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in life, in death, in forever

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"One day," Hua Cheng's stepmother once told her son while Hua Cheng lurked by the kitchen, "gods willing, we'll find a nice wife for you to settle with and have children. Then you will inherit the shop, and you'll take care of your old parents."

Hua Cheng's half-brother, being six and still at that stage of his personal development where he thought girls were disgusting and bizarre creatures, manifested his disagreement loudly and fiercely. His mother had already exhausted her painfully small daily quota of patience, so she wasted no time to smack the back of his head and by consequent only succeeded to make the boy wail harder.

Hua Cheng snorted. Big mistake. He was barely allowed to breath in this house, so to make noises of any kind was always an unforgivable faux pas.

His step-mother's mean eyes narrowed. "You," she snarled, like she would say 'garbage' or 'trash'. "You, of course, will never marry. Who would marry a monster, ah?"

"As if I want to get married anyway," he mumbled angrily.

It wasn't a lie. He had seen what marriages look like. Just two people shackled to each other, shrieking and yelling and biting behind closed doors, tolerating at best, hating at worst. From what he gathered, couples spent the rest of their post-wedding lives resenting their significant other until one of them died.

Marriage, ah? Might as well call it what it was: prison. Who would want that? Not Hua Cheng. He has enough prisons in his life already.

"What did you say?" She demanded slowly.

She didn't like when Hua Cheng talked back. Talked at all, really. Time to leave, before the hag starts throwing things again, Hua Cheng told himself as he hastily relocated outside of the kitchen and into the streets.

He would never marry, and he'd be better for it.

(Sometimes, during his loneliest hours, he indulged himself daydreaming of the idea of marriage. Of someone who would share his meals, his bed, his life. Of someone who would listen to him talk, and offers kind words in return. Of someone who support him. Who would love him.

If such a person truly existed, then… Hua Cheng wouldn't marry them anyway. He wouldn't burden them with his cursed fate.)

.

His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le has ascended.

His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le has ascended, again, for the third time.

His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le has ascended, and it took exactly three days for Heaven to send him back down to do their dirty work. All those noble and great gods, too eager to throw out the 'laughing stock' to deal with the ugly problem they're too good to handle themselves.

And his god, so unassuming, so kind, would utter no word of protest to be treated so unfairly by the pathetic ants he calls his peers. How Hua Cheng had raged when he found out they dared to tax him for property damage. As if His Highness could control what happened during his own ascension. If those weaklings were too incompetent to repair one palace and one clock, they had no business calling themselves gods in the first place.

No matter. For once, he had other preoccupations than to make those shameless worms in Heaven pay for their lack of respect. His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le has ascended, and that means Hua Cheng can finally find him, and hopefully serve him the way he has always ached to.

The Earth shakes and the air shivers when he storms in Yu Jun Mountain. The place reeks of evil and resentment. No wonder gods would be reluctant to enter it. Not to mention it's the center of General Dickhead's territory, who's too much of a coward to deal with his spurned lover himself, to the surprise of literally no one.

The cadavers of malevolent wolves and disgusting base slaves lay on the path who leads to His Highness. Stabbed by swords, or their neck snapped by His Highness' spiritual device. Hua Cheng notices with no small amount of glee one silk bandage managed to make more victims than two Upper Heaven and eight Middle Heaven Officials combined, and he can't help but laugh delightedly.

Useless fools. They didn't even think twice before abandoning His Highness to the ghost bridegroom. Those two traitors were only too eager to leave their prince to fend for himself, as history has shown.

A bridal sedan stands alone by the road, the red of its sewed draperies cutting a sharp contrast with the wildness of the mountain. Hua Cheng stops the time of an unnecessary breath, taken aback by the surrealness of the scene. To say he has conflicted feelings for this situation would be a massive understatement.

On one hand, this poor excuse for a wedding is unworthy of His Highness. He deserves no less than the biggest parade ever thrown in mankind's history, the most luxurious robes that would pale when compared to his flawless complexion, people who cared by his side. He deserves a kind, noble, strong, virtuous partner to hold his hand at the end of the journey, who would provide for him and give him all the confort and the freedom he's entitled to.

He deserves the world, and Hua Cheng wishes so badly he could be the one to give it to him, despite knowing he's not worthy. Why else would he have hoarded so much wealth, so much trinkets, so much influence, if not for the sake of His Highness?

