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Not a Flower, Nor a Set of Paintings

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There’s only so many years Xie Lian can stay in a small town and feign ignorance toward claims of his unaging body.

Village life is where he thrives these days, he finds. Compassion is abundant, and communities are tight-knit. After the first few weeks of making oneself known, it’s easy to slip into the gifting of fruit and porridge and trading of services for mutual benefit. 

Growing up in the centre of the world had stained him, perhaps. Being the prized flower in the middle of that garden, even more so. 

Of course, now, bustling cities provide him all the mindless anonymity an immortal could ever need—he’d spent nearly forty years in a walled city-state once, shuffling a dozen li to the east or west every decade. Nobody was the wiser. His gut is telling him it’s time for another such change. 

It’s a little sad, knowing the next half-lifetime will be spent fading into the background again, but he brushes it off with a shrug and silently bids this little village goodbye. 

Xie Lian has heard tell of a burgeoning kingdom. Due northeast from here, not too far. 

During his travels, he comes to realize this kingdom must be rather near where Xian Le used to stand. He hasn’t been since… 

He hasn’t been. 

Day by day, Xie Lian picks up on the changing vegetation, the moisture in the air, the fluctuating dialects of the people around him. When the similarities begin to make his skin itch, he heads south, taking a detour. 

Two full days after that, on the brink of sunset, there’s still no sight of the kingdom. Xie Lian wipes his brow and drops a straw mat at his feet, already scanning the area for even ground. 

Just past the tree line, he spots a curious trail—worn by the feet of many, but clearly not wide or obvious enough to be used for trade. A frown wrinkles Xie Lian’s brow as he follows it. Sunset has hardly begun, and the sky is thick and orange enough for him to easily make his way through the trees. 

It’s curious—at times the path simply ends, then continues again three or four bu ahead. At other points, the trail leads into a broad-trunked tree then continues on the other side, with no apparent disturbance to the grass on either side. 

After a while Xie Lian emerges from the forest to a heavy sun already half swallowed by the horizon. It paints the valley before him a sleepy gold. This seems as good a place as any to rest for the night—isolated with moderate cover. 

It’s only then that Xie Lian realizes: he’d left his straw mat on the road back through the forest. A sigh floats away on the wind. 

Xie Lian strips his outer robe off and lays it across a patch of grass, sitting and pulling a bun from his sleeve. He chews, and the leaves above him rustle, and the sky flashes a wave of blinding crimson— 

Wait. 

Xie Lian looks around wildly only to find a… a… 

Can it be called a city when it’s functionally just an impossibly long street? Bright lanterns are crammed onto every eave, under which storefronts boast everything from sweet and sour soups to human eyes and tongues encased in amber. 

Xie Lian hastily slips back into his robe and dusts it off. Two women are leaving just as he slips in, one of whom is stained from throat to waist with blood, and the other of which has gone eerily blue down to the tips of her fingers. 

Ghosts. 

Xie Lian licks his lips and takes a discreet glance at the nearby stalls. Long, lolling tongues, bulging eyes, and dangling earlobes tell him everything he needs to know. 

Never before has Xie Lian’s misfortune landed him in a den of the undead—this is certainly new. Ruoye wriggles at his wrist, reacting to the elevated pace of his heart. 

But his well-meaning cloth friend has it wrong—Xie Lian isn’t afraid, he’s thrilled. 

Such an exotic collection of goods and creatures alike! Cultivation usually leads him to subdue or liberate ghosts, but never to spend time amidst their society! 

The sun has set, and alongside the stars are frantic will-o’-wisps bounding through the air. Xie Lian meanders through the stalls, stopping every now and then, until he notices one shop that’s empty save for its proprietor. 

Unlike the others, there’s nothing grotesque, or otherworldly, or even mildly odd about this store—it’s a simple flower shop. 

No… that’s not quite true. 

While the front is lined with a handful of tasteful bouquets, most of the store is filled with single-stemmed blossoms. Some stray into pale pinks or blues, but the vast majority are an innocent white. Pearlescent, feathered, snowy—but all white, and all unequalled in beauty. Xie Lian takes them in with wide eyes that soon enough land on the shopkeeper. 

He’s a handsome young man with a long braid over his shoulder and a red and silver robe, seemingly caught up in his own thoughts. His fingers are curling, lazy but deft, and Xie Lian notices another flower taking shape between them. He’s crafting them from spiritual power.  

“Excuse me,” he says, and the man—boy?—looks up. “Your work is very beautiful, what an amazing craft you have. Um… Do you know of anywhere I can stay the night free of charge?” He smiles sweetly. “I don’t have any money, ah, but I’m happy to do some work in or around the inn to earn my stay. Chop wood, or clean, or…” Xie Lian trails off. 

The young man is staring at him. He looks as though he’s been struck—by an open palm or lightning—eyes wide, verging on… frightened? 

Does Xie Lian give off an unnerving scent to ghosts? Is his presence too blatantly human? 

Xie Lian clears his throat and takes a step back. “Sorry, I can go elsewhere.” 

But before he can make it any further, the man stands abruptly and holds out his hand. In it is the newly-formed white blossom with layers of lush petals bursting from the stem. The man’s lips twitch before he gently says, “For you.” His eyes are bright; genuine. 

Xie Lian smiles in thanks and dips his head to examine the flower. From behind his back, a dainty butterfly, clearly also something hailing from the realm of the dead, lands on a dipped petal and tickles his knuckle with its wing. It shines in the night, reflecting lantern light off its back. 

“Hello,” Xie Lian coos, lifting his finger to give it a perch. Instead of accepting the offer, though, it flutters up and brushes his cheek before continuing higher into the night sky. 

When Xie Lian looks around a moment later, the shop is empty. The street behind him is only growing busier, though, and Xie Lian doesn’t dedicate too much thought to one ghost vanishing into thin air. 

As the moon crawls higher, full and yellow, this city of ghosts awakens completely. Perhaps he has less chance of finding an inn than he’d hoped. He tucks the flower behind his ear and starts to scan the street for any sort of temporary residence. 

Hybrid monsters holler and howl, selling their wares, but it all fades to background noise. One creature with big swollen cheeks and stringy hair knocks into him and Xie Lian quietly apologizes, before reevaluating. 

“…Pardon!” 

The ghost turns back around, but his exaggerated features make it difficult to decipher his expression. 

“Whaddya want from me?” he wheezes. 

“What is this place?” 

“Huh? How’d ya get into Ghost City without knowing where yer going!? That’s a dishonour on chengzhu! I’d drag ya out to apologize if our lord didn’t hate being bothered.” He spits off to the side and struts away with what Xie Lian assumes is disdain. 

Ghost City? Aptly named. And their city master sounds like the self-righteous type, so probably best to avoid him. 

He finally notices something inn-like wedged between two rival dumpling stalls. When he peeks inside, however, he finds it to be a single room, the walls and floor of which are all overlaid with fine ink paintings. The skill and craftsmanship is juxtaposed by the sloppy hanging technique. The subjects vary from still life, to landscape, to portrait, all rendered with careful strokes, but some more careful than others. 

A man sits in the centre of the room at a low table with several colours of ink on one side, and an empty length of paper on the other. He’s tapping the end of the brush’s handle against his lips in consideration. 

“The first stroke, the commitment, is always the most difficult part,” he murmurs, eyes on his paper. 

Xie Lian takes it as an invitation and steps into the room. “What about deciding which stroke is the last?” 

“My art never quite compares to my subjects, so I don’t worry myself with perfection.” With that, he puts brush to paper and inks his first stroke. 

His robe is a deep wine colour and his hair is tied up and punctured with an ominous black piece. It’s a severe sort of elegance. Probably something that would make even a common human taste evil at the back of their throat. 

Xie Lian hums, “But your paintings are all very beautiful, regardless of perfection.” 

That finally makes the man look up. His eyes dazzle—a little mischievous, a little wondrous. They flick from Xie Lian’s face, to the flower in his hair, and back. “…Thank you. I’m curious, which is your favourite?” 

