There are lights flickering outside, an eternal burning of red that his mind sees as fire or blood for a moment, there’s a symphony of sounds outside and his mind recognizes war for a moment.
The lights are the large red lanterns that dot every stall and shop and establishment in every corner of the streets brought to life by the perpetual night sky that has never been chased away by daylight, the noises that can be heard are the howls and laughter and chatter of monsters and ghouls as they go about their day. This isn’t the human realm, the red he sees and the noise he hears from outside aren’t from a war. This is his domain, his residence, the place where he reigns supreme like a king.
Hua Cheng blinks blearily as he takes in the overly familiar room but what attracts his immediate attention isn’t any of the exquisite crimson silks that drape over the bed canopy or the furniture, it’s the beautiful man that sits on the edge of the bed dressed in a white outer robe and that looks very at peace while petting E’Ming who looks more like a pleased cat than a deathly weapon. Hua Cheng can relate. Languidly, the ghost king shifts against the soft sheets to wrap both arms around his husband’s waist, the other man flinches slightly before melting into the familiar circle of his arms.
“Good morning, San Lang.” He chirps softly, voice tender and sweet with affection.
“Good morning gege.” Hua Cheng purrs in his delight as he buries his face on Xie Lian’s back.
There’s a beat of silence, a moment of silent affection that stretches warm and pleasant over both, it makes the ghost king take in his surroundings more sharply even if only for the sake of basking in the presence of his husband as much as he can.
“Did you have a nightmare?”
The question is spoken softly, almost hesitant, Hua Cheng finds himself blinking at the sheets before his attention flickers to Xie Lian’s face. The god is looking at him with a faint frown of concern twisting his usually serene features, his golden-brown eyes display a raw sense of hesitation as if he wasn’t sure if he was allowed to ask or even mention it.
“Why is gege asking?”
Xie Lian hesitates once more, his gaze flickering downwards towards E’Ming whose bright red eye opens a small fraction as if sensing the slight shift in the atmosphere.
“I…Heard you talk in your sleep” He eventually says, “You sounded very distressed.”
Nightmares aren’t a stranger to either of them. Xie Lian has had his fair share of them, many times had Hua Cheng woken up to the sound of his lover crying and sobbing, whether Xie Lian cried out of the fear and despair that Bai Wuxiang implanted in him or whether he mourned everything he lost that he held dear, Hua Cheng was never certain -it might be a mixture of both. But for him? He can’t say without hesitance that he dreams or maybe he does but Hua Cheng just can’t remember (maybe he doesn’t want to). Neither of them need to sleep, it's an indulgence of Xie Lian's more than it is Hua Cheng's, but he likes to indulge his husband with everything he can and so Hua Cheng sleeps as well although what might await him won't be pleasant.
“Did I wake you up?” He asks instead, quietly “Sorry.”
“San Lang doesn’t have to apologize!” Xie Lian is quick to say as he turns slightly in his arms, his hands still holding E’Ming carefully “…I was just surprised? You called for me a few times and you kept shaking…”
Hua Cheng stares at the wall for a moment in thought.
Sometimes, when his mind drifts too far, he remembers things. He remembers blood and hears screaming, sometimes they sound like his voice and other times it doesn’t, it’s such a heart-breaking sound that it makes his whole body shudder because the distress and despair is heard so soundly and with such rawness that Hua Cheng felt like tearing his ears off. Hua Cheng is well aware that he’s recalling that temple, that particular scene, that specific moment in which every fickle emotion in him grew into an inferno that knew no end or limits.
“It’s nothing, gege” He smiles up at Xie Lian “Maybe I was missing you in my dreams.”
His husband gives him that look, the one that says in bold capital letters that he doesn’t believe him, before he can protest Hua Cheng pulls him down into a kiss uncaring that E’Ming rattles in it’s scabbard as if annoyed that his petting was interrupted. Xie Lian ends up cuddling both with an expression that says he’s conflicted of whether he should laugh or cry.
There’s a sickening dripping sound echoing all around, his body feels freezing cold but his insides are a burning inferno, he’s unsure whether he’s crying or screaming but maybe he’s doing both. There’s a figure kneeling on an altar, pure white robes stained in pure crimson, their hands are tied and there’s a pitch-black sword sticking out of them and all he can do is grip his head and kneel and cry. Heaven must be made of deaf ears and uncaring deities because he’s been praying and pleading and begging which has amounted to nothing. In that small moment, Hua Cheng’s suffering amounted to nothing, it didn’t make him stronger or made his character involve into someone better -he just suffered.
Hua Cheng wakes up to the sound of Xie Lian calling for him.
His coal black eye snaps open and his first instinct is to hold Xie Lian to him as he tries to sense any danger, there’s nothing, there’s only the affectionate touch of gentle hands framing his face making him look down at Xie Lian who stares at him with his lips pinched into a tight line. He’s coaxed to relax, to lay back down against the pillows, to let the tension in his body ebb and flow until it’s gone and replaced by the warmth of his husband’s company. Hua Cheng let’s his inky black hair be brushed back although he nearly flinches when slender fingers barely brush the right side of his face, inches away from his sunken eyelid, Xie Lian either doesn’t notice or pretends he didn’t -he’s grateful all the same for the gentle heart he possesses.
“San Lang…” He hums while nuzzling beneath his jaw like an overly affectionate cat “Won’t you tell me about it?”
