The cave is silent. There is no reassuring heartbeat thundering in his ears, no calming breaths from the presence behind him. Hua Cheng wonders if this is it, the moment his precarious house of cards tumbles, crashing to the ground and smothering him in the rubble. The hand which had been clenched at his side loosens, fingers falling open in defeat, limp and utterly useless.
It doesn’t matter, Hua Cheng convinces himself. It doesn’t matter. I have always known I’m not worthy.
Xie Lian is talking, his soft voice a gentle melody behind Hua Cheng. He wishes he was stronger, better, more capable of facing the only worthwhile god in existence. The god from his past whom he has recently begun to believe might be a part of his future. Now their present is careening to a crash before him, recently collected memories merely a fleeting, fragile tease.
“...I still want to take this chance to ask you a question, and I hope you will answer me honestly and seriously.”
Hua Cheng swallows past the thick disgust in his throat, the gesture useless, an illusion at a humanity long gone from his feeble grasp. “....”
“Alright,” murmurs Hua Cheng, his eye closing, an attempt to block the sight of the one person whose opinion matters. His back is to Xie Lian, and yet he hunches in on himself, curling protectively around a heart that does not exist. His soul is too filthy, too scarred, to belong anywhere near the other’s generous grace.
“Just who is that ‘noble, gracious, special someone’?” Xie Lian’s voice hasn’t moved any closer. He maintains a safe distance, shielding himself, far from Hua Cheng.
It’s only you, thinks the fearsome, loathsome Blood Rain. It’s always been you, only you, everything for you. You have saved me ten thousand times, even though I am undeserving.
His mouth opens, and a phantom whisper of a breath escapes his trembling lips. It doesn’t break the silence, but it echoes in his mind. His memory is assailed by the sensation of strong arms embracing a malnourished child, the feel of a slender thumb wiping dirt off a sunken cheek, the radiance of a benevolent and honest smile. Hua Cheng yearns for warmth, except these thoughts do nothing but send shivers through his cold body.
“If your highness has already found out, then why ask.” How he longs to return this all to a shameful secret - the turmoil, the rage, the desperation, every weak and contemptible thought that had ever driven him to pick up a chisel and a brush. The years, the decades, the centuries blur together into a myopic, endless quest of love and devotion. His short life may have bent him into a hideous parody of who he was ever meant to be, but he has spent multiple lifetimes reshaping himself into something new, a shadow of something worthy enough to worship Xie Lian.
“I see,” says Xie Lian gently. He doesn’t sound as though he’s moved any closer, but he hasn’t crept further away. “So I didn’t misunderstand you. It really is true.”
I will continue, always and forever, for you, promises Hua Cheng, the oath he has pledged ten thousand times before. Its fortitude courses through him, his own twisted life blood. Only for you.
“...” Hua Cheng wants to turn around and throw himself onto the stone floor, knees hitting the dirt in deference. He would clutch at his god’s simple robes, hoping to convey the strength of his loyalty and conviction.
So far love has been enough to stop the ever-present miasma of failure and madness from encroaching too far, seeping into his mind, insidiously stifling his determination to rise above his shortcomings. Hua Cheng has been allowing himself to entertain delusions, to consider that it might be enough to-
A trembling hand grabs for him, while slender fingers tip up his chin and a cool palm cups his cheek, the soft sand rubbing against his back. A thundering heartbeat races underneath him as a strong body presses down on him in the cramped confines of a coffin, the raging water lulling him into thinking it is so much more. Powerful arms hold him down, calming him, soothing him, while the suffocating demon siren swirls the tempest in his blood. A red veil, a bridal sedan, an umbrella shielding them from the storm - whispers, promises, all fake, nothing more than a gossamer dream torn as easily as parchment soaked with the tears of a ghost.
“You don’t…” Xie Lian’s voice is flat and low, hesitant. Hua Cheng opens his eye and turns his head slightly, needing to see him, craving an undeserved shred of reassurance. He stops short, focusing on a dim corner of the cave instead. If his unworthiness is now reflected in Xie Lian’s eyes, after discovering all of this, Hua Cheng isn’t sure he can bear it.
I will, Hua Cheng assures himself, his mind soothing the brief flare of doubt towards his god. I will bear anything for you.
“You don’t want to know how I feel about this?” Xie Lian’s voice is so quiet Hua Cheng barely hears him over the screaming in his own head.
“Will...your highness...not tell me.” Hua Cheng spares a moment of hope, one silken thread of possibility that Xie Lian isn’t so disappointed in a false, bright image of him that he cannot ever fulfill, especially not now that it’s been shattered. Xie Lian sees potential in the ugliest and most broken of things, but something must happen to those that are too far gone to be saved.
