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Usually, with Hua Cheng’s clones, it goes like this:

The harsh clatter of fangs, snarls and snaps and red welts left behind by sharp black nails; sore mouths and blooming bruises and interlocking rings of bleeding bites; heaving flanks and burning eyes. It is violent. It is painful. It is an act, Xie Lian thinks, more akin to fighting than sex: but this is the way Hua Cheng likes it. 

He explained it, before, halting and ashamed. There is a thing in him, an open-mouthed and hungry thing, that cannot be satisfied with gentle touches and soft sighs. It is the same thing that has allowed him to raze lands and conquer cities and crush skulls beneath the heel of his boot. It is a bloody, needful thing that wants to tear and to be torn. It is a thing he will never allow Xie Lian near, if he can help it.

Xie Lian had offered to let him near, once and only once. After all, he can handle pain very well. If Hua Cheng needed to maul someone, then he might as well—

Hua Cheng had had a panic attack.

So: the clones.

Over the years, Xie Lian has watched Hua Cheng couple with his clones several times. It was a good way to convince Hua Cheng that, no, Xie Lian wouldn’t leave him as soon as he glimpsed that filthy underbelly—that, no, Hua Cheng was not horrible and awful and unloveable for his desires—that, no, there was nothing shameful in getting what he needed as long as he didn’t hurt anyone undeserving on his way there (hurt, of course, being a qualifiable term).

Xie Lian does feel bad for the clones, sometimes, though. They enjoy it—he knows they enjoy it, because he’s spoken to them before, and because they’re Hua Cheng and they enjoy what Hua Cheng enjoys. The sex, no matter how violent, is always a mutually satisifying arrangement. It’s the after that Xie Lian worries about. Hua Cheng never allows his clones to stay in the after. As soon as he’s climaxed, he snaps his fingers and dissipates that other bloody body. 

Xie Lian wishes he would wipe the blood off, first. He wishes that Hua Cheng would let them catch their breaths. He wishes they could lie together quietly, recovering. He wishes—he wishes—he wishes—

There are times when Hua Cheng is gentle with his clones. Rare times, to be sure, but times all the same. The clones he uses for these times are always smaller, softer, with lively brown eyes and perfectly unblemished skin and kind smiles. They wear white. 

“They’re the ones I used to practice for Dianxia,” Hua Cheng explains shyly, when Xie Lian asks. His face is pink across the bridge of his nose and up to the tips of his tapered ears. “Pray Dianxia doesn’t mind.”

How could Xie Lian mind? The practicing has paid off well, anyway.

But there’s something about it all, still, that nags at him like a sore tooth. Why do those clones have to look different? Why do they have to look similar to Xie Lian to earn Hua Cheng’s gentleness? Why aren’t his other clones deserving of—if not the exact same treatment—at least a little gentleness during the aftercare, or any aftercare at all? 

Let it never be said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Old dog Xie Lian has gotten very good at asking for what he wants, since he married Hua Cheng, and he employs that new trick now. He sits down with Hua Cheng, and holds his hands, and smiles up at him. Hua Cheng is beautiful when he smiles back. He’s beautiful always.

“San Lang,” he says, coaxing, “I have a request.”

“Anything.”

“You haven’t even heard what it is,” Xie Lian admonishes. They’ve been working on Hua Cheng’s boundaries; it’s a slow process. “What if I asked you to jump off of a cliff?”

“Which cliff?”

A very slow process.

“No, no cliffs! San Lang should take better care of himself!”

“Of course, Dianxia.” Hua Cheng smiles, his eye crinkling at the edges. He swings their hands between them playfully. “What was it that you wanted?”

“I wanted to ask,” Xie Lian says, fighting through the rising heat in his face, “if I could, um, watch. You and—you know. Again.”

Hua Cheng laughs, bringing Xie Lian’s hands up to kiss his knuckles. “Gege can watch whenever he wants. Just let this one know when.”

“Tomorrow.”

“Okay.” Hua Cheng tips his head, then drops his voice into something sultry and smooth. “Is there anything in particular gege wanted to see?”

“Yes, actually.”

Hua Cheng arches his eyebrows. “Oh? Would gege please tell this husband, so that he can make his preparations?”

“En. But it’s—it’s kind of specific, San Lang, you can say no if you’re uncomfortable.”

Hua Cheng nods, his eye bright with excitement. He always gets this way, when Xie Lian requests something of him. “San Lang will keep it in mind. What is it, gege?”

“I want San Lang to be—to be gentle, this time,” Xie Lian says, staring fixedly at a point over Hua Cheng’s shoulder. He can feel his blush creeping towards his neck. “I want him to be kind to his clone, like he is with me.”

Hua Cheng pauses to think about it, head tilted—a score on the boundaries front!—before nodding. “Mn, of course, gege. I can do that.”

“And I want you to be good to them after, too.”

