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By the Fireside

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Xie Lian loved his husband. He really did. How could he not, given everything they had been through?

 

This wasn’t a time for waxing poetic about his beloved however. This was a time when having a beautiful, wonderful, clingy ghost for a bed mate presented a slight problem.

 

Hua Cheng was very affectionate, that much he wasn’t quiet about. Xie Lian usually reciprocated gleefully, eager to shower him in all the love and attention he had been starved of throughout his life. And he wanted to! Never let it be said that he didn’t want to. Relished in it even! But when winter rolled around, his excessive search for skin contact became a constant shock to Xie Lian’s system.

 

Literally.

 

He first became aware of the problem when Hua Cheng had to work late one cold night. Xie Lian had settled himself into bed to wait dutifully for his return, but their bedding at Paradise Manor was so plush and inviting compared to the frosty winter weather outside. Of course he couldn’t help nodding off a little when he felt so cosy and relaxed. He had just been dancing that blissful line between sleep and wakefulness when he heard the door to their room open quietly, followed by a familiar routine of shuffling and a dip in the mattress next to him.

 

As his husband sidled in gently, ever careful not to disturb, he sighed and relaxed even deeper into the mattress, revelling in the feeling of Hua Cheng’s comforting weight pressing into his back and arm pulling them flush.

 

And then he jerked awake suddenly.

 

His skin was so cold.

 

Of course he was cold. Ghosts emitted no body heat, and had no natural heartbeat to carry warmth around their bodies anyway. Logically, Xie Lian knew that. It did not make him any more prepared for the sneaky hands working their way into his robes to snuggle closer that may well have been crafted from pure ice.

 

Though he didn’t say anything, Hua Cheng’s attentive eye of course caught his flinch.

 

“Sorry, did I wake you?” He mumbled into the back of his neck, nuzzling softly in an apologetic gesture, but gods , his face and breath were chill too. A shiver traveled down his spine as he drew the covers into himself and hummed a strained sound in reassurance. He was sure if he actually spoke it would be incoherent and embarrassingly high pitched.

 

Had he always been this cold? Surely not, Xie Lian would have noticed. It must be the weather. Winter was in full force, and he had been enjoying his time by the fireside all day, so he must have just bought the outside in.

 

It was easy to placate Hua Cheng in their tired states, and even easier to brush off for that first instance. His skin eventually warmed back up to a comfortable level, their shared body heat, bedding, and cosy fireplace ensuring their comfort.

 

But it became harder to brush off as it just kept happening .

 

The deeper winter got, the more Hua Cheng was starting to resemble a clingy ice pack. Routinely, Xie Lian would be doing some task, Hua Cheng would drop in, give him the usual kisses and cuddles, and Xie Lian would have to channel all of his experience as a martial god to not flinch away from the shock of excessively cold lips against his warm skin.

 

He really had gotten used to being pampered if this little chill was getting to him. He refused to give up those little affectionate gestures though. He had been spoiled on them for too long, and now he was too addicted to let them go.

 

The obvious solution then, was to reacquaint himself with the cold. If he’s already cold, then it won’t be a problem, right?

 

--

 

Xie Lian had not always had the greatest ideas in the past, he would be the first to admit. Has admitted to vocally on many occasions. But whatever bad decision he’s made, he’s always seen it through to the bitter end. Some may question whether that was a good habit to have, but he had always made it through eventually.

 

He told himself that repeatedly as he sat on the steps of Puqi Shrine in as thin clothing as was proper to be out and about in, shivering violently. He had rolled around in the snow a bit earlier for good measure, and it had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now the snow that had stuck to his clothes had melted, leaving his robes damp.

 

The goal was to make himself as cold as possible though, so technically this was a success. He just wished success would burn his skin a little less.

 

It was also a dreadfully boring affair. He had been sitting out for hours for maximum effect, and had nothing to do. Initially he had brought some booklets he had been meaning to read through, but eventually the bite got to his fingers and they became too sore and numb to use correctly. Getting any work done would warm him up, and thus defeat the purpose, so that was off the table. None of the villagers wanted to stay out in this weather either, so he couldn’t occupy himself with conversation.

