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in you, i find myself

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“San Lang, I’m sorry—that’s a shame but I can’t—I can’t—hahaha.”

Xie Lian laughs as he flops over, holding his stomach with one hand, wiping the tears in his eyes with the other. He leaves the communication array, entered by Yin Yu a moment earlier to inform him of the result of his ‘research’.

Peeking at Hua Cheng through his fingers and seeing his pout, Xie Lian laughs harder.

“I think I stuck a rib,” he hiccups. “San Lang, it hurts.”

At that, Hua Cheng spares a worried glance his way—faced with the amusement of Xie Lian’s pain, he huffs.

“Gege brought this upon himself,” he grumbles, but when Xie Lian winces through his smile as he adjusts his back on the pillows, Hua Cheng shifts around to press his mouth to where Xie Lian’s chest hurts. “But this one will take pity on him.”

Xie Lian pats Hua Cheng’s head, the remnants of his laughter having yet to fade.

“My San Lang is too kind,” he teases. “I’m sorry I ruined the mood.” (He isn’t.) “That’s just too funny. I can’t focus now—please forgive me.”

Hua Cheng peers up at him from where he’s still kissing Xie Lian’s ribs, his pout returning.

“Ah, but I had such great plans,” he complains. “Gege’s been so busy these days. Only helping out those trash officials and sleeping. This San Lang wanted to surprise you, and then treat you well, and now it’s all been ruined. It’s been so unbearable without you.”

Xie Lian snorts humorously. It’s only been three days, you shameless sap. Truly insatiable.

“They can be great plans for some other time,” Xie Lian replies wisely. Cupping Hua Cheng’s face and caressing the underline of Hua Cheng’s eyes with his thumbs, he instructs, “Come here.”

Hua Cheng never needs to be asked twice; he rises up and, chest to chest, presses against Xie Lian, wrapping his arms around him and laying his head in the crook of Xie Lian’s neck. The warmth that remains from their interrupted session spreads to his body, and he sighs contentedly.

“Gege will be forgiven if he agrees to stay like this all evening.”

“Mmh,” Xie Lian hums thoughtfully. “That sounds like a reasonable arrangement. Crimson Rain Sought Flower, you’ve got yourself a deal.”

Pleased, Hua Cheng smiles. But, that smile quickly turns into a smirk; a sign that Xie Lian is in trouble.

“However, I request interest.”

Xie Lian smacks him without force.

“Interest, huh? Tell me if it’s true, first,” Xie Lian asks and, as he notices another gold foil piece in Hua Cheng’s hair, fights down a new laughing fit at the thought of what Yin Yu told him in the communication array. “Were you really so bored you built a giant gold foil me while I was gone?”

Along with his silence, Xie Lian feels the pursing of Hua Cheng’s lips on his neck. Explanatory enough. Xie Lian shakes with quiet laughter again, turning into a hiss when his rib aches.

“Gege, is it so funny you must hurt yourself?”

“Yes,” Xie Lian declares solemnly. “And it’s absolutely worth it. Was it worth it for you, even though that little ghost knocked it down? You were so mean to them, San Lang. I’m sure it wasn’t their fault.”

Hua Cheng mumbles something, somehow pressing himself closer. Xie Lian can feel all of him, each part of his body; the chill of his skin warming up to Xie Lian’s own, the tickle of his eyelashes, his fading arousal, the silky glide of Hua Cheng’s hair on his skin.

Xie Lian plays with a lock of raven black hair, twirling it around his finger before starting to braid it.

“San Lang?”

“Mh?”

“You know, how I love you? All of you,” he says, his voice calm and steady; speaking with absolute, honest truth. He picks a bead from the bowl on the bedside table and slides it onto the braid. “How I love looking at you so much that, sometimes, I can’t look away even if I wanted to. How good you make me feel, and how I like being bullied by you, but—”

“Teased,” Hua Cheng interjects. “Don’t say that, gege. Is it bullying if you like it so much?”

“It is, but that’s not the point. What arouses me is the situation—how you react, what I notice you like, your intentions, what you’re doing to me—just not what you look like. You remember when I told you about that?”

“Yes?”

“Well, I’ve been wondering—we’re so different—what is it like for you? The sexual part?”

Xie Lian expects it to take Hua Cheng some time to reply—the same way it took Xie Lian a while to put into words the centuries-old certainty of his own feelings on the matter—but his answer comes at once.

