Sometimes it's a slow start.
The day wakes with a lazy rise of the low red sun. It shyly peeks through the windows, like the glow of Hua Cheng’s lanterns out in the courtyard.
Dawn sets on the Ghost City. The streets must already be bustling with activity, preparing for another day of crafting, bargaining, gambling, and other less-than dubious transactions that Xie Lian would rather turn a blind eye to.
But Paradise Manor moves at another time.
Xie Lian stretches his body long and taunt, working out the kinks before sitting up. It’s no use trying to minimize his movements, for when Xie Lian wakes, so does his husband.
By habit, Xie Lian brushes Hua Cheng’s messy bangs to the side and places a soft kiss to his forehead. He does it to appease him. He does it to spoil him. Years with the Ghost King have taught Xie Lian how often he’d need to be reminded of his affections and Xie Lian’s more than happy to do so.
And sometimes, Hua Cheng is just plain greedy.
Strong arms wrap around his waist. Hua Cheng pushes his face into Xie Lian's side and breathes in deep.
“Good morning, San Lang.”
Hua Cheng’s breaths tickle against his skin. “Too early to be good.”
Xie Lian pats his hair in consolation.
"Gege should atone for rousing this ghost king at untimely hours."
"Oh? And what do you suggest, San Lang?"
Hua Cheng doesn't need to tug hard to lure Xie Lian back down. He takes no time to pounce, caging him between his arms and legs. His husband goes in for the kill, striking the first attack of the morning with a steaming kiss that turns breathless and wet and leaves Xie Lian forgetting about waking up with the sun.
It's slow because Hua Cheng makes it slow. Allows it to be slow. Time is now on their side. With 800 years of solitude and a learned habit to not waste hours in a day, Hua Cheng easily makes him forget about structure and discipline when he needs to forget. He reminds Xie Lian that they can take all the time they want.
Mornings are what they make it to be.
Sometimes he wakes in the dead of the night.
His eyes wide open, catching glimpse of the shadows carved around their bed to remind him of where he is.
In the heart of Ghost City, guarded within the walls of Paradise Manor.
It takes a moment for Xie Lian to adjust to the night's darkness. A welcome sight—or lack thereof. None more quickly does it erase the white flash of a half-smiling-half-frowning face in his nightmare. A violent reminder of a fear still lingering in the corners of his mind like an undying parasite.
He wakes with a light sheen of sweat, his fists tight on the blanket. The last of his frantic heartbeats dies with each slowed breaths but it's futile to hide from his husband.
Xie Lian tilts his head to the side to see Hua Cheng already awake with him. His gaze is sharp, clear with intent and unquestionable focus. He has a slight frown and Xie Lian hates how he's the cause of it.
A cool hand palms his cheek, thumb softly caressing the hot skin. Wordlessly, Hua Cheng leans in and presses his forehead against Xie Lian's. Calm washes over his body, soothing any remaining trembles that shook his nerves.
Hua Cheng continues to press his lips against Xie Lian's forehead, on the corner of his eye, on his nose, and down to the cupid's bow of his lips. The last touch remained just a bit longer before Hua Cheng encloses his entire body over him. An arm across his chest, legs entangle possessively, his husband tucks Xie Lian's head under his chin.
The Ghost King lies vigil over the almost-forgotten Scrap-collecting God.
Xie Lian hums. He is already at ease.
"Bastard has no place in Gege's dreams."
Xie Lian can't help but smile at the petty disdain in Hua Cheng's tone. Does he detect a hint of jealousy? It's still a pleasant surprise to witness Hua Cheng agitated over even the smallest conveniences on Xie Lian. He finds himself lucky and honoured to receive such devotion.
He nuzzles against Hua Cheng, a gesture of comfort to both him and his husband. A hand finds the arm across his chest and begins to stroke lazily.
"But San Lang will chase unwanted guests away."
A proud huff is all that’s heard and needed.
Sometimes he wakes to an empty bed.
