even more of his own people. They hated him for it. It was the first time he’d ever been hated. It was the first time Hua Cheng died for him.
Mu Qing was next, leaving him to rot while he returned to the heavens. Feng Xin was next, shoved away by Xie Lian when Xie Lian was almost at his lowest.
Then there were his parents. Dead because Xie Lian couldn’t provide for them, couldn’t prove he wasn’t crazy.
He had failed to protect the people trapped with him and White No Face within the temple.
He failed everyone he met over the next couple years, brought calamity wherever he went. When it was all over, Hua Cheng was dead again.
Xie Lian deserves all the loneliness he felt in those eight hundred years of wandering.
Xie Lian remembers how lonely he felt and feels something in his chest crack a little bit. He had made so many mistakes and always considered his time alone to be his punishment for those mistakes. He’s been abandoned again and again by people he trusted: Mu Qing, Feng Xin, his parents, Jun Wu. It had always felt like something he deserved.
Xie Lian’s hands are wet with his tears, which leak from his eyes and down his cheeks despite his best efforts to contain them.
Gentle hands grasp his, pulling them back to expose Xie Lian’s face. Hua Cheng looks down at him, face kind and concerned. He’s so handsome, his eyepatch removed for sleep. The orange light of early morning is spilling in through the window, painting light across Hua Cheng’s features. Judging by the angle, it’s only been a short few hours since they fell asleep.
Xie Lian must be so ugly right now, red in the face, eyes bloodshot and nose leaking. He tries to tug his hands back and when Hua Cheng will not let go, he turns to hide his face in the pillow.
“Gege,” Hua Cheng says softly. “Did you have a bad dream?”
There’s a harshness under his gentle exterior, like a blade wrapped in silk. Xie Lian knows that if he admits to a bad dream, Hua Cheng will throw himself into research on how to ensure his god only ever dreams sweet dreams. Xie Lian wants that, wants to see Hua Cheng prove how much he loves Xie Lian again and again and he hates himself for it.
“No,” Xie Lian says. His voice is strained.
“Gege,” Hua Cheng sighs. He collapses down onto Xie Lian’s front, resting his chin on his chest. His breath puffs across the exposed skin of Xie Lian’s neck. “Tell me what has caused you distress.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Xie Lian says. “I’m fine.”
He’s not. Hua Cheng leans up to kiss the tears from his face.
“What hurt you?” Hua Cheng asks.
Xie Lian squeezes his eyes shut against Hua Cheng’s love and kindness. He only succeeds in spilling more tears. How is Hua Cheng supposed to protect him from himself?
“I did,” he says when the silence stretches on unbearably. “I just remembered everything again.”
It’s always him hurting himself.
Hua Cheng exhales, air rushing softly over Xie Lian’s cheek.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to protect you,” Hua Cheng says. “I failed Dianxia.”
“No!” Xie Lian shouts and he turns back to look at Hua Cheng, desperate that Hua Cheng understand. Xie Lian’s failures are all his own. “Hua Cheng has never been at fault.”
Hua Cheng presses his forehead against Xie Lian’s.
“I wish I could have been there for you more,” Hua Cheng says. “Just so you knew you weren’t alone.”
He had been so relentlessly alone.
But he will never be that alone again. Even if he is undeserving of his love, he has Hua Cheng, forever. The pain in Xie Lian’s heart begins to soften. He has committed his crimes and suffered his punishment. It’s over now. He can only hope he does better in the future.
The tears start to slow but Xie Lian is reminded again of how expansive Hua Cheng’s love is, and how unfit he is to receive it.
“San Lang,” he says and it sounds like a cry for help.
“Gege,” Hua Cheng says and presses forward to kiss Xie Lian’s trembling lips. “How do I show you how I see you? How do I prove to you that I love you, not regardless of your past, but because of it? It’s part of you and I love every single part of you.”
A sob rips its way up Xie Lian’s throat. He wraps his arm tight around Hua Cheng’s neck, pulling him in closer so he can kiss away the pain.
Hua Cheng slides his arms under Xie Lian’s back, arching his chest upwards so they’re pressed together from lips to toes.
Xie Lian’s tears dry and he relaxes in Hua Cheng’s grasp. He’s safe here. The pain is in the past. He’s safe as long as he has Hua Cheng, as long as Hua Cheng can put up with his past cowardice and failures.
He has to trust Hua Cheng at his word but it's hard to do when Xie Lian hates himself so much for his past failures. It’s hard to wrap his head around the idea that those same failures could be something he’s loved for. He just has to trust Hua Cheng.
