With a relieved sigh, Hua Cheng drops the bags to the floor of the tiny bedroom and his shotgun on the bed. Behind him, Xie Lian flicks the long, white sleeves of his tattered old robes and unties the mask on his face. Why he insists on wearing those clothes on all their heists, loose and impractical as they are, Hua Cheng neither knows nor dares ask. Perhaps they remind him of his youth. Perhaps they are actual antiques from a grandfather or other.
“Good job today, San Lang,” Xie Lian says, a shallow smile on his face sweetening the compliment like the sugar glaze on a rotting piece of pastry. It makes Hua Cheng’s stomach sprout flowers whose petals slide like knives along the inner lining of his guts. “I’ll pick out as much cash as we need for the next month or so and the rest we can bring to the warehouse. We should be ready to ditch this place by sunrise.”
“Understood,” Hua Cheng replies with a nod, feeling his heart seize up. He would never admit this, not even outside of Xie Lian’s smouldering presence, but he is reluctant to leave. The apartment is small and rundown, the brick walls bare of any accessories and the bathroom tiles cracked more than they are whole. There is nothing tethering him to this city, to this building, to this bedroom that he has shared for only few months with Xie Lian, and yet…
And yet, he thinks he will miss it. Miss the memories made here, miss the glow of Xie Lian’s face in the warm light of the flickering lamp in the living room, miss the muted sound of laughter coming from above him as he fixes the leaky faucet yet again. It is not his place to hold on to these memories, not his place to try and talk Xie Lian out of another move, another robbery, another crime committed in the name of Bai Wuxiang. All he needs to do, all he wants to do, is to accompany the man he loves, to serve him, to protect him for as long as he is capable and allowed to do so.
Hua Cheng, San Lang, Wu Ming, Hong-er — he belongs to Xie Lian. Every piece of him, every shard of his identity, is stamped and signed, destined all for the one person he cares for and the one person who cares for him.
“Are you hungry?” Hua Cheng asks, watching Xie Lian bend over the duffel bags to take out the stacks of cash and start arranging them neatly on the warped hardwood floor. He does not look up as his hands move over the banknotes with practiced ease.
“Sure.” The answer is brief, efficient, even-toned. Hua Cheng thinks he has almost forgotten what real warmth sounds like in Xie Lian’s voice. “Just wait for me to sort through all of this and then I’ll get something started.”
Xie Lian looks awfully small from where Hua Cheng is standing up next to him, much less imposing now as he is bent over the bags on the floor than he was inside the bank earlier. His hair falls over his shoulders, chocolate-coloured cascades reaching down to his waist. The shine of the moon and city lights outside catches on his side profile, illuminates the gentle curves of the princely face below the mask that demands of people to do what he wants or else he’ll shoot.
“I can cook,” Hua Cheng says. His hand goes up to fumble with the red pearl earring tied onto the end of the braid tucked away into his ponytail. If he were to ignore the weapons and the money, the bank blueprints and the explosives, this scene would feel awfully domestic. “You mentioned that you were craving pork and noodles so I bought all the ingredients for that yesterday. Gege, let me cook for you this once.”
His heart feels heavy with the demand, covered in a heavy blanket of longing until the sight of Xie Lian’s grateful smile lifts it. Hua Cheng feels the churning in his stomach, the flutter in his chest, the butterflies flying up his throat and crawling on his tongue. He seals his lips, keeps them trapped inside his mouth, bites down on their silver wings and feels the crunch against his teeth.
“Thank you, San Lang,” Xie Lian says, honey luring in those hungry insects that live in Hua Cheng’s rapid heartbeats. “Call me if you need any help.”
“Of course, gege,” Hua Cheng answers, and he prays that the glimmering butterfly wings won’t fall out of his mouth as he speaks.
The bare walls of this empty apartment taunt him when he walks towards the kitchen. He knows now, from plenty of experience, that he will never walk these creaky floors again. And although it is not what he expected following his childhood saviour to be like, Hua Cheng is more than happy to oblige. If only he could, he would take the nineteen years he’s lived on this earth and however many he has left and give them all to Xie Lian, to take and give, break and consume, use as he sees fit.
“To die for you would be my greatest honour.”
The words ring in his head as he picks up the knife and the cutting board, places them neatly on the kitchen counter. His fingers move the blade with practiced ease, far too familiar with it after spending so long by Xie Lian’s side.
“I still have a beloved in this world.”
He turns the water on and grabs the soap bar by the sink, rubbing viciously over dried and cracked skin, letting the hot water burn into his flesh. Even when they’re squeaky clean, he thinks he can still see the bloodstains on his hands. He puts away the soap and turns off the tap before he can rub the skin over his knuckles raw once more.
“My life is yours. I will forever be devoted to you.”
As Hua Cheng starts chopping the pork and vegetables, the pan already sizzling on the two-eyed stove beside him, he can’t help but reminisce about the many times Xie Lian has saved him, has guided him, has been the only one to show him kindness and understanding. His knife runs through the meat just as easily as it would through human flesh. He sighs thinking of the many times he and Xie Lian have stood shoulder to shoulder in this very kitchen cooking dinner. The dull thump of the blade against the chopping board reminds him of hitting that clerk at the bank over the head with the butt of his gun earlier that day. The smell of green onions in the air reminds him of the last time Xie Lian burnt a batch of them.
“Why would you want to follow me?” Xie Lian asked once, many nights after Hua Cheng started helping him out. “I didn’t ask you to do this. You are nothing but a fool.”
A frustrated sound escapes Hua Cheng as a couple noodles fall next to the pot of boiling water. His hands shake slightly as he picks them up again and drops them in the pot. He thinks of the red mark left behind on his shoulder from carrying that heavy duffle bag stuff to the brim with weapons and ammunition.
“It’s been so long since anyone listened to me talk,” Xie Lian told him once, when they were both laying awake side by side in the queen size bed, neither able to sleep in the deafening silence of the night. Hua Cheng remembers the look of utter awe on Xie Lian’s face when he said that, when he realised that there was one person left whom he could be honest to. After so many months of telling Hua Cheng to leave, he finally asked, “Won’t you stay?”
As if he even needs to ask. Hua Cheng stirs the noodles around calmly, the tremble in his hands finally subsiding. Everyone else has left Xie Lian, but he will not.
He will not leave him.