The Ghost Festival is just around the corner, normally a boring affair in Hua Cheng’s worn mind by now, 800 year old Demon King that he is, but it isn’t going to be so boring this year because—
“Gege, want to go to Ghost City with me?” he asks Xie Lian on the day of the Festival, hands squeezing behind his back where the other can’t see so he can uphold the air of calm coolness he’s carefully curated for the last few hundred years. But really he’s nervous; there’s jittering in his bones and clamminess in his hands that he wasn’t even aware could happen to his hands until Xie Lian came into his life again. (He wasn’t aware of a lot of things, until Xie Lian. Full stop.)
Xie Lian tucks loose strands of hair that fell away from the confinements of his bamboo hat behind his ear, wispy and windswept in the late summer afternoon. There’s a light sheen of sweat on his forehead that he wipes away before looking over at Hua Cheng with big, curious black eyes. “What’s going on in Ghost City?”
Gorgeous, is what Hua Cheng thinks, because he’s incredibly gay.
“The Ghost Festival,” is what Hua Cheng answers out loud, easily enough. Looks a lot more chill than he really feels. “The city feels especially alive during the Festival.” He pauses. “Pun intended.”
Xie Lian blinks, pauses in his movements, then laughs. The sound is a sharp thing, flies straight through Hua Cheng’s heart, nailing him in place. It’s been months, months, since they’ve reconnected. You’d think Hua Cheng would get used to Xie Lian and his sunny disposition, the everpresent halo he adorns on his head, the sound of his laugh. But no. He’s not so sure he’ll ever get used to it. He’s not so sure he ever wants to.
“—funny, San Lang,” Hua Cheng catches Xie Lian saying once he finally tunes back onto this Earth. “I thought the Ghost Festival was a time for the ghosts and demons to pillage and run wildly unimpeded. Is that wrong?”
“Not entirely,” Hua Cheng answers. “There’s definitely fools who use the opportunity to cause havoc on anyone who’s unlucky enough to wander during the Festival. But in my Ghost City, it’s a time for fun and games.”
“You mean more than usual?”
“More than usual,” Hua Cheng confirms with a nod.
Xie Lian does this adorable thing where he tips of his head, back and forth and back again like a pendulum weighing out his options. Finally, he comes to a decision, and he looks at Hua Cheng with his brighter-than-the-stars eyes twinkling as he nods. “Yeay, okay. Okay I’ll go.”
“Okay,” Hua Cheng says, dumb and awestruck. He’s absolutely smitten. “Okay, great.”
“Great!” Xie Lian chirps. “It’ll be fun! I can’t wait to go with you, San Lang.”
Hua Cheng smiles, genuine and full of happiness, excitement soaring like the blood that isn't rushing through his veins. He can’t wait either.
“Ohh!” Xie Lian breathes, face gleaming in the night, reflecting the vibrancy of the Ghost City ahead. “Oh, San Lang, look! It’s so much more,” he makes wild firework gestures with his hands, “colorful than usual! How cool!”
Hua Cheng laughs at his adorably excitable reaction, shaking his head along with Xie Lian’s movements. His enthusiasm is contagious—Hua Cheng can almost feel it like it’s tangible through the connection of their fingers as they hold hands on their way out from the doorstep of Paradise Manor. It’s little sparks of joy that spill over from Xie Lian’s lively body and into his own. It’s addicting. Hua Cheng makes a mental note to hold Xie Lian’s hand as much as he can possibly get away with while they’re here tonight.
But he sees what the other means. With the moon high in the sky at midnight, its light shines like a spotlight down on Ghost City, and the streets are alive with demons and ghosts. It’s been a few hundred years since Hua Cheng has experienced all of this, so he’s been jaded, tired, bored of the event. He feels like he’s seen it all. But this time feels a little different.
This time, he gets to walk the rambunctious streets, holding the hand of the world’s cutest Heavenly Official.
And this time, every ghost and their mother knows that the world’s cutest Heavenly Official is here, too. Because as soon as they’re spotted, there’s a trail of them falling behind Hua Cheng and Xie Lian. And they won’t leave them alone. (Xie Lian doesn’t seem to mind. Hua Cheng does. A little. Just a little bit.)
“M’lord and his lil friend are here! They’re here!” one of them says, voice croaking under the pressure of speaking, grating to the ears.
“Lord Chengzhu hasn’t graced us with his presence during the Ghost Festival in at least six decades! How exciting indeed!”
(“Is that true?” Xie Lian asks. Hua Cheng shrugs, neither confirming nor denying. Even though it’s absolute true.)
They’re walking together, hand in hand, and Xie Lian is pointing out all the sights that Hua Cheng has seen about a million times. Nothing here has changed in the several years he’s gone to this Festival, which is why he never bothered coming here after a while. Didn’t even bother setting foot in the Gambling Den to overlook things like usual. Things were really crowded, and people and demons and monsters alike came in with the most over-the-top bets like this night of all nights would turn the odds in their favor even though all they rolled were evens.
He’s here with Xie Lian now, though, and it’s already a pleasant experience. At least, it would be if these pesky little ghosts would leave him the hell alone, maybe. Xie Lian doesn’t say a word about them, feeling content to entertain their questions with the sweetest and most patient smile painted across his adorable face—
“What brings yer lordship here?”
