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hold you gently

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Hua Cheng is setting one last, perfectly shaped nuomici on the tray when a pair of strong arms suddenly wrap around his chest.

“I’m home,” comes a muffled voice against his back, made warm from the newcomer’s breath.

Though he doesn’t move, Hua Cheng perks up like a sunflower at the first morning light. Subconsciously, his heart stirs, reproducing the steady rhythm of the living.

He’d love to make the feeling of Xie Lian clinging onto him so desperately last but—

“Gege’s been gone a long time.” Having wiped his hands of coconut flakes, Hua Cheng doesn’t waste another second to turn to face his beloved, immediately bending his head to kiss Xie Lian’s forehead. “I was very bored. Two days, seven shichen without you was truly unbearable, the worst of sufferings.”

At that, Hua Cheng leans back, closes his eye, and taps his own lips. He hears a fond sigh that urges him to smile, but he keeps a straight face, dutifully waiting for his request to be granted—as it always is, much to his delight.

Xie Lian pats his cheek, teasing. “San Lang, we talked all the time. Besides, I'm sure you got to plenty of mischief. Should I be scared to enter your workshop?”

“Gege, I thought you liked my paintings,” he pouts, stubbornly keeping his eye shut.

“They're beautiful,” Xie Lian hurries to say. “But some of them are never leaving your workshop.”

Hua Cheng easily pictures a crimson flush creeping up his neck as he without doubt recalls his latest work. It didn’t hang in their bedroom for long before Xie Lian moved it back to the workshop, stumbling in his steps as he walked past Yin Yu and squawked at him to avert his eyes.

Hua Cheng chuckles. “That's fair,” he concedes. “But, can I get my kiss? If gege gives me one, this San Lang promises he’ll be good.”

“You’re so insincere,” Xie Lian chides, but Hua Cheng feels him shuffling closer. “But I missed you very much, too, so. . .”

An instant later, soft lips are pressed against his own, and his face is cradled between warm hands. He grins, opening his eye as he lets himself be pulled down to be kissed better.

Xie Lian looks radiant as always, but there's a weariness to the lines of his face that only appears after staying too long in the Heavenly Realm.

Grabbing a nuomici from behind his back, Hua Cheng pops it in Xie Lian’s mouth. Xie Lian gives an appreciative noise that makes Hua Cheng feel quite proud. Leaning forward, he pecks the coconut flakes at the corner of Xie Lian’s lips away.

Between two kisses, Hua Cheng casually asks, “What happened this time?”

“The usual,” Xie Lian sighs. “You'd think after two hundred years, everyone would get along better, but ah, they keep fighting over the most meaningless things.”

Hua Cheng rolls his eye. Not surprising in the least. “Gege, next time, take me with you. Those trash officials won’t dare make a fuss.”

Xie Lian chuckles. “San Lang, if you did that, we wouldn't get anything done,” he remarks. “Anyway, let's not talk about it. I'm just glad to be home.”

Hua Cheng loves it when Xie Lian calls it that. Home. A word which, long ago, had lost its meaning for him. For Hua Cheng, home was a distant concept that his circumstances never let him get close to.

But now, home is here. Wherever Xie Lian is.

Xie Lian yawns, his hands slipping from Hua Cheng's cheeks to grasp at his chest instead. His face soon joins them, disappearing in the folds of Hua Cheng's robes.

Hua Cheng closes his arms around him, laying his chin atop his head.

“Gege is tired. Let's relax. I'll draw a bath for you.”

Xie Lian nods. He never says no to those.

Hua Cheng kisses his brow, before promptly leading Xie Lian to the bathroom.

E'Ming, of course, begins to shake with excitement at Hua Cheng's waist; it knows that when Xie Lian takes a bath, he's often welcome to share it with him. Hua Cheng gives it a weightless slap, but it doesn’t relent, shaking even harder until Hua Cheng has no choice but to unsheathe it.

It’s really been spoiled too much.

It hops ahead of Xie Lian as though to lead the way, looking back every couple steps, its eye forming a crescent shape. Irritating, but Xie Lian laughter’s stops Hua Cheng from reprimanding it.