 

Eventually resigning himself to sitting and meditating, he regretfully lamented that his ability to even do that had suffered. These days any attempt to clear his mind just lead his thoughts back to Hua Cheng, which just made him want to see him more, which made the task even more arduous.

 

He sneezed lazily and gave up on the endeavour, settling down to lean against the doorframe of the shrine. It had iced up, but his body heat soon melted it, dampening his clothes further. Though objectively a bad thing, he rejoiced quietly in his progress, having not immediately pulled away. Instead he settled in as comfortably as he could and closed his eyes.

 

If he didn’t have anything else to do, a nap couldn’t hurt.

 

--

 

Having become used to being awoken by a cold touch as of late, the sudden flip to a warm one felt a little jarring. Xie Lian opened his eyes to a slightly frazzled looking Hua Cheng fluttering over him, gently wrapping his coat around him with just a hint of urgency. His fingers were hot over the skin he touched, and as a Xie Lian sat up, his clothes cracked where the damp had frozen to ice. His hair seemed to be in frosty clumps too, and there were several concerning crunching noises when he jerked upright in surprise.

 

“Woah, woah, careful!” Hua Cheng fretted. “Are you okay? What were you doing out here? It’s far too cold to be sitting out like this.”

 

As he pulled his coat as tightly around the other as he could, gently gesturing for him to stand up with him, he didn’t seem to account for allowing Xie Lian the use of his hands. Because of this, he had to turn his head to avoid sneezing on Hua Cheng when it felt unavoidable, making it impossible to do subtly. Hua Cheng seemed to hone in on this action.

 

“Is Gege catching a cold? We’ll get some nice soup and blankets when we get home.” He said gently, rubbing comforting gestures over his back as he pulled him into his side.

 

It was an extremely pleasant feeling. Xie Lian had not realised just how cold he had gotten, but now Hua Cheng seemed to burn next to him like a furnace. Though he was only being held close with one arm, the other hand fishing around for the dice to take them home, he felt like he was being completely enveloped by that warmth, and leant into it like a man starved.

 

“I’m fine San Lang, just a little chilly. I feel a lot better now.” He really did, but he also sneezed again immediately afterwards, so he could practically feel Hua Cheng’s skepticism radiating off him.

 

“I’ll have some soup ordered to our chambers.” He said with finality. Xie Lian avoided meeting his eye sheepishly, knowing the pointed look that would be there.

 

As Hua Cheng rolled the dice and walked them back into their room, a second wave of warmth washed over Xie Lian from the drastic change in environment that made him shiver again, and Hua Cheng quickly shut the door in response before walking them over to the lit fireplace. As they sat down, Xie Lian partially peeled the coat from his body to pull his husband under with him like a blanket. It wasn’t big enough, but it sat them close enough that neither particularly cared. What he did care about was the squelch his clothes made as the frost melted again, and he woefully realised he was getting the other damp.

 

Hua Cheng noticed him about to pull away, and instead wrapped an arm around him to pull him closer, waving a hand to dry him out instantaneously with spiritual energy. The suddenness made him jump slightly with a pleased giggle.

 

“Thank you. My San Lang is so thoughtful.” Xie Lian sighed, now blissfully resigned to settling into his side. 

 

“And my Gege is so welcome.” He replied, basically dragging Xie Lian into his lap to drape over his shoulder and tug the coat over them both properly. “But if this San Lang may ask. What on earth were you doing out there in this weather? Surely there is little farm work to be done at this time of year.”

 

Xie Lian hummed as he huddled himself deeper into the nest of warmth surrounding him and debated his options on how to answer that one. He didn’t want his husband to get the wrong idea if he told the truth, but lying just didn’t seem right.

 

“Ah, I just wanted to appreciate the weather for a bit?” A half truth should be fine right? His voice was lilted in a way that sounded unsure though, so of course Hua Cheng caught on.

 

“If Gege doesn’t want to tell me that’s fine. I don’t need to know everything. I just ask that if you’re going to do something that might make you ill, you tell me where you’re going so that I can pick you up if something happens. I would rather Gege not risk his health like that.”

 

Ah, disappointment. That was so much worse than if he were mad. Xie Lian suddenly felt a little guilty, and shifted to rest his face on his chest while Hua Cheng rested his chin on top of his head. This new position made him notice something.