“Could it be that m’lord and this friend are on a date?”
Hua Cheng freezes up a little, thinks oh, my god, I will murder all of you, and peers at Xie Lian to gauge his reaction to that.
And Xie Lian blinks, looking a little dazed, concussed, like the question came from left field and hit him square on the head. So Hua Cheng grabs him by the waist before the heavenly official has to answer, and says in a way he knows will make icicles freeze over their ears. “Tell me, can ghosts have ghosts?”
“I dunno, my lord. That’s never been tested?”
He smiles, icy and devoid of patience. “If you want to find out, stick around and continue pestering us on our date.”
They trip trying to run fast enough with their tails between their legs, and Hua Cheng smirks, because he thinks their flight response is hilarious.
Xie Lian doesn’t; he rounds on him and gently taps his chest, not hard enough to actually hurt.
Hua Cheng schools his expression into something innocent and unaware. “What?”
“That was mean. You could’ve told them nicely to leave us alone,” he says, pouting his pretty pink lips. Hua Cheng tries really hard not to stare.
“I told them as nicely as I know how.”
He gets a deadpan stare in response, which is fair, but then Xie Lian sighs and shakes his head and laments, “I suppose that is more tame than usual,” which is also fair. Then Xie Lian says, “You only ever seem to be genuinely nice to me…” And Hua Cheng’s non-beating heart skips a beat anyway, tripping over its own little feet in his chest.
He wants to say, can you blame me. Really. Have you met yourself, Dianxia? But he doesn’t. Because if he opens his mouth and starts waxing poetic now he’s afraid he won’t be able to stop. He’s afraid Xie Lian might scoff (this is stupid, because it’s Xie Lian, kind and golden inside and out. He doesn’t have a mean-spirited mocking bone in his body, but that won’t stop the weeds of doubt from sprouting in his soul anyway.) He’s scared, most of all, that he’ll scare Xie Lian away.
So he says nothing, ever the cool, calm collected demon with calloused words and a cold, cold heart, a front.
They walk through the streets of Ghost City. Word must’ve spread quickly to the others that maybe you shouldn’t bother Lord Hua, not if you value your undead life because they aren’t approached once as they make their way through the bursting, bustling scene. There’s decorations everywhere, in the form of paper streamers and elaborate costumes. It’s difficult to tell who’s wearing a costume and who’s just out there, as is, because the masks are just as ugly as some of the faces that frequently wander here.
“What do we do first, San Lang?” Xie Lian asks him, tugging on his sleeve to get his attention. “What is there to do, exactly?”
“Well,” Hua Cheng starts, looking out over the many stalls that stand here. “There’s this one activity that’s really popular. The ghosts like to take paper lanterns, write something they really desire, and then place them on the lake nearby to let them float.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely!” Xie Lian says, eyes sparkling with wonder. “I didn’t know the ghosts had a sentimental custom such as this!”
“And then,” he continues. “They throw rocks at it and watch the lanterns sink to the bottom of the lakebed.”
Xie Lian is rendered speechless.
Hua Cheng feels bad, but he’s biting his lips to keep his laughter caged in.
“That. You write your desires? Why are they drowning them? They don’t want them anymore? Are they hoping to never see them through? Reverse psychology? Is it…” he lowers his voice conspiratorially, “masochism?”
The cage breaks. Hua Cheng is clutching his stomach, he’s laughing so hard.
“San Lang!!” Xie Lian shouts, embarrassed, waving his hands like he doesn’t know what to do with them. “You can’t tease me like that!”
He waits until he catches his breath before he speaks. “I’m sorry, but gege’s reaction was too funny.”
Xie Lian looks helpless, dreading, like he knows he’ll have to put up with that all night. (He might.)
“But I wasn’t kidding. That’s exactly what happens during the Drowning Lanterns game. I just didn’t mention that the desires written are usually ones of ill will, so…”
“I couldn’t possibly participate in something like that,” Xie Lian says with a frown. “I don’t want to put a bad omen on anyone or anything, even if it’s just a game.”
“But who says you have to curse anyone, gege? You can make it work in your favor instead.”
Xie Lian’s interest looks piqued, brows raised in curiosity. (Hua Cheng noticed some time ago that Xie Lian does that often now—raise his eyebrows—when he didn’t before. He thinks maybe, he’s rubbing off on him in the worse ways.)
“Really? How so?”
“Say you’re feeling especially hungry. You’d want to wish for food to curve your hunger, right?”
“Right.” Xie Lian nods, following along.
“But you wouldn’t want to write ‘I wish for food’ on the drowning lanterns only to sink it to the bottom of the lake. That would be foolish. That’s like saying you want all your food to go to waste.”
“Of course. Very foolish.”
“So instead, you can write, ‘I wish for this starvation to leave me the fuck alone’ and it would actually cure your hunger problems. Supposedly.”
“Ah!” Xie Lian taps his fist into his other open palm. “So it is reverse psychology. I see, I see! As expected, the Ghost City’s activities are really unique.” He turns to Hua Cheng, bright like the torches he’s standing underneath. Brighter, even. He holds his hand out for Hua Cheng to take, and it’s like a beacon that Hua Cheng can’t escape. Not that he ever wants to. He’s lovesick, not an idiot. “Would you like to sink some lanterns with me, Lord Chengzhu?”