The space beside him is rather expansive and Xie Lian thinks on downsizing the bed. The room even, despite it being built so spacious and luxuriously in honour of him. He's used to small mats and narrow sleeping quarters that he forgets at times why the bed is so big.
Xie Lian's movements are languid, still sleep-muddled in the early morning.
Something white catches his eyes. A chrysanthemum flower in full bloom, placed on Hua Cheng's pillow, greets him a good morning. It contrasts against the crimson hue of the sheet, demanding attention in all its innocent glory. Xie Lian fingers a petal on the outside edge, noting a tiny dew drop sitting near the centre.
Freshly picked. No doubt from their little garden that Hua Cheng coincidentally started soon after he'd caught Xie Lian smelling a roadside patch of white chrysanthemums. He'd have to remind Hua Cheng - flowers are only meant to be viewed, not picked.
But his chest cannot help but grow warm and tingly. It is full and heavy with his husband's affections. On mornings when Hua Cheng needs to leave early for duties, Xie Lian is spoiled with a flower in place of his presence. He'll need to add this one to the ever-growing batch of flowers he places in the garden pond after.
Xie Lian breathes in that faint earthy scent.
The bed doesn't feel so empty anymore.
And sometimes, it’s hard.
To think one would come to terms with tragedies in a long forgotten past, but Xie Lian is one for sentimentality. It grounds him, reminds him of who he was, where he’s been, and what he’s become.
Ruoye is restless as the memories playing repeatedly in Xie Lian’s head. It curls and tangles, and untangles itself in aimless direction, sliding up his arm hazily before whipping up in mid-air as if looking for something lost long ago. As if Father and Mother were still there, hanging in the middle of the room, their expressions still as serene as the day when they’d decided that it was better to let go than to hold on.
Xie Lian brushes the silk bandage and it instantly flutters in comfort. Sleep escapes the both of them and Xie Lian would very much rather keep Ruoye company on the anniversary of his parents’ death. The moon hangs high and is at its brightest, casting a silvery sheen over the window sills. Almost as bright as Hua Cheng’s butterflies fluttering into their canopy bed.
One particular butterfly glides across and lands on the spot where Xie Lian’s finger touched Ruoye. The silk band pauses before swaying gently in air, pulling the butterfly in a slow dance. Xie Lian smiles – looks like Ruoye has extra company this time around.
A larger hand comes up and covers Xie Lian’s, weaving its fingers together in an interlocking grip. On instinct, Xie Lian snuggles back into Hua Cheng’s body, his back molded perfectly into his husband’s chest. He let an arm slip under his neck and wrap around his front, instantly feeling safe and protected and all the warm sensations that Hua Cheng so gifts him unknowingly.
More silver butterflies arrive at the scene, landing everywhere on the bed around them as if resting in a meadow. The slow movement of their wings pulls Xie Lian to a trance and he finds himself slowly slipping into sleep.
“Does Gege know,” Hua Cheng murmurs softly, “that when you laugh, you carry the same dimples as Her Imperial Majesty?”
A bittersweet pinch – both joy and pain shoots through his heart. Mother did have them. He’s forgotten the small details.
“And when Gege is frustrated and scrunches his eyebrows together, you look just like His Imperial Majesty, if only a little nicer.”
Xie Lian huffs out a laugh. His vision is bleary from incoming tears. “San Lang knows so much on such trivial things.”
The hand around his squeezes in disagreement.
“Nothing is trivial when it comes to Your Highness. This dedicated lover aims to know every single thing involving you.”
A butterfly lands on Xie Lian’s cheek, its wings kissing him to cement Hua Cheng’s promise. Xie Lian lets sleep wash over, an image of his parents’ knowing smiles fading in the back of his mind.
“Sleep, Gege. We will visit Their Imperial Majesties’ grave come daylight.”
Sometimes, it’s hard. It’s lonely. It’s painful.
But always, Hua Cheng is there to bring him back.