“This servant will do his best.” Hua Cheng leans over to meet his gaze. “What’s the specific part? We’ve done all this before.”

“Well, it’s…” Xie Lian clears his throat.

“Desires are nothing to be ashamed of,” Hua Cheng reminds him, as he has so many times before. “Whatever gege wants, it’s okay to ask for.”

“I want both San Lang and his clone to be in their true forms.”

“Oh.”

That doesn’t sound like a good oh. Xie Lian cringes before daring to look back at his husband. Hua Cheng sits back, some, his brow furrowed in thought and a small frown on his lips. 

“San Lang can say no,” Xie Lian reminds him hastily. “It was only a thought.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re allowed to have boundaries, San Lang, and you don’t have to say yes to everything I—”

Hua Cheng shakes his head. “No, why does gege want to see that? My clones have more pleasing forms than that.”

“San Lang,” Xie Lian warns. “You know how I feel about your true form.”

“Mn, and gege knows how I feel about it, too.”

“If it makes you too uncomfortable, you don’t need to do it.” Xie Lian untangles their fingers, reaching up to cradle Hua Cheng’s face. “This gege will just have to keep telling you how beautiful your true form is, until you believe it.”

Hua Cheng closes his eye and presses his face against Xie Lian’s palm to hide. “Gege,” he complains. 

“Ah, San Lang, there’s nothing for it. I have to speak the truth. San Lang is so beautiful! So handsome, so dashing!”

Hua Cheng laughs against his skin, a warm puff of air. “If Dianxia insists.”

“I do,” Xie Lian says, haughtily, and lifts his chin, “and Dianxia’s word is law, is it not?”

“Mn, of course.” 

“San Lang, you can think about it, if you need to. We really don’t have to do it. I just wanted—” Xie Lian flails the hand still wrapped up in Hua Cheng’s, jostling his husband’s arm. “I don’t know. I thought it would be nice.”

Hua Cheng turns his face out of Xie Lian’s palm, peeking down at him. “We can try,” he offers, “but it will be more difficult, for me.”

“I thought it might be.”

“It’s hard to be gentle, with that clone. He...well.” Hua Cheng shrugs helplessly. “Gege knows.”

Gege does know, and so he sighs regretfully and leans up to kiss Hua Cheng—once, twice, three times. He can taste the spice of their dinner on Hua Cheng’s breath. 

“Let’s try,” he says, “and see what happens.”

This is how they find themselves, the next night, cuddled next to each other on the bed at Qiandeng Temple. Hua Cheng has procured a mound of pillows for them, and he reclines with his legs parted and one hand working lazily between them. His other hand tangles into Xie Lian’s hair, holding him close as they trade slow, wet kisses. 

When Xie Lian draws back, it’s only to look hopefully at Hua Cheng and ask, “Can this husband have two San Langs, now?”

“He can have as many San Langs as he wants,” Hua Cheng assures him, with a cheshire smile. He waves his hand and a perfect clone materializes at the end of the bed—as promised, the clone is in his true form, too. “Will this one suffice?”

Xie Lian turns to look at the clone, offering him a warm smile. “He’s perfect,” Xie Lian says, reaching out to tap the clone’s forehead. “I’m going to call you San Lang, okay?”

“Anything Dianxia wants,” San Lang agrees, smiling.

“What if I wanted to be San Lang?” Hua Cheng whines. “Gege, that’s no fair. That’s my nickname, how come he gets to have it?”

“Anything Dianxia wants,” San Lang repeats, shooting Hua Cheng a smug look. “Don’t fuss so much, it’s unbecoming.”

“Alright, alright.” Xie Lian laughs, making calm-down gestures with his hands. Really, managing two Hua Chengs is like managing two toddlers, sometimes. This might be even harder than he originally thought. “Don’t be jealous, you two. Hua Cheng, you can be San Lang next time.”

Hua Cheng sighs. “If gege says so.”

“San Lang, come here, please. Lay down next to Hua Cheng.” Xie Lian crooks a finger, and San Lang settles in on Hua Cheng’s other side. They glare at each other before Xie Lian sits up and swings a leg over Hua Cheng’s hips, settling down on him. Hua Cheng tips his head back and sighs, placated. “Both of you be good, okay?”

“Yes, gege,” they both say, their eyes rapt on Xie Lian’s face.

“Come over here,” Xie Lian says, motioning for San Lang. He quickly leans up and kisses Xie Lian, licking into his mouth, and Xie Lian feels Hua Cheng’s hands curl possessively around his hips as he watches. Their lips move together, slick and hot: for acts like this, Hua Cheng and his clones always raise their body temperatures and reengage their cardiovascular systems. Xie Lian sighs contentedly into San Lang’s mouth. “San Lang is so good at this.”

Hua Cheng’s fingers tighten around his hips, and he rocks up against Xie Lian. 