The question catches Xie Lian off guard but he begins to dutifully stroll around, inspecting each painting. Many overlap, some are crinkled or torn, but each is entirely unique. He nods his approval as he peruses, sometimes commenting, “how lovely,” or “so detailed!” 

Until he reaches one corner, and his tongue goes numb in his mouth. The painting is a beautiful cityscape, with grand walls and pagodas rising from the horizon, all centred around an ostentatious palace. Xie Lian looks back at the artist, still eyeing his work in progress. 

“How… When did you paint this?” 

No matter how he looks at it, this is a painting of Xian Le. While his memories have blurred around the edges, it’s difficult to forget the home one was raised in. The layout is precise. Even Xie Lian would have forgotten the exact height and placement of the Celestial Pagoda, but looking at it now, he knows it’s right. It’s still in its glory here, the way it should be remembered. 

The painter catches his eye. “A while ago. I paint people’s stories, and I’ve heard from many storytellers.” He stands and walks up next to Xie Lian with a casual stride. “Why? Would you like it?” 

Xie Lian’s eyes linger on the shape of the city. “I wouldn’t want to seize someone else’s memory.” 

“Memories are meant to be shared, aren’t they?” he hums. 

“Ah…” Xie Lian roots around in his sleeves even though he already knows their contents. “I don’t have any money.” 

“No charge,” he replies. “Your happiness is worth more than you could pay for this.” 

Xie Lian is taken aback. “…Forgive my forthrightness, but I’ve met quite a few ghosts in my life and that sentiment doesn’t sound very… ghostly.” 

He doesn’t seem surprised by Xie Lian’s admission that he himself isn’t a ghost. Neither does he seem offended. Instead, he chuckles. 

“Make no mistake, I’m certainly a creature of vitriol and hostility. Greedy, cruel… venomous.” He says it with a teasing edge that makes Xie Lian want to share his smile. “But I’m not fuelled by hatred, so you can still consider me a step above most of the scum in this city.” 

Vengeful ghosts are almost always the most powerful, and those who stick around for the longest. 

“Even your chengzhu?” Xie Lian prods. 

The artist cocks a brow. “New to town and already you’ve heard of our chengzhu? His reputation must precede him.” 

Xie Lian hums. “All I’ve really heard is… he hates to be bothered. And his subjects seem to think very highly of him.” 

“Mm, true enough. He hates to be bothered with meaningless feuds, but wouldn’t anyone? And he created this city, a modicum of respect isn’t unreasonable.” The artist leans back against the wall and crosses his arms. “But I was assuming you’d heard tell of his ruthlessness. Unrelenting bloodlust, tempestuous nature… something along those lines.” 

He’s heard no such things. But it does sound reasonable of a powerful ghost. 

“To answer gege’s question,” the artist murmurs, “I think Hua Cheng and I are rather alike.” 

Xie Lian chews on his thoughts. Hua Cheng.  

“Is that so? …And your name is?” 

“San Lang.” He flashes a fanged grin. 

“Ah, and mine is Xie Lian.” Xie Lian sweeps his gaze across the room once more. “You said you paint stories… May I tell you one?” 

San Lang pulls his brush out from behind his ear. “I’d be honoured.” 

The moon is hanging high in the sky when Xie Lian eventually leaves, several new works of art carefully rolled up and stowed in his sleeves. As he’s bidding San Lang farewell, he suddenly remembers. 

“Oh! Do you know of anywhere I could stay for a night?” Or two, or three. He quite likes this place. 

“Mm…” San Lang leans against the doorway. “Not many around here sleep . But you could always try your hand at dice—Hua Chengzhu is willing to fulfill any wish you might have. How’s your luck?” 

Xie Lian makes a face. “Atrocious.” 

San Lang chuckles and beckons him to hold out his hand. He examines his palm for a moment, then traces a finger down the centre. It brings with it an inexplicable chill, followed by flaring heat. “You don’t look unlucky to me,” San Lang says, “Even the wraith butterflies have eyes for you.” 

Xie Lian looks up and notices three more of the glittering butterflies dancing around before resting on his shoulders and head. 

“You should give it a try. Down the street, you can’t miss it.” 

The flush under Xie Lian’s collar works its way up to his scalp and he gently takes his hand back. “Alright, ah. Thank you, San Lang, for everything. I’m sure we’ll see each other again.” 

“I can only hope,” he grins. 

His blush flourishes and Xie Lian dips back into the crowd with a bowed head. He lets out his breath. Then he smiles. 

The gambling den is as eye-catching as San Lang made it sound. Extravagant , is one word for it. Dripping in crimson and thick with incense smoke and mindless hollering, Xie Lian briefly considers just setting up camp on the side of the road. He may be walked over, but those still wouldn’t be the worst sleeping conditions he’s faced. 

Before he can decide, one of the— wraith butterflies, San Lang had called them—flies a loop around him then passes through the open doors. That, paired with San Lang’s words of encouragement, are enough to push him forward. 

It’s packed to bursting, and Xie Lian has to squeeze his way through the crowd, uncertain of his own destination. Beside him he hears outrageous begs being laid. 

“Five years off my life for fifty thousand gold!” 

“Take my leg if I lose! I need to find a good wife within the next month!” 

Xie Lian tries and fails to see over the heads in front of him. “Hello, ah, excuse me. Excuse me!” he shouts through the din. 

He catches the attention of a ghost with thick fur growing down the sides of his face and his arms. 

“Aha, do you know where your Hua Chengzhu is playing tonight? I’m looking to make a deal.” 

The ghost snorts and looks him up and down. Then he leans in closer and sniffs.  

Xie Lian grimaces at the lingering scent of wet dog on the man. 

He smells Xie Lian’s hair, neck, and clothes thoroughly before he leans back. “…You human?” 

Xie Lian weighs that question. “Not to the extent I used to be, I suppose, but fundamentally yes.” 

The ghost sneers and nudges two others behind him: similarly hairy, similarly derisive. “What makes you think our lord has time to gamble with you?” one says. 

“He’s a busy man,” the other continues. 

“Why don’t you come outside with us, instead?” The first one takes the lead again. “Not many humans are stupid enough to wander in here, and parts sell for good money.” 

“He’s kind of skinny.” 

“Who cares? If they don’t buy, I’ll have him. Heads cost a fortune, it’s been at least thirty years since I last tasted one.” 

Xie Lian blinks up at them. “I’d actually rather you didn’t—” 

He grabs Xie Lian roughly by the arm and makes to drag him back outside. 

With every intention to cause just a mild break at his wrist to free his arm before slipping away, Xie Lian stops, agog, when the hand is instead fully separated from the rest of the arm. There’s no way he’d miscalculated his strength by such a large margin. 

The ghost sputters before jumping back and howling, an animalistic noise of pain. The room around them goes quiet save for his screaming and Xie Lian follows the weak spatter of blood on the carpet to a wraith butterfly. The last bead of blood slips off its wings like water off a duck and he quickly turns, tracking its trajectory back to a sheer, red curtain set up behind the largest table in the building. The curtains are still shuddering, agitated by the butterfly. 

In the silence, a small female ghost, a croupier, steps forward. “All bets are welcome,” she says mildly. 

The ghosts between Xie Lian and the table silently part to form a path. As he draws closer, he notices a silhouette behind the curtain. His posture is confident and easy, and the aura of evil emitting from him is far thicker than that of any other ghost or ghoul in the gambling den. 

“Ah,” Xie Lian clears his throat, “I was told my lord could grant any wish I brought forward if I were to play.” 

“So he can,” the croupier confirms. “Lay your wager.” 

“…I need a bed.” 

The silence around him sizzles into whispers like spitting oil. 

“Practically nothing!” 

“The lord’ll leave him dead on the floor with one bet!”  

The croupier covers her mouth. “And the stakes?” 

It only occurs to Xie Lian then that his empty pockets are what landed him here in the first place. He thinks briefly of the paintings, or the flower behind his ear, but he can’t bring himself to place them on the line. Something like his leg is certainly too steep a wager to place on something so trivial… 

“I suppose I could give up a year of my life.” He’ll live for another several centuries at least, anyway. 