Truly, this sham of a procession is an offence, but on the other hand, it's His Highness. Wearing the dress of a bride. Waiting for his groom. Waiting for Hua Cheng.

Not really, but it's so easy to fall back on his old fantasies and imagine His Highness is indeed adorned with the red of a bride for his sake. That he will see Hua Cheng and smile under his veil, call him husbandsweet husband, what took you so long? He has dreamt of this before. He used to daydream he would disguise himself as a bride, and that by some improbable miracle, His Highness would pick him as his bride. Later, he pictured two grooms quietly exchanging vows of devotion and love and tying the knot of fate to their fingers, before they disappeared for the wedding night and-

It's a perverted fantasy. Hua Cheng is meant to be His Highness' devoted servant, not his partner. How much he wants though, and this unlikely situation does not help. It does not matter. Hua Cheng is here to help His Highness, and hopefully put himself in a good enough light it will counterbalance the awful portray those trash of Heaven will paint of him to his beloved.

He skips towards the sedan with an elation that cannot be put into words. His Highness, sitting expectantly inside the carriage, does not react outward. Hua Cheng's too cold hand slides between the curtains and opens up invitingly. An offer. Hua Cheng means to offer himself to His Highness, not to impose his presence where it's not wanted.

He waits, his unbeaten heart squeezing in his chest. After an eternity, His Highness takes it. His hand is so warm, so soft despite the warrior and the farmer callouses. As warm and soft that his arms were when he caught Hua Cheng, more than eight centuries ago.

A figure in red steps cautiously out of the sedan, waves of crimson shivering with his movements, a veil hiding his face. Objectively, the dress suits him poorly, clearly not made to contain the body of a powerful martial god like His Highness.

He's the most beautiful bride Hua Cheng has ever seen.

Even after regaining his balance on the ground, His Highness keeps obediently hold of Hua Cheng's hand. He does not attempt to run, or attack, and his silk bandage remains curled under his sleeve, binding its time. His Highness must think this strange ghost who barged in out of nowhere to sweep him away is the wicked bridegroom he's looking for, and expects Hua Cheng to lead him where he's keeping the other brides he stole.

It's something Hua Cheng can do.

Gently, he dares to tug His Highness onward, in direction of that perverted pig's temple. His Highness follows along without resisting, pliant, accommodating, relying entirely on a strange ghost to guide him. Hua Cheng walks through the mountain path as he would a dream, his steps so light with giddiness he could fly, butterflies fluttering madly under his fake skin. Since His Highness cannot see much with his veil covering his face, they stroll leisurely, painting the picture of an actual couple in love on their way to the ceremony or on their honeymoon.

He's so happy he doesn't even get mad when they have to pass under the cadaver that disgusting trash of a goblin hanged to a tree. The umbrella His Highness gave Hua Cheng so long ago is now serving its rightful master again by sheltering him from the crimson rain. He almost expects His Highness to flinch warily when Hua Cheng destroys the pitiful array in a single cheerful kick, but still his prince follows.

Then, His Highness stops. Hua Cheng immediately does so as well, his joy clustering in his throat. Is their play pretend over, so soon? Hua Cheng could have kept going forever. He would have smashed the temple to pieces, slaughtered this pathetic excuse for a ghost if she dared to get in the way, beaten up any gods shall they have the foolish intent to intervene. They would have walked as long as His Highness wanted. If his feet tired, then Hua Cheng would have carried him, and would have been forever grateful for the honor.

But His Highness stopped, therefore so must Hua Cheng. He stopped, and he's… bowing.

...What is he doing? With the crimson of his robes, it looks like he's bowing to the Earth and to Heavens. Surely not. Surely he's sending some secret message to his incompetent subordinates. But no. Hua Cheng knows there is no one but them here.

Barely containing his shivers, he slowly mimics his prince's position, clasping his hands together, bending his spine to the only man he will ever condescend to bow to. Under his veil, His Highness gasps, then straightens back on his heels. Hua Cheng follows along obediently.

His Highness flicks his wrist, and his cursed device slithers out of his sleeve and on the floor. Hua Cheng blinks curiously when the creature stands up as well as it can, undulating in the air. To his surprise, His Highness bows to it.

...A parent. This strange creature, who held him down as a thousand swords stabbed his gut, who murdered his parents, is the closest thing of family His Highness has left. After a second of hesitation, Hua Cheng bows to the resentful device who has been His Highness' only constant companion for centuries with sincere respect.

