On evenings when Hua Cheng is away, Xie Lian digs a hole behind Puji shrine. It’s menial, familiar labour; his shovel is a trusty companion, and the smell of fresh dirt is a comforting one. He covers it with a sheet when he goes to sleep, and forgets about it until he is alone once again, metal in his hand and a soft hum on his lips.
Hua Cheng is gone more often than either of them wishes. Xie Lian usually gets the privilege of cooking for him once a day, but occasionally business pulls him away for weeks at a time. Xie Lian, too, has obligations he cannot neglect, and he often spends his days away as well, returning only to sleep deeply on a bamboo mat that smells of cold love.
But interspersed between evenings of answering prayers and nights of arduous, desperate lovemaking, there are nights like these.
Xie Lian pulls the sheet away, surveying his work. The night air tastes sweet on his tongue, crickets sing their eternal love song, and the incense sticks burning in Puji shrine cast flickering shadows on the ground. The hole is deep enough for a man to stand in, and he climbs in with his shovel in hand. Dirt surrounds him, sighing out like an old friend. It tells him: you were dirt once, too. You will be dirt again.
A martial prince, a scrap god, an omen of misfortune - Xie Lian has never been depicted like this, sleeves browning with mud and on all fours in the dark. Hair falls into his eyes, and he does not care to brush it back. Down here it’s pitch black, and touch and scent are the only senses left.
Xie Lian does not cry, nor does he smile. He simply works until he needs to stop, and then he does. His hands crack and bleed, nails caked in dirt, but it will heal. It always does.
“Gege, three of your tunics are hanging to dry,” Hua Cheng remarks the next time he visits. His boots are on the table, chair tipped back. His weight balances precariously on one chair leg, but he never falls.
This, like all things, is a metaphor.
“I’m aware,” Xie Lian says dryly. “I hung them up.”
Hua Cheng laughs. Xie Lian smiles to himself, pleased, and his expression stays like that when Hua Cheng speaks again, “Did something happen while I was away? You need only call, gege, and I’ll be there.”
“I know.” Xie Lian reaches out to squeeze Hua Cheng’s ankle through his boot. “It’s nothing for San Lang to concern himself with.”
“All of gege’s troubles are my troubles,” Hua Cheng argues, his single eyebrow arched perfectly.
Xie Lian smiles at him, soft and gentle, and does not respond.
Hua Cheng sighs. “Very well,” he says. “Gege can keep his secrets.”
“From you? Never.” Every day, Xie Lian sees silver butterflies out of the corners of his eyes. They look like stars; like the streaks of light that appear against his eyelids when he’s teetering on the edge of starvation; like the heavens had looked when he first ascended, dizzying with opulence.
Hua Cheng’s grin gains a sheepish edge. “Does gege mind?”
“No,” Xie Lian says honestly. Sometimes the weight of the mistakes Hua Cheng has witnessed threatens to crush him, but it is a weight he can bear. The weight would be there whether Hua Cheng knew of it or not. “No shoes on my table, please.”
Hua Cheng sits up, soles pressing against the uneven floor. “Let’s go out for dinner,” he says. “My treat.”
“I can cook,” Xie Lian protests, but Hua Cheng shakes his head, standing up and pulling him close. His large, cool hands cup Xie Lian’s sharp face, voice low like a lover’s caress. Despite himself, Xie Lian shivers. The effect Hua Cheng has on him is deeply humiliating, but no matter how much he meditates, Hua Cheng’s touch turns him into a live wire, exposed and electrified.
“Your head seems heavy,” he says softly. “Let me distract you, gege.”
Sometimes Xie Lian wishes Hua Cheng would call him by his name and shorten the distance between them. Sometimes he wishes not to be His Royal Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le nor the Flower Crown Martial God, but Hua Cheng will never let them stand on equal footing. Hua Cheng believes Xie Lian to be his god, so far above him he’s nigh untouchable, but Xie Lian knows the truth. Hua Cheng is the one whose power and strength shines through in each calculated movement, who has conquered every obstacle in his path, who is feared and revered across all three realms for his tenacity. Hua Cheng was born of blood and pain and sorrow, yet there is childish glee in the grins he shoots Xie Lian, and the way he takes Xie Lian’s hands contains genuine excitement at the prospect of existence.
Xie Lian is tired; he is old and he is weak. Every evening when Hua Cheng is away, he digs a hole, and he keeps it a secret, because he knows Hua Cheng would recognise it for what it is.