In the bathroom, Hua Cheng has Xie Lian sit on the chair with E’Ming in his lap while he draws the bath, making casual conversation as he suggests different oils.

Not giving it much thought, Xie Lian simply picks his favorite: osmanthus and rose.

He seems about to fall asleep right here and then. It's sort of Hua Cheng's fault, too; three nights ago, they had quite a bit of fun before Xie Lian was unexpectedly called to handle urgent matters in the Heavenly Realm. He's had little sleep since then, forced to run between the realms as he was.

Hua Cheng dips a finger into the water to test it; deeming it the perfect temperature, he drops in some oil before giving Xie Lian a nod.

“It's ready.”

Rubbing his eyes, Xie Lian stands up. Hua Cheng hurries over, helping him out of his robes. Xie Lian smiles softly at him, crinkles forming at the corner of his eyes.

“Thank you.”

Holding Hua Cheng’s hand, he steps into the tub, and lowers himself in with a content sigh.

E'Ming eagerly jumps in as well. Hua Cheng narrows his eye at it, but unlike he might have many years ago, doesn't scold it.

He brings the stool closer and takes Xie Lian's place, helping wash his hair while he plays with E'Ming. When he’s done, he massages Xie Lian’s shoulders, feeling the knots under his fingers.

“Gege’s duties made him all tense again,” Hua Cheng laments in their communication array. “Surely dealing with useless Upper Court trash isn’t worth the trouble.”

“It is, if it means I get to be pampered like this,” Xie Lian teases. The left-over tension in his muscles decreases bit by bit, skillfully brought back to normal under Hua Cheng’s care.

“Gege is unfair.” Parting Xie Lian’s hair, he leans forward to kiss him under the ear. “Don’t I pamper you all the time anyway?”

Xie Lian merely hums, like the answer isn’t so obvious and he has to give it some thought, but Hua Cheng knows he’s smiling.

Hua Cheng returns to his ministrations, keeping his snappy comments regarding heavenly officials to himself. He massages the length of Xie Lian’s arms as well, unable not to lay a path of kisses on his skin.

“Do you want to stay a little longer?” he murmurs on his way back, his lips forming the words on the nape of Xie Lian’s neck.

Xie Lian gives a small nod. “This is really nice.” He inhales deeply the pleasant combined smell of the oil and soap, then pats the edge of the tub. “Join me, please?”

Hua Cheng grins. “I hoped gege would ask.”

As Hua Cheng gladly undresses, despite his sleepy eyes Xie Lian looks on as admiringly as he did two hundred years ago. The only difference being that he doesn't flush as much anymore; however, the light blush on the tip of his ears doesn't escape Hua Cheng's sharp eye.

Hua Cheng clicks his tongue at E'Ming, who has long moved on from splashing about to shamelessly requesting Xie Lian’s attention.

“You, out.”

Although it first glares at him—how dare—E'Ming eventually pathetically jumps out. It might as well have slammed the door on its departure if Xie Lian hadn’t promised to take Hua Cheng’s turn and sharpen its blade tomorrow. Ruoye, who had been patiently observing on the side, scurries after it.

Now that they finally have some privacy, Hua Cheng slips behind Xie Lian.

Not wasting an instant, Xie Lian leans against his chest and comfortably nestles right there. Usually, he would start talking about whatever crosses his mind, but today, he seems happy to simply lie back, sharing the silence after the buzz of the Heavenly Realm.

Hua Cheng first holds him, pecking his cheek and revelling in the muscles moving with the stretch of his lips.

He then moves his hands up and down, rubbing Xie Lian's skin in slow caresses, feeling every part of him freely. It's been years now, but Hua Cheng never fails to marvel at it; the way with which Xie Lian surrenders his body to him, trusting him completely to treat it right.

In his arms, Xie Lian reaches a state of relaxation that has him melting against Hua Cheng, the pace of his breathing steady and peaceful. Lulled by the gentle clip clop of the water, and Hua Cheng humming a song into his ear, he’s not far off from falling asleep.

