Xie Lian was straddling Hua Cheng's lap, clutching the front of his robes and kissing him with burning ferocity.
"Ah!" Their lips separated, and Hua Cheng tightly clutched his ass. His robes were messy, mirroring Hua Cheng's own disarrayed robes. A few hickeys were scattered across the base of his neck, some were the remains of last night, rest newly made.
"Chengzhu!!" Spoke a voice from outside. Of course, nobody dared to enter the entrance hall of Paradise Manor without Hua Cheng's permission. "There is someone who needs help and has requested an audience with you," the person said.
"Mnnn," Hua Cheng murmured, nuzzling Xie Lian's neck.
Xie Lian giggled and playfully pushed him back.
"San Lang! Your subjects need you, go help them now. We can continue later."
"Gege, they can wait for a while. Nobody will die in a few hours." Hua Cheng said lazily.
Xie Lian didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The citizens of the Ghost City were already.. dead. Nobody could really die any more. Unless Hua Cheng got angry. Xie Lian thought of the one time when somebody had dared to harass a woman on the streets in Ghost City. Hua Cheng had taken such good care of him that he had screamed for days and begged for death again and again. In the end his poor soul had disappeared, probably burning through the depths of hell. Maybe he would have found that place more peaceful than whatever Hua Cheng had done to him. After he was gone, Xie Lian had sat beside his raging husband and rubbed his back and shoulders, hugging him at times, and whispering soothing words into his ear till he had calmed down.
Xie Lian hoped that this was not the case now, while he straightened his robes. Hua Cheng had been livid to see somebody disrespecting a woman, that too in his territory. That person probably got exactly what he had deserved. It had also reinforced the rules of the City and fear in the hearts of malicious people. Still concerned for both the safety of the citizens and Hua Cheng's temper, he sat beside his husband and waited for the ghosts to enter and state their business.
Four people entered the room together, three standing in the front in a row, and the fourth one hidden behind them. They bowed down to Hua Cheng, bending low.
They straightened up, following his command. "Chengzhu, Daozhang, this servant is here to state the grievance of this old lady we found roaming on the streets. She says that she has been looking for her son for, eh, how many centuries did she say it was?" The man nudged the one beside him.
"Huh, why you ask me? Me no know. I here for Chengzhu only. Don't ask, don't ask," he replied.
The first one looked back at Hua Cheng and smiled sheepishly, showing his rows and rows of shark-like teeth.
"Oi, you tell me, how long was it??" He turned to the one on the other side.
"Nearly eight centuries." Came a woman's voice from behind them. She sounded weary, almost as if she was sick. Or perhaps it was the centuries long search that had tired her out.
"Eight, yes, haha! Eight. What a lovely number. Did you know I was born on the eighth day? What a coincidence hahaha!" The ghost with the sharp teeth spoke.
Hua Cheng raised his eyebrow at him, silently telling him to cut the crap and get to the point. The ghost straightened up and joined his hands before him once again.
"Chengzhu, we all know how bellevolent and kind you are—"
"It's benevolent," said the third ghost who had not yet spoken. He kept his head down, seemingly a shy and introverted person.
"Oh, you! Couldn't save me some face in front of Chengzhu, huh? I will deal with you later. Ah yes, Chengzhu, this humble one requests your help on behalf of this lady. please help her find her son. Miss, would you like to talk to Chengzhu now? Tell him about your son, whether he's dead or alive.. eh, although he would have most probably died by now ahahahah."
He turned back, looking at the woman while addressing her. The three stepped aside, letting her come forward. Her head was covered with a brown shawl, which was wrapped around her shoulders. She wore clothes that were a bit better than rags, covered in dirt all over. She reminded Xie Lian of his own self a few years back; collecting trash on the streets and living in rags, sleeping on dirt. Although he would never go back to wearing excessive silks and gold, still, he wore much finer robes now than those coarse rags.
She stood in front of them, slightly shivering, drawing the shawl closer around her shoulders. The complexion of her hand was pale in the way that ghosts had. Courteously, she removed the shawl from her head, revealing her face. It was the kind of face that would have been the attractor of men and envy of women in her youth. It was extremely beautiful, even though she was dead and looked middle aged
As soon as she took off her shawl and looked up, Hua Cheng tensed. The two were sitting close enough that their arms were touching, and Xie Lian felt the way he had tightly clenched his fist after seeing her face. He turned his eyes towards his husband and saw a look on Hua Cheng's face that confused him. His eye was wide and lips parted, staring intently at that woman. Xie Lian opened his mouth to speak, but Hua Cheng cut him to it. What he spoke, Xie Lian had never expected to hear.
