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In the bottom of the pit with Mu Qing and Feng Xin, all of them wrapped in sticky silk strands that no one can break free from, Xie Lian relaxes.

“San Lang will find us,” he assures the other two, and when they ask how, exactly, his ghost king is going to do such a thing he simply smiles and shows them the string around his finger.

“It’s a very handy spiritual device,” he explains, and insists it’s not the Red Thread of Fate when Mu Qing splutters and tells him Hua Cheng has given him a lover’s token.

Xie Lian knows it’s the Red Thread of Fate. He just hadn’t thought of it that clearly, when Hua Cheng had tied it around his finger.

“It’s very much the same thing,” Mu Qing cries, sounding indignant.

Xie Lian silently agrees. He runs his fingers over the string, smiling to himself. It’s so like San Lang, to give him such an important gift and pretend like it’s nothing.

Feng Xin catches his expression and makes a distressed noise. “You knew? You knew and you-you let him put that thing on you?!”

Xie Lian’s smile grows. He can’t help it. Just the thought of Hua Cheng, already on his way to find him, makes his heart race. “Yes,” he says, simply.

His chest swells when he hears Hua Cheng’s voice call down to them from above. And he’s almost tempted to leave Feng Xin and Mu Qing behind when Hua Cheng pulls him out of the pit, using his butterflies as a shield to keep them free from that binding silk. In the end, Xie Lian pulls them out using Ruoye, much to their indignation.

They have to travel back through the Cave of Ten Thousand Gods on their way to the kiln and Xie Lian knows, even as they start past the statues, that there will be trouble. If it were just him and Hua Cheng, they could have breezed through easily, but the two martial gods with them are suspicious, and Mu Qing can’t help but touch one of the veils.

Hua Cheng stops him with E’ming.

Xie Lian suspects that if they lift the veils they’ll find his own face carved into the stone, but this thought is almost too absurd to entertain. How, when Hua Cheng hadn’t even known him, could he have already held such reverence for Xie Lian? Any normal believer would have left him, when he was cast out of heaven. This room full of statues was a prayer Xie Lian could never have heard.

But then he remembers Hua Cheng’s words: “I have ached for Dianxia forever, I can wait a little longer,” and wonders if there’s more to them than the simple declaration of longing Xie Lian had taken them for at the time.

How long has he been Hua Cheng’s beloved? he wonders.

Hua Cheng and Mu Qing are still in their standoff, and their unblinking stares are making him nervous.

“Mu Qing, back off, alright?” he pleads, and Mu Qing glares. After some more tense discussion Mu Qing drops the veil, moves away from the statues. They continue through the cave.

The two officials follow Xie Lian and Hua Cheng, bickering between themselves now, but all Xie Lian can think about is Hua Cheng’s hand on the small of his back, the red string dangling from both of their fingers. He feels claimed in a way he never expected to experience in his life. Despite their situation, the realization makes heat flare in his stomach, and he glances up at Hua Cheng, who has a slight smirk on his face as he looks down.

“Yes, gege?” he asks.

Xie Lian’s heart jumps. “Hello,” he says, a bit dumbly.

Hua Cheng doesn’t seem to notice, and his smile turns soft. “Hi, gege,” he says back. They continue to walk leisurely, Hua Cheng’s hand shifting to grip his waist as they chat quietly to each other, and when they reach the next fork they pick a direction randomly through the caves.

Xie Lian likes to think he’s attentive, but he’s so wrapped up in Hua Cheng’s smile and Hua Cheng’s hands and the warm murmur of his voice as they talk, and so Feng Xin and Mu Qing’s attack comes as a complete surprise. They separate him from Hua Cheng with a wall of stone before he even knows what’s happening, and then they’re rushing back into the Cave of Ten Thousand Gods as Mu Qing and Feng Xin look for an escape.