Hua Cheng wrinkles his nose at the name, knows that Xie Lian is teasing him. He bites his tongue before something embarrassingly gross comes out unbidden and places his cold hand over Xie Lian’s warm one and responds with all the smoothness he hopes he has, “I would love to, Taizi Dianxia.”
The lake is only a few miles away from the main streets of Ghost City, normally barren save for a few water based ghost who like to loiter around here. But tonight, the lake bed is crowded, ghosts and demons packed like sardines along the edges, writing on paper lanterns and watching them float along the black, black surface of the water. And true to his word, there’s a few who are already attempting to knock their lanterns into the water.
Hua Cheng picks out two lanterns from a stall that’s selling them, then goes to one of the many tables laid out nearby, full of inks and brushes and inkwells. Xie Lian is already sitting at one, where a couple of ghosts had already been, enthusiastically tittering in their little voices at the heavenly official who suddenly graced their presence. But the moment they spot Hua Cheng coming, they freeze like they’ve been struck with ice, and then they running away, scared and shivering from the residual chill.
Xie Lian looks confused at first, but then he turns to Hua Cheng when the lantern is placed in front of him, and he giggles. “San Lang, you really didn’t have to scare them off like that.”
He’s completely innocent this time, but the smirk on his face, full of amusement and satisfaction, isn’t. Hua Cheng puts all the innocuousness he possesses into the blink of his eye.. “I literally had nothing to do with it, gege. Believe me.”
“Hm,” comes Xie Lian’s reply, doubting. There’s already a brush in his hand as he gets ready to write his ‘wish’.
“I swear,” Hua Cheng insists as he takes a seat besides him. He takes a brush into his own hand and leans a few centimeters closer to Xie Lian, lowing his voice an octave as he speaks. “I can’t imagine why they would be so scared of me. Do you think it’s my face?”
Xie Lian giggles again, though it’s a little stilted this time, and maybe it’s Hua Cheng’s imagination but—little shivers like tremors rock his hand, causing the brush in his hand to shake, which is weird, because Xie Lian has the steadiness hand Hua Cheng knows. So he asks him, voice dripping with concern. “Are you okay? Is gege cold? It does get a bit chilly out here at night…”
“I’m fine!” Xie Lian squeaks, and that makes Hua Cheng raise his eyebrows in confusion. He doesn’t sound fine. Hua Cheng opens his mouth to ask again, but Xie Lian flaps a hand in his direction, shuts him up. “I’m trying to think of a wish, San Lang, please don’t distract me…”
“Whatever gege wants,” Hua Cheng says, still bemused, already preparing to mentally call for someone to bring a coat to them.
But Xie Lian seems to catch on to what he’s doing immediately, because he snaps his eyes to Hua Cheng and smiles reassuringly. “Really, San Lang, I’m fine. It’s okay.”
That relaxes Hua Cheng; he smiles back, warm and thoroughly reassured. “Okay, gege.”
It’s quiet for a few minutes while they contemplate their written messages. Hua Cheng turns his back away to write his, and when Xie Lian questions him, he says, “It’s because you can’t see it, gege, or it won’t come true.”
“But isn’t it a bad thing if it comes true?”
“Not if the thing I want to come true is good.”
And so Xie Lian turns his back, too, pressed right up again his, and Hua Cheng lowkey dies a second death. (This is death number eight hundred and forty-seven actually, one for every year he’s pined and then some, but who’s counting, right?)
The wishes-can’t-come-true-if-someone-sees them excuse is bullshit, but Xie Lian doesn’t have to know that. Hua Cheng wanted to hide it, because it’s embarrassing. He’s gone, so far gone to the person leaning his back against him, that he writes I don’t want to get the chance to kiss dianxia soon. And if Xie Lian saw, he would surely have to kill every ghost within the vicinity and then himself.
There’s also the fact that his handwriting is still piss poor, and Xie Lian would bring that up, and ask whether he’s been practicing on his own. Then Hua Cheng would have to make up some lame excuse as to why he hasn’t been practicing like Xie Lian asked him to…
Xie Lian doesn’t have to know any of that.
When they’re finally done with their wishes, they get up and walk towards the edge of the lake. There wasn’t a clear section in sight, yet one seems to open up conveniently nearest to where they sat.
Xie Lian holds his lantern close to, written wish pressed up against his chest, and Hua Cheng holds his own with the words purposely covered, sure to not let a single soul here get a glimpse at what’s written on it. They crouch down on the edge, side-by-side, wishes facing out into the expansive water so only the lake’s surface can see them.
“Can San Lang give me a small hint?” Xie Lian asks suddenly.
“About what I wrote?”
He nods. Hua Cheng actually entertains that idea, for just a moment. But then he’s shaking his head. “You know the rules, gege. My lips are sealed.” Would be lovely with they were sealed with yours, though.