The woman gasped hearing that one word. Her eyes were so wide that Xie Lian was worried her eyeballs might fall out. He normally wouldn't have had such concerns, but he had actually seen that happen to a ghost once...
The three ghosts standing at the sidelines stared at their lord in bewilderment, just as shocked as Xie Lian. That third introverted ghost seemed to have sensed the situation and nudged the other two, silently bowing down before Hua Cheng and taking their leave.
As soon as they left, Hua Cheng got to his feet and stood right before that woman. Was she really his mother? Xie Lian wondered.
"You…" she said, extending her arm upwards, just shy from touching Hua Cheng's cheek. "Is it really.. my Hong-er?" She whispered, as if afraid of the answer, afraid to hope.
Hearing that name, Hua Cheng's face cracked with emotion. Xie Lian too knew for sure that she was his mother. Now that he looked at it.. the two definitely looked like mother and son; their facial features were nearly identical. He now knew where Hua Cheng got all his beauty from.
Hua Cheng nodded, pursing his lips, looking like he was making an effort not to cry.
"Oh.. oh.." She stumbled on her feet and Hua Cheng caught her by the elbows, gently steadying her.
As soon as he touched her, something changed in the woman's face. A mother and a child could recognise each other anywhere, in any situation. What was the gap of a few centuries, especially when neither of them had forgotten the other?
Her face crumbled and she broke down into tears, burying her face into Hua Cheng's chest. His arms wrapped around her, soft but firm in their hold. By now, neither of them could stay stable on their feet and fell to the ground, never letting go of each other. Hua Cheng bent down and buried his face into his mother's shoulder. His back — facing Xie Lian — was trembling.
Xie Lian hurriedly wiped a tear away from the corner of his eye. Who could blame him for getting emotional though, that reunion he had just witnessed was enough to move even the most stone hearted people. A mother who had wandered the lands in search of her child, withered and old but never resting until she found him safe and could hold him in her arms one last time, could stroke his head and kiss his cheek before parting from this world, had finally fulfilled her wish.
Xie Lian thought he would leave them alone for a while and got up to leave. Yet, as soon as he took a few steps in the direction of the exit, Hua Cheng raised his head and looked at him pleadingly, not wanting him to leave.
Xie Lian stopped where he was, a few inches behind Hua Cheng. His mother then noticed him.
"Who is he?" She asked.
Xie Lian was not sure whether Hua Cheng would want to tell his mother about everything right after reuniting with her. He was about to tell a lie about being his account keeper or something when Hua Cheng spoke up.
"He is my husband."
Xie Lian was a bit shocked at the blunt revelation, but nevertheless, he smiled at his mother-in-law when she looked at him in surprise.
"Husband??? Hong-er you— I never thought— ah, how could I think, I left you at such a young age. You really—?" She shifted her gaze between the two of them, unable to find proper words for her questions.
Hua Cheng looked as close to 'scared' as he ever would.
"Ma.." he began. "I love him. And he loves me," Hua Cheng said with finality.
His mother looked at him, startled. "Oh, yes. Ah, don't get me wrong, my child," she spoke lovingly. "Give this old lady some time to process such a big shock, will you? My little son, who used to insist on sitting on my lap every time he ate, is all grown up now and.. is married.." her voice was thick with emotion towards the end.
It seemed as if she hadn't even thought about the fact that they were both males, or that it was improper in any way.
At last, she smiled and took Hua Cheng's right hand in her left one. As she did that, she noticed the red thread tied around the third finger. Her sharp eyes caught a similar red thread contrasting against Xie Lian's white attire, tied on the third finger of his left hand. She connected the dots and burst out laughing. Hua Cheng turned to look at the floor, extremely embarrassed.
"Hong-er, my dear Hong-er, that Red String of Fate was always your favourite bedtime story, wasn't it? Ahahaha, you begged me to tell that story to you every other night, sometimes every night! You really took it to heart, oh my child. That's so.. romantic," she whispered the last word giddily. It was now Xie Lian's turn to get embarrassed at his mother-in-law gushing over their love.