“That’s far too steep,” the man behind the curtain speaks up. His voice is calm, and thick with a competence that only comes from holding the power to suppress every other being in the room. It’s pleasant to the ear though; not gruff or biting. 

Hua Cheng. The voice suits the name. 

“Too steep?” one of the ghosts behind Xie Lian whispers. “He dared to gamble against our lord; how is anything too steep?”  

Xie Lian also didn’t expect a ‘ruthless, tempestuous’ man to turn down an extra year of life. He scratches his neck. “Then… I can clean for you? Or cook?” 

The silhouette sits up, accompanied by the jingling of chains. “…A day of your service to me is a fair bet.” 

Xie Lian lets out a silent sigh of relief. 

The croupier takes over operations again. “Highest roll wins, once the cup is lifted there is no turning back. Now, please.” 

Xie Lian picks up the cup and stares down at the dice. He clears his throat and gives it a gentle shake before placing it down on the table. 

At the same moment, a hand, pale and elegant, emerges from between the curtains and directly tosses two dice onto the table. A five and a six. 

Xie Lian’s stomach drops as the murmurs around him grow into cheers. Perhaps there’s a quiet alley he could get some rest in before working tomorrow. Dejected but unsurprised, he lifts his cup. 

Two sixes stare back at him. 

“Congratulations, young master,” the croupier says, “Our lord will escort you to your residence personally.” 

The hall falls comically quiet once again. 

“Oh.” Xie Lian coughs. “Now?” 

“Now,” Hua Cheng answers with laughter in his voice. “Unless you’d like your bed for tomorrow night instead?” 

“Ah, no, no. Tonight is good.” Xie Lian looks awkwardly at the croupier, who gestures to the curtain. 

He’s still a little awestricken that he’d won; had he been given loaded dice by mistake? Maybe he should reject the offer… But his feet don’t stop their steady pace and he arrives before the curtain. 

That same hand slips out as a request to take his—the second of the night. Their fingers touch and Xie Lian is gently pulled through the gap in the curtain, coming face to face with a man. 

The man, with striking features and unquestionable skill, is cloaked in bright, blood red. He wears a patch over his right eye and his hair falls loose around his shoulders, down to his waist. His lips quirk into a smirk like it’s their natural state of being. He’s the kind of handsome that you want to wrap yourself in despite the thorns that will prick your sides. 

“Congratulations to the young master,” he murmurs, mimicking the croupier. 

Xie Lian’s throat is suddenly, inexplicably tight. “I don’t… ah, thank you, my lord.” 

Hua Cheng tuts. “No need for formalities. We’re sharing accommodation, after all. That should put us, at the very least, on even ground.” 

Xie Lian looks up, shocked. “Sharing—?” 

Before he can clarify, Hua Cheng—the city lord, the powerful ghost, the master of the wraith butterflies—tosses out a pair of dice and the rowdy background noise disappears. 

“Sharing,” he confirms. 

It’s blissfully silent around them. Not awkward or tense like in the gambling den, but serene. Xie Lian hears the trickle of water first, then notices a small water feature in a pond to his right. They’re in a courtyard. 

“There are no inns in Ghost City. Even if there were, you wouldn’t want to stay in them.” Hua Cheng releases his hand and casually strolls towards a stone bench beneath a magnolia tree. 

“So this is…?” Xie Lian asks, while looking around. He hasn’t been anywhere this luxurious since he was a child! 

“Paradise Manor, my personal estate.” The moonlight shines on his face, enhancing his bloodlessness to give him a complexion similar to the magnolia blossoms. 

Xie Lian sits beside him. “Well then I’ll have to thank you again for your generosity as a host.” 

He hums. 

“…You run a wonderful city.” 

“It’s hellish,” Hua Cheng responds, chuckling, “hectic, maniacal. The residents are slowly rotting corpses.” 

Xie Lian watches him as he speaks. 

“But it’s the only place they can belong to. I figured it would stop them from harassing humans as much.” 

“It’s unique. I’ve quite enjoyed my time here so far.” 

His eye shines. “Surrounding yourself with the good crowd, I imagine.” 

Xie Lian tucks his hands into his sleeves to hide his fiddling. “And… are you the good crowd?”  

“Only if you’d like me to be.” He smirks, sharp and tipped with venom. 

The tips of Xie Lian’s ears go pink and he looks down at the ground, covered in petals. “Do I have other options in that regard?” 

Hua Cheng casually crosses his ankles. “Of course. You won in my gambling den, you’ve earned your pick. I can be kind or cruel, compliant or rebellious…” 

“A-ah. What a generous reward,” Xie Lian breathes. “I think I just want you to be… you.” 

Hua Cheng chuckles. “A little bit of each, then. So what led you to my city in the first place?” 

Xie Lian shuffles in his seat. “Actually, it was quite accidental. A happy accident, I suppose.” 

“Mm, happy indeed. But it’s exceedingly unlikely for an accident to bring someone this far out of their way.” 

Xie Lian quirks his head. “By that you mean…?” 

Hua Cheng looks down at him. “I mean either you arrive here intentionally, or something draws you in.” His eye flicks between both of Xie Lian’s. “Have you felt drawn by anything tonight?” 

Too much, Xie Lian thinks, head starting to spin. “…Perhaps I have,” he murmurs. 

“Mhm?” Hua Cheng leans closer. “I’m glad to hear it.” 

Xie Lian swallows hard, gaze falling helplessly to Hua Cheng’s lips as they shape around his next words. 

“We’d love to have you back as often as you’ll let us.” 

“O-okay,” Xie Lian whispers, cross-eyed at their proximity. 

Hua Cheng’s words are more a wave of emotion than they are something with meaning. 

“Wonderful,” Hua Cheng answers, just as quietly. Then he leans back. “Would the young master like to see his quarters, then?” 

Xie Lian catches his breath and sits bolt upright. His surroundings fall back into place around him and a flush of embarrassment creeps up his neck. “Ah… please.” 

Hua Cheng smirks and leads him in through a moon door and down a hallway with tall ceilings and delicate rice paper windows. 

Xie Lian coughs into his fist. “And just… Xie Lian is fine.” 

“Xie Lian.” His tongue curves around his name like it tastes something sweet there. 

They turn into a room at the far end of the hall and Xie Lian gawks. He’d had a small bunk or mattress in mind when he’d made the bet. This is… not that. The bed is large enough to comfortably sleep three Xie Lians, with a post at each corner connected by intricate woodwork and sheer silvery curtains. 

Xie Lian traces his finger up the careful latticework, falling on little carved butterflies and blossoms. The mattress’s four low walls are broken only at the very front, forming an entrance to climb in. 

“Robes for sleeping, if you care for them.” Hua Cheng gestures to a low table with a stack of fine silk inner robes and pants in a variety of colours. 

“Bathing gels and soaps.” Another table, this one boasting jars and vials of gels, herbs, and scented oils. 

“And some small snacks.” Finally, a tray of desserts sits beside the bed, stacked with sesame pastries, glutinous rice cakes, and mung bean tarts. “If the food isn’t to your liking, I’ll have a different selection made up for you.” Hua Cheng dips his head. 

It’s all a little… overwhelming. 

Xie Lian carefully sits at the entrance to the bed. “This is really… thank you. Again. I’m afraid I don’t have many other words that can convey my gratitude.” 

Hua Cheng hums, “I haven’t given you anything worthy of thanks yet.” It’s spoken with an edge of… a threat, perhaps. Or a promise. 

Xie Lian ignores his now-pounding heart and clears his throat. “You’re implying… there’s more?” 

Hua Cheng smiles. “As much more as gege wants.” 

“Mm. Then…” Xie Lian curls his hands up in his lap. “…My lord won’t need to worry himself. I’m quite comfortable; feel free to take care of your own affairs.” 

A slow smile spreads across Hua Cheng’s lips. He looks like he wants to speak, but instead dips into a bow and turns to leave. 

Xie Lian suddenly claps his hands. “Ah—no, it’s Hua Cheng , isn’t it? Even ground, I forgot.” 

Hua Cheng seems to sway for a moment. He turns slowly back towards Xie Lian, who’s already slipping out of his outer robe. 

