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Xie Lian wasn’t sure when Hua Cheng would be aware enough to feel Xie Lian holding his ashes, so he kept them on his finger at all times.

He wore them while he bathed. He talked to them while he tended to his garden and fixed up his cottage. He even held them in his mouth while he pleased himself, imagining it was Hua Cheng’s hands on him, Hua Cheng moving inside of him.

He kissed them, and wondered where Hua Cheng was when he did so. Hoped he could feel Xie Lian’s devotion, his desire.

When he found Hua Cheng waiting for him outside the cabin he’d been carefully tending for a year, three thousand lanterns already lighting the night sky, his carefully-maintained facade crumbled in an instant, and he could do nothing but rush into Hua Cheng’s waiting arms.

He’d been holding himself together by will; so long as he kept busy and pretended that the hole where his heart was supposed to be didn’t exist, he could muddle through each day still breathing. But the moment he saw Hua Cheng again, it was like his bones had softened and the hurt in his chest suddenly threatened to rip him in two. He clung to his beloved, and he cried.

Xie Lian felt Hua Cheng’s tears wet the top of his head when he pressed his lips to Xie Lian’s hair and felt them mingle with his own tears when Hua Cheng tilted his head to kiss Xie Lian’s eyelids, his cheeks, and finally his lips.

He felt the rush of crackling heat as both of them tried to share their spiritual energy with each other before he pulled back to laugh in relief and wipe at the wetness on his own cheeks, then on Hua Cheng’s.

“Gege, I—” Hua Cheng began, but Xie Lian pulled him in for another kiss and the words were lost.

Hua Cheng pulled away eventually, pressed his forehead to Xie Lian’s. “Gege,” he said, his voice full of the warmth that Xie Lian had been missing for eight hundred long years, and then for the single, interminable year since Hua Cheng had dissipated before his eyes.

“San Lang,” he replied, and dug his fingers into Hua Cheng’s robes. He was really here, even more solid and reassuring than Xie Lian remembered. “San Lang.”

“Thank you,” Hua Cheng whispered. He leaned in to peck Xie Lian’s nose, then went back to kissing his lips. He gave them a teasing nibble, and Xie Lian’s body did an about-face, going from wrung-out and helpless to heated in a matter of seconds.

“For what, San Lang?” Xie Lian asked a little breathlessly, already knowing the answer.

“For holding on to me.” Hua Cheng’s voice was gravelly, and Xie Lian looked up into an eye clouded with emotion.

“There is no greater honor, my dear,” Xie Lian said truthfully, and Hua Cheng made a needy sound, scooped him up, and kissed him again, deeper this time, making Xie Lian’s stomach flip in anticipation.

They broke apart for long enough to unhitch the ox from its cart and lead it to the pasture Xie Lian had set up for it, and then Hua Cheng picked Xie Lian up again and carried him to the cottage. Xie Lian clung to the front of his robes, reminded of the first time Hua Cheng had carried him this way, in the bottom of the Sinner’s Pit. How wonderful it had felt to be held so capably, as though he wasn’t a burden at all, but rather a treasure to be carefully guarded.

When they entered, Xie Lian saw the tub already set up in the middle of the room and blushed.

“San Lang, did you—” he began, before Hua Cheng pulled him in for another kiss. Xie Lian’s bones were definitely soft now, his nerves nothing but a single string pulled taut and humming for his San Lang’s touch.

“Gege had such wonderful feelings about me in the bath,” Hua Cheng murmured against his lips, “I wanted to make some of them real.”

Xie Lian’s breath caught. “You could feel that?”

Hua Cheng’s answering smile spoke for itself. He set Xie Lian down gently, as though Xie Lian were a delicate porcelain, then undressed him slowly, reverently. He set aside Xie Lian’s belt and outer robe, then knelt in front of Xie Lian after he’d peeled off his inner robe and shirt. He put his hands on Xie Lian’s waist, and his hands were cool but the spiritual energy flowing between them was so warm. The twin sensations set Xie Lian’s body ablaze.