An exasperated, exaggerated sigh slips past Xie Lian’s lips (and suddenly his lips are all Hua Cheng can think about). “Yeah, yeah, the wish won’t come true otherwise. But, promise you’ll tell me whenever it does?” he proposes, starry-eyed and full of shiny wonder. “I promise I’ll do the same for you, too.”
Hua Cheng is lost in the nebula that is Xie Lian, floating in this dreamscape he isn’t so sure he ever wants to leave. It takes him long, too long, to come back and realize that Xie Lian is expecting an answer. So he fumbles as he nods, gathers himself, clears his throat, pretends he wasn’t thinking the world’s more scandalous thoughts ever as he says, “Of course, gege. I promise. I’ll be holding you up to your end of this bargain, too.”
“Alright,” Xie Lian responds, the starlight smile never leaving his face. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from San Lang.”
With that, they look out onto the lake and place their lanterns on top of the water. The lanterns drift very slowly, barely an arm’s length away after five minutes pass. Hua Cheng gestures with his hand, gives them a magical push, and they’re suddenly rushing towards the center of the lake.
“Oh,” he says. “Maybe that was a bit much.”
“No, it’s fine,” Xie Lian says, standing up, spare rocks he found lying by the lake bed already in hand. “The further they are, the more fun and challenging it’ll be to knock them down!”
He throws the rock in his hand.
His lantern goes down effortlessly, sinking like it’s made of lead, woefully down to the bottom of the lake. The poor thing didn’t stand a chance against Xie Lian’s might.
The nearby ghosts who witnessed this are hollering and cheering like they’ve never seen something so impressive in their entire lies.
“Gege,” Hua Cheng tries not to smile, but he’s failing. “That hardly seemed like a challenge for you.”
“It really was nothing. I’ve had to throw things at much further distances in order to catch food to eat in the past.”
“I see.” Hua Cheng should’ve guessed. Of course he has. There’s nothing Xie Lian hasn’t done in order to survive. God, he’s incredible—
Before his thoughts can veer off track again, he picks up a rock and aims it, and throws.
“Aw, that’s too bad. Try again San Lang, you’ll be sure to get—”
“Gege, look,” he points out into the surface. Xie Lian’s mouth snaps shut, and he watches with wide eyes as the water underneath Hua Cheng’s lantern ripples and shakes, dances and twirls, spinning like a whirlpool, and in the next second, something large and terrifying breaks the surface, mouth wide as it takes a mouthful of water along with the lantern into its jaws. It snaps its teeth soundly shut and dips back into the lake, disappearing into the black surface like the night.
The area is dead quiet, so quiet he can practically hear the stunned-shocked blink of Xie Lian’s eyes.
“That...that was insane! San Lang! There’s a creature like that in this lake? What was that? Does that count as sinking your lantern? Will your wish really come true if it were just eaten? You—”
And he continues to ramble, with the sounds of the ghosts’ and demons’ and monsters’ excitable roars as his backdrop, and Hua Cheng’s stomach hurt from laughing so hard.
Hand in hand, they walk along the crowded streets of Ghost City, Hua Cheng feeling content to let Xie Lian lead him around and point out all the things he’s already seen hundreds of times and more. It’s like he’s seeing the city for the first time, with the naive, golden-warm lens of a child, and it’s amazing, makes Hua Cheng’s heart sing.
They try a few snacks that Hua Cheng deems safe, things smuggled in from the human realm and not overflowing with gross ghost energy, and they play a few games that catches their eye. One in particular makes Xie Lian stop and stare in confusion.
“What is it, gege?”
“What...is that thing?” Xie Lian asks, beyond perplexed, as he stares off into the distance.
Hua Cheng tears his eyes away from his face with much difficulty and looks at where his eyes are pointed. It’s an odd shaped contraption, nearly twice as long as he’s tall, with a bell at the very top and a mallet resting against it on the ground. “Ah, they call it the strongman hammer test. Would you like to try it?”
“Yes!” Xie Lian says excitedly, dragging Hua Cheng over to the three meter tall wooden structure. There’s a stall behind it, full of a weird assortment of knick knacks ranging from magnificent, counterfeit brocade robes, to suspect dolls to rusty old swords. They look like things fished right out of alleyways and trash heaps. They’re things only a person like Xie Lian might appreciate.
“M’lord! An’ the lord friend! Step right up an’ test yer strength! But, I’m sure if it’s you, you’ll be sure to hit the bell an’ win one o’ the many lovely prizes behind me!” The ghost running the game gestures behind him. Xie Lian, of course, eyes them carefully, not taking them for the absolute trash that they are. Leave it to him to find the good value in anything, no matter how worn, torn, and broken they are.
“How does this game work?” Xie Lian asks him.
“Simple!” the ghost replies. “Take that there mallet an’ whack the red button on the bottom of the meter as hard as ya can. If ya hit the hammer at the top, you’ll get to choose a prize!”
“I see! Then, I’d like to give it a go!” Xie Lian goes up to take the mallet while Hua Cheng slides the ghost a gold coin to pay for his attempt. He’ll only need one try.
Xie Lian prepares himself, stretching his arms this way and that, throwing the mallet in the air and catching it again with all the ease in the world, like he’s wielded a similar weapon before. And Hua Cheng stands there to watch, smile clear on his face as he sees Xie Lian take a deep breath and bring the mallet crashing down on the button like a three hundred ton weight, rocking the ground with the force.