"What's your name, young man?"
Although she had called him young, and Xie Lian knew it was due to his ageless face, he couldn't help but feel a bit awkward as he remembered his real age, which was closer to her own.
"My name is Xie Lian," he said with propriety, bowing his head as he introduced himself to his mother-in-law.
She tilted her head to the side hearing that, then spoke after a pause. "You know.. back in our day, our crown prince was also named the same. Ah, I remember when I was sick, every day they used to talk about the grand parade that would take place at the Shangyuan festival. Sadly, I was not able to hold my breath and died a week before the parade. I'd heard that the crown prince himself was going to play the role of the god pleasing warrior! Ah, Hong-er, you remember how excited you had been back then? You would sit by my side all day and treat me so I could get better and we could both go and watch the" Glorious Crown Prince" together, haha. Your words, not mine. You were so excited to see the prince for some reason." She sighed nostalgically, rubbing the top of Hua Cheng's head.
The man in question had turned his face into her shoulder, completely hiding from Xie Lian. Xie Lian didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The poor woman did not know how fate had carried out the events of the future, nor did she know that Xie Lian was the same crown prince she spoke of.
"Hong-er, did you go and watch the parade at least? I know.. it must have been so hard for you, right after I left you. But did you enjoy yourself for a day?"
How could he tell her that yes, he had gone to the parade, but the only reason he had climbed up that tower was to kill himself and stain the entire kingdom and it's reputation with his blood? How could he tell her how much he had detested himself and the royalty after her death for failing to save their subjects, for not caring for anybody other than their own rich asses? Hua Cheng was lost in this thought and said nothing, only tightening his hold. Thankfully, Xie Lian spoke before he had to.
"My lady.. actually, I am the same Xie Lian you speak of," he said with a small smile.
Her mouth fell open as she stared at his form, that crown prince standing before her, introduced to her as her son-in-law. She pushed Hua Cheng up by his shoulders and stared at him questioningly. Hua Cheng nodded and smiled, turning to look up at Xie Lian, that smile deepening with adoration.
"YOU MARRIED THE CROWN PRINCE!?" she yelled, landing a smack on Hua Cheng's head at the end.
Hua Cheng ducked his head after he was hit, smiling playfully like a child whose mother had hit him but had no real anger behind it.
"My lady, I haven't been the crown prince for a long, long time now."
"Oh, yes, I heard. The kingdom of Xianle fell some 800 years ago," she said, a note of sadness in her voice. "But still! Hong-er, did you think of your poor old mother before you did such things???" At those words she had glanced at the bruises on Xie Lian's neck, looking at her son sternly. Xie Lian inconspicuously shifted his robe to hide those hickeys, feeling somewhat shameful that his mother-in-law had seen them.
"Maaaa," Hua Cheng drawled out like an embarrassed child.
"Yes, what is it?" she replied.
Xie Lian didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He could see now that along with his looks, Hua Cheng had also inherited his sense of sarcasm from his mother.
"Your eye, what happened?" She asked suddenly, placing her hand right below his eyepatch. Hua Cheng turned serious, then silently took off E'Ming, which was strapped to his waist, and placed it before his mother. That red eye opened and blinked up at her a few times, then turned crescent shaped, smiling like a happy child. She removed that hand from his cheek and gently stroked E'Ming's sheath with it. The sword trembled beneath her touch. Hua Cheng narrowed his eye at it, but neither said nor did anything. Perhaps he did not mind his mother being affectionate towards the sword, or the sword's childish personality this time.
"That's such a beautiful sword. Is that really.." she broke off and looked at his eyepatch again.
Hua Cheng looked down, unable to answer that question. How could he tell his mother about what he had done? What mother could sit and listen to the agony that her child had suffered through? She sensed his hesitation and asked no more.
"You had always loved swords. You have your own now." She smiled up at him, caressing his cheek fondly.
Hua Cheng returned that smile, holding her hands and helping her stand up off the floor. She held E'Ming out and Hua Cheng strapped it back to his side.
She turned towards Xie Lian, looking at him with misty eyes. Walking forward, she placed a gentle hand over his head.
