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Sometimes, Xie Lian is painfully aware of how poorly he knows Hua Cheng’s heart.

It’s an embarrassment, to love someone so deeply and yet be wholly unable to think of a gift that would please them, or a surprise that would endear them, or an outing that would charm them. Hua Cheng is no help whatsoever—he has the means to fulfill his every whim, and so the only thing he ever requests of Xie Lian is Xie Lian. Hua Cheng spent eight hundred years pining for his Dianxia, learning everything about his heart, but Xie Lian hasn’t had the same opportunity. And now, Hua Cheng wishes for no gift but Xie Lian’s presence, no surprise but Xie Lian’s return, no outing without Xie Lian at his side.

It’s not enough.

Not even at the height of his foolishness could Xie Lian comprehend offering merely himself and nothing else. Bad enough he’d told Hua Cheng to live for him; Xie Lian really would have to be too thick-faced to pretend that after everything Hua Cheng has done for him, Hua Cheng doesn’t deserve more than simply Xie Lian.

It rankles.

And even worse, even when it comes to Xie Lian, Hua Cheng all too often hides the deepest desires of his heart. That is true no matter how Xie Lian attempts to coax them free, as though Hua Cheng’s hunger shames or dishonors Xie Lian, as though Hua Cheng believes that in having Xie Lian stay by his side he has already been gifted with too much.

It hurts Xie Lian more than he’s expecting. He also can’t figure out a solution.

They’re curled up together in bed, fingers laced beneath the blankets, when Xie Lian broaches the subject more bluntly than he ever has before.

“San Lang, if you could ask one thing of me, what would it be?”

Hua Cheng stares at him in incomprehension. “What do you mean, Gege?”

Xie Lian flushes. “Like—something I could do for you. You always do so much for me, is it so strange that I want to do the same?”

Hua Cheng laughs low in his throat and Xie Lian’s toes curl reflexively. “Gege is the only person I need, and you are all I could desire just as you are.”

Despite himself, Xie Lian makes a face at that response. Hua Cheng always offers the same answer no matter how Xie Lian asks the question, and it’s no more satisfying now than it had been at the start. “There has to be something more than just me.”

“No,” Hua Cheng answers serenely, and kisses his forehead. “For me, there is only Gege.”

Stubbornly, Xie Lian asks, “And if I wanted to give you more?”

Hua Cheng laughs. “What more could I need? If I desired something from you, I would ask it.”

Xie Lian stares at him, unable to believe him. Hua Cheng sees the doubt in his eyes, and the amusement fades from his face. “Gege?”

Suddenly embarrassed, Xie Lian shakes his head and settles again, staring at their laced fingers. “It’s nothing,” he says. What is his complaint, really? That Hua Cheng is too generous? Too indulgent? Too kind? Hua Cheng learned Xie Lian’s heart without aid, so surely Xie Lian should be able to do the same. Perhaps his ignorance is merely a failure on his part.

He can’t meet Hua Cheng’s eyes.

Slender, cool fingers come to rest beneath Xie Lian’s chin, lifting up his face. Hua Cheng’s mouth is tender against his own, and Xie Lian closes his eyes to breathe Hua Cheng in. When Xie Lian’s lips part, Hua Cheng’s tongue slides against his own, slick and sweet. “Gege,” Hua Cheng murmurs. “Talk to me. Unburden yourself to me.” As always, he's quietly, gently hungry for Xie Lian’s weaknesses, that he might protect them.

Xie Lian is helpless against that.

“I want to give you the things you’re afraid to ask for,” Xie Lian blurts out. “I want you to trust me enough to ask for them, and to know I won’t be disgusted, or afraid, or ashamed. I want you to ask for things from me for no other reason than you desire them and I don’t want you to consider whether you deserve to have them granted. I want you to ask selfishly, for your own sake. I am not wise enough to know what you desire in your heart without you telling me how to please you, and so I have to ask.” His eyes are still closed, and he’s afraid to open them.

