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this life i give to you

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Even after everything, Xie Lian still prefers not to drink. He may have more flexibility in his cultivation now that he has ascended once more with a whole host of followers who have no ingrained beliefs about his cultivation base, but he finds little pleasure in the sweet burn of wine and liquor. Privately, he can admit that it isn’t just the taste. It’s been centuries, but he still tastes despair on the back of his tongue when he takes a sip, still smells the deep-rot of grave dirt. He doesn’t want to let the past hold sway over him, but he has time to work through it. He can take his time, make his own way forward.

The ghosts in this impromptu and raucous festival don’t seem fazed in the slightest when he turns down their drinks. He isn’t sure what they’re actually celebrating, but they’re doing it with great gusto. Even Hua Cheng has let himself be swept up in the brilliant glee emanating from the whole city, and his cheeks are pink.

Technically, he doesn’t have to be affected by alcohol. He is a Ghost King, once ascended, with an overabundance of spiritual energy. If Xie Lian weren’t here, he’s pretty sure Hua Cheng would burn off the alcohol and keep up his cold, untouchable facade. There are times when he still acts that way, some deeply-rooted fear rising in him at the thought of embarrassing Xie Lian or acting out, but over the years, he’s grown more comfortable and sure in his license to soften, to tease and laugh and shed that mask.

Now, he lounges in a feminine form with cheeks rosy from the alcohol and the nip in the air, and he nestles so close he’s nearly in Xie Lian’s lap. His arms, long and wiry still, loop low around Xie Lian’s hips like Xie Lian is a pillow to hug.

“Aiya, Your Highness, you’re going to have to carry your husband back to Paradise Manor soon,” an old fox spirit remarks, fanning herself despite the fall chill.

A knot twists in Xie Lian’s stomach, but he smiles politely and smoothes his hand over Hua Cheng’s long black hair.

“I’m happy for any reason to hold my San Lang,” he answers.

“Gege isn’t holding his San Lang now,” Hua Cheng mumbles, childishly petulant.

Biting his lips to stifle his laughter, Xie Lian turns his head to press a kiss to the top of Hua Cheng’s head. He pauses there a moment, closing his eyes as his shoulders shake in laughter. Who would have guessed that such a fearsome Ghost King could be rendered so sweetly pathetic by not receiving enough cuddles? His heart swells with fondness, and he pulls Hua Cheng a little closer so that he settles his head on Xie Lian’s lap instead of shoulder. Making a pleased noise, Hua Cheng nestles in more closely before tilting his head in a clear request for more pets.

The fox spirit flicks out her fan to hide her own laughter, but it glitters in her keen eyes anyway.

“You young ones,” she sniffs. “Chengzhu, you ought to marry this one while he’s still so besotted. The honeymoon phase doesn’t last so long as you think!”

Xie Lian tightens his hold on Hua Cheng. He would never leave Hua Cheng, never wants Hua Cheng to fear such a thing even in nightmares—and yet—

Without lifting his head, Hua Cheng turns just enough to look at the fox spirit. There’s no new tension in his shoulders, but Xie Lian can imagine his baleful look.

“Scram,” Hua Cheng orders.

The rest of the ghosts in the pavilion bow and scrape their way out in a flurry, and the fox spirit hesitates before bowing.

“This lowly one apologies to Chengzhu and His Highness,” she says, bending low. “She should not have spoken so out of line.”

“It’s really fine,” Xie Lian says hurriedly, pulling up a smile. “Don’t trouble yourself at all! It’s just time for us to go home, I think.”

Hua Cheng grunts at that, a hint derisive, but he turns impossibly complacent whenever Xie Lian calls Paradise Manor home. Xie Lian runs a hand down through his hair as the fox spirit leaves and reaches around to squeeze Hua Cheng’s elbow gently. Bending, he presses a kiss to Hua Cheng’s temple.

“Mm, San Lang, do you want to go to bed now?” he asks.

It’s not so late, really, but Xie Lian is suddenly ready to be tucked away with just the two of them. It’s been a long day, he reasons. Curling up in bed with his beloved sounds like an urgent relief for reasons he doesn't want to think about too much.

“Mm,” Hua Cheng hums, once more slack against Xie Lian. “But this San Lang is too tired to walk. Gege will have to carry him.”