It slides back under his Highness' robes when its master gives him a sign. And now. Now, if His Highness bows to him, then it's a wedding. Then they will be married, for good, with a silk bandage filled with evil as their only witness.

His Highness bows again. Hua Cheng's needless breath kicks his lungs and mouth open. He mirrors the gesture with undescriptable trepidation. This is it. Hua Cheng has wed the prince he's been chasing after for literal centuries, just like that. He only needed to show up, prance around, destroy one tiny array and the deed was done. Even in his most self-indulgent fantasies, he'd never imagine it would be so easy.

Again, His Highness condescends to bend his back to him, more swallowly this time.

"Thank you," is the first sentence his husband ever says to Hua Cheng, quickly followed by an inexplicable: "Forgive me."

In a trance, Hua Cheng reaches out for His Highness' veil. His fingers dance by the hem of the crimson cloth hesitantly. His Highness flinches away and grabs Hua Cheng's hand. Hua Cheng remains still, waiting for his god's judgement. Even after His Highness released his hand, he stays frozen, his pathetically trembling limb close to the veil without finding the gall to make another attempt after His Highness made his opinion so clear.

"Your Highness?"

Hua Cheng's happiness turns sour with bitterness at the call. Those two traitors, too cowardly to show their faces to His Highness after what they did, greedy enough to steal his precious time still. Not only do they have the nerve to exist, but they must ruin their moment too. His Highness tears off his veil as the two trash start howling again.

"What..?"

"Get away from him!"

Ah! Get away from him, as if they give a fuck what happens to His Highness. As if they have any right to scream orders at him. As if he would ever hurt His Highness, unlike them.

"Your Highness, run!"

"But...just wait a moment." His Highness says, trying to calm down what cannot be calmed, rightfully concerned by his precarious position. After all, he's in the middle of the would be battlefield, without a weapon to defend himself, tucked in frail wedding robes. But do they care for his safety? Of fucking course not.

His Highness turns toward Hua Cheng, and one glance of him is enough to unravel the tension within him. His energy explodes into a thousand butterflies, fluttering wildly to freedom. Through the countless eyes of his creatures, he drinks in the awed expression of his beloved before he disappears in the night.

The shining stars' allure pales in comparison to His Highness' eyes.

.

"Yin Yu!" he snarls as he strides into his palace with barely contained excitement. "YIN YU!"

"Hua Chengzhu," his subordinate prostates himself on the ground. "You called for me…?"

Without bothering with petty detail like context, Hua Cheng demands: "When two people wearing red bow to the Earth and Heaven, then to a...family figure substitute, then to each other, it's a wedding, right? Right?"

"..yes?" Yin Yu says hesitantly, clearly wondering if his master has gone utterly insane.

"Those two persons are married afterwards?" He urges the fallen god. "Legit married?"

"I suppose?"

...Fuck. What went through His Highness' mind? Hua Cheng is beyond delighted by this miraculous opportunity of course, but still, that kind of erratic behavior is very strange coming from him. His usual emotional range wagers from amused indifference to infernal rage, so the cocktail of elation and confusion is a nerve-wracking novelty.

...the two losers wouldn't dare to drug His Highness? They're scum, but they wouldn't go that far…Or perhaps His Highness concussed himself during his abrupt ascension.

No, that makes no sense. He seemed perfectly rational. Or just. Perfect.

Could it be that… he knows Hua Cheng is Wu-Ming?

"Hua Chengzhu, is everything alright…" Yin Yu tries after a long and painfully awkward moment of silence.

"No."

.

It's San Lang who shares a cart with His Highness and ends up running away from pitiful ghosts he could have slaughtered in the blink of an eye. His bold, reckless teen persona somehow managed to endear himself enough to the man he boldly calls 'gege' that he is allowed to stay and bask in the glory oh his… husband's presence.

It's San Lang who crafts a door, fixes the roof, fetches water, draws a portrait of His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le. He would have done so anyway, and gladly, but he can't deny as he tries so hard to make himself useful that the thought of proving himself as a good partner crossed his mind many times. Look at me, he screamed in silence, look at me, aren't I doing a good jobAren't I a good husband?