He drapes it over the bed’s low border and looks up. “Or do you prefer San Lang?”  

An almost imperceptible twitch passes over Hua Cheng’s lips. Then he laughs quietly and walks over with his hands behind his back. “San Lang sounds best on your lips, I think.” He leans against one of the bed’s posts. 

The compliment makes Xie Lian’s toes curl. He takes off his shoes next, bringing him eye-level with the delicate chains looped around Hua Cheng’s boots. He’s struck with the confidence it must take to forgo stealth in favour of the fear factor. The unhurried jingling of each step would be more nerve-wracking than silence, Xie Lian thinks. 

When he sits up again, Hua Cheng’s eye is trained on him. “… San Lang it is, then.” He begins untying his hair. “I must ask… Is there something very spectacular about me, that you would spend your whole night following me? Just to talk?” His hair falls loose down his back and he wraps his ribbon around his wrist. Next is the bandage around his neck. 

Hua Cheng‘s eye traces the curve of his lips, the line of his cheek, lingering on the cursed shackle. Xie Lian’s chest tightens. 

“Everything about you is spectacular,” he murmurs, then catches his eye, “But who says I just want to talk?” 

A shaky breath betrays Xie Lian’s steadiness. He unconsciously shifts back, drawing his knees underneath him on the bed. 

Hua Cheng reaches out and tucks a stray lock of hair behind Xie Lian’s ear—the one with the flower. There seems to be an added element of gravity, of connection, that Xie Lian isn’t present enough to analyze. 

“Oh?” he squeaks. 

“Gege bet a day of service to me if he lost.” The mattress dips when Hua Cheng kneels on the edge. “Isn’t it only fair that I hold myself to the same promise?” 

That’s not how gambling works, Xie Lian knows that’s not how gambling works, but he suddenly can’t form anything resembling a no. In fact, he can’t quite form any words whatsoever. 

“It’s been a long time, gege. Too long,” Hua Cheng breathes. “Let me take care of you for just one night.” 

He doesn’t know what it means, what any of it means! There’s a depth to his words that Xie Lian couldn’t find the bottom of if he spent years digging. So many times has he been propositioned: by women patrolling the streets outside brothels, or women he’s done work for, or even by the parents of unmarried women who were tired of waiting for grandchildren. 

But never has it been by a man. 

And never has he wanted to say yes . After a matter of hours no less. But when has he ever made such a profound connection with someone so quickly? 

His cultivation base groans within him, but it’s been starved of spiritual energy for centuries. He’s long since given up on trying to ascend again, and any believers he had would be as antique as him—either long turned to dust or void of hope. Who would there be to miss a legend of many, many, many years past? 

Xie Lian nods. It’s jerky at first, and hesitant, but it grows until it’s wild and eager. 

Hua Cheng’s eye momentarily goes soft, catching on the flower behind his ear. But it passes, and sharpens with easy confidence. 

Xie Lian is anything but confident, but he’s beginning to ache for something he’s never ached for in his centuries of life, and who’s to say what it might do to him? 

“Gege wants to kiss me?” Hua Cheng murmurs, smirking. “Wants to touch me?” He leans on his hands, either side of Xie Lian’s thighs. “He’s welcome to do so. Whatever you want,” he inches closer, “I’ll give it to you.” 

Xie Lian is hot all over. 

He tilts his head until their foreheads meet and their noses brush. “I’ll do it for you. Everything.” On the last word, Xie Lian feels the cool press of lips against his. 

A noise leaves him, muted but desperate, and it’s one he distantly remembers making once before, centuries ago. 

Hua Cheng pauses, and Xie Lian thinks he might draw back so he covers his hands with his own. “I don’t want everything,” he breathes. “Just this is fine.” 

The answering kiss sucks the breath from his lungs. His whole body sways, hands clapping around the back of Hua Cheng’s head. Their lips move together, and Xie Lian doesn’t know what he’s doing, or what Hua Cheng is doing, but he holds him close to make sure it continues. His brow furrows as Hua Cheng guides his lips apart with words he can’t hear but can certainly feel. One hand cups his cheek while the other rests on his shoulder, although a thumb steadily strokes the side of his neck. 

Xie Lian rests his cheek in that palm and sucks in a slow breath. It still doesn’t quite prepare him for the careful slide of Hua Cheng’s tongue across his lip, across his own tongue. He whimpers and clutches harder. 

It’s a strange thing, feeling something foreign when you think you’ve felt it all, but the steady pulse of arousal between his legs travelling through his body in smooth waves… is very new.  

Their tongues begin to wind and curl in a way that feels more natural than Xie Lian would have expected. It’s almost lazy, and he finds himself relaxing into the palm at his cheek. The heavy breathing is noticeably one-sided. 

Hua Cheng nips his lower lip and tugs, then murmurs, “Is it good?” while a tremor shakes Xie Lian to the core. 

“Good,” he whispers. “Good, good, very good.” 

Their noses brush. Xie Lian swallows. He’s hard, aching beneath his robe and pants. 

Hua Cheng sweeps him into another languid series of kisses. The hand on Xie Lian’s shoulder slips down his back to rest at his waist, squeezing. 

Seeking an anchor, Xie Lian curls his fingers into Hua Cheng’s hair and pulls a moan from him. His cock jumps and shocks him, followed by a sudden flood of insistence. 

Oh.  

He’s overheard generations of men boast and bluster about their affairs, about the ache and hunger and greed for a woman’s touch. Xie Lian’s only experience with this sort of ache had quite literally killed him, so he’d never been able to understand the concept. But now, being held firmly yet gently, lips caught in a kiss that’s melting him, he gets it. 

Suddenly he surges forward. His arms wrap around Hua Cheng’s neck and pull him onto the bed. The hand on his waist shifts with fine reflexes to take their weight. 

Hua Cheng groans and kisses him deeper with a needy tongue and eager lips. “Gege,” he breathes, “You want more?” Their lips smack between kisses, and Hua Cheng begins to kiss the corners of his mouth, his nose, his chin. 

Xie Lian keens. “Mhm.”  

With a type of devotion Xie Lian is long unaccustomed to, Hua Cheng helps him down onto his back. He straddles Xie Lian’s thighs and continues to kiss. He sneaks over to an ear, nipping and sucking the lobe into his mouth, then down to his neck. 

Xie Lian’s chest is heaving—even the air around them has turned hot. The pecks along his jaw and neck are chaste and quick but leave him just as breathless. It’s only when a finger dips to trace above the waist of his pants that his breath catches and stops entirely. 

“…Do you want this much more?”  

Xie Lian has to bite his lip to stop the sound of desperation he feels rising. “Nn… yes, please,” he whimpers. 

He feels the smirk against his skin. “Mm?” He kisses the underside of Xie Lian’s chin. “Like this?” 

Two fingers slip between the part of his robe and into his pants. They brush the head of his cock and Xie Lian slaps a hand over his mouth. He squeezes his eyes shut and shudders hard, hips arcing into that touch. They trace the line of his cock to the base then curl into a tight fist. 

He draws his hand up and down once, giving Xie Lian a solid stroke. It nearly tears his soul from his body with how hard he gasps. “San Lang!” he pants through his fingers. 

“Tell me if you want me to stop,” Hua Cheng murmurs. 

“Nn… And you tell me if the unrelenting bloodlust becomes a problem,” Xie Lian croaks back. 

Hua Cheng chuckles before his gentle lips give way to teeth. His answer is a quick, sharp nip over Xie Lian’s pulse, over the ridge of his cursed shackle, followed by, “I’m sure it will.” 

The hand on him moves carefully and with precision—it’s far more practiced than Xie Lian’s touch would be. His knees jerk and his toes curl when Hua Cheng circles the head of his length with his thumb. Xie Lian blushes at the warm slick of his own precome being spread down his cock, and the hand on his mouth clumsily slaps over his eyes instead. 

Lips brush the corner of his mouth. “What are you hiding for?” 

“It’s… it’s…” Xie Lian shivers, “embarrassing.”  