Xie Lian let out a soft moan. Hua Cheng touching him was so much better than he’d let himself remember. He met Hua Cheng’s gaze, answered his questioning look with a nod, then let Hua Cheng lift his feet up, one at a time, to pull his trousers off.

He was already very aroused, and only became more so as Hua Cheng massaged up his thighs and over his flanks while he kissed Xie Lian’s stomach, then lower, until he was hovering just in front of Xie Lian’s growing erection.

Xie Lian’s breath stuttered when Hua Cheng, looking up at his face, kissed him and then took Xie Lian into his mouth. Hua Cheng’s eye fluttered closed briefly when Xie Lian reached down to stroke his cheek, but he opened it again and stared at Xie Lian while he started to move as though, now that they were together again, he couldn’t bear to spend one more second not looking.

Xie Lian moved his thumb over Hua Cheng’s cheek and met Hua Cheng’s eye with his own, watery smile. He almost tried to stop Hua Cheng so he take care of him properly first but Hua Cheng, as though he knew what Xie Lian was thinking, clutched at Xie Lian’s legs like he’d blow away otherwise, and Xie Lian knew that this was Hua Cheng reassuring himself that Xie Lian was really here, that this wasn’t a dream, as much as it was for Xie Lian. His knees buckled when Hua Cheng swallowed him down, so Hua Cheng wrapped an arm around his waist and guided him backwards a few steps until he was sitting on the edge of the tub. Xie Lian kept stroking over Hua Cheng’s cheek, his jaw, then behind his ear, unable to tear his eyes away any more than Hua Cheng seemed to be able to.

‘Gege.’ Hua Cheng’s voice appeared in Xie Lian’s head as he bobbed along Xie Lian’s length, and Xie Lian trembled with how good it felt to have Hua Cheng speak to him like this. His eyes pricked with more tears as he thought of how good it would feel from now on, to always be able to hear Hua Cheng’s voice.

Hua Cheng’s eye squinted with a smile. ‘Gege, how do you feel?’

“I—Mnn,” Xie Lian moaned. He gripped the edge of the tub with one hand and moved the other into Hua Cheng’s hair. He tugged lightly. Hua Cheng moaned in response, and Xie Lian felt the vibrations through his core, magnifying the growing tension inside of him. He choked out a whine, moved his fingers down behind Hua Cheng’s ear, then down the side of his neck, making Hua Cheng shiver.

“San Lang, I’m…” he warned.

‘Please, gege,’ Hua Cheng said through the array. He moaned again, pressed his tongue firmly against the underside of Xie Lian’s length, and Xie Lian was lost. He came with a shudder, his legs weak. His grip on the tub slipped and he half-fell into the water before Hua Cheng pulled him back with one hand. With the other, Hua Cheng held firmly to Xie Lian’s hip.

Hua Cheng pulled off and pressed his face into the crease of Xie Lian’s hip for a moment, rubbing over the bone with his thumb, before he looked up and smiled at Xie Lian with an expression of such satisfaction that Xie Lian blushed. He reached down to cup Hua Cheng’s face between his hands. Hua Cheng rested for only a moment before he stood, kissed Xie Lian, and lifted him into the bathtub. Then, to Xie Lian’s surprise, instead of removing his own clothes and climbing in Hua Cheng picked up a soft cloth and began to clean Xie Lian’s body.

Xie Lian stopped Hua Cheng with a hand on his wrist. “San Lang,” he said, “I thought we were fulfilling my fantasies right now?”

Hua Cheng’s eye flashed with something. Fear? Embarrassment? They’d already seen all of each other, so Xie Lian knew it couldn’t be simple shyness.

“I need you in here with me, for that,” Xie Lian said.

“Dianxia, this one—”

Xie Lian’s chest ached. He ran his thumb up Hua Cheng’s wrist and over his palm. “Please,” he said, aware that Hua Cheng was putting himself into an inferior position. That he somehow, still, felt unworthy.