It's San Lang who sleeps by gege's side, eats gege's food, listens to gege's lovely, precious and too rare words, shamelessly steal gege's time and attention. gege speaks, speaks so sweetly, and Hua Cheng hoards every single of his sounds in his memory, but he gives no hint of a recent change in his life. He goes on his merry way without mentioning a husband or a wedding, until Hua Cheng almost convinced himself he hallucinated the whole encounter.

Still, no matter how confusing it is, he enjoys this strange moment of domestic bliss with His Highness more than he should. He never imagined His Highness like this. In his fantasies, it was always Hua Cheng serving him, feeding him, washing dishes, doing all the chores so His Highness could finally rely on someone else and rest. Instead, they do things together. At least they do until some fucking parasite dares to interrupt Hua Cheng's day of pure ecstasy for the sake of random bullshit in a dead country he couldn't give less of a fuck about.

It's San Lang who follows along gege in Ban Yue, and it's San Lang who jumps in this knockoff version of hell they call the Sinner's Pit, but it's Hua Cheng who catches his god into his arms when he falls.

It's Hua Cheng who gets his chst fondled by his husband. Obviously he was confused, couldn't see anything in the dark and didn't mean to. Hua Cheng is pathetic enough he will cherish the memory nonetheless.

"Ah, San Lang?" His Highness asks after clearing his throat, his voice steady despite their situation. "Won't you put me down?"

Down? Where countless cadavers and furious resentment lie? Absolutely not. Technically, Hua Cheng just as dead and resentful than the rotting souls inside the Sinner's Pit, if not more, but he, at least, doesn't smell foul and will not taint His Highness' graceful feet.

Somewhere in the darkness, E-Ming is having a great time fighting trash who would hurt His Highness without a second thought. The shameless scimitar would rather be held by gege, Hua Cheng knows, and it will pester him endlessly for keeping his beloved to himself. Annoying, greedy pest.

"No," he declares firmy, tightening his hold over His Highness.

"Why not?" His Highness pips up.

"It's dirty."

His Highness stays silent at that pearl of wisdom. His heart does not. It sings and dances to a tune of its own, erratically beating inside its cage of flesh and bones. Hua Cheng could listen to its melody forever, lured to complacy by the knowledge His Highness is well, alive, perhaps even happy.

He must know. He must know San Lang and Hua Cheng are the same person. Hua Cheng wouldn't be surprised if he knew all along.

He must know the ghost boldly daring to tuck a god close to his chest is his husband.

After a small eternity, His Highness repeats: "San Lang."

"Gege." Hua Cheng replies in the same tone.

"You can't possibly carry me for too long." His Highness points out factually, convinced he found a flawless argument to plead for his case.

How adorable. There is no such a thing as 'too long' when it comes to his god. Hua Cheng honestly believe forever is too short a time to enjoy His Highness' company. As a matter of fact, he could and would carry him forever. He would be honored to serve his prince as his personal and customized carriage. "I could."

"San Lang, the fight-" His Highness says, understandably concerned by the cries and wails of an already won battle.

"Is nothing gege has to worry about." Hua Cheng swears. This husband will handle it, he does not dare to add.

'Stop playing around,' he hisses soundlessly at E-Ming. The scimitar ignores him, the little fucker. 'You're worrying His Highness.' That, at least, is a compelling enough point for E-Ming to stop trying to show off to His Highness and finally gets to the actual killing.

Hua Cheng keeps His Highness in his arms for longer than he deserves.

.

The terrifying cat called Crimson Rain Seeking Flower is out of the box.

It's Xie Lian who lets it out, gently gesturing at it to come into the light with a simple 'What do you want to eat, Hua Cheng?'. A mere acknowledgement of the exposed truth he guessed long ago. And so the cat purrs as it slides out the open door, wishing to climb on Xie Lian's nap and beg for pats, but not daring yet. Instead, it lurks inside His Highness' shrine, pacing, staring. Waiting.

Waiting for Xie Lian to mention the other cat in the box. The one Hua Cheng does not understand, the one called wedding. Yet His Highness goes on his merry way to prepare food for his 'guest' without acknowledging its presence. If not for his slight blush and his excessively cheerful tone, Hua Cheng would think His Highness either doesn't remember or Hua Cheng hallucinated the whole moment.

That's fine. If His Highness doesn't want to mention it, then Hua Cheng shouldn't either. Perhaps he hasn't earned the right yet. He needs to prove himself further, he tells himself as he furiously annihilates every single dust in and around the shrine. Dirtiness has no business existing in the same place as His Highness anyway.