"Your highness, by relation you are now my son-in-law, and this is why this one dared to place her hand over your head. I just wanted to say.. Thank you, for being here with him while I was not. May you both find endless prosperity and love ahead." She hugged Xie Lian after blessing them. Xie Lian froze for a second, then placed a hand on her back. He had not felt a mother's love in centuries, and now the intensity of it almost brought tears to his eyes. He felt grateful for this moment, so grateful to be here with a family.
Hua Cheng was looking at the two, unblinking, the way he did when he was committing a scene to memory. He would probably paint it later. But right now, he joined the two and held them together in his arms. Xie Lian was almost crushed as he was hugged by two people together, but he did not mind in the least, smiling happily.
After several moments, when they finally separated, Hua Cheng excitedly turned towards his mother.
"Ma, will you stay here with us?"
There were so many things Hua Cheng wished to talk to her about, so many stories he wanted to tell her. So much lost time he wanted to make up, so much filial piety he wanted to fulfill.
"Come, come. I have several empty rooms in this place. You can choose whichever one you like." Both he and Xie Lian turned towards the exit with the beaded curtain, leading to the inner chambers of Paradise Manor, Hua Cheng holding her arm with one hand.
They looked back sharply and saw that Hua Cheng's mother's form had turned translucent. It reminded Xie Lian of a memory he did not like to think about very often, or at all. Hua Cheng too, looked startled and rushed closer to her.
"My son, I have seen you now. I have fulfilled my last wish. What reason do I have to linger on in this world anymore?"
She cupped her son's cheek with her hand, and spoke her last words while her form faded away, "We will meet again in another life."
"Ma!" Hua Cheng yelled, his extended arm clutching at thin air where his mother had stood seconds before. He stumbled back, and Xie Lian caught him. Tears flowed free, and he clutched Xie Lian's robes as he cried. Xie Lian held him, helpless to that suffering, but understanding of his pain. They both fell to the ground, the same way Hua Cheng had fallen when he had held his mother again. But this time, instead of love, there was only an emptiness stabbing through his heart.
He had met her, after so long, yet she had left so soon. She had left before he could even begin all the stories he had wanted to share with her. She had left before he could tell her all that he had achieved, everything that would make a mother proud. She had gone before he had had his fill of his mother's love, just like she had left him at the age of ten; too soon.
"She said.. she said we would meet, again. But I can't meet her again, I can't," Hua Cheng choked out.
Xie Lian understood the meaning behind his words. Hua Cheng had stayed in this world for 800 years, holding on to his devotion and love. He was a supreme ghost king, having gone through countless pains and sufferings. But to see him go through this pain again, Xie Lian's own heart ached.
You can leave.. Xie Lian almost said. He wanted to tell him that it was okay. He wanted to tell him that he could go, that he wouldn't mind if Hua Cheng finally let his soul leave and move on. That he would let him go.
But he couldn't. Selfishly, he couldn't let Hua Cheng go, not again. He couldn't bear losing him, even though it caused pain to his beloved.
Heartless. Wretched. Selfish — Xie Lian thought to himself. What god? What benevolent, noble character? He would rather watch the person he loved suffer through pain than let him go. He would rather hold Hua Cheng in his grip than let him rest in peace. With a bruising grip he clutched Hua Cheng's shoulder, burying his face deeper into his chest. His breathing was as controlled as always, as calm and collected as his lover needed him to be.
Silently, two drops of tears left his eyes and stopped at the corners of his mouth, seeping in. His robe was wet enough with the tears of his beloved, how could he add his own worthless burden to that?
1 week later
Hua Cheng went about his days as if he had forgotten about his mother, about meeting her again and losing her again. He smiled at Xie Lian every morning, laughed when he said something silly, and went around his Ghost City as he always did. At night he would snuggle into Xie Lian's arms and sleep peacefully, like nothing had ever changed.
But Xie Lian somehow couldn't let go.
"Hm?" Xie Lian answered, looking up from his bowl of congee.
"Are you alright?"
The steaming rice had gone cold, and Xie Lian had taken merely three bites. Of course his husband was concerned.
"Mn," Xie Lian replied, absentmindedly. Not the best assurance, but these days he couldn't bring himself to be cheerful, not even for the sake of his husband. That thing kept nagging at the back of his mind, and his stomach turned every time he thought of it again, thus leaving him with little to no appetite.