Mu Qing can’t help himself now; he pulls veil after veil off of the statues, revealing what Xie Lian had suspected all along. Then they move on to the silk coverings on the walls, and gawk when the giant murals are revealed, seeming revolted. Xie Lian feels nothing but hurt. These artworks were hidden for a reason.

He knows Hua Cheng must have been here, alone, for a very long time. That Xie Lian is the thing that kept him together through that time, it’s an honor. But Mu Qing and Feng Xin are acting like it’s a dangerous obsession. They’re truly terrified, and Xie Lian—

Xie Lian couldn’t care less.

“He’s been following you all this time?” Mu Qing’s voice holds a tinge of terror. Good, Xie Lian thinks.

“He’s done nothing but try to help me,” Xie Lian says coldly, his voice completely at odds with his strong urge to cry. Hua Cheng is on the other side of the rocks somewhere, probably terrified that Xie Lian is going to react exactly the way his subordinates are.

“You call this helping?!” Feng Xin yells, sounding like he’s about to start swearing again.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Xie Lian says, and the other two gods move further along the wall to keep exclaiming over the horror of the murals.

Xie Lian is staring at Hua Cheng’s depiction of little Hong-er falling from the sky, contemplating the difference between the adorable child he remembers, the sharp-featured youth he’d just been traveling with, and this disfigured creature depicted in the paintings, when Feng Xin’s voice rings out, loud and shocked.

“YOUR HIGHNESS, DON’T LOOK!”

“IT’S DISGUSTING!”

Xie Lian has a feeling he knows what’s next, and despite the two of them tugging on him, trying to pull him away, Xie Lian rounds the corner and sees—

Himself. More than that, it’s also his San Lang, behind him, arms around him, but still unrecognizable save for the blood-red robe that hangs from his shoulders. Xie Lian is completely naked aside from the jewelry and hairpiece he frequently wore as the Crown Prince, which make him look divine even in his nudity.

It’s somehow so much more beautiful and so much worse than he’d been expecting.

Despite the stunning detail of the painting, the only expression that can be seen is Xie Lian’s. Hua Cheng has smudged his own face to the point where it’s nothing but a smear of pale grey paint pressed against Xie Lian’s back.

Xie Lian can’t take this. He needs Hua Cheng here, needs it with an ache that spreads through his bones. Mu Qing and Feng Xin’s silence behind him makes it hurt so much more. Hua Cheng… Hua Cheng had meant it, when he said he’d been waiting for Xie Lian forever. But why? What had Xie Lian ever done that was worthy? Doesn’t Hua Cheng know who—what—he is? Xie Lian is a danger. Xie Lian tried to unleash the Human Face Disease upon the world.

The only explanation is that Hua Cheng doesn’t know. There’s no way he could have painted all of these while knowing the truth.

Xie Lian feels something cold close over his heart as he looks at the surrounding paintings. Hua Cheng with his head buried between Xie Lian’s legs, Xie Lian’s knees resting on his shoulders and face in an expression of ecstasy. Xie Lian in Hua Cheng’s lap, his lips open and his head hiding Hua Cheng’s as he hugs Hua Cheng close while the ghost moves inside of him (well, he thinks, heat creeping over his face, they’ve already tried that one, to great success).

Xie Lian’s heart hurts. Hua Cheng worshiped him, desired him, even after Xie Lian became something disgusting. What will happen when he finds out that his desire is misplaced? If he’s staying because of his belief in Xie Lian, what will happen to him when he finds out the truth?

There are other paintings, too, that more clearly show Hua Cheng’s state of mind when he’d been painting these murals. Hua Cheng lying prostrate before a glowing white figure while Xie Lian glares at him. Hua Cheng, even more disfigured than in most of his paintings, lying under a pile of rubble in a crushed temple, while Xie Lian flees.

They’re exquisite. Xie Lian hates them.

Seeing that Xie Lian isn’t having the terrified reaction they’re waiting for, Mu Qing and Feng Xin gape at him.