If Ge ge forgets me, then there is certainly nothing worth remembering. Hua Cheng draws an unnecessary breath, which resounds in the stillness that shrouds them. And yet, I will always and forever remember and cherish you.
“I’m sorry,” begins Xie Lian, voice brittle, splintering with hairline cracks.
Hua Cheng hears the sincere apology slip off Xie Lian’s lips, an explanation about to escape his mouth. Perhaps he will stop here, granting Hua Cheng mercy, and sparing him from a bleak truth of which he is already aware. He might not give voice to the vast difference between one god and his devoted soldier.
“Something like this needs to be said clearly.”
Ah. Hua Cheng realizes. Even this will never be enough, not to crush what I hold inside of me. Flowers in my palm, flowers in my heart. Always, always for you.
Hua Cheng steels every bit of resolve, easier now that he has assured himself that this will not break him. He knows for whom he lives. This belief is unshakable, an indestructible foundation capable of supporting infinite rebirths. Robust and resilient silk wraps around him yet again, a comforting presence which bolsters his conviction.
Faith does not waver, he gives it unconditionally to one god, and will continue to do so. The incomparable and formidable Blood Rain smirks sadly to himself. He is not enough, he knew, but this, this is enough. It has to be enough.
“That’s true, your highness. It’s for the best.”
Hua Cheng dips his chin, tucking it protectively against his chest. His eye slips closed, the tickle of eyelashes along his cheek distracting him from the maelstrom inside of him. Ten thousand butterflies beg for release. They flutter desperately throughout him, the fervent flap of wings rattling his hollow bird-bone ribcage and threatening to devour him from the inside out. They pulse like a cheap imitation of life, a mockery of everything he isn’t, a reminder of what he lacks.
The air around him turns so frigid it scorches his fragile rice paper skin. His body houses an icy fire that begins to consume him and turn him into frozen crumbles of ash, and it burns, it burns, it burns-
Hua Cheng’s eye flies open as muscular arms wrap snugly around him from behind. A warm presence surrounds him, Xie Lian’s powerful chest flush against his back. A forehead presses between his shoulder blades, rubbing back and forth until it settles into a groove that feels as though it was crafted specifically for Xie Lian to nestle into.
The ice thaws, slowly dripping down from frozen peaks and trickling throughout Hua Cheng. The warmth permeates his manifested muscle and bone, easing the rooted ache. The longer he is held, the embers flare into a smolder, cozy flames licking up his inner walls. Something sparks within Hua Cheng, as the arms urge him closer, embraced as though he is something precious, special, important.
Once, twice, Hua Cheng opens his mouth, to tell Xie Lian not to bother, that he’s not worth the trouble, except he doesn’t want to break the spell. This delicate thread that binds them, it’s stronger than Hua Cheng’s insecurities and Xie Lian’s doubts, lighter than the weight of their trauma, untainted by self-hatred and shame. It lies between them now, tight and secure, safe and whole.
Silver wraith butterflies float around them, so bright something glistens in Hua Cheng’s eye. He blinks, trying to clear it away, although perhaps he is shaped into something pretty and worthwhile merely by being in Xie Lian’s presence. His eyelashes are moist, and a slight trickle paints his cheek, the earnest kiss of something far greater than himself.
Overcome by a promise that he would swear ten thousand times more, Hua Cheng spins on his heel, throwing his arms around his god, his purpose, this man, Xie Lian. He clings for dear life, more alive than he’s possibly ever felt, even with a heart that does not beat and lungs that do not draw air. A tiny breath puffs against his chest. It carries a hint of heat and a tickle of sweetness, the essence of Xie Lian purer than a spring rain, warmer than the summer sun, softly cleansing away dark autumnal decay.
Hua Cheng buries his face in the crook of Xie Lian’s neck, dampening exposed skin and a rough collar. He squeezes, almost afraid to let go, although there is something here, unspoken yet simple to comprehend, a silent confession, clearer than sunshine sparkling on freshly fallen winter snow.
“Your highness,” whispers Hua Cheng, words and warmth bubbling up within him. “You...really will...be the death of me.”
Xie Lian sighs, sounding content, relaxed in Hua Cheng’s arms. “And why is that, San Lang?”
Reluctantly pulling back, but still keeping his hands full of Xie Lian, Hua Cheng gazes down at him. “You deserve so much more...than…”
“Than what?” Xie Lian’s tips his chin to stare up at him, eyes gleaming with a fierce, stubborn determination that Hua Cheng adores. “What do I deserve?”
Xie Lian stretches up on his tiptoes, and lightly presses his mouth along Hua Cheng’s rapidly flushing cheek, wiping away errant tears. Xie Lian kisses the tip of his nose, before brushing his lips against the black fabric of his eyepatch.