 

“San Lang… Your heart’s beating?” He could feel the steady bump beneath his cheek and looked up quizzically.

 

It wasn’t that it was weird for his heart to beat, Hua Cheng actually instructed it to do that quite often. He just hadn’t done so recently, so he considered the change curiously as a theory formed in his mind.

 

“Sorry, is it distracting to Gege? I can turn it off if you’d like.” He offered, but Xie Lian sat up straight to shake his head.

 

“No no, not at all. I was just wondering, since San Lang has not let his heart beat lately, why turn it on now?”

 

“To help Gege warm up faster. It should be easier if this one can generate some body heat, right?”

 

He looked a little unsure, as if being questioned over it had made him doubt his own logic, but Xie Lian only sighed a breathy laugh of relief as he slumped back down into his embrace. He wasn’t going crazy! He really was colder than usual for cutting off his circulation. His reaction only seemed to confuse Hua Cheng more however.

 

“Gege?” He asked in a somewhat concerned tone.

 

“San Lang is very warm right now. It feels lovely, thank you.” He started, shuffling back to his previous position to listen to his heartbeat again. “But doesn’t San Lang want to be warm all the time? Why turn your heartbeat off during winter of all seasons?”

 

He could feel Hua Cheng relax a little at the affirmation, and moved a hand to rest on his arm.

 

“On the contrary, winter is the best time to do so.” He replied as if it were simple logic. “If a ghost's blood circulates, then it makes them warm, but that warmth can still be lost like a mortal's can. If it does not circulate at all, then there is nothing to take. It makes one effectively immune to temperature changes.”

 

“Oh.” Oh. Hua Cheng couldn’t feel how cold he was. That’s why he didn’t notice anything amiss. Xie Lian hesitated for a second as he thought about how to word this, if at all.

 

“San Lang… If there’s no heat, then there’s only cold right?” That was it, he’d committed now. He had to voice this issue.

 

“Right. Where’s Gege going with all these questions?”

 

“You don’t have to do it all the time if the cold is uncomfortable but… Would San Lang maybe consider turning your heart back on when we spend time together? At least while we sleep. San Lang is very cold sometimes.”

 

He got quieter as he went on, feeling a little embarrassed to be causing a fuss over what was now seemingly like a trivial issue upon voicing it out loud. Hua Cheng only started as if he had come to some great realisation however.

 

“That’s why you’ve been acting weird lately!” He gasped before pulling Xie Lian into a deeper hug. “Gege, I’m so sorry, I didn’t even realise. Please allow this one to make up for the offense.”

 

Suddenly, he began to radiate an even stronger heat, like a sunning stone at high noon. Xie Lian giggled happily at the affection and wrapped his arms around his middle to hum happily. It was such a wonderfully secure heat he could almost fall asleep.

 

“Ah, San Lang shouldn’t have let me know he could do that. Now I’m never going to let you leave.” He murmured pleasantly into his shoulder. Though it was a joke, Hua Cheng replied with the utmost seriousness.

 

“This one would not think of leaving if Gege didn’t desire it. I would carry him wherever he needs like this forever if he so wants.”

 

Tempting, but he knew full well that his silly, over-eager husband would definitely try, and he couldn’t encourage that.

 

“But won’t it make San Lang cold again? If he has to feel the temperature again?”

 

“If it’s with Gege it doesn’t matter. And it’s a good excuse to hold you like this.”

 

He flicked his fingers and several blankets from the nearby bed flew over to arrange themselves in a cocoon around the two, entrapping the heat to the point that Xie Lian really might just doze off again soon.

 

“San Lang doesn’t need an excuse. He can do what he wants.”

 

“Hm. And San Lang is happy like this.”

 

Xie Lian believed it. It was rather impossible to deny with how safe and content he felt right now, and he could feel it in the relaxed posture in Hua Cheng’s form.

 

“Then, let’s just keep each other warm.” He said, snuggling down with his eyes slipping closed.

 

“You already keep me warm.” Came the soft reply from above as he ducked his head down to press a kiss in his hair.

 

And in that moment, for all the stress and dramatics leading up to this conversation, Xie Lian knew it was also true the other way around. He had never felt warmer.