“Your highness? Were you… EXPECTING this?!?!” Feng Xin shouts.

Xie Lian shrugs, touches the string on his finger. He’s basically already told them he’s Hua Cheng’s beloved. If he needs to explain it more; well, he doesn’t want to. That’s for him and Hua Cheng.

But then Mu Qing slaps a command talisman onto his back and they’re dragging him away, further into the tunnels until they run straight into the ghost they’re trying to run away from.

Xie Lian’s heart skips as he tries to meet Hua Cheng’s eyes, but Hua Cheng won’t look at him. The words Mu Qing and Feng Xin spit at him, which Xie Lian can’t bear to listen to, are affecting Hua Cheng badly. As is Xie Lian’s lack of expression. Hua Cheng knows that they’ve uncovered his paintings, and must think Xie Lian is terrified. Xie Lian tries to catch his eye, but Hua Cheng isn’t looking at him. He screams internally, but Hua Cheng still won’t turn his way.

Mu Qing and Feng Xin put up a fight, trying their best to protect him from the thing he wants desperately—Hua Cheng’s arms around him—until finally Hua Cheng has them wrapped in butterfly silk again and is scooping up the incapacitated Xie Lian and carrying him through the caves until they end up in something resembling a bedchamber.

Hua Cheng lays Xie Lian down onto a pile of somehow-fresh hay, already covered with the ghost’s own outer robe, and Xie Lian begs again with his eyes for Hua Cheng to look.

Hua Cheng won’t look. He keeps his gaze averted as he whispers, “Your Highness. Don’t… don’t be afraid. I'm not going to hurt you.”

Xie Lian wants to cry, but he physically can’t. He wouldn’t care if Hua Cheng did hurt him. He needs Hua Cheng beside him so much he’s ashamed of it. He understands those dark, twisted paintings in the mural. Hua Cheng thinks he’s the unworthy one. But he has it backwards.

Finally, as he’s checking Xie Lian’s body for injuries, Hua Cheng’s fingers brush over the talisman on his back and his eye goes wide with understanding. Xie Lian feels both sick and elated as Hua Cheng carefully peels it away.

“Dianxia?” he asks, and Xie Lian sobs and flings himself at Hua Cheng.

“I’m so sorry, San Lang, I couldn’t tell you,” he says, and trembles violently as Hua Cheng’s arms go around him, softly at first, then tighter and tighter until it feels like he’s trying to fold Xie Lian into his body. Xie Lian welcomes it. Wants it so badly.

“God, gege.” Hua Cheng is trembling, too, and Xie Lian pulls back just enough to kiss him, hard. It’s painful, at first, Xie Lian pressing too hard like he needs to pour everything into Hua Cheng at once, but then Hua Cheng turns it gentle. He pulls Xie Lian’s legs around his waist and lays Xie Lian down delicately on the bed. He hovers just above Xie Lian while dipping his head down to kiss him deeply, and Xie Lian tugs him closer until their bodies are pressed together. But Hua Cheng is making himself impossibly light, his weight not the comforting pressure Xie Lian needs. He whines.

“You’re very injured, your Highness,” Hua Cheng murmurs against his lips before sitting up to kneel between Xie Lian’s legs.

Xie Lian flushes, the position reminding him of one of Hua Cheng’s paintings.

Hua Cheng must notice, but he keeps his hands steady as he carefully unties the belt to Xie Lian’s robes, then pulls the fabric open, layer by layer, until Xie Lian is exposed. He knows it’s cold in the cave, but Hua Cheng’s steady gaze is enough to make him feel overheated.

“San Lang,” he whispers. Hua Cheng doesn’t touch him yet, but summons a crowd of butterflies to perch on him: on his shoulders where they’ve been burned and cracked from frostbite, on his arms which are red from being bound by the butterfly silk. Then Hua Cheng lifts Xie Lian’s hands, one at a time, to let the butterflies rest there and heal the blistered skin. Hua Cheng moves back, lifts one foot into his lap and strokes along the ankle while his butterflies claim it, then sets it aside and picks up the other, his gaze never once leaving Xie Lian’s face as he does so.