"San Lang?" Xie Lian calls out. Joy blooms inside Hua Cheng's chest at the affectionate name. "Do you want anything to eat?"

"I'll never say no to Gege's cooking," Hua Cheng says honestly as he rushes back inside, playfully waving the broom between his hands.

So many people has the gall to say Xie Lian's cooking is awful, disgusting, the worst meal they have ever eaten, to his face no less. Those people never have never been desperate enough to eat rotten food off the ground, and it shows. Hua Cheng thinks His Highness' cooking is very fine indeed. He tried so hard to make his guest happy. It's lovely, and very kind.

Hua Cheng eats everything he is given with unwavering enthusiasm. Across the table, His Highness struggles to contain his elation to have his hard work so appreciated, for once. Under the forgiving light of a candle, they share a meal and laugh together. Laying down to rest in the same bamboo mat seems like the natural next step. It's only after His Highness fell asleep that Hua Cheng fully realizes how lucky he is. Despite finding out his demon identity, his beloved not only tolerates his presence, he welcomes it. It's so easy as he looks at Xie Lian's sleeping face to think they are truly married and enjoying domestic bliss.

His hands tremble when he slips his soul around his beloved's neck. Fortunately, Xie Lian does not wake. He doesn't either as Hua Cheng sneaks out of his bed like a thief.

.

Hua Cheng won't deny a non-insignificant part of him feared Ghost City would be enough to disgust and drive away His Highness. It's not pretty, this city he crafted out of gold and mud, spite and resentment, misfortune and wickedary. It's not orderly either, nor proper or well behaved. Ghost City is a swamp of sin and chaos, built in deception and tricks, to its master's image. It ignores entirely Heaven's hegemony and cheerfully rolls in the fang instead of aiming toward the sky.

It's ugly, the way ghosts are ugly, yet His Highness still manages to find some beauty in there. He wanders in Hua Cheng's Gambler Den, and his eyes holds no judgement. He wanders in Hua Cheng's city and he seems more curiously amused than grossed out by the ambient evil. He wanders in Hua Cheng's house and finds it beautiful.

He looks at Hua Cheng's true form and he likes it. He likes it so much he can't seem to be able to watch it for too long.

"Gege is distracted today," he muses teasingly from his divan. The bead at the end of his braid rolls between his fingers. An habit. A comfort. A reminder.

At the implied question, Xie Lian snaps back to reality, his eyes wide and a hint of red coloring his cheeks. He has been staring at his own lap for the last ten minutes now, lost to the world. Lost to Hua Cheng.

Fuck. He's so greedy for His Highness' attention now that he has tasted what it felt like to be the sole recipient of his focus. Give a hand to a ghost, and it will try to eat your arm. And Hua Cheng the most voracious of them all.

"No!" Xie Lian hastily denies it. "No. It's not that. It's just…"

He loses his train of thought again, the end of his sentence dying by his lips.

"Gege is clearly tired," Hua Cheng gives him a way out as he springs on his feet. He reaches for his beloved, who stares at Hua Cheng's hand dazedly before he takes it. "Come, I'll show you the guest room."

The guest room, he says, as if he hadn't spent days and days building the room to cater to His Highness' tastes. The guest room, he says, because he's too coward to say 'your room'. The guest room, he reminds himself, not their room. It's tempting to lead his beloved in his bed, to smile and say that since gege shared his mat with San Lang, it's only fair that San Lang shares his bed with gege, isn't it? Xie Lian would be embarrassed, but he wouldn't protest. He's too unassuming, too humble to demand anything. He would let Hua Cheng tug him between his sheets and snuggle him close.

But they are married, Hua Cheng wouldn't be imposing if he-

"Why are you doing this?" His Highness asks, sounding surprised at his own question. "I'm a god. A useless god, but a god nonetheless, and I've intruded into your territory. You should've beaten me up like you did all those Officials a long time ago. You shouldn't be so..."

Hua Cheng does not like where this is going. Yet, he must ask. Better to be upfront regarding those things. "So?"

"Nice. To me."

..How else is Hua Cheng supposed to act toward his god, his beloved, his husband? Is that why Xie Lian hasn't acknowledged their marriage? Because he's secretly scared of the monster he tied himself to?

"I see." He says, frost clinging to his throat. "Is this what His Highness thinks of me? That him being a god defines what I think of him? That I would ever raise a hand against him?"