“Is it? I think it’s anything but.” Hua Cheng uses his free hand to part Xie Lian’s robes like delicate, gauzy curtains, then kisses his way between them. “I think gege is beautiful, and deserving of praise.” 

He pays special attention to the spot his heart occupies, kissing it softly and pressing his forehead to it to feel its beat. Soon enough, he continues to chart his path. 

“Nothing you do could be embarrassing. Not if it’s you.” His tongue runs briefly around one nipple. Then his lips close around that nipple and suck, toying with it under his tongue. 

Xie Lian’s cock twitches hard in Hua Cheng’s grip. He whimpers and concedes, dropping his hand from his face to tangle it in Hua Cheng’s hair. It’s like there’s a direct path of pleasure from his chest to his cock, both finding a parallel high. 

“That’s nice, that’s nice, San Lang,” he gasps. 

With the leisure of a man who has all the time in the world, Hua Cheng laves slowly up and over his nipple, peeking up from beneath his bangs. Holding his gaze, Xie Lian swears he can feel everything more. Hua Cheng draws a lazy trail to the other nipple, and gives this one attention with his teeth. 

Xie Lian yelps and tugs on the hair wrapped in his fists. 

That severs their eye contact. 

Hua Cheng groans and his eye slips shut, mouth lolling for just a second against Xie Lian’s chest. “Yeah, gege,” he breathes. 

He transitions back into his actions with sloppy kisses, hand still working Xie Lian in his pants. 

Xie Lian feels antsy all over—pleasantly so. He’s buzzing with energy and struggling to just lay back and let himself be had. He starts stroking through Hua Cheng’s hair, then down his back. He pinches and pulls at his clothing with the absent goal of finding his cock. 

A laugh vibrates through his chest—but not one from his own throat. 

Hua Cheng purrs, “Having trouble waiting?” 

Xie Lian squirms underneath him, trying to find his way through the layers of his robes. “Let me touch you too,” he whimpers. 

Hua Cheng just hums, not giving an answer one way or the other. He noses down his breast bone and belly, hand splaying over one hip like he wants to hold Xie Lian’s entire self in that palm. Then he tugs Xie Lian’s pants down past his cock and over his ass. 

The itch of embarrassment flares up once again. He wants to turn away or hide his eyes—perhaps drag the pillow down over his face. But he swallows down the urge and turns his gaze between his legs. 

Actually… watching it is good, too. 

Xie Lian’s lips part, silently awed by the deep flush peeking between Hua Cheng’s fingers. The head of his cock squeezes out from his fist, glossy with precome, and looking just as hot as it feels. Xie Lian’s ears are burning and his breath is coming fast. 

“San Lang, quickly… Let me see you,” he pleads. There’s a threatening pressure low in his stomach, and he’s aching for it as much as he’s dreading it. 

Still, instead of undressing, Hua Cheng paints across his skin with his lips. He lifts his gaze to Xie Lian’s hopeful eyes before taking his cock in his mouth. 

For a handful of blissful seconds, Xie Lian forgets where he is, forgets his own name, lifts out of his body and sinks into the bed. He isn’t prepared for it, and chokes on his moan when it tears from his throat. 

That pressure starts to hiss and spit and Xie Lian tenses. Not yet. He doesn’t want to let go because that will mean it’s over, and it can’t be over when it’s only just begun.  

But he’s of two minds because it’s San Lang calling him there. And while his head is resisting the pull, his body is already taking him over the edge. 

Xie Lian cries and shudders as his orgasm brings spots to his vision. He’s panting, clinging to Hua Cheng, rolling his hips up carelessly. The hand on his hip momentarily tightens but releases just as quickly. 

It’s hot. So so hot with Hua Cheng’s tongue on him that Xie Lian can’t help how he rides it out. “Sa—n Lang,” he croaks. A final wave of pleasure leaves him boneless and softly writhing under Hua Cheng. 

That’s when he pulls off. There’s still come in his mouth, and a bit on his chin, and he makes no effort to hide it. 

Xie Lian shudders, cock jumping again before it’s even had a chance to soften. 

“Mm, gege.” He pushes the come on his chin between his lips with a thumb. “Thank you for allowing this San Lang a taste. I’ll gladly take anything else you have to offer.” He begins pressing lazy kisses down the shaft and around his pelvis while Xie Lian focuses on getting his breath back. 

For the most part, he’s dumb with ecstasy and affection. But he’s also quietly mournful that Hua Cheng hadn’t undressed for him, or let Xie Lian strip him. 

Then a casual question, “Would you like to keep going?” 

“Could we?” Xie Lian replies, too quickly, too full of hope. 

Hua Cheng laughs, resting his chin in the dip between Xie Lian’s thigh and hip. “For as long as you’d like. The dead don’t tire; especially not when we have someone so beautiful to keep us busy.” 

“Then…” Xie Lian sits up and cups Hua Cheng’s face in his palms. “This time, let me have a turn?” 

It looks like it finally lands. Hua Cheng’s eye is still blown with lust and Xie Lian chances a look between his legs. Even beneath his robe and tunic the bulge is a noticeable presence. 

Xie Lian swallows. “You, ah… or I can—can…” 

Hua Cheng takes him by the wrists and slides his hands down to the neck of his robe. “Would you?” 

It ends up more like a duet, with Xie Lian tugging and sliding the fabric over his head while Hua Cheng brushes aside his hair and discards his jewellery; they make quick work of it, and Xie Lian’s cheeks grow warmer the more they uncover. 

His climax had drained him of his fiery insistence, leaving him vulnerable to a long pause of ogling, and he easily succumbs. 

His chest, sans heartbeat, from the column of his neck to the tie of his pants is fine and pale. It's a more delicate strength than it is a brutish one. Frustratingly perfect.  

Xie Lian’s eyes catch on the inside of one arm. It’s marked by a tattoo he can’t make heads or tails of but is beautiful in a… chaotic way. He chews on his lip, fingers itching to touch, but also to continue stripping him, or to run through his hair, or, or… 

Hua Cheng kisses his temple, then his lips. “Don’t be shy, gege. I promise: as much as you want something, I want it ten times more.” 

He suddenly plucks the flower from behind Xie Lian’s ear and turns it over. A few thick new petals bloom from the centre. 

“You have free reign.” 

He tucks the flower back where it was and brushes his fingers along Xie Lian’s cheek. It’s a sweet touch that nobody was reserved for him in centuries, and it would have lasted much longer if Xie Lian hadn’t lunged forward and kissed him. 

Hua Cheng grunts and takes his weight on the low border of the bed when Xie Lian climbs up into his lap. 

Soft as he is, feeling Hua Cheng’s cock between his legs has him grinding with renewed energy. 

“Fuck, that’s it, that’s right,” Hua Cheng breathes between kisses. 

Xie Lian doesn’t have any words for him, just useless little gasps that he hopes show the extent of his arousal. 

His hands roam freely, given limitless permission. They slip down Hua Cheng’s sides, thumb over his hip bones, then come back up his back. He remembers the reaction he’d had to his nipples being played with and tries his hand at it. 

It’s hardly a touch at first, nothing like the attention that had been paid to him, but Hua Cheng growls and bites Xie Lian’s lower lip. 

Then he tries pinching. Hua Cheng’s hands land on his ass and pull him down hard, shocking a yelp from Xie Lian. 

“Yeah, gege.” 

His cock is already beginning to react again—and it’s no wonder. He furrows his brows, concentrating on the pressure behind each flick and tweak while also keeping his hips rocking. He can only hold so much at the front of his mind, though, and his mouth ends up lolling, left open and yielding to Hua Cheng’s tongue. 

The growing heat of the kiss mirrors the growing heat between his legs. But the noises Hua Cheng makes against his lips are what really drives his want. They push his hands south to the ties on Hua Cheng’s pants, easing them open and teasing beneath with his fingers. 

Hua Cheng moans—no, whines —and shoves his hips up. 

Xie Lian bounces in his lap. “ Ah! San Lang, can I take them off?” 

“If you don’t, I will,” he growls. 

They part like a river parts around a rock—momentarily to strip both their pants, before flowing back together. 