Hua Cheng averted his gaze. “I don't—”

Xie Lian made a small, hurt sound, and Hua Cheng stopped. He gently pulled the cloth from Hua Cheng’s hand, set it aside. “You’re the best thing in this world and the next, and I need you with me,” he whispered, and before Hua Cheng could argue he pulled him in for a hungry kiss.

He put a hand on the back of Hua Cheng’s head to massage Hua Cheng’s scalp while he rolled Hua Cheng’s lip lightly between his teeth, then opened his mouth when Hua Cheng sought entrance with his tongue. He whimpered when Hua Cheng licked the roof of his mouth, then began to push Hua Cheng’s robes open.

If he couldn’t ask nicely, he wasn’t above begging.

Hua Cheng understood what Xie Lian wanted and removed his clothes quickly. When Xie Lian stared at him hungrily he seemed to gain back a bit of the confidence that had been lost, though he still seemed somewhat distant.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian sat up and tugged Hua Cheng closer. Hua Cheng complied, climbed into the tub to settle on Xie Lian’s lap and continue kissing him. “San Lang,” Xie Lian repeated when they broke apart, “I missed you so much, I never thought—I was afraid it would be so much longer—” Xie Lian’s voice broke.

Hua Cheng let him cry, a tender smile on his face, and kissed Xie Lian’s fresh tears away. “You did so well, gege,” he said reverently. “Before I even remembered who I was I knew that my beloved was here, waiting for me. I felt so safe. It was… very different from before.”

Hua Cheng smiled as he spoke, but his words were haunted. Xie Lian picked up the cloth from where it had fallen and gently washed Hua Cheng’s body, though he really couldn’t find a speck of dust on him. He just wanted to touch San Lang, to make him feel even a sliver of the tenderness Xie Lian held for him.

“I’m here, San Lang,” he whispered as he stroked over Hua Cheng’s chest, down his arms, his back. “I’ll always be here, okay?”

Only after Xie Lian had cleaned every part of Hua Cheng he could reach did Hua Cheng take his turn washing Xie Lian, kissing over his body and getting Xie Lian worked up by lingering over some particularly sensitive places; then, before Xie Lian was aware that the bath had ended Hua Cheng picked him up, wrapped him in a towel, and carried him to bed. He laid Xie Lian down and crawled over him, boxing him in with his elbows on either side of Xie Lian’s head. He dropped his head down until their noses brushed.

“I remember you sitting in the bath, thinking about how much you wished I could have taken you in the coffin. You liked having me on top of you,” Hua Cheng said, smirking a little. There was a spark in his eye as he lowered himself heavily onto Xie Lian.

“Mhm, San Lang,” Xie Lian felt an explosion of want at the contact, wrapped his limbs around Hua Cheng to hold him close. The towel had fallen open and their bodies were still warm and soft, and Xie Lian felt like he could merge into Hua Cheng’s body now, and he’d be happy for it.

Hua Cheng ducked his head and started to nibble on Xie Lian’s ear. Xie Lian squirmed under the attention. Then, Hua Cheng lifted himself just enough to drag himself leisurely down Xie Lian’s body, and Xie Lian could only hold on to his shoulders and whine when Hua Cheng licked a stripe down his neck, then lower, and lower still.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian gasped when Hua Cheng began sucking on a nipple, already overstimulated from his attention in the bath.

“Hm?” Hua Cheng replied. He ran one hand down Xie Lian’s side, pressed the other between Xie Lian’s legs.

Xie Lian rocked against Hua Cheng’s hand, panting. “Did you—ah—did you find the house alright?” he asked, babbling about nothing. He suddenly felt like he had a thousand things to say, none of them important, but for some reason he couldn’t stop himself.

“Mhm,” Hua Cheng murmured. He crawled further down Xie Lian’s body until he could kiss Xie Lian’s navel. He rubbed his hands lower, over Xie Lian’s hips, along the backs of his legs.

“Did you like the flowers I planted?” Xie Lian asked, his voice higher than usual.