"No," Xie Lian denies. He sounds honest, to Hua Cheng's relief. "I don't think San Lang would do that. He's too kind for that."

"Kind?" Hua Cheng repeats, mocking laughter ringing out of his bitter mouth. He's not making fun of His Highness, never of him, only of himself for managing to fool Xie Lian and convince him that his husband is anything but a selfish ghost. "Now that's a first. I'm anything but kind, hasn't His Highness heard that?"

"I don't care for rumors," Xie Lian declares stubbornly. "San Lang has only ever been kind to me."

Well. There is that, at least. Still, he doesn't know what to think. Hua Cheng has been receiving a lot of mixed messages in the last minutes. "Gege. You really should make up your mind today."

Xie Lian smiles to Hua Cheng, and it's a tired, small thing, his smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to confuse San Lang. It's just that..."

"The Heavens can rot. So can the gods. All of them." Hua Cheng snarls with terrifying sincerity. "But gege? I would burn the world for gege if he so wished."

"San Lang," Xie Lian coughs incredulously. He doesn't believe him. Or if he does, he doesn't know what to do with it. "You can't..."

"Forgive me, gege, but I can. And I will." Hua Cheng feels bold enough to interrupt him. Bold enough to catch his beloved's strong wrist between his cold hand and lay a kiss on his skin. "Now go rest. You look like you're about to pass out."

Behind closed lips, as Xie Lian compliments his house, his room, his armory, he screams this is yours, this is all yours, the house, the city, the weapons, me, everything is yours, it was yours long before you took my hand and bowed with me.

So when Xie Lian disappears in a twirl of fire, he spares no thought to his destroyed property aside from I'll rebuild it better for you, husband.

.

Rage has always been Hua Cheng's closest companion.

He raged when he was born, he raged when he grew up, he raged when he fought for his beloved. He raged when he died. He raged as a ghost, he raged a general, he raged as a god, he raged as Supreme, and Heavens shook under the devastation his fury unleashed. Hua Cheng had gotten used to have his feelings discarded, his constant anger included. His Highness was the only one who expressed an interest for his state of mind. No one else gave a fuck, until they had no other choice.

When he stormed Heaven, demanded retribution and dragged thirty-three of their own through the mud, they couldn't ignore it anymore. Not Heaven, not Hell, not the mortal realm. For the first time, his anger mattered.

If it weren't for His Highness, he mused often as he stared at the sky. If it weren't for His Highness, I would burn you down to ashes.

But His Highness was kind and compassionate. He had raged and hated as much as Hua Cheng had, without letting his heart be consumed by loathing. His Highness didn't allow himself to cast his heart in the abyss, therefore so must Hua Cheng. He doesn't strive to be as good as his god, that would be ridiculous. He can, however, control himself and put a leash on his rage. The least he can do, really.

Oh, it's there still, boiling under his skin of a heat only His Highness can appease, but it's contained. More or less.

So when he finds out his Xie Lian has been imprisoned inside his own palace like a criminal for misdeeds he did not commit, he doesn't let it all out. Inside, he rages and he rages and he rages, fury foaming out of his gritted teeth, his fingers twitching with the urge to destroy those irrespectful dogs. Still, he remembers His Highness, who dislikes scandals so much, who hates to bother anyone, who would be mortified if Crimson Rain slaughtered the unworthy worms he calls his peers in his name, and he tightens the leash.

It's just to get him outnot a punishing strike, he firmly reminds the voracious butterflies fluttering under his skin, thirsty for blood, hungry for vengeance. Control yourself.

And so Crimson Rain rages and storms, yet he does not kill.

But he does threaten. He needs to set the record straight for those fuckers.

"Long time no see," he speaks through the array, his voice sweet like poisonous syrup. "How's everyone doing?"

Horrendously, hopefully. He will never know, as none of those cowards finds enough courage to answer. Shocking.

Xie Lian stands still, obedient and pliant, while Hua Cheng cradles his head between his fingers. He could fight it. Hua Cheng would release him at the first sign of discomfort. Yet he lets Hua Cheng touch his soft hair and be the herald of the all the angry words His Highness speaks not.

"Let me tell you just one thing. Next time you dare to touch my husband, I'll slaughter you all. Now get the fuck out of his head."