But Hua Cheng knows a way to make Xie Lian relax even more.

Slowly but purposefully, Hua Cheng’s fingers drag down Xie Lian’s chest. Xie Lian squirms and gives a low laugh when the gesture briefly tickles him, but otherwise doesn’t stop him when Hua Cheng pauses near the desired area.

Had he been in the mood to play, Hua Cheng would’ve taken the opportunity to tickle relentlessly, but Xie Lian is so serene, surely it would be too cruel.

Going even lower, Hua Cheng eventually closes his hand around him—Xie Lian’s breath appreciatively hitches.

He experimentally begins to move his hand, delighting in Xie Lian’s instantaneous reaction; quickly, his arousal builds with the slight arch of his back. Hua Cheng concludes he took the right initiative, and his lips curve into a pleased smile. He softly places that smile over Xie Lian’s temple.

“Does gege like it?” he asks. “Should this humble one continue?”

“Ah—” Xie Lian gasps faintly, tilting his head to kiss Hua Cheng's jaw. Instinctively, he takes Hua Cheng’s other hand and entwines their fingers together, pressing it over his stomach.

Hua Cheng takes it as a yes, meeting Xie Lian’s lips in a slow, tender kiss.

He resumes the strokes, feeling arousal grow within him as well—but, he cares not for it. Tonight, only Xie Lian’s comfort matters, Hua Cheng’s endless adoration selflessly enveloping him.

“You're doing very well. So well, beloved,” Hua Cheng murmurs, keeping the same pace—careful and precise, giving Xie Lian what he needs in the way he knows will be the most pleasurable.

Xie Lian pants silently, breathing out soft sighs and moans. He writhes, just a bit, unconsciously seeking more friction, but otherwise barely moves, letting Hua Cheng guide him towards release.

Any other day, Hua Cheng would make it last to tease Xie Lian, loving to hear him beg from how good he feels, edging him to his limits like the overwhelming pleasure would erase any pain his body once suffered. But, sometimes, there are moments like these, when Hua Cheng takes his time, pleasure increasing in ripples rather than crashing waves.

“San Lang. . .” Xie Lian sighs.

“I’m here.”

Hua Cheng picks up the pace of his strokes, just enough for Xie Lian to finish. He releases with a soundless moan, his back arching as he spills in Hua Cheng's hand, into the water.

Hua Cheng quickly uses a spell to change the water. Then, he embraces Xie Lian, keeping him steady.

He revels in the deep rise and fall of Xie Lian’s chest as he catches his breath, the way his body is so hot it transfers its warmth to Hua Cheng’s own skin.

Hua Cheng lays kiss upon kiss all over the side of Xie Lian’s face, affectionate pecks that trail down to the corner of his mouth. He takes his time with that, too, little affections imprinted on Xie Lian’s skin like holy prayers.

“How relaxed is gege now? Did his San Lang do well?” Hua Cheng asks quietly, nuzzling his nose behind Xie Lian’s ear. Xie Lian would usually tilt his head to give him better access, but he doesn’t move. Hua Cheng delicately parts locks of hair from his forehead. “. . . Gege? Gege?”

Xie Lian’s head droops to the side. When Hua Cheng looks, his eyes are closed, and his lips are slightly parted.

Oh. Hua Cheng smiles to himself—how tired must he have been, to fall asleep so fast?

Taking Xie Lian into his arms, Hua Cheng lifts him out of the tub. Fearing that sitting him down will rouse him, he carries him to their bedroom. A trail of droplets is left in their wake, sparkling like stardust under Paradise Manor's yellow lights.

On the bed, once dried and tucked under the sheets, Hua Cheng carefully shuffles next to Xie Lian, wary not to wake him up.

It's still early, but duties can wait for another time.

Until then, they have nowhere else to be but in each other’s arms, limbs entwined, bodies as close as they can get.

Between them, Hua Cheng's heart mimics the rhythm of Xie Lian's own. He adoringly caresses the lines of his face, marveling at his luck in awed silence.

He won't sleep just yet—he's got two days, seven shichen to catch up on.