“En,” Hua Cheng paused and rested his chin on Xie Lian’s stomach, still stroking Xie Lian’s thigh with one hand. He watched Xie Lian with a half-lidded eye, as though he was enjoying Xie Lian’s atrocious pillow-talk. “They’re beautiful, gege.”

Xie Lian was momentarily derailed by the sight of Hua Cheng coating his fingers in oil. He whimpered in anticipation when Hua Cheng reached between Xie Lian’s legs.

“Is this okay, gege?” Hua Cheng asked.

Xie Lian was already shaking. “Yes. Please, San Lang,” he said, and Hua Cheng hummed in reply and began to massage Xie Lian’s entrance.

Xie Lian let out a low whine as the pleasure of Hua Cheng touching him traveled through his limbs; then, as though compelled, he kept babbling, running his fingers over Hua Cheng’s face and down his neck as he spoke. “I made the roof nice and sturdy, so it wouldn’t get wet when it rained. I didn’t—oh...”—Xie Lian sighed as Hua Cheng inserted a finger, his body instantly relaxing from its coiled anticipation—“I didn’t want you to worry about me. And I wanted to keep you safe, too.” He lifted his hand to his lips and kissed Hua Cheng’s ashes where they rested on his finger.

Hua Cheng let out a quiet gasp and pressed his face into Xie Lian’s stomach. “Dianxia is so thoughtful,” he said, and Xie Lian could feel Hua Cheng’s smile against his skin. After taking a moment to recover, Hua Cheng moved up again to kiss Xie Lian while he inserted another finger.

Xie Lian couldn’t remember if he’d felt this gut-melting pleasure before just from Hua Cheng’s hands, or if every touch was magnified now that he’d spent so long imagining it. He cupped Hua Cheng’s cheek and was struck again by just how beautiful Hua Cheng really was.

He untied Hua Cheng’s braid, worked his fingers through the hair to loosen it while Hua Cheng slowly stretched him. Xie Lian worked mindlessly, lost in the sensations Hua Cheng was drawing out, his legs heavy against Hua Cheng’s sides.

“San Lang, you have the most beautiful hair,” he murmured as it finally fanned out over his sensitive skin, giving him goosebumps. He carded his fingers through it. Hua Cheng leaned closer to nip at his lips, then sucked on his neck while curving his fingers inside Xie Lian until Xie Lian mewled.

“San Lang has the most beautiful hands, too,” he said, while Hua Cheng massaged that spot inside of him. “He has always been-ah—the most beautiful thing—” his voice cracked again, and Hua Cheng paused his ministrations to meet Xie Lian’s gaze.

Wetness brushed Xie Lian’s cheek, and Xie Lian realized Hua Cheng was crying. “I remember, gege,” he whispered.

Xie Lian nodded, his own eyes threatening tears again. He held Hua Cheng’s face and stared into that eye that carried nothing but gentleness for him. “There’s nothing else like him, in all the world. And there never will”—his voice caught—“there never will be. I’m so glad you came home.”

“Gege.” Hua Cheng was hoarse. He tried to kiss Xie Lian’s tears away while Xie Lian tried to do the same to him. Their noses knocked and they both started giggling at their attempts.

Gradually they worked up the nerve to keep going. Xie Lian arched his back and whined while Hua Cheng held him down, blanketing him, and he felt time thin out into a single, unending moment while Hua Cheng moved his fingers inside him and they shared one long kiss after another.

When Hua Cheng finally lined up and eased into Xie Lian, Xie Lian trembled so hard that Hua Cheng froze.

“Gege? Does it hurt?” Hua Cheng asked, a twinge of fear in his voice.

Xie Lian squeezed his legs around Hua Cheng’s sides and let out a half-sob, half-laugh. “No,” he said, “It just feels so good to have you back.” He ran his shaking hands up Hua Cheng’s chest and over his shoulders, awed.

Hua Cheng’s eye went wide at Xie Lian’s words and he trembled even harder than Xie Lian had. He lowered himself down until he could hide his face in the crook of Xie Lian’s neck.