Xie Lian hiccups a sharp moan when they fit together, bare cocks slipping past each other. He only has a moment to look, but the deep, throbbing flush of his cock seems to match the fervour of his actions. 

Hua Cheng burrows into his neck and bites, again and again. It’s nothing too hard not to soothe with a few hot licks but each one wrings a little forward thrust from Xie Lian. His hips are moving almost independently from the rest of him. 

“Perfect,” Hua Cheng breathes, lips trailing up and down his neck. “You’re so fucking hot, so hot like this, I can’t take it.” 

The inundation of never-before-heard compliments bestowed upon him just kicks Xie Lian into another round of zeal. He wraps his hand around Hua Cheng. 

“You want me to come?” Hua Cheng asks, “Because that’s what’s going to happen, gege.” 

Xie Lian wiggles his ass a little in his lap as encouragement. 

He laughs breathlessly, “You’re really too much.” 

With all the finesse of the long-time celibate, Xie Lian works his fist up and down his cock. What he lacks in experience, though, he makes up for in natural ability. 

“Oh shit, oh shit, that’s it.” 

“Does it feel nice? Are you close?” he murmurs, turning into Hua Cheng’s hair. 

Yeah, baby. I’m gonna come.” 

Xie Lian doesn’t expect the nickname to fit, but coming from Hua Cheng’s lips, it melts right into his chest. 

“Baby,” he coos in response, stroking his cock with one hand and his hair with the other. 

Hua Cheng swears and sinks his teeth into Xie Lian’s shoulder. He groans long and low, halfway through which he jerks and comes across Xie Lian’s hand, cock, and both their chests. 

A dizzying stroke of arousal hits Xie Lian unexpectedly just from watching. “ Mm, San Lang, that’s—” He draws in a shaky breath. “—ah, really… hot.” 

The bite quickly becomes kisses of apology, which in turn become kisses of greed. His hands start kneading Xie Lian’s ass. He drags their hips together until their cocks clumsily slide through the mess. 

Xie Lian bites his tongue; he already feels like he could come again. 

“Oh? Does gege like seeing me so thoroughly taken apart?” He kisses beneath Xie Lian’s ear. “You can see it again, if you’d like.” 

He would like. 

Unlike Xie Lian’s post-climactic slump of bliss, Hua Cheng’s need continues at a steady speed— full speed. He kisses his lips with the fervour of someone on the edge of losing control, then at the same time— 

“Ah!” Xie Lian yelps and jerks his hips forwards, out of the way of the unexpected touch. 

Hua Cheng’s finger strokes cautiously between his cheeks. “Can I touch you here, gege?” he asks. 

Xie Lian shudders and looks up with wide eyes. “A-ah? Really?” He’s never heard of such a thing. “Is that… does it feel good?” 

Hua Cheng quirks an eyebrow. “Being stretched on my fingers?” 

Xie Lian flushes. 

“Mhm, it’s nice. Feels almost as nice as taking my cock will.” 

His gentle flush flares until his cheeks are ruddy and hot to the touch. The solid twitch of his cock is against his will. 

“That is, if you’ll let me fuck you,” he purrs. “I want to make you feel better than you’ve ever felt. I want it to be a gift, from me to you.” 

Xie Lian wriggles in his lap. “You’ve… already given me so many gifts tonight.” 

Hua Cheng chuckles. His finger rubs patiently over the bump of his tailbone. “This isn’t a flower, or a set of paintings. This is pleasure, and lust, and awe, and worship.” With each word he grows a little quieter, until he’s whispering against Xie Lian’s parted lips. “I would take it slow, until you’re melting into my hands and my mouth. You’ve already begged for me once tonight, I’m sure I could make you do it again.” 

Xie Lian has to close his eyes to overcome the bobbing wave of arousal. “Please,” he whispers, still not looking, “please will you fuck me?” 

Hua Cheng nips his bottom lip. “Gege makes those words sound so pretty. Of course I will.” He kisses him sweetly, then, not unlike a man in love. “Can you get on your hands and knees for me?” 

“Hm?” Xie Lian looks up at him suddenly with shocked doe-eyes. “My—my…?” 

“Hands and knees,” Hua Cheng repeats, with a smirk and an edge of cheek. “Facing away from me, if you please.” 

It takes a moment to process the position in his mind but then he’s burning with shame again. 

But Xie Lian turns. He glances over his shoulder and swallows, then slowly bends over onto his elbows, ducking his head in shame as he feels his body open up. 

“Mm, good job, gege. Not so hard, was it?” A gentle palm smooths over one cheek. 

Xie Lian hunches his shoulders but can’t deny the anticipation gripping him. There’s something unexpectedly satisfying about baring himself while his head is tucked away—disconnected but fully present. 

Hua Cheng’s hands knead and spread him, and he can’t tell whether he wants to shrink away or spread his legs. Soft, dry kisses paint the base of his spine. 

“If I can issue a challenge,” Hua Cheng says against his skin, “does gege think he can go without touching himself until my cock is inside him?” 

It should be easy enough, considering Xie Lian has a great track record of not touching himself. So he bites his lip and nods—into the mattress rather than towards Hua Cheng. 

“Gege’s dedication is so admirable.” 

Then Xie Lian’s mind blanks out, like ink poured over a scroll. The next touch, significantly hotter and slicker, runs easily over his hole. 

“San Lang!” he chokes, clutching sheet, pillow, headboard, anything because his t-tongue—  

“Mhm?” Hua Cheng hums, like he’s expecting a well-composed comment. 

That’s far too lofty an ask, because Xie Lian is struggling just to breathe. “You— your—! ” he wheezes. Falling back on some traitorous instinct, he presses into it. 

Hua Cheng carefully holds him around the front of the thighs and licks over him once again. It triggers a full-body shiver. 

“My…?” he questions, lips brushing one cheek in a smirk. He doesn’t wait for Xie Lian to answer, though. “I said I was going to open you up slowly. Gege can take my tongue, then my fingers, then my cock.” 

Xie Lian’s toes curl from his words alone. But this is… it’s… really too much, ah! 

The next touch is neither firm nor solid, but teasing, like Hua Cheng is tickling him with the deft point of his tongue. If it’s an attempt to spur Xie Lian into grinding back on him, it works immediately. There was no chance it wouldn’t. 

“Please, harder, San Lang,” he whispers, biting his knuckle. His ears burn with both the shame and pleasure of giving in. This is a sort of vulnerability he’s never dared to imagine, let alone practice! 

And one hard stripe licked from his balls over his entrance is, shamefully, all he wants for the rest of his days. His cock throbs painfully. 

Hua Cheng hums and pulls Xie Lian’s legs apart from their tightly drawn tuck. His nose brushes over his tailbone before he dips back in and lazily tongues back and forth for long enough to establish a smooth rhythm. 

Before Xie Lian can once again plead for more, though, Hua Cheng draws back and spits on his hole. 

Xie Lian gasps and flashes hot. Degradation , he’s no stranger to. In fact, he’s more well-acquainted than anyone he can think of. But this quick, cheap burst of humiliation tastes like honey on his tongue. 

Yes , yes yes yes!” he mumbles into the mattress. 

Hua Cheng chuckles and that, too, heats his gut. “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it seems gege is enjoying himself.” 

Xie Lian’s cheeks are spread by strong hands and he instinctually puckers and tightens. 

Hua Cheng clicks his tongue. “How’s my cock ever going to fit in this perfect little hole?” 

Xie Lian helplessly moans. He isn’t wrong—Hua Cheng is big and Xie Lian is, obviously, quite inexperienced. “More,” Xie Lian answers his filthy rhetorical comment, “Use your tongue more.” 

“You think my tongue will open you up enough?” He spits again, then rubs his thumb through it and catches on his rim. 

Xie Lian gasps and wriggles in shame. “P-please.” He turns to peek over his shoulder. 

“Fuck, you ask so nicely for me.” Hua Cheng drags his tongue over him once more before easing past his rim. It’s the gentlest of stretches, soft and pliable, but it’s a stretch nonetheless. 

Xie Lian’s lips part in a silent cry. This… this is… Then he croaks a belated moan. 