The puck hits the bell with ease.
It breaks the bell apart.
And the bell and puck go flying, far, far into the deep night sky. It disappears into the heavens.
“Holy shit,” the ghost marvels.
“I know right?” Hua Cheng sighs wistfully.
(Later, Xie Lian will tell him that General Pei Ming mentioned how something strange happened that night. A little black pluck, ashened from the force with which it flew through the air, crashed into his Ming Guang temple in the Great Martial Avenue of the Upper Court, and landed on the food he’d happened to be eating at the time. Xie Lian will laugh and tell him that, truly, that is very strange, all while sweating nervously on the inside.)
“I am so sorry!” Xie Lian shouts, bowing profusely.
“It’s okay, gege,” Hua Cheng reassures him. “It was no match for your strength. You’re amazing.”
“But I broke it!” Xie Lian cries.
“M’lord’s friend, you can have every prize in this here stall.”
“I don’t need it! Please, let me replace the…”
Just then, the ghost scurries to the back of the stall and pulls out an exact replica of the strongman meter, puck and bell intact. Full of curiosity, Xie Lian and Hua Cheng steal a peek behind the stall and find that there’s actually several of them standing back there.
Xie Lian gawks. “...Does this happen often?”
“Oh, not at all! Not at all!” the ghost answers. “Between you an’ me, this game is one hundred percent rigged, an’ only few people er able to ring that bell. This is only the second time it’s ever been broken!”
“Then, who was the first?”
“Why, our very own Lord Hua Chengzhu of course!” The ghost leans in close to Xie Lian, whispering low—but Hua Cheng hears him clearly—, “He didn’t hit it nearly as far as you did!”
“You’re so strong, gege. Even more than I am. I’m truly in amazement at your abilities,” Hua Cheng says, and he could keep going, could babble on and on about how, oh, my god, your strength leaves me weak at the knees, you make my nonexistent heart beat, I’m swooning, bench press me, Dianxia, please I’m begging you—
Xie Lian blushes, cheeks tinted pink, looking at the ghost and the broken strongman meter and not at Hua Cheng. “Don’t...don’t be silly, San Lang.”
“I mean that with utmost, absolute sincerity.”
He blushes more, and Hua Cheng’s heart skips harder, banging against his rib cages in a way he hasn’t felt in centuries. To think he can get Xie Lian to look so flustered sets his cold, dry skin ablaze.
“I would. Like to choose my prize now…” Xie Lian mumbles. He picks out a funny looking fox thing with one of its eyes missing. Comparably useless to all of the other garbage in that stall, but Xie Lian tells Hua Cheng that he chose it because it reminds him of someone special and near and dear to his heart.
They walk around some more, talking with ease, and Hua Cheng has a giddy little skip to his step as he moves, swinging the hand that’s holding Xie Lian’s smaller one. Xie Lian tells him he looks like an enthusiastic little youth, and Hua Cheng points at him, at the oversized stuffed fox in his arm and the stupid big grin on his face and thinks, you’re one to talk. They’re both like excitable kids. Hua Cheng has never felt so carefree during the Ghost Festival, and he’s exceedingly happy he gets to do this with Xie Lian.
“Gege,” Hua Cheng calls, walking backwards so he can stare at Xie Lian as while blindly making his way through the streets. He’s not afraid to walk into something dangerous, not in his own city, and he knows Xie Lian wouldn’t let him fall over.
“Hmm?” Xie Lian hums, smile sweet and adorable on his lips.
“What to see something cool?”
“Is it at the Festival?” Xie Lian asks, curious. “Different from what we’ve seen already?”
Nodding, Hua Cheng comes to his side again, grabs a hold of his hand, and walks in a different direction. “The residence here like to mimic some of the things that the human realm does. Some of the ghosts probably felt more at home to have their old customs in this new place.”
“Okay,” Xie Lian nods slowly. “But what is it?”
“Up there,” he points. There’s a large crowd of demons and ghosts formed on a big, wide street of the city. The crowd is gigantic—it must be holding at least half of the Ghost City’s residence, and they’re all watching something up ahead with rapt attention and wild eyes, cheering voices and pumping fists cutting through the night sky, shaking the clouds themselves.
“What are they all looking at? I can’t see!”
As they walk into the crowd, blending in with the others, Hua Cheng notices that the ghosts and demons gathered in this section are particularly tall, and while Hua Cheng clearly see over them, Xie Lian can’t, even while attempting to stand on the tips of his toes.
And so, Hua Cheng gets an idea.
He offers up a hand, as well as a cheeky little smile. “Want me to hold you up so you can see?”
Xie Lian looks grateful, the expression of frustrating melting away from his face like ice, and he places his hand gingerly in Hua Cheng’s. “Oh, thank you, San Lang. You’re always so kin—ah?!”
In one smooth motion, Hua Cheng hoists Xie Lian up and into his arms, places his arms underneath his thighs so Xie Lian is a head taller than him.
“San Lang!” Xie Lian squeaks, voice going up an impressive octave higher than normal.
Hua Cheng bites his lips against the smile that’s threatening to crack his face in half. “Gege?”