Breathing out a huff of laughter, Xie Lian shakes his head and shifts so he can scoop Hua Cheng up in his arms. Hua Cheng immediately loops his arms around Xie Lian’s neck and noses in against his collarbone. Affection rushes through Xie Lian so fiercely he has to pause mid-step to drop another kiss to the top of Hua Cheng’s head before continuing on the short path back to the manor.

The servants they pass don't even blink at the sight of their lord draped over Xie Lian’s arms, inured both to Hua Cheng’s eccentricities and to the clinginess they both share. It’s eased a little since that first year after Hua Cheng’s return; they worked on it together until they can both stand to be away from each other for a few days if necessary without being devoured by fear and panic. Even with that effort, though, Xie Lian is happiest like this: so close to Hua Cheng that he can feel his own heartbeat echoed back against Hua Cheng’s ribs.

Depositing Hua Cheng gently on the bed, Xie Lian sets to removing all his tinkling necklaces and earrings while Hua Cheng sits still, watching him with a small smile on his lips. The wonder in his eyes isn’t the earth-shaking awe of a mortal looking upon their god but something deeper and far more secure: the gentle awe of love, the everyday devotion of such small acts of care. Xie Lian leans in to kiss his smile and pulls back to remove his own outer robes. When he’s resettled in his sleeping robes, Hua Cheng has shifted to his true form and is in the midst of wriggling under the sheets. He looks up at Xie Lian and opens the blanket in invitation, and Xie Lian smiles as he hurries to join him. The blankets are still cool against his skin, and Hua Cheng nestles into his side in a mirror of his pose out on the pavilion. Smiling faintly, Xie Lian curls an arm around his shoulders and tries to settle in.

For a few moments, there’s only the quiet hush of their breathing as they lie in the mostly-dark room. A pair of lanterns set halfway between the door and the bed provide a faint glow that catches on the edges of the rafters and settles red and diffuse on the two of them through the red curtains. The fox spirit’s words echo around Xie Lian’s mind as he follows the lantern glow along the rafters.

“San Lang,” he finally asks, “should we get married?”

He frowns up at the ceiling, the intricate carvings of mandarin ducks and butterflies Hua Cheng has etched into the dark-stained wood. It’s been niggling at the back of his mind for months, an insect scratching at the edge of its chrysalis.

“Isn’t that my line?” Hua Cheng asks and mouths sleepily at Xie Lian’s bare neck.

Irritation flares under Xie Lian’s skin, and he pinches Hua Cheng’s side a little meanly. He feels jittery and cross, like his skin is poorly tailored to his bones.

“San Lang,” he scolds.

Shifting back, Hua Cheng props himself up on an elbow and brushes his hair back from his face with one hand. He studies Xie Lian’s face for a moment before frowning.

“Gege is serious,” he says.

Rubbing brusquely at his cheek, he blinks himself into alertness, and Xie Lian is seized with a nearly painful rush of fondness. He softens, reaching over to tuck Hua Cheng’s hair behind his ear in apology for his curtness. Hua Cheng’s eye narrows a little, a pleased crescent like a cat scritched under the chin. He’s already laid aside his eyepatch, and his right eyelid flutters a little, always slightly off-rhythm from the left.

“Do you want to get married?” Hua Cheng asks, pressing his cheek briefly into Xie Lian’s hand.

“I should,” Xie Lian says and then grimaces, bringing his hand back to worry at his fingers in his lap. “I should. Shouldn’t I? I love San Lang more than anything. I don’t ever want to leave you or be with anyone else. Isn’t that what marriage is?”

Hua Cheng makes a thoughtful noise. A hint of smug pleasure warms his expression, turns it sweet in delight, but he’s serious as he tilts his head.

“I don’t know,” he admits. 

Xie Lian winces a little. He’d forgotten, for a moment, how little frame of reference Hua Cheng has for such things. A hand catches his, slides their palms together so their fingers are loosely interlaced.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng says gently, “you didn’t answer the question.”

Looking away, Xie Lian twists his fingers into the blanket and purses his lips. He knows he’s being petulant, but—

“You’re the one who brought it up first,” he grumbles.