Xie Lian didn’t know what Hua Cheng had been through in the past year, but could imagine it was far more harrowing than the loneliness he himself had experienced. He stroked Hua Cheng’s hair and murmured to him while Hua Cheng shivered and pressed his wet cheek against Xie Lian’s neck.

Gradually Hua Cheng stilled, and Xie Lian kept running his hands up and down Hua Cheng’s back until Hua Cheng came back to him. When Hua Cheng finally lifted his head and tried to apologize Xie Lian just stroked him reassuringly and asked for a kiss. He wasn’t worried—he had prepared for the worst when Hua Cheng returned. He hadn’t known whether Hua Cheng would remember wanting Xie Lian, whether he would even still be Hua Cheng when he came back. Truly, if Hua Cheng was holding him, seeking comfort, Xie Lian couldn’t be bothered by the rest.

“Does San Lang want to keep going?” he murmured after a while, when Hua Cheng began to kiss him with more intention.

Hua Cheng’s gaze was focused on Xie Lian’s face. “Yeah,” he said, and leaned down to kiss Xie Lian again.

“Okay,” Xie Lian said, and pulled Hua Cheng even closer. “Okay.”

Hua Cheng smoothly sank the rest of the way into Xie Lian’s body, pulling a drawn-out moan from both of them. Xie Lian pressed his head back onto the bed, toes curling involuntarily.

“Ah, San Lang, yes,” he said. It was even deeper and more intense than he’d remembered, and he had missed this so, so much more than he’d realized.

Hua Cheng met his gaze and pulled back a little before rolling his hips forward, and Xie Lian was helpless to do anything but latch his legs around Hua Cheng’s waist and whimper.

He held tightly to Hua Cheng while Hua Cheng rocked into him, again and again, gradually lengthening his movements. When Xie Lian was keening at every motion, Hua Cheng threaded his fingers through Xie Lian’s and held Xie Lian’s hands down on either side of his head while he pulled almost all the way out and drove back in.

Xie Lian cried out, legs tightening around Hua Cheng. “Please, San Lang,” he begged. He didn’t know what he wanted, but Hua Cheng doing the same thing again was both exactly right and not nearly enough. “Mnn, gege, please—”

Hua Cheng’s mouth hung open when he heard Xie Lian call him by that name, and his gaze turned heated as he watched Xie Lian fall apart beneath him. He dipped down occasionally to kiss and bite Xie Lian’s lips like he was sipping nectar from a flower, and Xie Lian burned under the focus in that eye.

Xie Lian gripped Hua Cheng’s hands tightly, as an anchor against the painfully slow pleasure Hua Cheng was creating between them. Hua Cheng continued his torturous movements and Xie Lian’s legs twitched and spasmed each time, becoming weaker and weaker against the tide rising inside him.

Then Xie Lian remembered, and freed one hand while Hua Cheng was lining himself up again. He pulled the finger with Hua Cheng’s ring into his mouth and licked.

Hua Cheng gasped, hips stuttering as he pushed inside, and he nearly collapsed on top of Xie Lian. “Gege,” he moaned, “God, that’s so—”

His words turned into a groan as Xie Lian licked it again, then began sucking. Hua Cheng lost his composure, moving helplessly without any of the smooth control he’d been practicing before. Xie Lian hugged Hua Cheng tightly and whined as Hua Cheng pressed himself even more deeply inside, the pressure sending shocks through Xie Lian’s whole body.

Then, with a particularly deep thrust, Xie Lian’s legs locked and a throbbing pleasure coursed through him without stopping.

“San Lang!” he cried, and Hua Cheng pulled back to kiss his forehead. Somehow, though, the pleasure was not yet at it’s peak, the pressure building inside of him until it was almost unbearable.

He put his ring finger into his mouth again and sucked, and the twin sensations of Xie Lian around him was enough to send Hua Cheng tumbling over the edge. He hid his face in the crook of Xie Lian’s neck and moaned as he buried himself deeply and spilled inside Xie Lian, and finally, finally, the tension inside of Xie Lian broke and pleasure rushed through him in a flood.