His voice curls up like a wounded beast in his throat and he nods, eyes closing for a moment. Hua Cheng holds him closer, letting out a quiet, concerned noise.
“I’m fine,” Xie Lian says when his words have recovered. “I’m fine, San Lang.”
“You’re always fine,” Hua Cheng replies, looking down at him, and Xie Lian smiles, intentionally stepping around Hua Cheng’s meaning.
“Exactly,” he says. He leans up, kissing him softly, and then grips Hua Cheng’s hands by his wrists, urging them down. “Let’s go, shall we?”
“Yes,” Hua Cheng replies after a moment. He reaches into his pocket, and the world bursts into silver butterflies.
“Master cultivator! Master cultivator!” a woman cries on the doorstep of Puji shrine.
Xie Lian comes out, frowning with concern. “May I help you, madam? Would you like some tea?”
She shakes her head, tears in her eyes. “I daren’t enter,” she gasps through her sobs. “Please, master cultivator, my friend, Chunhua, she’s ill, please, you have to save her!”
Xie Lian grabs his pouch of herbs and remedies and nods to her. “Take me there,” he says. The woman climbs to her feet, quickly wiping her face on her sleeve, smearing snot and dirt.
“This way,” she sniffles. They hurry through the village, dust kicked up in their wake. There are a few houses on the outskirts of Puji town, on the other side from the shrine, and that is where the young woman leads him.
“What are her symptoms?” Xie Lian asks while they walk.
The woman bursts into tears again. “She’s possessed,” she whispers, “or - or some evil spirit lives in our house, I don’t know what to do, I’ve tried everything I can, but she keeps saying -” her emotions overcome her, and Xie Lian nods in understanding, putting a kind hand on her elbow.
“It will be alright,” he says gently, slowing as they reach the stone path to the house. “I will do what I can, I promise. And if it is a menacing ghost, I can get rid of it.”
“Thank you, master cultivator,” the woman chokes out. She holds the door open for him, taking a deep breath to steady herself. “She’s in the bedroom. I’ll… I’ll give you guys some time.”
Xie Lian nods. He makes sure he has his pouch and a talisman at the ready as he enters, but what greets him is no demon.
The room is devoid of evil, but it stinks of grief. There is a bed in the middle of the room, made larger by the mass of blankets on top of it. After a moment, the blankets speak, and a pale face peeks out. “Meilin, I told you to leave me alone -” the woman’s voice cuts off abruptly. “You’re not Meilin.”
“I’m afraid not,” Xie Lian. “I am the cultivator from Puji shrine. Your friend asked for my help.”
Chunhua snorts, an ugly, painful sound. “I don’t want any help,” she says, her voice thick with frustration. “I want to die. Are you going to try and exorcise the demons out of me too? It’s useless.”
Reflexively, Xie Lian checks again, but there are no spirits in the room aside from the two of them, no outside forces acting on Chunhua.
“I’m not crazy,” she continues. “I’m not, I’m not crazy. Just let me die.”
“It does not matter whether you’re mad or not,” Xie Lian says gently. “You feel this way, that’s what matters.” He sits down on the corner of the bed, and the mass of blankets flinches away, Chunhua’s face disappearing again. “I’m not going to do anything,” he promises. “I just want to talk.”
After a moment, he holds out a sprig of mint. A dirty hand emerges from the blankets to take it. “What do I do with this?”
“Eat it,” says Xie Lian.
“Is it medicinal?” Chunhua asks skeptically.
Xie Lian shakes his head. “Well, yes - but not for this. It’s simply refreshing to chew on.”
Warily, Chunhua’s hand recedes again, the sprig of mint disappearing with it.
“Thank you,” Xie Lian says, and is surprised when he hears a choked breath in response.
“Don’t thank me…!” Chunhua says, so pained that Xie Lian can imagine the tears on her face, even though he cannot see her. “I don’t want your help! No one can help me!”
“I’m sorry,” Xie Lian quietly. Out of the corner of his eye, a silver butterfly flutters. “Feeling helpless is very painful.”
“Like you’d know,” Chunhua sniffles, “You’re a man, and you can cultivate, and…” she trails off, blankets shaking as she cries.
Xie Lian nods. “Exactly,” he says. “And the helplessness I’ve felt is very painful. I can only imagine what it feels like for you.”