"Is the food not to your liking?"
"It is, it is."
Hua Cheng raised an eyebrow, still obviously concerned and not satisfied with his answer.
"If gege feels comfortable, he can tell me whatever is bothering him. And if it's a 'someone', I can definitely take good care of that ." Hua Cheng meant that as a joke to lift Xie Lian's spirits, but Xie Lian couldn't laugh anymore. He pushed the bowl away and turned his head away from Hua Cheng, staring out the window. In the distance, he could see that the City was busy today, preparing stalls and cleaning the streets. Right outside the window, blue flowers bloomed in a row, separated by rows of white, ending in a circle of red flowers. Hua Cheng's aesthetic sense was immaculate as always. Towards the centre of those red flowers, Xie Lian spotted a shrivelled bud, its tips black, devoid of the beauty it had once stood in. His heart sank again.
"San Lang, I.." he turned back towards Hua Cheng, who had been staring at him all the while, lines of concern etched over his handsome features. Xie Lian felt a sudden urge to hug Hua Cheng, to hold him as close as possible, and to never let him slip out of his arms. "About what happened, I am very sorry. I can understand how you must have felt and—"
Xie Lian cut himself off. Understand? How could he understand? Just because he had lost his mother too, did not mean he understood the pain Hua Cheng must have gone through. That boy had lost his mother at the mere age of ten, his life full of burdens and pains since birth. Xie Lian had grown up as a royal, his parents fussing over him and his mother holding him in her arms till her last moment. He had received as much love as he deserved, if not more.
"Gege, why are you apologising? What is this really about?"
Xie Lian swallowed, his mouth tasting bitter, unable to speak.
"Is this.. it can't be.. gege, are you upset over my mother?" Hua Cheng asked softly.
Xie Lian nodded meekly.
"San Lang, I won't be upset! I understand if you, want to.. no, it's okay. You can. I won't stop you. It's okay. It's okay. It's okay," Xie Lian dissolved into blabbering words, his throat closing up at the end, barely holding back the tears burning hot behind his eyes. His right hand clutched at the fabric of his robe, under which was that ring. The ring had always felt warm against his chest, it's presence comforting. Yet, right now, it felt cold like an iron nail.
The chair screeched against the floor as Hua Cheng pushed it back and got up, swiftly moving to Xie Lian's side and sitting down beside him.
After 800 years, would he really lose his beloved? Xie Lian thought.
"Gege…" he placed his arms over Xie Lian's shoulders, pulling him closer. "I hope I understood wrong, and I hope gege doesn't mean what I think he meant, so I'm gonna ask him clearly. Gege, are you asking me to leave?"
A choked up noise broke out of Xie Lian's throat before he could control himself. His face was turned downwards, and Hua Cheng could not see his expression from there. He thought that Xie Lian was laughing and thus laughed along, a nervous undertone to that laugh.
But soon he stopped, because this time, he heard it clearly — Xie Lian's sobbing.
"Gege, I.. what did I do? Did I do something wrong? Gege please don't be like this, please." Hua Cheng's voice was as stable as always, his face giving away none of the turmoil within his mind. Yet, at his waist, that scimitar E'Ming was shaking wildly, the eye blinking and squeezing as if in great pain. Xie Lian finally looked up at Hua Cheng through tear-filled eyes.
Finally, he spoke clearly. "If you want to leave, let go, and meet your mother, it's okay. I understand. I won't.. I won't stop you, San Lang. We can meet again too." Xie Lian tried to smile, but his face probably looked even more pitiful with tears streaming down red cheeks and a mouth trying to stretch into a smile that did not reach his eyes or his heart. He said that he would meet Hua Cheng again, and if fate allowed it they probably would meet again. Because he himself could not die, could not reincarnate and be with his beloved in another life.
Hua Cheng sat there, completely frozen. His eye had never left Xie Lian. Suddenly, a loud crack broke the moment of silence. Hua Cheng's left hand, which had been resting on the table, had clutched the edge so hard that a whole section of the wood had broken off. He gave a light shove to the table, and the entire thing crashed back into the wall a few feet away, breaking into pieces. The bowls on the table broke too, a cloud of dust surrounding the air around that wreckage.