He doesn’t want Hua Cheng to laugh or dismiss his words. They are as heartfelt and earnest as any he has ever spoken.

Hua Cheng doesn’t. He presses another one of those soft kisses to Xie Lian’s mouth instead. “Gege,” he whispers, “Look at me.”

Xie Lian’s lashes flutter. Hua Cheng looks at him with serious consideration. “This is important to Gege, yes?”

Xie Lian nods. Hua Cheng shrugs. “Then it’s important to me,” he says, and settles down on the pillows again, tugging Xie Lian close until Xie Lian’s nose rests in the hollow of Hua Cheng’s throat.

Hua Cheng response—surely it’s dangerously simple?

He’s reasonably sure that he didn’t offend Hua Cheng, but neither does there seem to be any further commentary forthcoming. He debates a long moment before asking, “San Lang?”

“En, Gege?”

Xie Lian fidgets for a moment. “Are you—are you going to tell me what you want?”

Hua Cheng’s fingers slide down Xie Lian’s spine and come to rest at the small of his back, casually possessive. He’s quiet for a time, and Xie Lian almost thinks he won’t answer at all.

“Mn.”

That’s…not the answer Xie Lian was hoping for, but he nods somewhat nervously and presses his hands to Hua Cheng’s skin, possessive in his own right. “Alright,” he murmurs, and Hua Cheng rests his chin atop of Xie Lian’s head.

And then, without any apparent trepidation, Hua Cheng falls asleep.

Xie Lian, on the other hand, spends far too long awake with his own thoughts. Hua Cheng’s heart, which does not beat, is safe beneath Xie Lian’s palm, just as his ashes are safe around Xie Lian’s neck, but Xie Lian is restless all the same.

After all, Hua Cheng isn’t the only one who covets his husband’s weaknesses, that he might protect them.

~*~

With Xie Lian’s gentle prodding, Hua Cheng finally begins to voice his desires, except for how he doesn’t.

He asks for Xie Lian to cook for him. He asks for Xie Lian to go out with him and take his arm. He asks for Xie Lian to forgo going to the Heavens in favor of staying by Hua Cheng’s side. He makes all sorts of greedy requests, but they are mostly safe requests. Nothing he asks for are sacrifices for Xie Lian, and most of them are things that Xie Lian has done voluntarily without Hua Cheng needing to ask at all.

It hurts. It hurts that despite their conversation, there is still a barrier around the innermost part of Hua Cheng’s heart, some opaque defense that keeps the most intimate part of Hua Cheng locked away, and Xie Lian can’t breach it. He doesn’t know how.

In fact, the closest Hua Cheng ever gets to illuminating those dark corners is when he asks for Xie Lian to write him notes and draw little sketches that Hua Cheng can hide away in some protected corner of Paradise Manor. Xie Lian only even realizes that’s what happening after several weeks when he finally pieces together how skittish Hua Cheng is about each request, and how he tries to cover it up with brazen behavior and searing kisses and teasing words, like Xie Lian needs to be distracted in order to agree.

It doesn’t mean Xie Lian is any less pleased that Hua Cheng is asking at all, but he can’t help but admit that he’s…sad, too. Hua Cheng doesn’t think himself worth something as small as a delicately written poem, or a silly picture of a pork bun smiling.

He wants to give Hua Cheng more. So much more. He wants to sate Hua Cheng in every possible way, fulfill every possible hope, ease every possible fear.

Xie Lian loves Hua Cheng so much and so deeply that he no longer knows what it’s like, to not have his heart dominated by Hua Cheng’s very existence, and so he refuses to give up.