Xie Lian tilts his head and deeps their kiss. Hua Cheng makes a small noise of surprise as Xie Lian slides his tongue into Hua Cheng’s mouth, running over a small fang and against Hua Cheng’s own tongue. Hua Cheng changes his grip on Xie Lian, sliding his hands lower to grasp Xie Lian’s backside and tilt his hips up to press against Hua Cheng’s thigh.
“Gege, are you sure?” Hua Cheng asks, his voice strained. Xie Lian knows his mood change must be surprising but Xie Lian wants to feel the proof of Hua Cheng’s love. Xie Lian knows he could say no and Hua Cheng would pull back and let him go. But he doesn’t want Hua Cheng to go anywhere, he wants him here with him right now.
“Kiss me,” Xie Lian commands and Hua Cheng obeys. Xie Lian wraps his arms even tighter around his husband. Hua Cheng smiles against his mouth before pulling away to kiss the last of Xie Lian’s tears from his face. Xie Lian slides his hands up into Hua Cheng’s hair and guides his lips back where he wants them.
Hua Cheng makes an appreciative noise against Xie Lian’s mouth. Xie Lian tightens his grip and Hua Cheng moans. A shiver works its way down Xie Lian’s body.
They kiss as the heat rises in Xie Lian’s body until he has to pull away to drink in the cool morning air. Hua Cheng, who only needs air when he feels like it, moves down to kiss across Xie Lian’s jaw and neck. He squeezes his handful of Xie Lian’s ass and Xie Lian’s hips jerk forward in surprise, pressing hard against Hua Cheng’s thigh.
Xie Lian cries out and Hua Cheng bites at the side of his neck, leaving a red mark well above his collar.
“I wish Gege could see himself the way I see him,” Hua Cheng says. “You’re so beautiful and strong and kind. I will never stop loving you.”
Xie Lian closes his eyes and tries to see himself that way. It’s difficult.
“I want to show Gege how I see him,” Hua Cheng says and a familiar light tinkling sound fills the air.
Xie Lian opens his eyes to see a cloud of wraith butterflies hovering over their bed. Reflected in their silver wings is the image of Hua Cheng wrapped around Xie Lian.
His ears burn but he doesn’t look away. If Hua Cheng wants him to see this, Xie Lian can conquer his embarrassment.
For Hua Cheng, he could conquer anything.
In the reflection, his own face is mottled red from crying and his lips are swollen from Hua Cheng’s kisses. He looks like a mess so he turns his gaze to Hua Cheng.
His husband’s shoulders are broad and his waist is narrow. He looks like the pinnacle of a young man, and he says Xie Lian is beautiful. Xie Lian exhales softly and looks at how his pale fingers are tangled in Hua Cheng’s inky hair.
He pulls Hua Cheng in tighter and Hua Cheng rewards him with another mark.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, hips starting to work against Hua Cheng’s thigh without his conscious decision. It feels so incandescently good to be close to Hua Cheng.
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng, leaning back to look down at Xie Lian with a familiar pleased smirk.
“San Lang, I want more,” Xie Lian says and Hua Cheng’s eye squeezes shut for a moment.
“Of course, gege,” Hua Cheng says and he slides further down Xie Lian’s body until Xie Lian is no longer pressed against his thigh. Instead, when Xie Lian presses upward, Hua Cheng grinds down to meet him and they both sigh at the pleasure.
Hua Cheng frees one hand to undo the knot in Xie Lian’s belt. Xie Lian reaches down to help him and they pull Xie Lian’s robes aside together.
He looks up and sees the image he makes, all pale skin sprawled across pale robes, his dark hair spilling across the sheets. He watches the way Hua Cheng rolls his hips to grind them together, Xie Lian’s sensitive skin rubbing against the soft cloth of Hua Cheng’s robe.
Xie Lian is struck by a sudden desire to see their bodies more clearly so he tugs at Hua Cheng’s robe. Hua Cheng pulls back just long enough to rip his robe off and toss it away.
Now Xie Lian can see the long, lithe line of Hua Cheng’s body. Small scars are scattered here and there across his back. Xie Lian himself has more scars but Xie Lian was spending everyday training with swords. Most of Hua Cheng’s scars are too irregular to have been made by a weapon, earned instead by the harsh life he’d lived before his death.
One day, Xie Lian will take his time to kiss every one of Hua Cheng’s scars and will hear the story behind them all. For now, his eyes linger on the silvery marks.
Hua Cheng’s hands have slid under Xie Lian again and it strikes Xie Lian that Hua Cheng is embracing him, but he is not embracing Hua Cheng. He shifts around on the bed under Hua Cheng, sliding his legs to the sides and up so that he can cling to Hua Cheng with his thighs.