Xie Lian stared at it, startled. Hua Cheng calmly placed that piece of wood on the floor, got up, and walked out of the door. Xie Lian mentally cursed himself. He had made his San Lang angry, in a way that Xie Lian himself had never seen. He thought about the stories of the ghost king whom the officials had told him after his third ascension. Yet, he still could not place Hua Cheng into the category of some monster. His anger had never come unjustified.
He got up and dashed out of the open doors, Hua Cheng nowhere in sight. He ran to their bedroom, banging open the doors.
His panic rose as he rushed to the entrance hall of Paradise Manor. He parted the beaded curtain and was greeted by an empty divan and a plate full of fruits. He raced out, mind thinking of the places Hua Cheng could be in. There was another place which he had not checked, a place Hua Cheng could very possibly be in. Xie Lian ran into a hallway, at the end of which was a doorway that opened to a shortcut leading to Qiandeng Temple. Hua Cheng had built it some time after Xie Lian had started staying there regularly, complaining that after long calligraphy practice lessons, he could not be bothered to walk all the way from the main city road back to their room.
He exited the doorway, running across the garden path. Suddenly, he halted. A red figure was sitting on the grass in the distance, in the main garden where most of the flowers grew. It was the same area that was visible through the dining area earlier, and the garden that their bedroom gave the best view to.
Hua Cheng was holding a small white flower, plucking out each petal one by one and letting it fall to the ground, where there was a small pile of white petals and some stems. He was staring at the flower intensely, as if looking for an answer in those petals. Had this flower been a person, they would have surely passed out due to fright by now.
Xie Lian didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Was his husband really plucking petals and letting them decide an answer? Like those little girls with crushes who plucked petals and murmured, "he loves me, he loves me not". But after remembering the harsh words he had said to Hua Cheng, he couldn't be amused anymore. He walked forward, walking carefully to mask the sound of his steps. He got off the stone path and onto the grass, now standing right behind Hua Cheng.
"Did you really mean that?" Hua Cheng asked, without turning back.
"I'm sorry." Those words were all Xie Lian could say in that moment.
Hua Cheng extended his left arm upwards, without turning his face, and Xie Lian took hold of it, sitting down beside his husband.
Hua Cheng held out his hand, a small white flower clutched between his fingers. Fresh dew still clung to those petals, the flower fragrant and beautiful. He smiled as he offered that flower to Xie Lian, his eye closing into a crescent. Yet, that smile was laced with more sadness than with joy.
A drop fell onto that flower, the older dew sliding off its petals. Another drop fell, covering the flower with a fresh layer of water. Xie Lian clutched the sleeves of his robes as he cried silently. Even after all these years, that little white flower clutched in his hand could break Xie Lian's heart all over again, bursting with love. He carefully took that flower, fingers trembling as they held it, and then fell into Hua Cheng's waiting arms. His tears flowed free and his husband held him there tightly.
"Gege, I would never leave you. Seeing my mother after over 800 years, I had spoken some words overcome with emotion. But she died when I was a child. I have said goodbye to her long ago, in another life. My life now, is with you."
Murmurs of "I am sorry" were spoken against Hua Cheng's chest. "It's okay." — he would respond every time. Xie Lian held onto Hua Cheng's shoulders and finally looked up into his beloved's eye, shining with love as steadfast and infinite as always. He realised that previously, Hua Cheng had not been angry when he broke the table. He had been hurt. Xie Lian wanted to apologise again, but before he could start, soft lips pressed against his. He closed his eyes, the last two drops of tears falling down, and kissed his husband, softly, gently, but firmly.
There was no more need for words or apologies. The misunderstanding that had arisen, had dissolved just as quickly. When he pulled back, they were both smiling at each other with adoration.
"San Lang.. were you really plucking off those petals and letting them decide the 'yes' or 'no' to your question?"
Hua Cheng's eye widened, looking down at the pile of petals like a guilty culprit. Xie Lian started laughing and Hua Cheng hugged his waist, laughing too, as they both fell to the ground, laying down on the soft grass with unceasing happiness.
In the centre of that circle of flowers, there was a little withered red bud. Its tips had already blackened, and the petals had lost their shine. A gust of wind blew, and took that flower with it, the fading red flying across the sky, far away from that garden filled with mellow laughter.