The world stills. Xie Lian remains frozen in place as the communication is cut off. Belatedly, Hua Cheng realizes he should have hold the leash tighter. His Highness clearly didn't want their… peculiar relationship to be public knowledge. Not even private knowledge, considering he never spoke of the matter to the other groom.

He's ashamed of the man who just laid a claim on him in front of everyone he knew.

"San Lang," His Highness eventually manages to say. "What..."

"We need to get out of here first." It's done now. There is no taking it back. Hua Cheng doesn't want to take it back. "Then we'll have to deal with this mess. And then we'll talk."

He can only hope Xie Lian will allow him to explain himself.

.

After the trash goblin, after the ungrateful disciple, after the useless gods arriving too late, as usual, a god and a ghost sit in a shrine. Well. A god, a ghost, a nuisance howling like a pig outside, and the spiritual device twirling anxiously on Xie Lian's lap.

"I'm so so-"

"Forgive me."

Ah. Awkward. "You first, gege."

"No, no, it's fine, why don't you go first?" Xie Lian immediately waves his hands. The way he avoids looking at Hua Cheng speaks volumes. "I shouldn't have-"

Softly, Hua Cheng says: "Gege, you're trying to avoid the subject."

He'd be first to claim that if Xie Lian doesn't want to talk, then he shouldn't have to, but this charade has been going on for too long. He needs answers. Closure, at least.

"I know," Xie Lian admits easily, looking miserable.

For a moment, only silence rules in Puji Shrine, and it sounds like regret. His god regrets being married to Hua Cheng. He wishes it never happened. The indescriptible elation that has been curled inside Hua Cheng's belly turns bitter. It was a mistake. Xie Lian never wanted him. He was just too nice to tell the husband he didn't want in the first place to fuck off and leave him alone. Or maybe he was too scared.

Hua Cheng has to know.

"Is it so bad?" Fuck, he's shaking. Pathetic. Can't even handle the truth. Even his constant rage is useless, smothered to death by his self-hatred. "Being... being married to me?"

Xie Lian jerks his head up, obviously confused. "What?"

"Is it such an inconceivable idea that you can't talk about it?" This time, it's Hua Cheng who stares in the distance. The idea of seeing disgust in this face he knows so well, the face he has carved into stone and memory a thousand times, is unbearable. Yet he needs to bear it. "Fuck, you can't even look at me."

"But... San Lang." His Highness pips hesitantly. This is painful for him. For the both of them. "San Lang, we're not m-married."

Hua Cheng gaps at the man who is apparently not his husband despite evidence of the contrary. Has His Highness… forgotten? No. He wouldn't be so mortified otherwise. Slowly, he explains: "Gege. We bowed three times."

"It was a joke!" His Highness hastily says he annihilates the fantasy Hua Cheng allowed himself to believe in with one sentence. "Just a joke! I was curious, I'm sorry I—San Lang?"

A...right. Of course. Of course it was merely a prank. What else could it be? A prince, a god, being married to a dead trash like Hua Cheng? Did he really think that becoming richer, stronger, more powerful would change anything? He was born trash, he died trash and he will remain trash. He had no business even dreaming of marrying someone like His Highness.

"A joke.. I see. I..." he babbles incoherently. A fog has fallen over him. He stands up on legs he hopes are not too obviously trembling. "I shall take my leave, then. I will not bother His Highness again."

He feels cold. He always feels cold, such is the burden of the deads, but those last days with his Highness filled him with warmth he did not deserve. He had forgotten. His Highness held his hand, and Hua Cheng forgot he was never meant to stand by his side.

Hua Cheng was meant to grovel at his god's feet and basks in the few crumbs of affection he could get shall he managed to make himself useful enough. He could wreck the world under his heel and spite ar Heaven all he wanted, it wouldn't change a thing. He spent centuries crafting himself a persona worthy of His Highness, changing his stance, his diction, his clothes, and it still isn't enough.

He only notices he has been walking out when Xie Lian crashes into his back and wraps his arms around Hua Cheng's belly from behind.

"San Lang, wait," His Highness' heart is beating fast against Hua Cheng's frozen back, fast enough to fly away. "San Lang, let me explain. Please."

Hua Cheng can't speak. He'll say awful things if he opens his mouth, or worse, he'll cry and beg His Highness to consider letting him stay by his side. He can't speak, but he can nod.