His legs tremble and his hole clenches again. 

Hua Cheng hums and massages one of his cheeks as a push to relax. 

“Sorry, San Lang,” he squeaks, “Oh my—”  

Hua Cheng starts to slowly fuck his tongue into him. 

Xie Lian wheezes a curse—a relatively foreign word in his mouth, made so appropriate by the deep, hot feeling dripping down the slant of his spine. It’s less of a sharp pleasure, like the pinch of a nipple was, and more of a slow, heady pleasure. He wants to get drunk on it, just lying here in a limbo of ecstasy. The stretch is soothed within moments and all Xie Lian’s muscles momentarily become liquid. 

Mhmmm, ” Xie Lian gurgles with a cheek to the mattress. “Nn, San Lang, thas—really, mhm.”  

Hua Cheng has given up on responding, dedicated to the job at hand—or, ah… mouth. 

Xie Lian is drooling, he’s quite sure. He grinds back, already used to the rolling motion of being fucked open on Hua Cheng‘s tongue. Although Xie Lian’s senses are flooded, he can already tell it won’t make him come, and he suddenly understands Hua Cheng’s earlier request. 

…But it’s more tempting now than ever. 

His cock, he can see between his legs, is throbbing and drooling and making a mess of the sheets beneath him. “I want to touch,” he whimpers. 

Hua Cheng pulls back and runs his tongue solidly over the hole he’s so dutifully stretching. “Yourself?” he asks. He presses a kiss to his balls and it’s so frustratingly close.  

Nn —uh-huh.” Xie Lian’s back arches further when he nods. 

“Oh, but you said you’d be good for me.” His voice reverberates down through his cock. 

Xie Lian fists the sheets and furrows his brows to stifle the swelling need. 

“Would gege like some help resisting?” Hua Cheng curves over his back and grabs his wrists, gently pinning them against his lower back. 

It does help, actually. Mostly because Hua Cheng’s touch is cool, soothing his fiery blood. But his eyelids are still drooping and he’s still bucking backwards seeking more of a stretch. 

“Mm… gege is very eager; I’m happy to see it,” Hua Cheng coos. 

Instead of his tongue returning to open him, Xie Lian feels the press of one slick finger sink in without resistance. 

“A-ah!” he chokes. It goes deeper, much deeper, but still he knows it’s only skimming the surface. 

Hua Cheng kisses across Xie Lian’s lower back as he starts to pump that finger. It’s unreal—Xie Lian wants to open to it and squeeze shut all at once. And on top of that, each kiss travels further up his spine and leaves a blossom prickles in its stead. 

“Gege, on your back for me,” Hua Cheng murmurs. He helps Xie Lian flip over so they’re abruptly face to face once more. 

“San Lang…” he whispers. 

Hua Cheng smiles. Then he drops a kiss to the junction of his hip. Then another, closer to his cock. Then he slides in a second finger. 

Xie Lian jerks and parts his thighs, relaxing to the best of his ability. 

“What a quick learner my gege is,” Hua Cheng coos. 

Xie Lian drops his head back into a pillow with the give of a cloud. His cock feels heavy against his belly with how much it aches. The shaft is only afforded a few dry kisses before Hua Cheng drifts to his thigh. 

The pleasure builds so quickly it frightens him. Soon he’s panting and lifting his hips and whimpering, “San Lang, San Lang, ah,” like all other words have lost their meaning. “Yes, San Lang—!” 

Hua Cheng’s hand suddenly tightens around his hip. His lips are parted, hovering above flushed skin, and his eye is squeezed shut

“…God,” he breathes, and Xie Lian suddenly notices—he’s shaking. 

“Wh-what?” Xie Lian murmurs. He’s dizzy with want and only half as present as usual. “You… god? I, mm, didn’t think ghosts had much to pray to the gods for.” 

“Not the gods,” Hua Cheng murmurs, lip twitching with a flash of contempt, “God.”  

He looks Xie Lian in the eye and continues to kiss along the inside of his thigh, all the way to the back of his knee. His fingers crook and brush a spot that Xie Lian, in his nearly countless years of travel, has never heard tell of. He jerks as a sob tears from his throat and his hands fist in the sheets. 

“My god,” Hua Cheng continues, “my life.” His lips trail Xie Lian’s skin like the tip of a sword. 

Its too reverent, too pointed to be about anyone else, but Xie Lian is still choked up with confusion. “I’m… San Lang, I’m not a god,” he whispers. His hips keep rolling, seeking out more of that same touch on their own. 

Hua Cheng gives it to him, and a long groan interrupts his thoughts. Lips skirt over the shackle around his ankle. 

“I have—n’t been for, f-for… lifetimes.”  

“You are,” Hua Cheng whispers, pressing a kiss to the arch of Xie Lian’s foot. “You always have been, even before you ascended.” 

Xie Lian stutters, shocked, “B-before—?” 

But then Hua Cheng is kissing every toe, tickling him and firing up a blush with every swipe of his lips. 

“Don’t! That’s— nn, dirty,” he whimpers. It’s perhaps redundant, considering where his mouth has been already, but he’s still too unused to this. 

Like he’s proving a point, Hua Cheng looks at him, fucks his fingers into that sensitive spot, and licks the pad of his big toe. 

Xie Lian can’t argue anymore when they both see the way his cock jerks. 

“My god is immaculate,” he purrs, “An idol among idols. Dirty doesn’t exist.” 

Xie Lian is a little overwhelmed. Praise simply isn’t heaped onto him anymore, not ever, and certainly not to this degree. 

“Although those noises gege makes…” Hua Cheng teases. 

“San Lang, am I ready?” he asks desperately. 

Hua Cheng quirks an eyebrow and holds two fingers up next to his length. 

Xie Lian blushes—probably not, then. 

Hua Cheng shakes his head, a little awestricken. “I… confess— to more than I probably should—and you’re still spread open in my bed, impatient to be fucked?” 

Xie Lian puffs up his chest indignantly and rolls his hips to draw those fingers deeper. To be entirely honest, he’s encountered stranger things than the confession of an old believer in the last eight hundred years. 

A grin breaks out across Hua Cheng’s face and it’s like the sun. “Everything and more, my gege is.” He kisses Xie Lian’s knee and obediently adds a third finger. “For the record,” his voice shifts back into that of velvety sex, “I’m just as impatient to make you come.” He crooks his fingers and catches that spot again. 

Xie Lian moans and thinks it’s not far off. 

Having peppered all the skin he can reach with kisses, Hua Cheng switches to kneading his thighs. “Mm, gege really has the strength to overthrow worlds. I’m sure you could ride my cock all night with these legs.” 

He could.  

Nng —can I?” he whimpers. 

Hua Cheng laughs. “You act as if we have no time at all, when it’s quite the opposite.” He hooks one of Xie Lian’s ankles over his shoulder. “If gege doesn’t mind, I’d like to pamper you for our first time.” His fingers ease deeper and Xie Lian’s heart swells along with the wave of arousal. 

He’s certainly already feeling well-pampered, every part of him soft and supple and wanting. It’s unbelievable enough that someone has spent so much of the night with him and not yet tired of him, let alone wanting to pamper him. 

“…Okay,” he breathes. The twin pleasure of being stretched and massaged has him trembling, growing more impatient by the second. “San Lang—” he starts. 

“Gege, one more.” 

Xie Lian shakes his head. “No! San Lang, now, I’m begging,” he croaks, boosting his hips. “I can’t wait, I really can’t.” 

Hua Cheng narrows his eye. It roams from Xie Lian’s hair, loose and messy and tangled in the flower that still rests behind his ear, to Xie Lian’s erection. Then he leans over and kisses his lips. 

“…I’m so weak to you,” he breathes. His fingers withdraw and Xie Lian notices the vial of oil on offer for bathing earlier in his hand. 

“I didn’t begin the evening expecting to hear those words,” Xie Lian whispers. 

Hua Cheng laughs. “Just as much as I didn’t expect to say them, I’m sure.” His gaze flicks between his eyes and Xie Lian smiles. 