He waits patiently until Chunhua speaks again, her voice muffled. “I don’t know why I should live,” she tells the blankets. “Even Meilin has been hurt by me. I don’t deserve…”
“Everyone deserves to live,” Xie Lian says, as kindly as he can. He feels impossibly old. I have nothing to live for. “Life is suffering, but life is also our opportunity to ease suffering. Only by living can we make others’ existence easier. You deserve to seek forgiveness for your mistakes, and to learn from them. You deserve to make others happy with your existence.”
“My existence makes no one happy,” Chunhua says uncertainly.
“If you gave Meilin a hug, I am sure she would smile like the sun,” Xie Lian suggests. Then live for me. “You do not need to live forever. Merely live long enough to give her a hug, and then another, and then another. Live long enough to eat your favourite meal once more.”
The blankets shuffle like snow parting for a rabbit, and Chunhua sticks her head out. Her hair is a bird’s nest, and her face is drawn and dirty, but her eyes are not as painfully empty as they were. “You’re supposed to tell me I’m possessed,” she says reluctantly. “Or that I should pull myself together.”
Xie Lian smiles at her. “Deciding to live is a big decision,” he says. “But you don’t have to make it all at once. Just make it every so often, and it will become familiar to you.”
Chunhua looks at him and then away. “What if I can’t?” she mumbles.
“Come see me, and I’ll help you.”
Weakly, Chunhua nods. She scrubs her fist over her eyes, breathing out heavily. As if she’s been waiting behind the door, Meilin bursts into the door, crying loudly as she wraps around Chunhua like an octopus, pressing wet kisses into her skin. Chunhua tries to pull away, but her scowl is half-hearted and wobbly, and her hands bring Meilin closer every time she pulls away for air.
Xie Lian watches them for a moment. The unguarded display of affection makes him ache with envy and contentment both, and he stands up, giving them both a bow. “I’m glad to have been of help,” he says.
“Thank you,” Meilin tells him, her eyes bright and earnest. “I’ll light an incense stick for your god. I’ll light a thousand!”
“Thanks for the mint,” Chunhua mumbles into Meilin’s shoulder. “It was nice.”
Xie Lian smiles at them both and closes the door behind him when he leaves.
When he returns home, wind has blown the tarp up against the wall of the shrine, and the depression in the earth is visible. He puts it back, weighing it down with stones until the hole is once again hidden from view.
A week later, Hua Cheng has been called away for business once again. Xie Lian had turned away so he did not have to watch him go, but he still feels adrift, unanchored without Hua Cheng’s presence. When dusk falls, he forgoes his shovel and pushes the tarp away, climbing down into the hole.
Dirt crumbles easily under his fingers, cool and dry, and he loses himself in digging, letting the rhythm of the earth guide him as he works. When he realises there is someone above him, he knows not how long they have been sitting there, and he rears back in shock.
Familiar polished boots hang over the edge, the tips of Hua Cheng’s red robes curling over the lip of the hole like a tongue. “Gege,” he says. Puji shrine illuminates him, breathing life into the fire in his eye. “I heard your advice has changed. Make the decision every day, hm?”
“San Lang,” Xie Lian says. His hands are shaking. “San Lang, didn’t you have business…?”
“I finished it,” Hua Cheng says shortly.
Xie Lian swallows, standing up. “I see,” he says. “I-I’m glad you’re home.”
“You lied to me,” Hua Cheng snarls, fury flaring like a dragon in his voice. He jumps down and Xie Lian startles, pressing himself against the wall of the hole. Silver butterflies spread out from Hua Cheng’s hair like a moonlit halo, painting his face in sharp angles. “You said it was none of my concern, but this - gege, what is this!”
Xie Lian looks away, breathing deeply. “I can explain,” he starts, but then he trails off, head hanging in defeat. Hair falls like a protective curtain, hiding him from the bright light of the butterflies.
“You’ve been digging yourself a grave,” Hua Cheng whispers, the pain in his voice worse than a hundred swords, “you’ve been digging yourself a grave, and you didn’t tell me.”
“It wasn’t meant to be a grave,” Xie Lian says quietly. He is unable to meet Hua Cheng’s eye. “I promise. I didn’t intend… I didn’t intend for this.”
“Gege, I don’t understand,” Hua Cheng says. If Xie Lian were to look up, he knows Hua Cheng’s eye would be wet, tears threatening to fall. “Why didn’t you tell me? What’s going on?”
“Nothing…!” Xie Lian inhales, exhales. Thoughts pass like raindrops on a window. “It’s just something to do while you’re away, to pass the time.”