There’s an uproarious cheer that sweeps the crowd, and Xie Lian momentarily forgets himself as he whips his head around to see—
It’s a parade! Full of wildly dancing ghosts in all manner of ghostly costumes, some even opting to dress like humans with faces full of terrible makeup that make their eyes look too big and their cheeks too red. They’re hardly coordinated as they twirl down the street; it’s an absolute, unmitigated mess. But the acrobatics of it all is an exciting sight to view.
“Oh,” Xie Lian breathes.
“It’s called the ghost dance,” Hua Cheng explains. “Think of it like a mirror to the parades that happen in the human realm.”
“This is amazing! I had no idea ghosts had traditions like these!” He has that wide-eyed wonder look on his face again, his embarrassment forgotten for the time being.
And Hua Cheng contents himself with watching the most amazing spectacle. Which is Xie Lian’s face. Because he’s very, very, incredibly, stupidly, in love.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, when the parade dies down a bit, and he can be heard over the loud noises. “This was unnecessary.”
“But gege said I could help him up,” Hua Cheng pouts, loving the fact that he has to look up at Xie Lian to do it. He looks beautiful from this angle. (He looks beautiful in every angle.)
“I thought San Lang would help me onto his back! This is a bit…”
“Would you like me to put you down?” Hua Cheng asks, ready to do whatever he asks. The last thing he wants is to make Xie Lian uncomfortable.
Xie Lian takes a moment, looking back at the streets and slowly dwindling parade, then back down at Hua Cheng’s serious eyes. He sighs, shoulders slumping with the motion, and presses his face against Hua Cheng’s neck.
Hua Cheng doesn’t need to breathe, but he’s sure he’d forgotten how to.
“...No,” Xie Lian finally answers. “This is comfortable.”
Inside of his head, Hua Cheng screams, fistbumps the air, does a little dance as chaotic as the parading ghosts, every bit of the enthusiastic little kid Xie Lian accused him of being.
“I’m a little hungry,” Xie Lian says suddenly, well into the early morning. The moon is starting to dip from the sky. It’ll be dawn very soon.
“I can have some food prepared since, you know,” Hua Cheng makes a vague hand gestures at the nearby restaurants, and Xie Lian blanks for two seconds like he’s having war flashbacks. He nods in understanding.
“We can go back to Paradise Manor and eat something there?” he suggests. “I’ll have someone bring something edible.”
Xie Lian shakes his head, and Hua Cheng raises his eyebrows in confusion.
“I have a better idea. Why don’t we have a picnic instead? It’s very nice outside right now, I want to be out here a little longer.”
“Good idea, gege,” Hua Cheng smiles. “I know a good spot to have one where we won’t be bothered. I’ll call and have someone bring the things we need.”
It takes thirty minutes for everything to be set up, and twenty minutes of walking to get to their location. Hua Cheng is sure to pick a spot good enough for Xie Lian to rest in: in a field, surrounded by trees and bushes and next to a tiny, little pond, the stars are clear as they twinkle overhead. There’s floating lanterns to illuminate the area, too. It’s picturesque and perfect and—
“Romantic,” Xie Lian laughs. “This feels like a romance scene in a play. San Lang, I knew you were especially sentimental, but this is more than I expected.”
For a moment, Hua Cheng’s heart nosedive-crashes into his stomach. “Is it too much? Does gege not like it? We can move somewhere else instead—”
“No, no!” Xie Lian shakes his head hard like the more he rattles his brain the more reassured Hua Cheng will be. “This is good, this is good! It’s perfect, in fact.” He smiles, and Hua Cheng relaxes. “It’s perfect.”
There’s a giant cloth fit for five people to lay down on, and one end of it has a large basket filled with food from the human realm. Xie Lian happily picks out the food and sets them on the blanket, passing what he thinks Hua Cheng would like better to him, and immediately digs in.
He laughs all of a sudden, Hua Cheng stops mid-chewing to raise an eyebrow and stare.
“You look very funny with your cheeks all puffed up like that,” he informs him. “Very cute.”
Hua Cheng takes the time to swallow before he retorts with a smirk, “Oh? Gege thinks I’m cute?”
Xie Lian’s face flushes again. It’s the cutest, most gratifying look on this earth. Hua Cheng’s smirks grows a fraction.
“I’ve must’ve said it a million times before. How can I not…?” he responds, throwing Hua Cheng completely off his feet, because he wasn’t expecting that kind of response at all.
Oh, he thinks. Oh, okay. Cool. Great. Yeah.
In lieu of answering, because he’s got nothing suave to say, he just keeps eating. And Xie Lian takes his silence to mean that they’re focusing on finishing this mountain of food now, because he starts eating too. The silence drives Hua Cheng a little crazy, but he’s scared that if he opens his mouth, dying ghost noises will come out instead.
Xie Lian is the first to say something when the silence stretches on for longer than five minutes.
“San Lang ah.”
“Hm?” Hua Cheng looks up at him and notices a piece of rice stuck to the corner of his mouth.
“Thank you. For bringing me here today. It was very fun!” he smiles. The rice moves with the motion of his cheek. Hua Cheng is stuck between wanting to remove it with his hand, or being an absolute gremlin and using his mouth instead. “I had a very good time.”