“Ah, Hua Cheng—” Xie Lian leans back to catch his breath, bracing his hands on Hua Cheng’s chest. San Lang, doubtlessly annoyed by the interruption, growls low in his chest. It is for this reason Xie Lian rarely engages with two Hua Chengs at once: it’s akin to throwing a beloved toy between two equally excited dogs. Not only will Xie Lian be tugged jealously between them; they’ll also, more than likely, end up snapping at each other. 

It is instead more pleasant for Xie Lian to watch, and to command.

“San Lang, quiet,” Xie Lian says sharply, and San Lang’s growl immediately cuts off. “Lay on your back.”

San Lang obeys readily enough, although he still watches Hua Cheng irritably from the corner of his eye. Xie Lian sets his hands over Hua Cheng’s, squeezing gently before removing them from himself. He shuffles off of Hua Cheng’s hips and pats his thigh, gesturing for him to move towards San Lang. 

“Sit on his hips, just like I did with you,” he says. “Don’t hurt each other.”

Hua Cheng perches himself on top of San Lang, and looks rather smug about it, too. 

San Lang wrinkles his nose. “Gege, how come he gets to be on top?” 

“Because I said,” Xie Lian says, which has always been enough reason for Hua Cheng in the past—even if, perhaps, it shouldn’t be. It works now as well as it ever has.

“Alright,” San Lang sighs.

But Xie Lian still feels bad—his husband(s?) deserve a proper explanation, don’t they? “It’s because I want to teach him something, San Lang,” Xie Lian says, sitting next to them and resting a hand on Hua Cheng’s back. “Because I want to teach you both something. So be good and do what I say, okay?”

San Lang looks up at him, his eye as warm and earnest as Hua Cheng’s has ever been. “Okay, gege.”

“You both remember your safeword?” 

“Mn,” they say, nodding.

“Good. Hua Cheng, kiss him, now—do it gently. No biting.”

Hua Cheng leans down and seizes San Lang’s mouth...well, if not gently, than at least more gently than usual. San Lang only snarls a little bit. Xie Lian rubs Hua Cheng’s back in slow circles, the way he does when he wants to calm him, and it seems to help. Hua Cheng’s movements grow slower and softer by degrees, and Xie Lian glimpses the pink flash of his tongue as it strokes against San Lang’s. 

“Good, good boy,” Xie Lian murmurs. “Good boys, just like that.”

Hua Cheng hums softly, arching into Xie Lian’s touch. Both San Lang and Hua Cheng have their eyes squeezed shut—but that’s okay. They’ll get there. He doesn’t want to push them too hard all at once; it’s enough that they’re not biting. As they kiss, Xie Lian moves to divest Hua Cheng of his tunic. He runs his hands along the expanse of bare, scarred skin beneath and scatters it with delicate kisses. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng gasps against San Lang, his fingers curling into the sheets. “Gege, more?”

“In a minute. Help San Lang with his clothes.”

Together, Hua Cheng and San Lang strip themselves out of the rest of their clothes. They regard each other sourly once they’re naked, eyeing old scars with disgust. 

“Beautiful,” Xie Lian insists, looking between them. “The both of you are beautiful and sexy and Dianxia will not be entertaining any arguments to the contrary.”

They both huff out a laugh, the tension around their eyes easing as they look fondly at him.

“Okay, Dianxia,” Hua Cheng says. “Can you touch me now?”

“Mm, a little. San Lang, you touch him, too.”

Xie Lian smooths his palms along the warm, bare skin of Hua Cheng’s back while San Lang reaches up and tangles a hand in his hair to pull him back down for another kiss. His other hand roams greedily across the expanse of Hua Cheng’s chest, scraping his nails over the deathscar that lurks below his sternum. 

“Gently,” Xie Lian reminds him. He reaches around to rest his hand over San Lang’s, guiding it through several soft, easy caresses that have Hua Cheng sighing in satisfaction. When their hands finally slip down, brushing between Hua Cheng’s legs, Hua Cheng hisses through his teeth and hitches up into San Lang’s palm. 

San Lang snickers, moving his hand away. “Needy much, old ghost?”

Hua Cheng bares his fangs—and then, abruptly, reaches down to squeeze San Lang’s cock. “You’re one to talk, brat.”

“Fuck— you—” San Lang starts to sit up, but Xie Lian pushes him back down with a hand on his shoulder. 

“Boys, please,” he chastises. “Hua Cheng, if you’re going to touch him, do it right. Like this.”

Xie Lian rests his hand over Hua Cheng’s, this time, guiding him to stroke San Lang at an even tempo. San Lang is only half-hard, but his cock swells quickly in Hua Cheng’s firm grip. He squirms his hips, breathing in ragged starts and stops whenever Hua Cheng pauses to rub a thumb through the precum beading at his tip. Hua Cheng pauses, briefly, to press another thumb into San Lang’s perineum; San Lang tips his head back and moans, allowing Hua Cheng to dip down and mouth against his neck.