"I wanted to know what it would be like," His Highness explains with the voice of the suffocating. "It was the only way I'd ever find out. I didn't even know San Lang at the time. If I did, I wouldn't have done that at San Lang's expense. I can only hope he eventually finds it in his heart to forgive me."

...ah. Yes, that does explain it. On the plus side, it means Xie Lian does not hate Hua Cheng. On the other, it also means he doesn't hate Hua Cheng because it didn't matter whether it was Hua Cheng or someone else. He thought perhaps His Highness had recognized him somehow. That he knew Hua Cheng only wanted his happiness. That Hua Cheng was special to his god's eyes, more than a simple devotee watching longingly from afar.

Turned out he was just. There.

"Gege. I could've been anyone."

"I know." Xie Lian whispers.

"You would've bowed to anyone?"

"In my defence, I wasn't expecting to ever meet you again. And... and it was the only wedding I'd ever get, so-"

What.

"Gege." He suddenly shifts on his feet to face Xie Lian. His hands claw at the smaller man's shoulders."What nonsense are you spouting?"

"San Lang." His god smiles, the way small, tired things who have forgotten what it feels like to love themselves smile. "Look at me."

"I am looking at you, gege." His finger twists around a loose lock resting innocently on Xie Lian's shoulder, drinking in the rich color, the soft texture, before he tucks it behind Xie Lian's ear. "My god, I've never stopped looking."

And it's the pure, honest truth.

"Anyone would be honoured to marry gege," Hua Cheng goes on because apparently Xie Lian doesn't understand how wonderful he is and that's unacceptable. "Anyone. Even though they don't deserve gege. He should only ever settle for the best. Someone who can make him happy. Who can protect him. Who-"

"Someone like you?" Xie Lian spurts out in a moment of obvious confusion.

How he wishes it was accurate. He has learnt his lesson though. He won't fool himself anymore. His lips twist in a sad parody of a smile, and he allows himself to touch his god one last time, a feather-like brush over his cheek. A too short indulgence, yet so much more than what a mere devotee like Hua Cheng is entitled to.

"This lowly servant could never deserve His Highness. It doesn't mean he can't dream."

It's the moment he should detach himself from His Highness. They already established Xie Lian never meant to hurt Hua Cheng, that it was all an accident born of an instant of indulgence. Now, he needs to hide to lick his wounds and sew back his skin together. Then, he'll crawl back his god's side, if he accepts him, or he will keep protecting him from afar if he does not.

Xie Lian doesn't seem to agree with his plan. He clutches to Hua Cheng's tunic, then ease away the wrinkles he created. He raises his head up to stare fixedly at Hua Cheng, his beautiful eyes glistening with determination.

"San Lang makes me happy," he firmly declares to Hua Cheng's bemusement, his tone leaving no room for misunderstanding. "San Lan can protect me. San Lang is the best. And I don't deserve him, but perhaps one day he'll forgive me for what I've done and maybe... maybe even look at me with a willing heart."

Just when Hua Cheng thought he got rid of it for good, ugly, gross, merciless hope perks up. "Gege. Gege, what are you...?"

Sunlight cradles him close. He basks into the warmth of his beloved, into the warmth of acceptance. If Hua Cheng gets this right… Xie Lian wants him back. He's looking favorably upon Hua Cheng's tentative pursuit of his hand. Approvingly, even. His quest to better himself has not been in vain.

Hua Cheng clings to his beloved with a fervor he doesn't attempt to tame.

"Gege, gege," he repeats, he babbles, he drowns inside his own words, struggling to organize his thoughts into coherent sentences. "Gege, is this a joke, too? Please tell me this isn't a joke."

"My San Lang." My San Lang, he says with no hesitation. My San Lang, he says tenderly without the bite of ownership. His fingers roam across Hua Cheng's face. It's so good he could sob, if not for his pride holding his tears back. He has waited for so long. "This is definitely not a joke."

Hua Cheng smiles brightly, brighter than he has ever smiled in his life and after-life.

"Gege, wanna get married?"

If he says no, Hua Cheng will be wrecked forever. But he won't say no. "I think you should kiss me first," Xie Lian smiles back. "That's quite a necessary prerequisite, don't you think?"

How wise his fiancé is. Such smart arguments he has. Who is Hua Cheng to go against a god? Only a ghost who has been craving the touch of his god for centuries.

"My gege," his breath lingers across his beloved's expectant lips, "so bold."

"San Lang..."

"So beautiful."

"San Lang!"

"So mine."