~*~

Xie Lian tries not to worry much, because he doesn’t want to draw Hua Cheng’s attention to the matter. So instead he fusses over Hua Cheng more than ever before, resorting once more to trying to learn what Hua Cheng desires most with the hope that maybe things will work out this time. As always, Hua Cheng’s happiest with Xie Lian at his side, and so Xie Lian uses that as an excuse to accompany Hua Cheng out to eat and insist that he pick which meat buns he wants to eat first, or supporting Hua Cheng when he has to deal with matters in the Ghost City, or inviting him to join Xie Lian’s visits to Shi Qingxuan in the royal capitol.

The results are…variable.

As with Hua Cheng’s birthday, Xie Lian tends to create more problems than solve them. He tries anyways, because he can’t give up, but he starts to desperately wish that Hua Cheng would give him some sort of hint.

He can’t even seem to draw Hua Cheng’s secrets out with his body; although Hua Cheng is easily distracted by even the hint that he will be able to take Xie Lian as his own, that distraction is a double-edged sword. Xie Lian tends to be equally distracted, and it’s only after, when they’re lying together, sweaty and warm, that Xie Lian realizes he was supposed to be taking notes.

Hua Cheng’s hands, his mouth, his body—he’s dangerously competent at making Xie Lian forget everything until he’s smiling broadly at Hua Cheng and laughing against the curve of his jaw for no other reason than because he can.

His only solace is that Hua Cheng isn’t any better. He comes back, time and again, stealing kisses like he thinks Xie Lian might one day run out.

Xie Lian doesn’t know how to convince him that Xie Lian’s kisses, his affection, his love, will always be freely given.

~*~

“San Lang,” Xie Lian says at last, in a fit of desperation. “You said you’d tell me what you want.” It’s not an accusation, exactly, but neither is it anything else. He’s standing in front of Hua Cheng with his arms crossed and feet planted, determined not to move until he gets answers.

It’s possible he could have picked a better time than right before they go to bed, but Hua Cheng has been busy lately. Still, he feels rather like he’s inadvertently thrown a gauntlet by raising this question when Hua Cheng is dressed in nothing more than a thin silk robe, his eye patch discarded, lounging in their bed. Xie Lian’s toes curl with how handsome he looks, but he steels himself. He is not going to give in.

Well. Not again at any rate.

Hua Cheng frowns. “But I have been,” he says. His brow is furrowed, and Xie Lian can’t detect any sort of lie in his face—not a deliberate one, at any rate.

That’s enough to make Xie Lian soften, and he lets his arms drop from his crossed position. “Yes, you have,” he allowed, “but not the way that I meant.”

With a tilt of his head, Hua Cheng opens his arms, and Xie Lian automatically folds himself down so he can sit in Hua Cheng’s lap, exhaling with satisfaction when he wraps his arms around Xie Lian. “I love you, San Lang,” Xie Lian murmurs, voice soft and sweet. He takes one of Hua Cheng’s hands and kisses the fingertips gently. “I love you.”

“Dianxia,” Hua Cheng murmurs, voice a little shaky. He attempts to duck his head for a kiss, but Xie Lian turns his face aside at the last second. That makes Hua Cheng tense.

“I love you,” Xie Lian repeats, “but either you are lying to me, or lying to yourself about your desires.” He looks up into that handsome face, thumb brushing gently beneath the empty eye socket. “All you have ever asked of me is what I have already given. Not once have you requested of me something that might cost me.”

Hua Cheng’s grip tightens around Xie Lian. “Gege has paid enough,” he snarls, not in anger at Xie Lian, but at a world that has demanded so much from Hua Cheng’s lover, that has cursed him and hurt him and tried to unmake him. “Gege deserves to be protected from everything.” The ferocity is almost enough to make Xie Lian back down, but instead his blood thrills in answer.

“Even you?” Xie Lian challenges.

Hua Cheng is silent for a moment, lips parting and then sealing again. His one eye is wide and almost frantic, and Xie Lian rests their foreheads together, running his hands through Hua Cheng’s hair to soothe him even as his grip on Xie Lian’s waist grows painfully tight.

Finally, Hua Cheng whispers helplessly, “Dianxia needs someone to protect him.”