The entire time he talks, Hua Cheng is staring at that offending little grain of rice, blemishing his dianxia’s complexion, and he finally can’t take it anymore as he calls to him. “Gege.”
He sits up straight and leans close in, places one hand on Xie Lian’s clean cheek, feels the skin he touches grow torch-warm underneath his palm—and that makes his face get all warm too—and he uses his other hand to pick off the rice.
Xie Lian blinks. He looks like he’s too afraid to breathe. Hua Cheng can’t quit figure out why, but he feels like he took a misstep somewhere…
“San Lang, you really need to stop playing with me like that.” Xie Lian looks a little pained.
Oh, fuck? Hua Cheng thinks, as he feels his brain fizzle, because that’s not a look he wants to see on Xie Lian’s face, ever. Especially not when it’s caused by him.
“Gege, what do you mean?”
Xie Lian sounds miserable as he says, “I thought you were going to kiss me. Not that I’ve ever been on dates before but...that’s usually what happens, right? There’s the walks and the hand holding and then, at the end…”
While he’s rambling, Hua Cheng tunes out, because his brain has effectively flown out of his ear and, like that puck from earlier, up into the heavens. He freezes at the words ‘kiss me’ and losing it completely at the words ‘date’ because he didn't think this was a date. Not really. It was just a fine little outing with his crush, whom he’s loved for eight hundred years, who he’s not entirely sure loves him back, who probably sees him as nothing more than a companion to play with when he’s bored. What does he mean this is a date? When did this become a date?
The silence returns. Xie Lian’s frozen, too, now. They’re just two frozen statues, sitting under the stars on a beautiful moonlight night, surrounded by food and lanterns and the sound of crickets. Truly romantic.
Hua Cheng opens his mouth. Dead ghost noises comes out. Xie Lian furrows his eyebrows in confused concern, so Hua Cheng closes his mouth, clears his throat, and tries again. “This is a date?”
“Yes…? I thought—when the ghosts earlier called it one, you didn’t deny it, so I thought—was I wrong?”
“But you didn’t say anything when they did, so I thought you were uncomfortable with the idea, and so I didn’t bring it up and told them to go away. I didn’t think…”
“Oh,” Xie Lian’s shoulders slump, “I must’ve been reading everything wrong this whole time…” And no. No, no, no, no, that’s not right, Hua Cheng needs to get his thoughts in order so he can properly convey just how right he is and just how much he wants this to be a date and how he’s been reading the situation wrong too, evidently, because Xie Lian seemed ready to accept this as a date at the first mention of it—
There’s a budding flower growing where his heart should be that maybe, just maybe, there’s a little inkling of hope that he can latch onto like a hook. The person who has given him hope for years and years and years casting his fishing line out again, and Hua Cheng grasps at it with eager hands.
“Gege, no, you’ve got it all wrong,” he says.
“So I did, huh…?” Xie Lian mumbles.
Hua Cheng laughs. Feels a touch hysterical.
“You don’t have to laugh at me! San Lang!”
“No, no, gege. Dianxia, look at me. Listen to me.” He mirrors his action from before, placing giner hands on either side of Xie Lian’s face, cupping his cheeks like it’s made of glass. (Hua Cheng knows that that’s far from the truth, though. Xie Lian is the strongest person he knows, in every sense of the word. He’s glass cut from diamonds, radiant and unbreakable. And Hua Cheng is weak for him.)
Xie Lian’s face looks guarded and cautious, curious and open, vulnerable and wary as he gives Hua Cheng his full attention.
Hua Cheng has to take a moment to breathe and gather his whirlwind thoughts before he continues. “I would want nothing more than for this to be a date. I’d want every moment we spent together to be a date. I want every moment we spend afterwards to be a date. And I didn’t mean to imply that I was not okay with the idea of dating you. And I wasn’t laughing at you. I’m sorry if I made you feel bad, because that is never, ever my intention with you. Ever.” Hua Cheng squeezes Xie Lian’s cheeks gently to emphasize his words.
With each sentence he utters, Xie Lian’s face does funny little things: his eyebrows raise a fraction, then two; his mouth opens, forms a cute little ‘o’ shape; his cheeks are painted red like the dawning backdrop of the sky behind them. And Hua Cheng thinks, you’re gorgeous.
He says it too, for once. Out loud. Takes that chance, because maybe Xie Lian won’t run away like he’s been so afraid of all this time.
“The person who you haven’t won over yet…” Xie Lian starts, meek.
“Is you,” Hua Cheng finishes, smile warm with all the affection he has and then some. “It’s always been you.”
He gets the watch Xie Lian as his face smiles back with that realization, gets to watch it grow like the flowers in Hua Cheng’s makeshift heart, gets to watch, as he outshines the sun with the force of it. He’s in love. He is so, so, very much in love.
“I thought I was supposed to be unlucky, but I’m clearly the luckiest person alive right now,” Xie Lian grins.
“It’s okay, gege, I’ll give you all the luck you’ll ever need, for as long as you need.” Hua Cheng slides one hand from his cheek, down his neck and shoulders and arms, so he can hold his hand. They’ve done this so many times before under normal pretenses, and yet Hua Cheng doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to it. This feels rights. This feels natural. “I’ve got enough luck for the both of us.”