“Ge ge…” Hua Cheng mumbles, face hot and eye wide. There’s not enough time, not right now, to unpack everything, all of this. It's too much. Xie Lian should have someone whole and perfect, unscarred and unsullied. He deserves beauty and purity and someone worthy of standing by his side, someone who brings him joy and peace. Someone good enough, someone better, someone more.
Someone more than Hua Cheng.
“Mm.” Xie Lian nods, a sharp dip of his chin as he beams up at Hua Cheng. He grabs for his hand, palm pleasantly warm and permanently calloused from years of martial training, while the other hand clutches the sleeve of his tunic, crimson fabric spilling between his fingers. “San Lang. You are enough, exactly as you are. Please. Believe that, if you believe in nothing else. And you should know that...when you ask what I want…that what I want more than anything...is…”
Their fingers weave together as Xie Lian tightens his grip. If he still had any physical need for air, Hua Cheng would be short of breath, waiting precariously on the edge of this cliff, to hear what Xie Lian desires the most. He stares, transfixed, hanging on his god’s every word. Whatever it is, he will give it to him.
It’s all for you, everything I have, and more.
Hua Cheng licks his bottom lip, the echo of recent, shared kisses dancing across his memory. Xie Lian’s gaze wanders down to his mouth, tilting his head to the side as he leans forward. Fingers tremble against his forearm and Hua Cheng isn’t sure who is shaking, until tremors wrack his body in anticipation.
Xie Lian is a feast and Hua Cheng litters the ground as crumbs. He isn’t worthy, he isn’t anything except loyal, but selfishly he’ll take whatever is offered to him. Heat radiates off of Xie Lian, pushing against Hua Cheng, breath ghosting higher, teasing his neck and chin and mouth as Xie Lian’s handsome face draws closer, closer, closer. Hua Cheng is frozen, enchanted, as brown eyes drift shut and plush lips part and-
A sudden, blinding flash of light and a loud explosion causes them both to jump, although they do not let go of one another. Silver butterflies slash through the cave towards them in a swarm.
“Let’s talk later!” Xie Lian releases his sleeve, but tugs on his hand as they race together towards the commotion.
Smiling privately to himself, Hua Cheng peeks over at Xie Lian as they run, admiring his flawless beauty, inside and out. You deserve everything you have ever wanted. Always and forever.
Early in the morning, tucked away in private splendor within the Ghost World, Hua Cheng opens his eye, his hollow socket sunken and still. He reaches out to the shelf by their bedside, grabbing for his eyepatch before acknowledging the rustle of blankets behind him. A hand closes around his forearm, ceasing his movement.
Xie Lian scoots forward, pressing against Hua Cheng, throwing a thick, muscular thigh over his own long legs. He stretches up to rest his chin over Hua Cheng’s shoulder, sighing as he burrows into him.
Hua Cheng chuckles, but hides his head away from his husband. He starts to maneuver his other hand out from underneath his body. Xie Lian’s fingers tighten against his arm.
“San Lang, rest with me.” Xie Lian noses at Hua Cheng’s neck, warm lips brushing his cool skin.
“...” Hua Cheng shifts deeper into the pillow, holding himself still to appease Xie Lian, who huffs quietly.
Trailing his mouth up the length of Hua Cheng’s neck, Xie Lian pauses to whisper in his ear. “It’s okay if I see you. I'd like to see you.”
“This one is not fit for your eyes, your highness. Not until-”
“Not until what?” Xie Lian props himself up and slowly runs his mouth back down Hua Cheng’s neck. He releases his forearm in order to gently tug aside the collar of his sleep shirt, feathering kisses along his bony shoulder. Every velvet press of his husband's lips reassures him with an oath, a bond, an adamantine vow only for him. “San Lang is beautiful.”
Hua Cheng snorts an unattractive sound as he attempts to pull himself away. He has avoided discussions in this vein many times before and he’ll continue to skirt away from it now, if he can.
What’s important is Ge ge’s comfort and happiness, Hua Cheng confirms to himself.
A frown creases Xie Lian’s forehead, Hua Cheng actually feels the expression against the bared sensitive skin of his shoulder blade. “Please.”
“...” Hua Cheng freezes in place, glancing over at the eyepatch he desperately wants to snatch off the shelf and swiftly secure onto his face. A hand settles on his hip, warm and encouraging, before it pulls just hard enough to roll him over onto his back. He closes his eye defensively.
Xie Lian’s dark eyes are lowered, staring past him down at the mattress. “San Lang, you...you are enough, exactly as you are. I won’t look at you if you truly don’t wish me to see, but...this form, all of your forms, are lovely.”
“Your highness is used to finding the beauty in anything, regardless of how-” Hua Cheng snaps his mouth shut before he reveals too much, the filth seeping out through all his cracks if he allows it. He must rein it in, control it, only present to Xie Lian what he deserves.