Hua Cheng leans up to press a kiss under Xie Lian’s chin and reaches a hand down to wrap around them both. Hua Cheng’s fingers are long and strong and his grip has Xie Lian melting back into the bed.
It’s so good to feel Hua Cheng’s length against his own, to feel the way Hua Cheng’s hips work between his thighs. The pleasure rises in waves inside of him, threatening to crest soon but Xie Lian wants more.
“San Lang, inside,” Xie Lian says. He blushes, still too new to all of this to demand what he wants with confidence.
Hua Cheng’s hand and hips stutter to a stop.
“Please,” Xie Lian says and Hua Cheng ducks his head down, hiding his face as he makes a small, wounded noise.
Lips press against his sternum.
“Anything for Gege,” Hua Cheng says. He sits back on his knees and guides Xie Lian’s knees to release from around his hips. He guides Xie Lian’s hands to hold his legs by his chest. Xie Lian feels exposed and looks away from Hua Cheng, turning his head to the side.
The kaleidoscope of butterflies has expanded, fully surrounding them so that everywhere he looks he sees his reflection staring back. The butterflies are flying so close together that he can no longer see the rest of their room. They’re wrapped in a silver cocoon, trapped in a small world all of their own.
He watches as Hua Cheng stretches a hand outside the butterflies and returns with a small bottle of oil.
Hua Cheng’s body blocks his view but he can feel as Hua Cheng presses two slick fingers inside of him. He slides in easily, still stretched out from their activities hours before. They’d stayed up almost the whole night wrapped up in each other.
Xie Lian clings to Hua Cheng’s shoulders as Hua Cheng works him open quickly. Usually, it takes forever for Hua Cheng to open him up, refusing to cause Xie Lian any spark of pain. He’s already relaxed now and Hua Cheng presses in with three fingers after a couple of thrusts. Xie Lian takes them easily.
Hua Cheng spends a few minutes spreading Xie Lian open before he withdraws his hand and moves closer between Xie Lian’s legs.
Xie Lian moves like they’re sparing, gripping Hua Cheng’s hips with his knees and flipping them over. They crash gently into the wall of butterflies, which hurriedly rearrange around them, undamaged. Hua Cheng stares up at Xie Lian like he’s looking at his god and Xie Lian feels like a god, more than he ever did upon any of his ascensions. Xie Lian props himself but by his fingertips on Hua Cheng’s chest, sitting up tall and proud above him.
Around them, he sees himself reflected a thousand times, regal and lovely. The new marks on his neck are staining his skin a deep purple, blending in with marks Hua Cheng left the night before. He looks desired and beloved.
“Inside,” he repeats and Hua Cheng hastily grabs his own cock to hold it in position for Xie Lian to slide down onto.
Xie Lian lowers himself in one long slow motion, sinking straight down until he’s sitting on Hua Cheng’s hips. Hua Cheng makes a choking noise and when Xie Lian pulls his gaze away from the butterflies, Hua Cheng is staring straight at him. They make eye contact as Xie Lian flexes around him and then Hua Cheng’s eyes are fluttering shut with a groan. He chooses to breathe during sex even though he doesn’t need to because he knows Xie Lian likes the sounds he makes. Everything he does is to bring Xie Lian happiness.
He breathes in a shaky breath, perilously close to crying again and raises himself up. Hua Cheng looks at him again and brings his hands up to grip Xia Lian’s fingers. Xie Lian grips him back and starts to ride him in earnest.
“Dianxia,” Hua Cheng calls and Xie Lian grips his fingers tighter. He can hear Hua Cheng echoing in their communication array, and then in a small prayer Hua Cheng makes to him.
Dianxia, dianxia, dianxia.
He wants to make this last but he’s so close already, body chasing pleasure faster and faster as his thighs start to heat up. One day, Xie Lian will ride Hua Cheng until his thighs ache, but not today.
Instead he moves their hands to his hips. Hua Cheng catches on quickly, gripping Xie Lian tightly and planting his feet on the bed so he can meet Xie Lian with each thrust. The force bounces Xie Lian up and down, his hair swaying around him.
The pleasure rises in him, locking down his muscles in a wave from his head to his toes. He falters in his movements, kept upright only by Hua Cheng’s hands as he curls in on himself and comes with a shout, painting white across Hua Cheng’s chest.
Hua Cheng follows him over the edge, silent except for a couple reverent curses Xie Lian can hear in his prayers. Xie Lian sags down onto his chest as Hua Cheng’s cock twitches inside of him. He plants his face in the crook of Hua Cheng’s neck and Hua Cheng’s hands come up to rub soothing circles into his back.
Truly, Xie Lian could not be more loved.