He opens his mouth to say something snarky, to maybe flirt his way out of this, to say anything but the words don’t come out and so he snaps his mouth shut. Hasn’t Xie Lian been honest with him? Hasn’t his beloved laid his heart bare without secrets? Their relationship is built on trust and it’s one of the things that Hua Cheng adores about it so much.
“I…See it sometimes” He murmurs quietly against the hollow of Xie Lian’s throat “That altar.”
Xie Lian freezes but it lasts but a second before his hands are combing through his black hair and rubbing up and down his back in soothing circles, it makes Hua Cheng shiver because it’s amazing how such strong hands can be so gentle and tender, it’s like Xie Lian is handling something overly precious and fragile instead of a monster that plants fear across the three realms.
“I wish we met each other sooner” Hua Cheng remains silent although he wished for the same time and time again “I wish I could have been there for you…To keep you company, to hold you…”
He was, in a way. Hua Cheng knows his devotion was what kept him alive and going, he kept hanging on a very thin and frail thread all the time, but it was all he had, it was everything he had.
“I was weak” He mutters bitterly “I was there but I couldn’t do anything…”
And it’s such a haunting feeling.
His rebirth as a Supreme Ghost King hadn’t been nice, it was bloody and full of fire and so many negative emotions that it felt like he could taste them under his tongue, everything was tainted by smoke and the sight chased him for days but none of that could compare to that moment. The suffering had been too much, it ran deep and raw, it made him feel infinitely small and useless because he wasn’t able to do anything but watch as his most beloved person knelt on that altar choking on his tears and despair and bathing on his own blood.
“I wanted…To save you” His voice cracks a bit at the edges “I wanted to do something -anything.”
His eye stings and if Hua Cheng thinks about it…When was the last time he cried? A very, very long time ago, probably.
“You did save me” Xie Lian hums as he tightens his hold “You did so much for me then and you do so much for me now. San Lang has been so strong.”
He hums praises into the crown of his head, thanks him for everything and anything, murmurs sweet nothings and declares his love until Hua Cheng is all but shaking in his arms while clinging to his outer robe. He rasps out quivering syllables that are supposed to be sweet nothings and tender ‘ I love you’s but maybe they crash against his teeth and lose themselves against Xie Lian’s throat, it doesn’t seem to matter, Xie Lian seems to feel them all the same.
For a ghost king with so much power and riches, all he ever wanted was this: to be in the presence of his beloved, to be able to share laughter and smiles, to own just the tiniest fraction of his love and attention. His most beloved treasure is the love and trust that Xie Lian gives him.
“My San Lang,” Hua Cheng feels his breath catch “My love…It’s alright, you don’t have to be strong all the time, I still love you all the same. Did you know? I love San Lang the most in whatever form he takes, I love you either way. I will love you in this life and in every single next life.”
He doesn’t need to breathe, Hua Cheng hasn’t needed to breathe in decades, but his breath is hiccupping in his chest like his body might shatter. His dead heart trashes against his ribcage like it wants to escape and make a new home beside Xie Lian’s own. He clings to his husband like a child, as if he never outgrew from that street urchin wrapped in bandages, buries himself in the comfort of his strong arms as they hold him with such love and tenderness that it almost hurts.
Hua Cheng spent so long longing for this, yearning for it with everything he had, his devotion and love gave him strength to keep going and although the road to where they are was harsh and unforgiving -it was worth it. Xie Lian was worth everything and anything.
His lips tremble when Xie Lian kisses them, his whole-body shudders beneath each petal of a kiss that’s pressed to his face and to wherever Xie Lian can reach, each patch of skin is decorated with affectionate kisses and even sweeter words of praise. Hua Cheng is loved so deeply and with such depth that sometimes he thinks he’s hallucinating. The weight of it all could have left him breathless if he could still breathe. He stares at Xie Lian through the blur of unshed tears, takes in every single detail of his beautiful husband, drinks in every second of his presence like it’s all that keeps him together -maybe it is- in days like these maybe it’s all Hua Cheng needs to keep himself together.
“You’re my everything,” Hua Cheng murmurs reverently against Xie Lian’s lips like a prayer “My life, my love, my god…”
Maybe both are still hurting, still licking age old wounds. Maybe love and devotion won't heal everything, but it's alright, they can hold each other through it. Hua Cheng knows for as long as his husband stands by him that he'll never crumble and that's all he needs.
Maybe he will still dream of that altar, of blood tainted floors and walls, of screams that echo without end but even if he does it will be alright. If he opens his eye Xie Lian will be there, his husband will keep him safe, he will keep loving him until both their infinite lives burn out and that’s enough.
Behind closed doors, hidden away behind exquisite red silk, lovingly holding each other they find the peace they have earned for decades. Between whispered sweet nothings, laughter laced confessions, love infused declarations they shall find their resting place where their tired hearts can beat at leisure and where they don’t have to put up a façade. In Xie Lian’s arms, at long last, Hua Cheng has found his home and safe place where he doesn’t have to be an all-powerful ghost king or where he has to uphold his reputation of the almighty and very feared Crimson Rain Sought Flower. In the arms of his beloved he can lay his heart bare, he can put his soul on display, Hua Cheng can be weak and uncertain, and he will still be loved and cherished all the same.
And that’s all he needs to find peace when he closes his eye at night when both lay in bed tucked in each other’s embrace.