He’s still confused, so confused, but he can’t bring himself to worry. Worry doesn’t have a place in his heart right now, and even less so when the slick head of Hua Cheng’s cock presses against him. He sucks in a deep breath, mind spinning with anticipation. “San Lang,” he mouths, “now, please, now.” 

Hua Cheng’s brows suddenly furrow. “Ah, I forgot to ask: has gege ever done this with anyone else before?” 

Xie Lian sniffles, impatience reaching its peak. “No, no, no, never.”  

A smirk returns to Hua Cheng’s face. He purrs, “Good,” then sinks in. 

“Mm—fuck!” Xie Lian cries. He bites his lip and throws his head back, shaking. “Slowly, San Lang! You’re big, ahh.” 

“I’m not halfway yet, gege,” he murmurs, but soothes Xie Lian with a hand on his cheek. 

Not halfway? But the stretch is already…  

He eases incrementally deeper and all of Xie Lian’s focus goes to relaxing, relaxing, and relaxing again. His pain tolerance is inhuman, but it still doesn’t make this comfortable. It takes two or three minutes for Hua Cheng to bottom out, all the while sprinkling sweet kisses on his cheeks and pursed, bitten lips. 

“A-are you in?” Xie Lian croaks. 

“I’m in.” Hua Cheng’s voice is thick. “Shit, all that work and you’re still so tight,” he grunts. 

Xie Lian sucks in a few deep breaths, face almost uncomfortably hot. “Too tight?” he manages. 

“Fuck, absolutely not. You’re perfect, gege.” Hua Cheng presses their foreheads together. 

Xie Lian is bent in half, one leg still hooked on Hua Cheng’s shoulder, forced into a near-split and so perfectly spread. 

It’s funny, for all that he’s panting, there’s no reciprocal breath on his cheeks. 

He can only tell he’s growing used to the stretch when his cock begins to once again throb persistently. Although maybe he has a physical tell too, because Hua Cheng suddenly rocks his hips. 

“Oh!” he cries, “Oh, oh oh oh. San Lang, mhmm.” He feels even bigger when he’s moving. 

“Like that?” Hua Cheng breathes. 

“Just like that.”  

They move together, instating a rhythm that soothes him more than anything else. There’s just enough power behind it to push Xie Lian back into the mattress. 

His guard has never been so low. Trust is such a delicate thing, broken over and over again with no reprieve. It’s been proven to him after so long that trust should be something hard won. So then why has he trusted Hua Cheng so easily and so thoroughly? Hardly half a night of acquaintance and he had climbed into his bed, spread his legs, and let himself really feel alive again. Vulnerability is so dangerous—why does it feel like the only answer? 

Xie Lian’s lips fall open around breathy moans. 

“Fuck,” Hua Cheng hisses. “ God … gege…” 

Some semblance of recognition must fall from his lips. 

“Can I make you feel good?” 

You are, you are, you are. Xie Lian hiccups and nods. Then he arches and sobs when Hua Cheng pulls out and drives back in, nailing the spot that makes him see stars. It’s not just one experimental motion, either. No—his hips roll in long, languid thrusts that each blend into the next, exceedingly maddening. 

Xie Lian thinks he could enjoy hours and hours of this careful, steady fucking—if he weren’t already tearing up and breathless, rushing towards a second orgasm. “San Lang, oh f-fuck,” he squeaks. 

“How is it?” 

Xie Lian tosses his head back and forth. Hua Cheng’s cock is nudging that spot every time before sliding home. His thigh, pressed to his chest, is trembling. “So much,” he chokes, “ ah, so good, you’re really—” 

The pace shifts to a quicker, harder fuck. “ Nn. Really…?” Hua Cheng breathes. 

Xie Lian nearly misses it because his moan hikes up an octave. “Really,” he sniffs, “really—really—perfect!” 

Hua Cheng’s hips jolt and stutter. 

“San Lang has treated me so well and I don’t— mm! —don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it,” he cries, “I really, really don’t. But thank you. ” 

Hua Cheng draws back suddenly, hands bracing to pull out and Xie Lian’s instincts kick in. His leg hugs Hua Cheng’s waist and drags him in deeper. 

Fuck, gege, I’m going to come,” he pants, “You have to let go.” 

Xie Lian shakes his head. His request is stuck on his tongue so he just digs his heels into Hua Cheng’s back, urging him to reinstate that same bruising rhythm. 

“Nn, shit, shit —you want me to come inside? Fill up the hole I stretched so nicely for you?” 

Xie Lian gasps. He wants that very badly, yes.  

His waist is held in place while Hua Cheng fucks in deep, deeper, then comes with a groan. 

Xie Lian lets himself be held, going slack as he’s steadily filled. He gawks and his eyes go wide, trained on Hua Cheng’s sweet expression. 

“Mm—’s hot,” he whimpers. 

“Xie Lian, fuck, my god,” Hua Cheng breathes. He pulls a palm to his lips and kisses every line of it. “Are you close?” 

Xie Lian’s eyes are still wide and watery, and all he can do is nod. It’s swelling in his chest like it did the first time, racing through him like it’s about to explode, but something is… different.  

Hua Cheng drags him into his lap and curls a fist around his cock. 

The touch shocks a cry from him. “S-San Lang, I feel… I don’t know what’s— ah, ahh!”  

His legs flex, keeping Hua Cheng’s cock buried deep as his heart stutters and his climax tears from him, followed closely by… 

Xie Lian gasps and pushes up onto his elbows, skin shimmering then bursting with a brilliant, white-hot light. It fills the room and he continues to shake, coming hot across his chest like he’s the core of a combusting star. 

“San Lang, San Lang,” he whimpers, “Wh-what—?” 

Hua Cheng leans in and kisses him soundly and this time he feels it. 

Centuries gone by with an empty reservoir, he feels a flood of spiritual power run down his throat and collect low in his abdomen. It coaxes one final jerk from his body before his orgasm leaves him wrung out and panting. 

The light reigns back in with a snap and Hua Cheng carefully leans back from the kiss. 

Xie Lian’s eyes are stunned and starry and his lips are parted, trying to form a question. “You… you…?” His body is buzzing. 

“Gege, my mistake,” Hua Cheng whispers. “I wasn’t controlling myself strictly enough.” He looks disappointed, narrowly avoiding eye contact. 

Xie Lian slowly shakes his head. “No, San Lang, I feel…” 

He pauses. Then a laugh slips from his lips. 

“…so happy.” 

It’s painfully ironic, that tonight, of all nights, he’d chosen to surrender a path of cultivation that has proven no worth in several hundred years, then promptly been gifted more spiritual energy than he could ever hope to cultivate. 

His fingers brush the shackle on his neck. Lightning crackles over his skin, popping pleasantly with a superficial sense of invincibility. 

Hua Cheng freezes, stunned. “…Then I can give gege more.” He kisses him again, then again, then again, until Xie Lian is laughing and pushing him back. 

“Do you want me to burst?” 

“With happiness? Of course, it’s what you deserve.” 

Xie Lian takes a deep breath and lies back. His cheeks hurt from smiling more than he has in at least a decade. 

Hua Cheng makes quick work of cleaning them both up then lies down beside him, propped up on an elbow. 

“You know,” Hua Cheng purrs, “you never specified how many nights you wanted the bed for in your bet.” 

That doesn’t seem like a loophole Hua Cheng would have overlooked while setting the stakes. 

“Or if the bed would simply belong to gege thereafter.” 

Neither does that. 

Xie Lian is still a little breathless but he smiles. “I’m starting to think San Lang is rather tricky.” 

“Mm, rather.” 

After a moment, Xie Lian rolls onto his side. “San Lang… who are you?” 

Hua Cheng studies his face, then tilts his head back to look at the ceiling. “How much time does Your Highness have to listen?” 

Xie Lian’s breath catches. Nearly a thousand years of static, menial, quietly enjoyable life shrinks into a single moment and he’s thrust back to his kingdom. His kingdom. It’s been a long time since he’d dedicated much thought to it, but he expects tonight he may be breaking that streak. 

Xie Lian swallows and whispers, “…As long as you need.”