“If my heart belongs to someone, that someone may have all of me, and that someone has always been you. I’ve never felt pulled like this to anyone else, in my heart or otherwise.” Hua Cheng says it like he’s always known this as truth, the answer spilling out without a second thought. His teeth scrape at the soft skin of Xie Lian’s underjaw, earning himself a weightless slap of reprimand. “Gege is the only one I’ve ever wanted to bully.”

Through the burning flush of his cheeks, Xie Lian thinks for a moment, interrupting his braiding to place a second bead. “So, towards everyone else. . . you’re like me, in some way?”

The reply doesn’t come as quickly this time; Xie Lian can almost hear the wheels in Hua Cheng’s head turning.

When it comes, it’s no more than a stunned, “Oh.”

While it doesn’t change anything, this realization that Hua Cheng can relate to him to some extent brings Xie Lian great joy, though he isn’t sure why. Still, he grabs the knowledge with both hands. He grins, tapping Hua Cheng’s shoulder excitedly.

“Then, we’re actually really similar!”

At those words, Hua Cheng lifts himself up. He seeks Xie Lian’s mouth in a kiss that is needy in its tenderness. Xie Lian gladly grants it to him, returning it as he smiles. Their teeth knock together—like this, Xie Lian knows Hua Cheng is smiling, too.

Xie Lian is reluctant to part, trying to follow when Hua Cheng breaks away. But, Xie Lian’s eyes soften at the cheeky shape of his lips, and he lets his head fall back against the pillows to gaze at him.

“Ah, I’m happy gege deems me similar to what makes him so special.”

Xie Lian traces the edge of Hua Cheng’s marred eyelid carefully, caressing the sensitive skin with impossible delicacy.

“It doesn’t make me special,” he says softly. He knows he could never be anything but special in Hua Cheng’s eye, but it’s not about that. “It’s just me—it’s how I’ve always been. Your experience is how you’ve always been, too. I don’t have anything to do with that.”

Xie Lian sees it: Hua Cheng’s immediate instinct to protest; to make what brings Xie Lian joy in him about Xie Lian, rather than himself.

Listening to these words, the cheekiness of his smile fades, replaced with something more vulnerable; more genuine. Despite the years, Hua Cheng regarding himself as an independent person is something they still have to work on at times. That vulnerability, laid sincerely for Xie Lian to see, is not so difficult to understand; it comes from comprehending that, through Xie Lian, he can better understand parts of his own person he hadn’t considered before.

Xie Lian recognizes then, what that joy he feels is about; though he’s never sought it out, it comes from the comfort of knowing there’s someone out there who understands—and that person just so happens to be the one who resides the highest within his heart.

“Gege. . .” Hua Cheng half moans, half murmurs.

Xie Lian chuckles, gathering him in his arms. Hua Cheng permits to be manhandled into the most convenient position for Xie Lian.

As he cuddles back against him, Xie Lian picks up the braid he’d started to do again. He finishes it, humming while Hua Cheng holds him tight, unable not to sporadically kiss each of the love marks he left earlier, and then whatever other spot is available to him—like he’s making up for what little time they’ve been apart.

Each of them, softer than the last.

At the end of the braid, Xie Lian slides in the third and last of the beads. The bright red of his old coral bead seems to stare back at him, and he instinctively reaches for its second half, dangling from his ear.

Xie Lian drapes Hua Cheng’s hair over. Some strands are out of place, and it isn’t as neat as when Hua Cheng does it, but Xie Lian wholeheartedly believes it has its charm.

“There,” he murmurs, letting the braid go gently.

Half of me, back with you, right where it belongs.

Hua Cheng shifts then, moving the both of them until they lie on their side, face to face. Xie Lian closes his eyes as Hua Cheng plants a kiss on his forehead, followed by another to the bridge of his nose. It crinkles under the attention, but the kiss Xie Lian expects to smooth it over doesn’t come.

When Xie Lian opens his eyes again, Hua Cheng’s are closed. Though Hua Cheng doesn’t originally need to sleep, he’s grown so used to joining Xie Lian in his slumber that it’s like the living’s habits are entrenched in him again.

Xie Lian combs out the gold foil he noticed in Hua Cheng’s hair earlier, pressing it to his lips briefly. Then, he covers them with the blanket, snuggling closer until their legs are entangled, and his head rests under Hua Cheng’s chin.

In his sleep, Hua Cheng’s arms instinctively envelop him in a protective embrace.

Xie Lian’s hands, still holding the gold foil piece and enclosed on the crystal ring around his neck, are pushed over where Hua Cheng’s heart should be.

Xie Lian smiles, knowing there is no place in the world he would rather be, and no one else he would rather be with.