Xie Lian puts a hand over his face. Dirt is no longer a comforting smell - it cloys like shame in his nose, making him want to retch. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs. “I’m sorry, San Lang. I promise, I never would have done anything to make you worry.”
Hua Cheng lets out a haunted noise and wraps his arms around him, crushing him against his chest.
“San Lang, I’m dirty!” Xie Lian protests, but Hua Cheng pays him no mind, hugging him tighter and whispering fiercely into his ear,
“I don’t think you ever made the decision to live, I think you merely accepted that you cannot die. But I’ll make the decision for you. You have to live, Xie Lian. Live for me.”
Xie Lian’s breath catches in his throat, and his knees go weak. Hua Cheng holds him up, his pillar and his rock. “I’m sorry,” Xie Lian starts, and it’s like a cork is pulled, the window breaking and letting in gales and gales of torrential rain, years of repression wrapped up in acceptance being undone by Hua Cheng’s words - and he buries his face in Hua Cheng’s shoulder, unable to stand the way his voice trembles and tears threaten to fall as he says it again, and again, and again.
“You have nothing to apologise for,” Hua Cheng tells him, the words reverberating in this tiny space Xie Lian has carved out of the earth. “Please, Xie Lian, gege, don’t apologise, just live for me.”
“What a pair we make,” Xie Lian says, attempting to make a joke, but his voice breaks in the middle of the sentence, and hot tears finally burst down his cheeks as he wraps his arms around Hua Cheng, crying shamefully into his chest.
Hua Cheng stands, still tense with anger and sadness, and strokes his hair while Xie Lian empties himself of centuries of unhappiness, of disappointment, of a life without meaning. “Gege,” he says, once Xie Lian’s breathing has evened out again. “Gege, don’t ever do this again.”
Xie Lian nods. “I promise,” he says, swallowing hard. “I promise. I’m sorry, San Lang.”
Hua Cheng shakes his head tightly. “Don’t. Just live for me.” He pauses. “And all the rest of your devotees, I guess.”
Xie Lian is startled into a laugh, and Hua Cheng gives him an uneven grin, some of the tension escaping from his frame. “I love all my followers equally,” Xie Lian tells him.
“Oh, I should hope not,” Hua Cheng drawls. He reaches up, a red sleeve gently wiping Xie Lian’s cheeks. “We’ll have to have words, if that’s the case.”
Xie Lian leans in. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he whispers, and Hua Cheng tucks his hair behind his ear, making a show of listening. “It’s not the case. I love you the most, San Lang.”
“And I love you the most,” Hua Cheng says seriously. “I want to cover this hole up immediately.”
Xie Lian takes another deep breath and nods. “I…” He pauses. “I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish I’d spoken to you about it, but… I knew you would see it for what it was.”
Hua Cheng looks at him. The light from the butterflies is kinder now, warmer, reflected in his eye. “It’s okay,” Hua Cheng says quietly. “I’ll make sure it never happens again.”
A burden shared is a burden halved, Xie Lian thinks. “I never had anyone to share this with before.”
It takes only a moment before Hua Cheng catches up with his train of thought. “You can share anything with me, gege. That’s what being married means.”
A hiccup in the small space - belatedly, Xie Lian realises it came from himself, and he covers his mouth, blushing wildly. “Wh-- I don’t know why that happened!”
“I show gege how to make all kinds of new sounds,” Hua Cheng says flirtatiously, and Xie Lian narrows his eyes at him.
“You’re terrible,” Xie Lian says, not meaning it at all.
Hua Cheng laughs. He jumps up out of the hole and holds his hand out for Xie Lian to grab, but Xie Lian digs his feet into the fertile earth and makes his way out himself, taking Hua Cheng’s hand only when he’s on solid ground.
“We’re on equal footing now,” Xie Lian says, a little hesitant.
“I suppose we are,” Hua Cheng responds.
They look at each other for a long moment before Xie Lian breaks away, smiling. “Let’s go home, Hua Cheng.”
“That sounds good, Xie Lian,” Hua Cheng agrees, and they hold hands as they step back into the warmth and familiarity of Puji shrine, and they hold hands as they curl up on the bamboo mat together, and they hold hands as they come together to rejoice in the other’s existence, and they hold hands as they wake up the next morning.
Xie Lian curls his hand in Hua Cheng's grip, looking at the way their fingers overlap, one on top of the other in a repeated pattern, and he smiles. If this is a metaphor, he does not mind.
"Live for me." by weisizhui