He sounds so pathetically churlish that he can’t lift his head to look at Hua Cheng, even when he hears a breath of laughter. The mattress dips as Hua Cheng shifts, and then there are strong arms circling his body and gentle hands easing apart his fingers and the knotted blanket. Hua Cheng hooks his chin over Xie Lian’s shoulder, and his breath hushes soothingly over his neck. The steady rhythm makes Xie Lian abruptly aware of how uneven his own breaths are. Closing his eyes, he forces himself to draw in a long, slow breath and then exhale at the same rate. It doesn’t fix it but it helps.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng murmurs when his breathing has settled. It rumbles low through Xie Lian’s ribs where they’re pressed together, makes him melt instinctively back against Hua Cheng. “What’s brought this up?”

Xie Lian chews at the inside of his lip for a moment before relenting. It seems ridiculous now that he’s gotten himself all worked up. 

“It’s just…we should, right?” he says. “Because we love each other and don’t want to be parted, and when people feel that way, they get married.”

He doesn’t add that people say plenty about it. Feng Xin and Mu Qing don’t, for the most part, but many of the other heavenly officials make jokes about their long engagement and even Pei Ming, allergic to marriage himself, has made comments about Xie Lian needing to make an honest man out of Hua Cheng. He doesn’t know why they prickle against his skin so badly and tie his stomach in knots. They shouldn’t. He should feel the same.

“Mm. Those heavenly trash are bold to think they know how things ought to be,” Hua Cheng remarks.

For a moment, Xie Lian thinks he somehow spoke aloud without realizing it before realizing that he spends most of his days dealing with heavenly business now. And, if he’s honest, his beloved affords more patience and consideration to every being living or dead than he does to heavenly officials. Xie Lian relaxes a little more, adjusting so he can slide their hands together.

“And the aunties and uncles in Puqi Village are always going to be full of advice,” Hua Cheng adds, and Xie Lian huffs out a laugh.

It’s true that the elder generations of the village are not at all shy about conferring their wisdom on the two of them. As much as it can be unhelpful or at times exasperating, there’s a warmth to it, too—something like being home in the way they fuss over the two of them for no reason except they care and they can.

“What does San Lang want?” Xie Lian asks.

“Hmm. This San Lang wants to hold gege”—he squeezes Xie Lian, making him bite back a laugh—“and kiss you”—a kiss dropped to the arc of his shoulder—“and hear all about your day every day and cook dinner together and fall asleep with you.”

Absurdly, Xie Lian’s eyes prickle like he might cry. He never has any reason to doubt Hua Cheng’s love and devotion, but hearing it laid out in such simple, everyday moments makes his heart squeeze painfully. If he were any more full of love, he would break apart like Hua Cheng’s butterflies, a hundred thousand shimmering specks of joy. He squeezes Hua Cheng’s hands once and hopes that conveys a little of his emotion. Hua Cheng squeezes back.

“What do you want?” Hua Cheng asks after a moment.

“That,” Xie Lian says before pausing.

He draws in a deep breath and forces himself to actually think about it. He loves Hua Cheng, wants to always stay at his side and always return swiftly when they’re parted. He wants their homes together, here in Paradise Manor and in Puqi Shrine and the little house on Taicang Mountain they still visit from time to time. He’d call a cave a home as long as Hua Cheng was there beside him. 

“I want to be with you and to share each day with you. But”--he hesitates and forces himself to speak--“I’ve never really wanted to get married. I thought it was because I didn’t feel that way about anyone, but it still doesn’t sound appealing to me.”

Hua Cheng hums in acknowledgment and rewards him with a chaste kiss to the tender skin behind his ear. Xie Lian flushes a little at the blatant, if silent, praise. He’s gotten better at speaking up and saying his piece, but it still feels unwieldy and indulgent sometimes. Each time, Hua Cheng is there to coax him into speaking truthfully and to pepper him with gratitude and praise for doing so. Part of Xie Lian feels absurdly childish to need it, but he’s grateful nonetheless.

“But,” he says, “San Lang, I want you to be happy, too. And I never want you to feel that I love you any less or am not committed or—”

“Gege.”

A squeeze of his hands. Hua Cheng tugs Xie Lian a little so that he has to twist to meet Hua Cheng’s gaze. Hua Cheng’s expression is solemn and intent, but there’s a curl of fondness in the uptick of his lips and an unending well of love deep beneath that.

“I know,” he says with easy certainty. 

Xie Lian loosens, settling more firmly in the ring of Hua Cheng’s arms. A smile curves Hua Cheng’s lips, and Xie Lian steals in to kiss it, to taste happiness on the seam of his lips. When he pulls back, Hua Cheng’s eye is narrowed in a cat-like crescent. He leans back against the bed frame, drawing Xie Lian close enough that he’s almost cradled in Hua Cheng’s lap.