Xie Lian trails his nails up and down Hua Cheng’s back, feeling him shiver as San Lang squirms beneath him. “Perfect, just like that. Gege likes it when you make each other feel good. Hua Cheng, San Lang, you deserve to always feel good.”

Hua Cheng groans and bites San Lang, eliciting an offended yelp, and Xie Lian pinches him. He breaks apart from San Lang to shoot a betrayed glance over his shoulder. “Gently, Hua Cheng,” he scolds. “I don’t want to tell either one of you again.”

“Yes, Dianxia,” Hua Cheng mumbles, laving his tongue apologetically over the reddened skin on San Lang’s throat. The gesture is surprisingly tender. Even San Lang himself seems surprised, his eye widening and his fingers loosening in Hua Cheng’s hair. Hua Cheng noses his jaw, nudging it further to the side, and trails a damp path of lovebites down his neck and across the sharp lines of his collarbones. 

“Good, sweetheart, that’s right,” Xie Lian says, running his fingers through Hua Cheng’s hair. “Keep doing that. Look how much he likes it.”

San Lang’s head tips back, his fingers kneading into the mattress beneath him. His hair is a spray of ink around him, the fine strands catching on Hua Cheng’s lips as he kisses one shoulder. He brings his own hand up, tentatively resting it on the back of Hua Cheng’s head to keep him close.

“How are you feeling, San Lang?” Xie Lian asks, tracing absent patterns between Hua Cheng’s shoulders. “Doing okay?”

“Very okay,” San Lang agrees breathlessly. Then, towards Hua Cheng, he adds, “You’re not half bad at this. All that practice with gege really paid off.”

Hua Cheng smirks, licking one of San Lang’s nipples and making him gasp. “I’d say.”

Xie Lian beams. See, they can be nice to each other! Dreams really do come true!!

“San Lang, I want Hua Cheng to put you under,” Xie Lian says, easily catching his husbands’ attention. “Would that be okay?”

“I’d rather gege did it,” they say together. 

“Alright.” Xie Lian captures one of San Lang’s hands, drawing it to his mouth so he can kiss the palm. “But Hua Cheng is going to help take care of you while you’re under.”

“As long as gege is here too,” San Lang agrees.

“I won’t go anywhere.” Xie Lian lays down next to San Lang, reaching up to stroke Hua Cheng’s cheek. “Hua Cheng, husband, will you suck him off while I do this?”

Hua Cheng nuzzles into his hand, humming happily, before he scoots himself down to nestle between San Lang’s legs. “Whatever gege desires.”

San Lang’s gaze follows Hua Cheng down, but Xie Lian quickly redirects his attention with a tap to his chin. 

“Don’t come until I tell you,” Xie Lian orders, rubbing his thumb along San Lang’s bottom lip, “or you’ll have to sit on Hua Cheng’s cock and watch while I get myself off.”

San Lang groans, draping his arm over his eyes. “Hua Cheng.”

“What?”

“We’ve taught him too much dirty talk. Whatever happened to our naive, innocent gege?”

“Corrupted by the ruler of Ghost City himself, I’m afraid,” Xie Lian says, propping his face up in his hand and grinning. “But it was a worthwhile trade-off. He’s so handsome, you see, and such a considerate husband. I love him very much.”

“San Lang,” Hua Cheng says, looking predatorily up the length of San Lang’s body, “for what it’s worth, if you come before he tells you and I’m not allowed to touch him either—I might just kill you.”

“I think your mouth has better things to do than threatening him,” Xie Lian says, making a move-along gesture at Hua Cheng.

Hua Cheng, ever dutiful and obedient, sinks his mouth down on San Lang’s cock. San Lang’s fingers curl, and he drags his legs up to trap Hua Cheng’s head between his thighs while his heels dig into the mattress. As Hua Cheng begins to suckle, he whispers a heartfelt, “Fuck.”

It’s always been easiest for Hua Cheng to reach subspace when there’s pain involved—but Xie Lian is loathe to break the gentleness of tonight, and so the most he does is tug San Lang’s hair to angle him for a better kiss. The rest of his work is done through careful touches and phrases. He trickles his fingers up and down the flat expanse of Hua Cheng’s stomach, allowing his nails to scrape lightly over the skin there until goosebumps pebble in their wake. 

“San Lang,” he murmurs, “San Lang, you’re doing so well already. I know this is hard for you, but you’re doing exactly what gege wants and making him feel so happy.”

San Lang squirms under the praise, the tips of his ears pink. 

“What do you think of Hua Cheng? Is he doing well, too? Is he making my sweet boy feel good?” Xie Lian kisses San Lang’s chest, then latches onto a nipple and bites gently. He raises his voice to make sure Hua Cheng hears his next words: “Mm, I bet he is. My Hua Cheng is so good at this, after all.”

“He’s—had a lot of practice,” San Lang pants, twitching his hips. He reaches for Xie Lian, but Xie Lian grasps his wrist and presses it to the bed. 