The cool touch of the butterflies is soothing against Xie Lian’s skin, and the strength in Hua Cheng’s fingers as he handles Xie Lian’s body so gently, a body Xie Lian hadn’t even noticed was in such distress, sends shivers through him.

“Is gege cold?” Hua Cheng whispers, eyebrows knitting together.

Xie Lian shakes his head slightly, and when Hua Cheng has finished with the butterflies Xie Lian holds his hands out towards his beloved. Hua Cheng hesitates only for a moment before lowering down between Xie Lian’s legs to rest on top of him. He lets himself be his full weight this time, and Xie Lian sighs in relief. He hugs Hua Cheng tightly with all four of his limbs.

“San Lang,” he says, stroking Hua Cheng’s hair. He finds the coral bead and turns it between his fingers.

Hua Cheng notices and, with his head tucked under Xie Lian’s chin he asks, “Gege… isn’t disgusted?”

“How can I be?” Xie Lian asks, honestly. If anything, he’s ashamed of himself. For not remembering.

“But this San Lang, to think of you in that way, was—”

“Why did you paint yourself like that?” Xie Lian interrupts, scratching lightly at Hua Cheng’s scalp.

Hua Cheng shifts, then sits up on his knees and pulls Xie Lian up with him. He holds Xie Lian against his chest and Xie Lian wraps his legs around Hua Cheng as if he can meld into him if he clings tightly enough.

The position is so similar to when they’d made love a few days ago that Xie Lian can feel himself becoming aroused despite the seriousness of the conversation.

Hua Cheng sucks in a breath, taking Xie Lian in. “This San Lang wanted to worship Dianxia in every way he could imagine,” he says, and strokes a hand down Xie Lian’s back. “He thought, Dianxia deserved good feelings, not ones that made him want to—”

“To hurt myself?” he whispers, remembering that night on Beizi Hill, when things could have gone even more hopelessly wrong than they had. Before he’d found his little swordsman, and Mu Qing had subsequently turned him away.

“He never expected Dianxia would want him like that. But he also never expected Dianxia would see those paintings.”

Xie Lian presses his face into the cool skin of Hua Cheng’s neck. His heart is bursting from everything he wants to say, but he doesn’t know how. He settles on, “So. Is that how you see yourself?”

Hua Cheng’s hand stills. “Is what how I see myself?” he asks.

“It’s not a very accurate likeness,” Xie Lian says, kissing Hua Cheng’s neck, “If you were trying to fantasize, why not paint yourself as you are?”

Hua Cheng shudders as Xie Lian kisses up his neck, then behind his ear. “I don't understand,” he whispers. Xie Lian’s stomach turns. Hua Cheng sounds serious.

Xie Lian leans back, takes Hua Cheng’s face between his hands. He might not be worthy of Hua Cheng, but he needs Hua Cheng to know.

“San Lang,” he says. He stares at Hua Cheng like he can somehow erase eight hundred years of self-loathing in a single glance (and maybe, he thinks with a little giddy bubble rising in his chest, with the stunned way Hua Cheng is staring back at him, he can). “San Lang has always been the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The way he moves, the way he thinks, his face, his voice. There’s nothing else like him, in all the world. There never will be.”

Hua Cheng’s eye is welling with tears, and Xie Lian leans in to kiss them away as they spill over. Hua Cheng closes his eye, submitting to the attention. He shakes. “Gege,” he whispers, “Gege.”

Then Hua Cheng seems to draw from some fresh well of determination and leans forward, a hand behind Xie Lian’s head to pillow it as he lays Xie Lian down once more. Hua Cheng kisses him, sliding his tongue into Xie Lian’s mouth until Xie Lian whimpers and ruts up against Hua Cheng and Hua Cheng is smiling against his lips. Then he starts moving down.