He clung tightly to Hua Cheng while it subsided, his body gradually relaxing underneath Hua Cheng’s weight. Hua Cheng was holding himself up slightly, as though he was too heavy, but Xie Lian huffed and pulled Hua Cheng down until he rested fully on top of him. The motion shifted Hua Cheng where he was still inside Xie Lian, and Xie Lian felt a small shock at the feeling. He sighed happily and stroked up Hua Cheng’s sides, then up his neck and into his hair so he could scratch at Hua Cheng’s scalp. He could almost hear Hua Cheng’s contented purr.

“Do you feel good, gege?” Hua Cheng asked, his voice very close to Xie Lian’s ear.

Xie Lian opened his mouth to speak and let out a quiet moan instead. He felt his face grow hot, as though this had the power to embarrass him after everything else.

Hua Cheng seemed pleased with this answer, though, and nudged his nose under Xie Lian’s jaw. He eventually worked his way back to Xie Lian’s mouth and gave him a lingering, soft kiss, and Xie Lian was reminded again of a hummingbird, or a butterfly, hovering over a tender flower. The sensation made his body tingle and his heart ache.

“Of course I do. San Lang makes me feel so good,” Xie Lian said, weaving his fingers through Hua Cheng’s hair, “Everything he does is good.”

Hua Cheng’s face wore a complicated expression, and Xie Lian was sure that if he could, he’d be blushing. He pressed his face into Xie Lian’s hair.

Xie Lian laughed and pet Hua Cheng’s head, lazily stroked the backs of Hua Cheng’s legs with his feet. Hua Cheng muttered indistinctly and pressed his face closer to Xie Lian’s.

“San Lang is so good,” he said, and he felt Hua Cheng physically warm with the praise, “San Lang is the best. Every time he touches me I feel better.”

Hua Cheng made a small, needy sound and lifted up to messily kiss Xie Lian. His tongue caressed the inside of Xie Lian’s mouth and Xie Lian felt a frisson of excitement at the intrusion. He made an approving noise and shifted his hips until Hua Cheng was seated more comfortably inside of him.

Hua Cheng sighed into his mouth. “Gege,” he murmured, “How do I know this is real?”

The simple, almost fearful question made Xie Lian’s heart hurt. He tugged his fingers through Hua Cheng’s hair, just enough for Hua Cheng to feel the pull. “Did I make things harder for you?” he asked, “By using your ashes like I did?”

Hua Cheng shook his head, kissed along Xie Lian’s jaw. “Gege gave me something to look forward to. This isn’t only about the time I spent recovering from this latest dispersal. It’s also all those years—before.”

Hua Cheng held himself up on his elbows and looked pensively into Xie Lian’s face. “Sometimes I had dreams like this.”

Xie Lian understood. He stroked Hua Cheng’s cheek. Then, carefully, he untied Hua Cheng’s eyepatch and pulled it away, guided Hua Cheng down so he could kiss his beloved there, too. Hua Cheng shivered.

Xie Lian spoke: “You know it’s real because I’m going to fall asleep, and when I wake up I’ll still be in your arms. And then I’m going to make food that only you like to eat, and collect scraps, and complain about my job in the heavens, and you’re going to cling to me until you’re so bored you can’t take it anymore. And then I’ll cling to you until you forget we were ever two separate people, and we’re going to make love so often you won’t have time for anything else, and then I’ll fall asleep and wake up again, and we’ll just keep doing that. It will just keep happening, like the sunrise. Until you believe it. Until you can’t remember a time when we were ever apart.”

Xie Lian’s voice grew tight. He was never this eloquent, except with Hua Cheng. He always saved his words for his beloved, who listened.

Hua Cheng’s eye was misty, and he smiled wistfully. “That’s going to take forever, gege.”

“I hope so,” Xie Lian said, and tilted his head up so Hua Cheng would kiss him again.

Xie Lian didn’t sleep until the sky was starting to turn light, and he did so nested in Hua Cheng’s embrace, like he’d promised.