“I like that gege chooses to stay,” Hua Cheng says after a moment. 

He says it quietly, a little mumbled, as if embarrassed. Wriggling his hands up between them, Xie Lian cups Hua Cheng’s cheeks and pulls him down close to kiss the tip of his nose. Once, when Hua Cheng first returned after his year away, he’d had a moment of utter terror that he had somehow entrapped Xie Lian. To Xie Lian, the thought was laughably absurd, but the roots of that fear grew from deep within, from the bloodied ground of Hua Cheng’s oldest and most entrenched beliefs about himself.

“There is nothing I want more than to be with you,” Xie Lian says, resting their foreheads together. “No matter what happens in the world, there is no force that I would let keep me from you. My heart is always San Lang’s—even when the mountains fall and the oceans recede, it will belong to you.”

He used to be mortified by the shameless proclamations he made as a youth, but it’s easier around Hua Cheng to say such bold things without thought. Hua Cheng makes it easy, all his faith and love protecting Xie Lian and lifting him up in a way he never knew even as the Flower Crowned Martial God.

“Mn,” Hua Cheng hums, pleased, and nuzzles their noses together. “So what if the world says you have to pick between being alone and being married. We can make our third way.”

“En. My San Lang is so wise,” Xie Lian praises, mostly to see the way Hua Cheng wrinkles his nose.

His heart beats easier now than it had before, finally soothed from the erratic patter it had taken up ever since the fox spirit’s words.

“We should still have a time to celebrate, though, I think,” Xie Lian remarks, frowning a little. “Even if we’ve lived so many centuries already, isn’t each year we get to be with each other worthy of celebration?”

Hua Cheng’s hands squeeze Xie Lian’s hips tight, a reflexive little spasm, and his throat bobs as he swallows. Grinning, Xie Lian leans in to kiss him again.

“A whole week,” he says before moving to kiss the crest of Hua Cheng’s cheek. “Every year, when no one is allowed to bother us and we can—we can travel or stay inside the whole time or do anything we want, as long as it’s together.”

A little gasp of air escapes him as Hua Cheng suddenly wraps his arms tight around him and pulls him into a firm hug. Laughing, Xie Lian pats Hua Cheng’s back comfortingly and nestles his chin into his shoulder. After a moment, Hua Cheng draws in a steadying breath and eases back on the pressure. Part of Xie Lian wishes he wouldn’t; there is something safe and good and right about being held so tightly he can hardly feel the separation between their bodies. Part of him would gladly stay forever in Hua Cheng’s fierce embrace.

“Why stop at a week?” Hua Cheng asks. “We should celebrate every day and gege will never have to listen to those trash officials again.”

He’s joking but also clearly not. Snorting, Xie Lian pokes him in the side and then stretches out his fingers to tickle him until Hua Cheng is shaking with laughter and they’ve both fallen back to the bed. Xie Lian props himself up on an elbow and looks down at Hua Cheng. With his hair strewn across the pillow and his face soft and bright with laughter, he is the most beautiful sight Xie Lian has ever had the gift of seeing. His beloved is beautiful in all forms and all skins, when covered in blood and gore or when showering Xie Lian with flowers. He loves him so much his heart aches with it, more each day until it seems impossible such feeling could fit in such an old and battered thing. And still, each day, he wakes to love him more.

“Does gege want to sleep now?” Hua Cheng asks gently.

There’s undying patience in his gaze, and Xie Lian knows he wouldn’t hesitate to fulfill any request Xie Lian made in that moment—as simple as a walk in the garden or absurd as a hundred new temples built tonight. Xie Lian smiles and brushes his thumbs  against Hua Cheng’s cheekbones. His left skims featherlight over the scars carved into Hua Cheng’s skin by his own hand. 

“En,” Xie Lian says. He pauses and puts on his most petulant look: wide-eyed, looking up through his lashes, and pouting his lips a bit. “But this gege absolutely must hold his San Lang.”

The intent look Hua Cheng had worn melts into a grin with the tips of his fangs peeking out, and Xie Lian pulls him in to nestle close against him in the circle of Xie Lian’s arms. This time, when Xie Lian closes his eyes, there are no words echoing in his dreams but only the steady rhythm of their breath and heart.