Xie Lian’s forgotten he’s half-naked until Hua Cheng starts kissing his way down Xie Lian’s body, stopping along the way to nip and suck marks into his skin. Xie Lian puts both hands on Hua Cheng’s head when he sucks a nipple into his mouth, testing it between his teeth and then laving over it with his tongue. Xie Lian squirms, and his erection rubs against Hua Cheng’s chest.

“Ah! San Lang, oh,” he whimpers, squeezes his legs around Hua Cheng’s sides until Hua Cheng has to hold him down.

“Gege,” he says and looks up from where he’s been sucking on the skin over Xie Lian’s ribcage. “I can’t move.” He sounds amused.

“Sorry, San Lang,” Xie Lian pants, trying to relax his legs. Something about it, the giving in, feels so good that a wave of heat rushes through him. He moans.

Hua Cheng chuckles, and the sound vibrates through Xie Lian’s body. He moves lower then, pressing a kiss to Xie Lian’s hip, and his hands slide down Xie Lian’s sides until he’s running them along Xie Lian’s flanks.

“Can I take these off?” Hua Cheng asks as his hands skim over the fabric of Xie Lian’s trousers. Xie Lian closes his eyes and nods, wordless, lifts his hips to help as Hua Cheng unties them and slides them off.

When Xie Lian is fully exposed, he opens his eyes again. He feels like he might die of embarrassment with his flushed, leaking erection revealed, but Hua Cheng just stares with his lips parted, eye focused. Then he meets Xie Lian’s eyes and smiles. He presses a kiss to the inside of Xie Lian’s thigh, over the spot he’d bitten a few days ago, and Xie Lian lets out a breathless “oh.”

“Is this okay?” Hua Cheng asks.

Xie Lian nods again. “Please, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng’s eye grows heavy as he pulls Xie Lian’s legs over his shoulders, and Xie Lian whines thinking about how long San Lang has been imagining doing this to him. Xie Lian watches, entranced, as Hua Cheng kisses his way lower, closer to Xie Lian’s arousal, his eye never leaving Xie Lian’s face. Xie Lian puts his hands on Hua Cheng’s head again, wills his legs to stay relaxed as he strokes over Hua Cheng’s hair.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng rumbles, and presses a kiss to his length, still not looking away.

“Ah!” Xie Lian jumps a little. Hua Cheng reaches up and takes one of his hands, twining their fingers together, and Xie Lian thinks his heart might actually burst. He tilts his head back and lets out a soft keen, and then Hua Cheng is licking up his length, from the base to the tip and then, gaze still never leaving Xie Lian’s face (Xie Lian notes this with a bitten-back whimper as he looks back down) he takes Xie Lian in hand, and then he’s licking over the top while his hand applies gentle pressure and then—finally, he closes his lips over Xie Lian and lowers down, swallowing a few times as he goes.

Xie Lian cries out and digs his heels into Hua Cheng’s back, mindlessly thrusting up into Hua Cheng’s mouth in response to the feeling of that wet suction surrounding him. Hua Cheng goes still. He doesn’t move off of Xie Lian, but instead moves with him as Xie Lian lowers back down.

“San Lang!” Xie Lian says, “Are you alright? I’m sorry, I don’t know what I was—”

But then Hua Cheng’s eye flutters closed and he moans, like he enjoyed it just as much as Xie Lian did. He’s breathing hard, through his nose, and Xie Lian likes that for reasons he doesn’t yet understand, and then Hua Cheng squeezes his hand and meets his eyes again, and Xie Lian makes another tentative thrust into Hua Cheng’s throat and the ghost moans again, struggling to keep his eye open.