“Don’t move,” he says sternly. “Gege and Hua Cheng are going to take care of you right now.”

San Lang bites his lower lip, nodding rapidly. 

Xie Lian keeps a tight grip on his wrist, but softens his voice. “Good boy. You listen so well.”

“I want to be good for gege,” San Lang says—then Hua Cheng must do something good, because his eye widens and he moans. “Gege, gege—”

“Shh, don’t call my name. You know who’s making you feel good down there.”

“Gege.”

“No, not me this time,” Xie Lian says, laughing lightly and rolling San Lang’s nipple between his fingers. “Say his name.”

“Hua Cheng,” San Lang moans, and Xie Lian sees Hua Cheng falter out of the corner of his eye. Then he hums in deep satisfaction and takes San Lang deeper, one hand coming up to massage his balls. “More? Gege, Hua Cheng, more.”

“Mm, okay. Don’t go easy on him, Hua Cheng.” 

Xie Lian sits back, watching as Hua Cheng works San Lang over vigorously with his mouth. His cheeks hollow as he sucks, and San Lang’s cock is already coated in a thin layer of saliva. His hair falls around his face, brushing the sensitive skin of San Lang’s inner thighs and groin as he bobs his head, and San Lang’s noises sharpen as he rapidly climbs closer to his climax. 

“He really is good at this,” Xie Lian says, twirling San Lang’s hair around one finger, “isn’t he?”

“Yes—yesyesyes,” San Lang says, squeezing his eye shut.

“We’re lucky,” Xie Lian sighs dreamily, and sees Hua Cheng’s eye crinkle at the edge. He can’t quite smile, with his mouth full as it is, but that little squinted eye is close enough. Xie Lian smiles back. “Good boy, Hua Cheng.”

Hua Cheng’s eye squints even more, and he returns to his job with new fervor.

It doesn’t take long at all for San Lang to ask for his release, his back arching as he fights the urge to thrust into Hua Cheng. “Gege, can I?” he says. “Please can I come now?”

“San Lang is always so pretty when he asks,” Xie Lian murmurs from his place tucked into the skin of San Lang’s throat. He smells like musk and sweat and flowers, there. “Not yet.”

San Lang whines but does not protest. Hua Cheng continues to work him over mercilessly, without even a moment of reprieve—undoubtedly, he knows that if he tries to go easy on San Lang to avoid their punishment, Xie Lian will notice and scold him. Three more times San Lang asks to come, and three more times Xie Lian denies him, until there’s desperation around his eye and in the helpless squirms of his hips.

“Just a little longer,” Xie Lian soothes. “You’re both doing so well. San Lang, you can hold onto Hua Cheng, now, while gege goes and gets something.”

San Lang reaches down, burying his hands in Hua Cheng’s hair and whimpering pitifully when the movement makes Hua Cheng’s mouth slide deeper around his cock. While his husbands pleasure each other, Xie Lian slips off of the bed and goes to rummage through their bedside table. He pulls out a small vial of sweet-scented oil, then goes to offer it to Hua Cheng. 

“Start preparing him,” he instructs, and Hua Cheng holds his hand out. Xie Lian drizzles his fingers liberally in oil. “Slowly. I don’t want you to hurt him.”

San Lang gasps when the first finger breaches him, arching his back and opening his legs wider. A low throb of arousal goes through Xie Lian, pooling hot and syrupy in his lower belly. He’s been hard since he first began kissing Hua Cheng, this evening—it’s a low, slow-burning fire. He sits beside Hua Cheng now, watching hungrily as he works San Lang open on gentle fingers. San Lang’s noises grow in fervency: gasps and groans and yelps of pleasure. 

“Please,” he begs, when Hua Cheng is up to three fingers. “Dianxia, gege, Hua Cheng, please.”

“San Lang has been such a good boy.” Xie Lian moves up to kiss him, gliding their tongues together. San Lang’s kisses are sloppy, open-mouthed things, with none of his usual elegance or finesse. “Okay, okay. You can come now. Come for Hua Cheng, sweetheart.”

San Lang is, as always, helpless to obey. He comes with a cry, closing his legs around Hua Cheng’s head and shuddering through it. Hua Cheng pins his hips down, refusing the aborted little thrusts they try to make, and spits his cum onto his abdomen. His mouth is red and wet, his eye heavily lidded as he peers up San Lang’s body to Xie Lian. Xie Lian really only intended for one of them to be in subspace during this, but if that look is anything to go by…

No matter! Xie Lian can make it work!

“Hua Cheng, don’t waste,” Xie Lian reprimands. “Clean him up.”

Hua Cheng wrinkles his nose, evidently of the opinion that only Xie Lian’s cum is worth swallowing, before gingerly licking San Lang’s softening cock and belly clean. San Lang whimpers as he does, twitching with oversensitivity. 

“Now be polite, San Lang. Tell him thank you for making you feel good,” Xie Lian instructs, smoothing San Lang’s hair off of his overheated forehead.