“You’ve definitely told me that before,” Xie Lian laughs. He looks better like this, happy and carefree, and it’s an amazing feels to know that it’s Hua Cheng who can pull the wariness apart so there’s nothing but flower bed softness underneath. “You’ve said so much before. San Lang, you were incredibly obvious, but I didn’t notice anything at all…”
Hua Cheng bites his lip; they might start hurting soon because he’s grinning so hard. “I didn’t want to say anything and assume and ruin what we already have.”
“I wish you would have said something sooner...But I think I understand.” Xie Lian slides a hand over one of Hua Cheng’s, the one still holding his cheek. “I was hiding my feelings for you for a while now because I was scared, too. I really should’ve had more hope than that.”
“We would do better to act on our hopes,” Hua Cheng says.
“That’s something I used to be a lot, didn’t I? I don’t know when exactly I started to feel so helpless, but ever since I met San Lang, I started to remember what it means to be hopeful again,” Xie Lian says, and he turns his head and does something that makes all the little flowers growing in Hua Cheng’s chest burst into a million petals.
He kisses the palm of Hua Cheng’s hand.
Hua Cheng doesn’t need to breathe, but god Xie Lian is going to kill him.
“Then...would gege indulge me while I request a silly hope of mine?”
“Anything,” Xie Lian says, and he really means it, and it makes Hua Cheng want to cry tears of joy.
“Can I kiss you?”
Xie Lian smiles something soft, one corner of his lip tilted up as he says, “You aren’t joking like when you asked me to marry you, right?”
“Oh.” Hua Cheng falls. “You remember that.”
“You think I could’ve forgotten?” he sounds incredulous. “What if I asked you to marry me, too? Could you have possibly forgotten? How can you joke about something like that, San Lang. That was so mean!”
Hua Cheng buries his face in Xie Lian’s neck, the closest thing he can find to hide the shame on his face. “I’m sorry,” he squeaks.
Twinkling sounds in the form Xie Lian’s golden laughter, and he wraps his arms around Hua Cheng’s waist and effortlessly slides him onto his lap, and Hua Cheng isn’t expecting that at all. He holds on tight to Xie Lian’s shoulders and shouts, “Gege!”
“Just because you aren’t a child doesn’t mean I can’t sit you on my lap!” he says. “Is this okay?”
Hua Cheng plants his face right back into his neck. This is his home now. He’ll never surface again.
Xie Lian laughs harder and gently shakes at his shoulders. “San Lang! San Lang, it’s okay. I know you were serious now.” He shakes again. “San Lang, hey San Lang, you can kiss me. Please.”
Hua Cheng peeks his eye out from his safe place. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” he nods his consent, then says again, with more intent, “Please.”
So Hua Cheng does. He’s imagined this a million times and a million more, all the different places, all the different timelines and scenarios in which he would get to press his lips to Xie Lian’s feather soft ones for the very first time. He’s dreamed of this, god, he’s dreamed of this so many times.
Xie Lian’s lips and chapped and trembling like he’s nervous, and Hua Cheng runs a soothing finger down his cheek in attempt to calm him, presses his smile against his dianxia’s mouth, lets him know that this is okay. This is perfect. It’s nothing like he’d imagined, and it’s perfect.
When they pull part, Xie Lian opens his eyes and asks, “Was that okay?”
“Perfect,” Hua Cheng says aloud. He kisses Xie Lian’s nose, then his eyelid, then his cheek and his mouth. “You’re perfect. I love you.”
Xie Lian’s face blossoms like spring. It’s his new favorite season.
“Gege, it’s the same for me, too.”
“What is?” Xie Lian circles his hands around Hua Cheng’s wrists. They’re so, so close.
“You’re the one who’s given me hope all these years. I didn’t know what it meant to have it until I meant you. And it’s also because of you that I got to see my Drowning Lantern wish come true.”
Xie Lian inhales sharply, says oh, and starts laughing again.
“What’s so funny?”
“Could it be? San Lang, was your wish to not kiss me? That was my wish, too!”
And now Hua Cheng is laughing. His face is starting to hurt like he thought it would, but it’s such a good hurt, a burn he feels at the edges of his mouth, cheeks stretched wider than the expanse of a sea. “I can’t believe gege is so cheesy. To have an embarrassing wish like that…”
Xie Lian taps his shoulder. “You’re one to talk! Although…” he bites his lip on a grin. “My wish wasn’t completely fulfilled.”
Like this, with Hua Cheng on his lap, Xie Lian is eye level with him. And yet, he manages to look shyly from underneath his long, black eyelashes at Hua Cheng. “I wished I wouldn’t get at least ten kisses from you.”
Hua Cheng’s heart kick starts, banging against his ribcage, the force of it pulling him ever closing to the the person he loves so dearly.
“May I request at least ten kisses from San Lang?”
“Anything,” Hua Cheng breathes. “Anything for you.”
Hua Cheng falls backwards onto the blanket, pulls Xie Lian with him, and they kiss over, over, over again until the sun breaks the sky.