Everything feels too good: the vibrations, the embrace of Hua Cheng’s mouth, the way the ghost won’t stop looking at him, and when Hua Cheng squeezes his hand and moans again at Xie Lian’s next small thrust, Xie Lian sobs. Soon, Hua Cheng is moving down to meet Xie Lian’s thrusts, his tongue pressing hard against the underside of Xie Lian’s erection, and when they’ve found their rhythm Hua Cheng lets go of Xie Lian’s length and moves lower, until he’s rubbing over Xie Lian’s entrance.

Xie Lian’s hips stutter and Hua Cheng pulls his mouth off of him, stroking his thumb over Xie Lian’s palm as he meets Xie Lian’s eyes once again. Xie Lian shivers, hot and cold all at once, under that gaze.

“Is Dianxia all right?” Hua Cheng murmurs, his voice a bit rough.

“Mhm,” Xie Lian moans. “San Lang, San Lang is so good at this.”

“You’ve seen the paintings,” he says, lowering his head until he’s nestled between Xie Lian’s thighs. He looks so content there, head resting against the inside of one leg as he strokes up and down the outside, that Xie Lian almost forgets about where they are. About the mad ghost they have to stop. About the fact that Hua Cheng is in love with someone who doesn’t exist anymore.

Hua Cheng catches the shift in Xie Lian’s expression and kisses the inside of his leg. “Dianxia never has to worry, with this San Lang,” he says, “I only want to make him feel good.”

“You do, San Lang,” Xie Lian whispers, and when Hua Cheng closes his lips over him again Xie Lian loses himself to the feeling, thrusting up to meet Hua Cheng’s mouth the way Hua Cheng wants.

Soon, Hua Cheng’s hand is again moving towards Xie Lian’s entrance, and he digs his heels in, hard, when Hua Cheng circles and then pushes one magically-slick finger inside. Xie Lian let’s out a series of “ah’s” while Hua Cheng leisurely explores inside, making Xie Lian whimper in embarrassment and arousal. The heat in his belly is spreading through his limbs, turning him into something mindless and needy, and Hua Cheng’s moans around his erection are feeding that part of his brain that wants to take, and take, and Hua Cheng, he knows, will give Xie Lian anything he wants. He’s so gone he isn’t even aware of his own mewls, as Hua Cheng moves around him and inside of him.

Then Hua Cheng presses a second finger inside and crooks his fingers, and Xie Lian doesn’t even have time to warn Hua Cheng before he’s coming, hard, into Hua Cheng’s mouth. He clutches at Hua Cheng’s hair and lets out a shocked cry, tensing as the pleasure courses through him in a current he couldn’t stop if he tried. As he comes back down from the high he feels Hua Cheng’s fingers still inside of him, his mouth still around him, and feels so cared for that his throat goes tight and his eyes burn. How does Hua Cheng know what he needs, how did he know even that first time?

Softly, he pets at Hua Cheng’s hair, and Hua Cheng’s eye softens when he sees Xie Lian is back.

“Come here,” Xie Lian whispers, and Hua Cheng crawls forward until he can drape himself heavily over Xie Lian’s body. Xie Lian is in love with the feeling of Hua Cheng pinning him down, wants it every day for the rest of his life. He squeezes gently with his legs, runs his hands into Hua Cheng’s hair until he can pull the ghost down into a kiss.

“Was it good for gege?” Hua Cheng asks after they part.

Xie Lian nods, heart full. He can feel Hua Cheng’s erection through his clothes. “Let me help you?” he whispers.

“Gege doesn’t have to—”

“Gege wants to,” Xie Lian says.

Hua Cheng lets out a whine and lifts his hips up, just enough for Xie Lian to push through his robes and untie his trousers. He pushes them down just far enough to pull Hua Cheng’s erection out, and he realizes as he takes the ghost in hand that it’s the first time he’s really held the whole thing. Last time, he’d simply pressed their lengths together while they rocked, and hadn’t taken in just how big, how perfect he was. Hua Cheng’s warm, solid weight in his hand feels good in a way he can’t articulate. But he does worry about one thing.