San Lang hesitates, but Hua Cheng looks up at him with one burning eye, and—“Th-thank you,” he says, stumbled, lowering his own gaze. “Thank you, Hua Cheng.”

Xie Lian could preen.

“Hm,” Hua Cheng says noncommittally, sitting back on his heels. Xie Lian ushers him forward for a kiss of his own; he can taste his San Lang there, bitterness and salt. 

“Really, thank you, Hua Cheng,” he says earnestly. “That was exactly what I wanted you to do. Can you pass me that oil, now?”

Hua Cheng does, and Xie Lian pours some into his hand. He rubs his palms together until it warms through, then reaches out to grasp Hua Cheng’s cock—it’s hard and red, straining against his belly and beading precum. He makes a choked noise as soon as Xie Lian touches him, wrapping his arms around Xie Lian’s shoulders and hunching over him. His hips move, rocking himself gently through the slick grasp of Xie Lian’s fingers. 

“Good boy,” Xie Lian whispers, making sure to coat Hua Cheng thoroughly in the oil. “Good, good boy. Do you think you can take care of San Lang for me, nicely?”

Hua Cheng nods quickly, tucking his face into the crook of Xie Lian’s throat. Xie Lian indulges him a moment more, stroking his cock slowly, until Hua Cheng finally shuffles backwards and settles between San Lang’s legs again. San Lang whines softly, so Xie Lian leans down to kiss his forehead.

“Alright?” he asks, wiping the excess oil off of his hands and onto their blankets. A problem for later.

San Lang nods, but he reaches up, and so Xie Lian leans down to hug him. He strokes his hair, crooning softly, until San Lang relaxes beneath him. “San Lang did so well, too,” he whispers. “He obeyed gege perfectly and I’m so proud of him. Does he think he can come one more time, with Hua Cheng in him?”

“Yes, gege,” San Lang whispers, nuzzling into the curtain of Xie Lian’s hair. 

“What about you?” Hua Cheng asks, and Xie Lian peeks back at him with an arched eyebrow. He clarifies, “When do we get to make gege come?”

“Oh!” Xie Lian smiles sheepishly. “I figured I would just do it myself while I was watching.”

“But I want to make gege come,” San Lang and Hua Cheng say, another eerie in-sync impulse. 

Before they can begin to bicker about that, Xie Lian hastily says, “I want to do it myself, but—but both of you can clean me up, after, if you can share.”

Hua Cheng and San Lang trade a look, then nod, appeased. 

“Good! In that case—Hua Cheng, get inside him, now.”

Hua Cheng grips San Lang’s knees, pushing his thighs apart and shifting forward. San Lang writhes as he begins to enter, so Xie Lian lays next to him and pets his hair and coos. 

“I know,” he says, “I know. Hua Cheng is so big. It’s always a stretch at first.”

“Gege flatters this one,” Hua Cheng gasps. His fingers twitch, but he does as Xie Lian had asked and moves slowly to give San Lang time to adjust. He pauses once he’s fully inside, lowering his head and panting. “San Lang, are you—?”

“Fine,” San Lang says. “I’m fine, I’m fine, you can move.”

Hua Cheng looks to Xie Lian for permission and, having received it, begins to thrust slowly into San Lang. San Lang moans and tips his head back again, exposing his throat; Hua Cheng braces his forearms on the bed next to his head and attacks that throat with tongue and teeth, his breath coming in hot bursts. Xie Lian sits up, smoothing a hand along his back and feeling the muscles flex beneath his fingers. Hua Cheng is so powerful, and his thrusts are deep but gentle. 

“Beautiful,” Xie Lian murmurs, allowing his other hand to drift to his own cock. “The both of you are so beautiful like this.”

Both Hua Cheng and San Lang groan at the praise, and San Lang’s eye flutters shut. He tips his head further, baring more of his throat to Hua Cheng’s dedicated attention, and cries out when Hua Cheng snaps his hips forward more aggressively. Xie Lian slows him with a firm hand on the small of his back: a wordless reminder. 

When Xie Lian does, eventually, give him permission to go faster, he pushes himself off of his forearms and back onto his hands for more leverage. He drives his hips forward, his head bowed and his lips parted. San Lang arches under him, a thin sheen of sweat glistening on his skin as he moves. His own cock is hardening rapidly again, nestling plump and flushed against his thigh. The sight of them moving together is enough to make Xie Lian’s arousal wash through him. 

“Just like that,” he pants, moving his hand more quickly over his own cock, “just like that, good boys, gege’s good boys.”

When Xie Lian does come, it is with two hungry black eyes on him. He throws his head back, crying out as he splatters his own stomach with cum, and shivers when he sees Hua Cheng lick his lips. Their movements halt, to Xie Lian’s disappointment, but he supposes he did promise them their fair share. He flops onto his back with a sigh of contentment.