Ge ge has been burdened with enough rubbish, Hua Cheng convinces himself, agitated at nearly being exposed. So weak, so ugly, so unworthy.
Xie Lian grasps his hands, where they are clenched together, held tightly against his abdomen. He tenderly unfurls them, coaxing each finger apart. He works his thumb along Hua Cheng’s palm, rubbing circles into the heel. He takes his time, massaging one hand thoroughly, bestowing a kiss to one delicate wrist, before moving to the other and giving it equal attention.
The calm stillness of their bedroom in Paradise Manor encapsulates Hua Cheng, as skilled hands untangle the knots that hold him together. If he peers down, he imagines he will see the intangible grime that is being pushed to the tips of his fingers, eased out of his body, cleansing him from its taint. He has held it all inside of him for so long, he isn’t sure what lies within him without its perpetual shadow. Although he wonders, sometimes dares to believe, that Xie Lian has lit a candle within his hollow soul, revealing a tiny, stubborn flame that chases away the darkness with its radiance.
“There is beauty in everything, despite what others may think. Sometimes things are carelessly tossed aside regardless of how much value they have, or how much greatness they possess.” Xie Lian drops his hands and straddles Hua Cheng’s waist. He leans down and cups his cheeks, which warm instantly at his husband's benevolent touch.
“Sometimes, among the lost and the broken and the forgotten, there is a treasure so bright, so rare, so unique that it intimidates and frightens people. It’s too good, too special, and others don’t know how to treat it.” A thumb strokes just under Hua Cheng’s withered eyelid, before Xie Lian bends down to softly press his lips against it.
“Sometimes, the most beautiful things, have been damaged and ignored and so they struggle to believe in their own worth. Others have convinced them that what they are is not enough, who they are is not enough.” Xie Lian gifts another reverent kiss to Hua Cheng’s barren eye socket, as though his touch alone might fill the void with something more priceless than a simple human organ.
The caress of his god soothes like honey, his mind lulled into its rich sweetness.
“Ge ge…” Pressure builds inside of Hua Cheng, his face, his gut, every part of him tingling with an effervescence that nearly overwhelms him. Xie Lian has already saved him ten thousand times. Now, his earnest and uncomplicated words offer endless salvation.
“San Lang is beautiful no matter what he looks like.” Xie Lian switches sides and kisses Hua Cheng’s healthy eye, still safely shut. Lips brush along the corner of his eye and graze along his temple, coming away damp. “You are quite handsome in this form and I’m partial to it, but you are what’s beautiful, not whatever body you choose to be in. Your soul, your spirit, your heart, your mind, that’s you, and you are enough exactly as you are. You are the most beautiful treasure I’ve ever had the good luck to discover.”
Hua Cheng cracks open his eye. Looking up at his husband is like staring into the blinding radiance of the sun. “Your highness…”
“Yours,” murmurs Xie Lian, the honest smile adorning his face gentle and kind and only for him.
“You wager your luck has changed, Ge ge?” There is much to say, although perhaps there’s nothing left, at least not of importance, not in this magic moment. Maybe it is enough, the unshakable security of Xie Lian’s belief in him reliable and vast like the tide, love that sparkles when the light hits it, that protects and surrounds and nurtures. Hua Cheng would happily follow him to the edge of the earth, the heavens, and beyond, drowning in his depths.
“I am truly the most fortunate.” Xie Lian reaches over beside their bed, carefully plucking a familiar scrap of black armor off the shelf, long ties dangling between his fingers. He offers it to Hua Cheng. “Does San Lang need help putting it on?”
Hua Cheng glances at it, then shakes his head and looks up at his husband, eye wide open. “Ge ge has convinced this humble husband that it is unnecessary, at least for today.”
“Perhaps today is enough.” Xie Lian nods agreeably, petting Hua Cheng’s hair and planting one last kiss on his mouth, moving their lips together softly and sweetly.
With a slight tilt of his head, Hua Cheng places his palms on the mattress and surges up into Xie Lian, effortlessly increasing the fervor of the kiss. “It’s enough, Ge ge, whatever you want is enough,” he murmurs against the other’s mouth. He lifts one arm to worship his husband’s smooth throat, running his thumb lightly along the unblemished, creamy skin. He slips his hand up the back of Xie Lian’s head, urging him closer and deepening their connection, fingers woven in silky brown hair.
Xie Lian hums, mouth smiling against his before he shifts, rocking back onto his heels, his weight a grounding comfort. He licks his bottom lip, eyes shining as he gazes fondly at Hua Cheng. Xie Lian is so very beautiful. “You are what I want, and you are enough. Always and forever.”