“You—you don’t have to make yourself warm, for me,” Xie Lian says, finding it very important that Hua Cheng understands that Xie Lian likes every part of him.

Hua Cheng shakes his head, smiling. “I’m not. It’s just the spiritual energy.”

Something about that has Xie Lian twitching again, and Hua Cheng smirks, even as Xie Lian tightens his hold, slowly stroking up and down.

“Does Dianxia like that?” Hua Cheng murmurs, pushing up onto his elbows to give Xie Lian more room to maneuver.

“Mhm,” Xie Lian nods, tilts his face up to let Hua Cheng kiss him.

Things get a little sloppy, after that. Xie Lian tries to keep stroking Hua Cheng but the angle makes certain associations inevitable, and soon Hua Cheng is moaning into Xie Lian’s mouth while Xie Lian holds his hands still for Hua Cheng to thrust into, and Xie Lian almost comes again just watching Hua Cheng fall apart above him, imagining Hua Cheng doing this inside of him rather than into his hands. Hua Cheng comes quickly and hangs his head, spent, while his butterflies clean up Xie Lian’s stomach.

Xie Lian feels a twinge of disappointment at that. “Where will it go?” he asks, then feels his face heat up in embarrassment. Had he really just said that out loud?

Hua Cheng just laughs, sounding breathless, and drops back down onto Xie Lian. “It’s not wasted, I promise,” he says, before kissing Xie Lian softly.

They take turns licking into each other’s mouths, Xie Lian feeling strange and delighted to taste himself in his beloved’s mouth. “I can never deserve you,” he tells Hua Cheng seriously.

Hua Cheng shakes his head, kisses Xie Lian on the chin, on the nose, on the lips. “No. It’s me who’s undeserving. Dianxia is so kind, so generous—”

At this, they’re interrupted by the sound of feet running down the stone corridor, and Xie Lian wishes they had more time, but as Hua Cheng leaps from the bed he hastily ties his robes together so that he’s (he thinks) decently put together by the time Mu Qing and Feng Xin appear to yell at them.

He notices a little bit later than Hua Cheng that something is off, but by then Hua Cheng is slashing through them and their skins are lying in a bloody puddle on the ground. Hua Cheng comes back to the bed and scoops Xie Lian off of it.

“Let’s go, Dianxia,” he says, and Xie Lian is shaking, he’s so terrified of what it means, that Bai Wuxiang is here, that he knows Xie Lian so well, that perhaps, perhaps—

“Gege,” Hua Cheng strokes a thumb over his throat as he strides down the hallway, “You’re not him.”

Xie Lian swallows, knows Hua Cheng can feel it under his fingers.

“You don’t know that,” he whispers.

Hua Cheng sets him down, then, and puts a hand under his chin to lift his face. Xie Lian won’t look at him at first, but Hua Cheng’s gentle insistence, and his thumb running over Xie Lian’s jawbone, eventually get the better of him, and he meets Hua Cheng’s eye.

“Dianxia was so brave before, asking if he was my beloved. He has been so brave, living for so long alone. Dianxia can be brave again, and believe me when I say I know. Dianxia is not him. They are not the same.”

Xie Lian wants to believe him. But when he thinks about the murals again, the endless statues carved in his honor, he can’t imagine there’s any way Hua Cheng can know for sure. It’s a foolish desire.

But then Hua Cheng kisses him, and murmurs something only one particular ghost fire could have known, a ghost fire who had seen everything Xie Lian had been through, and Xie Lian is thrust into a totally different sensation. Hope. It’s not what he thought hope was, before. Anything before this was a pale shadow of the real thing. This is solid, and buoyant, and Xie Lian clings to it like his life depends on it.

“You’re sure?” he asks, and when Hua Cheng nods Xie Lian presses his forehead to Hua Cheng’s and breathes him in. This might be real, he thinks.

Hua Cheng might—

Hua Cheng might stay.