“Alright,” he says, “come share.”

Hua Cheng pulls away from San Lang and lunges to Xie Lian’s side; San Lang scrambles over close behind him. Xie Lian rests a hand on each head, tangling his fingers through their warm hair as they bow their heads to lick him clean. To his amazement, they don’t snap at each other a single time. They kiss each other once they’ve finished, trading Xie Lian’s taste between themselves—which is almost enough to get Xie Lian going again, gods.

“Finish inside him,” Xie Lian tells Hua Cheng, reaching out to pat his flank and get him moving again. Hua Cheng obediently pushes San Lang back down, rocking back into him in one smooth thrust. They both groan at the movement. “San Lang, I want you to come first. I want to show Hua Cheng something.”

“Yes, gege,” San Lang says, reaching up to loop his arms around Hua Cheng’s neck. They kiss messily, teeth flashing, but they are both still bruise- and blood-free. This really couldn’t have gone better! Rather satisfied with himself, Xie Lian sits up next to Hua Cheng. 

“Isn’t he pretty, Hua Cheng?” Xie Lian asks. “Doesn’t he feel so good around you? This is how I feel, when I’m in you. I think that there’s nothing better in the world.” Except, possibly, for Hua Cheng being in him. It’s a near thing. 

“Gege,” Hua Cheng moans, his hips stuttering. 

“Don’t come until San Lang does,” Xie Lian reminds him. “He’s being so good for you, isn’t he? Why don’t you tell him so?”

Hua Cheng falters, then, his movements slowing. “Gege, I…”

San Lang’s jaw tightens, and he looks away. There’s a new tension in his shoulders. 

“But since San Lang has been good,” Xie Lian argues, “he deserves to know it. Hua Cheng should tell him so.”

“Gege…”

“Tell him he’s a good boy, Hua Cheng.”

Hua Cheng bites his lower lip and breathes shakily. “I—San Lang is—”

San Lang’s eye widens, and his gaze rivets to Hua Cheng’s. He doesn’t breathe. Neither does Xie Lian. 

Then Hua Cheng lowers his head, stilling his movements entirely. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “Gege, San Lang, I’m…”

San Lang turns his face to the side, swallowing hard. His eye is bright with the gloss of tears. His jaw trembles. 

“Oh—sweetheart, sweetheart, come here.” Xie Lian immediately embraces San Lang, petting his hair and kissing his face. “You’re a good boy, shh, yes you are. You’re so good. Don’t be sad, it’s not your fault.”

San Lang clings to him, breathing shakily. Then Hua Cheng starts to move away, and San Lang squirms out of Xie Lian’s hold to grab onto his counterpart instead. His eye, still bright with tears, blazes. In one swift movement, he rolls them so that Hua Cheng is pinned underneath. Xie Lian shifts onto his knees, worried—he doesn’t want them to start fighting now. 

“San Lang, don’t be mad at Hua Cheng, either,” he pleads. “That was too much too fast. I shouldn’t have asked that of him; he wasn’t ready.”

“He should get ready, then!” San Lang says, the tears finally welling over and streaming down his cheek. “Stupid Hua Cheng—don’t you listen? Dianxia says we’re good. Who are you to question him?!”

“I—” Hua Cheng swallows thickly, his hands coming to rest on San Lang’s hips. San Lang moves, lifting himself up before slamming back down onto Hua Cheng’s cock. They both moan. “I don’t know. Fuck, I don’t know.”

“If Dianxia says so, then—then I’m good!” San Lang says furiously, rocking back down onto Hua Cheng. “And so are you! Hua Cheng, you’re good!”

Hua Cheng whimpers—a low, pitiful sound that strikes every chord in Xie Lian’s heart. To hear San Lang say such a thing must be overwhelming for him. San Lang isn’t him, not entirely, not fully, but—but it’s close enough to count. It’s close enough to light Xie Lian up with joy.

“San Lang is right,” Xie Lian says. “You’re both so good. You’re my good boys and I love you very much.”

“See?” San Lang demands. “See? If Dianxia says so!”

“San Lang,” Hua Cheng says brokenly, and Xie Lian can see now that his own eye is glassy with tears. “Dianxia, gege, San Lang—”

“Good boy,” San Lang pants. “Good boy, Hua Cheng.”

Hua Cheng comes with a cry, his fingers scrabbling frantically at San Lang’s hips. San Lang follows seconds after, and then slumps against Hua Cheng’s chest to shiver and catch his breath. They’re both crying, now, clutching each other in their mutual terror. Hua Cheng is sobbing. 

“Oh, sweet boy—sweet boys, shhh, I’m here, I’m right here.” Xie Lian scrambles to their sides, leaning down and stroking San Lang’s shaking back. They’re both breathing hard, their fingers tangled in each other’s hair. “It’s okay. I know that was hard, I know. Breathe.”

Xie Lian kisses San Lang’s cheek, then Hua Cheng’s, and tastes the salt of their tears. Hua Cheng wails and reaches for him, fingers tangling into his robes. The words he tries to choke out are incomprehensible, but Xie Lian thinks he can hear a gege in there. He clasps his hand over Hua Cheng’s, hushing him softly. 

“I have you, San Lang, Hua Cheng. Gege has you now. I know you’re feeling a lot right now, but you’re going to be okay. It’s okay that you need to cry. You can do that; you’re allowed. Whatever you need to feel, you can feel. Gege isn’t mad or disappointed. He loves you. He loves you so, so much.”

It takes several long minutes for Hua Cheng’s heart-wrenching sobs to ease, and even when they do tears continue to trickle from his eye. San Lang is calmer already, nuzzling into Hua Cheng’s shoulder and sniffling. Xie Lian continues to soothe them with gentle touches and words, telling them that they’re safe and they’re okay and they’re loved—and yes, they’re still his good boys, always his good boys. 

He leaves them only briefly to collect the washcloth and water basin he left in the bathroom. He brings them back and slowly, gently encourages San Lang to lean back so he can wipe the sticky mess of cum and sweat away from their abdomens. As soon as he’s finished, San Lang plasters himself to Hua Cheng again. 

Xie Lian had hoped for many things, but even he hadn’t imagined Hua Cheng willingly embracing his true self. 

Xie Lian rinses the washcloth and then drags it along San Lang’s shoulders and sides, rubbing him down with cool water. It seems to help. By the time he’s finished, San Lang’s breathing is slow and sure and he’s finished sniffling. Xie Lian cleans the oil and cum from between his legs, too, cooing sympathetically when he whines at the overstimulation. 

“Can you roll over, sweet boys?” he asks, once he’s done. “I need to clean Hua Cheng up, too.”

San Lang is the one to strongarm them both into moving, flipping himself so that Hua Cheng rests on top. Xie Lian repeats the process, rubbing Hua Cheng’s skin in firm, slow circles to help him settle. Hua Cheng shivers at the touch, whining until Xie Lian pets his hair and reminds him that he’s safe and gege’s good boy. He uses another washcloth to clean the tears from their faces, and they both blink sore eyes at him. His poor ghost kings!

“Feel better?” he asks sympathetically, once Hua Cheng has relegated himself to a single sniffle every few minutes. 

“Mm,” Hua Cheng says.

“I do,” San Lang says, carding a hand gently through Hua Cheng’s hair. “This guy’s gonna be overwhelmed for a while.”

San Lang is, predictably, correct: Hua Cheng doesn’t move for almost an hour afterwards, clinging tightly to his clone while Xie Lian pets them both steadily. They talk quietly over Hua Cheng’s head, hoping to soothe him with the lull of their voices. Xie Lian coaxes them both into drinking water and eating the candied plums he’d brought along, though Hua Cheng takes more coaxing than usual. 

The first thing Hua Cheng says, after, is: “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Xie Lian says.

“It’s okay,” San Lang says. “It was hard. I get it.”

Doubtlessly, he does. 

Hua Cheng sits up, taking a deep, shuddering breath. He swallows once, twice. “For what it’s worth,” he whispers to San Lang, “I think you’re right.”

“You don’t have to say it yet.”

“No. You’re—you were—” Hua Cheng shuts his eye, his brow furrowing. “You were good, too.”

A smile crosses San Lang’s face, more open and warm than anything Xie Lian has seen between Hua Cheng and his clones before. “Thank you.”

Xie Lian kisses San Lang once more before Hua Cheng dissipates him, and still feels a pang of sadness when he goes—but that’s silly, isn’t it? Hua Cheng, San Lang, they’re one and the same. Xie Lian only has to look in one place to see them both now, is all. He cuddles up against Hua Cheng’s side, rubbing his belly as he settles into the pillows with a sigh.

“Dianxia,” he says, with a hint of his usual teasing, “emotional devastation is so tiring. This old ghost is very weary; he may have to skip calligraphy practice tomorrow.”

Xie Lian laughs. “Is that right? Ah, well, maybe I’ll allow it—just this once.”

“Just this once,” Hua Cheng confirms, nuzzling into Xie Lian’s hair. 

“San Lang had a very hard day,” Xie Lian says, several seconds later, “but this gege is very proud of him.”

“Mn. Thank you, gege. I—” Hua Cheng lets out a gusty breath. “Do not want to do that again anytime soon, but it—wasn’t all terrible, I suppose. San Lang wasn’t that bad.”

“San Lang was good. Very good.”

Hua Cheng, for once, does not refute the statement—and it’s that, more than anything, that puts a wide grin on Xie Lian’s face. Getting Hua Cheng to like himself, let alone love himself, has been hard. It is an ongoing process even after years of marriage. But today? Today reminded him that it can be done—and, more importantly, that they’re going to do it.

It just takes a little time and emotional honesty and clone sex, is all.