Xie Lian huffs a laugh, and this time he’s the one leaning in for a kiss, mouth soft. Hua Cheng’s tongue slides past his lips, deepening the kiss, needing the reassurance, and Xie Lian answers him easily. When Xie Lian pulls away, Hua Cheng allows it, both of them breathing heavily into the narrow space between them.

“Someone should protect you, too.”

Hua Cheng’s remaining eye darkens, frustrated. “I don’t need protection! I’m not the one who suffered!”

Xie Lian’s heart suddenly tightens. “Aren’t you?” he asks. “Those eight hundred years, your days as Wu Ming, as a ghost fire, as an unlucky child beneath a cursed star…knowing, but never known. Loving, but never loved.” If nothing else, Xie Lian had had that. He’d been loved thoroughly, and had known precisely what he lost when his followers, friends, and family turned away or died.

“Why are you afraid?” Xie Lian breathes when it’s clear Hua Cheng won’t answer. “I’m not going to give up on you. A year, ten years, a thousand years. If you forgot me. If you lost me. I would wait however long it took, search however long it took, fight however long it took to have you return to my side. I want to give you everything not because I must, or because I owe you. I want to give you everything because you’re you, and you deserve that happiness as much as me. You are my choice.”

Hua Cheng’s eye closes, face turning away like the sweet agony of those words is nearly unbearable.

Maybe they are.

Slowly, Xie Lian’s heart eases as realization dawns.

Gege is the only person I need.

Hua Cheng has said that so many times, in so many ways, but the weight of those words sinks into Xie Lian’s bones with a new comprehension.

He’s spent so long thinking of himself as not enough for Hua Cheng, when Hua Cheng felt the same about himself. Xie Lian almost wants to laugh at the pair of them. If Hua Cheng could not offer Xie Lian a single lantern in prayer, if every one of Xie Lian’s temples were once more demolished, if Hua Cheng lost all his luck, wouldn’t Xie Lian stay by his side because he wishes for nothing more than Hua Cheng?

If that’s the case, why can’t Xie Lian trust Hua Cheng and believe that he is enough for Hua Cheng? Why can’t Xie Lian steady his fears that he is failing Hua Cheng by not being able to gift him things and work instead to convince Hua Cheng that he is enough for Xie Lian?

In doing so, won’t he convince Hua Cheng to open up that last bit of his heart, kept so carefully in reserve, and give himself even more completely to Xie Lian the way Xie Lian has craved from the start?

Xie Lian takes a deep breath and smiles.

“I am yours,” he says, “and there is nothing you can say or do to drive me away.” He strokes back Hua Cheng’s hair again, hopelessly tender. “I know there’s no gift I can give you that you don’t already own ten of, all of which are far grander than anything I could manage.” Shyly, swallowing, he prays briefly that he has a thick enough face to speak without making a fool of himself, and stammers, “I—all I can—it’s just me. What I can give. All you—all you ever want is more of me. So take me. Think of your own pleasure, all of the—the secret things you’ve needed—your desires—” His face is flaming despite his conviction and he impulsively covers his face with his hands and shouts, “San Lang! Please touch me with your happiness and desires placed foremost! I want to be touched as San Lang wants to touch me, even if it’s new, and different, even if you think it dishonors me, let it be my choice! Well—your choice! But it’s my choice to have it be your choice!”

He peeks through his fingers up at Hua Cheng, whose eyes are wide.

Hua Cheng makes a soft noise of delight, laughter caught in the midst of it, and suddenly he’s pressing kisses all over Xie Lian’s face, like his heart is too full for any other response. Xie Lian is overwhelmed by Hua Cheng’s joy, cheeks still hot, and doesn’t quite know where to look when Hua Cheng pulls away.

It still feels unspeakably audacious, to present only himself to Hua Cheng.

However, Hua Cheng solves that dilemma by tucking Xie Lian’s head beneath his chin, wrapping him in a tight hug again.

“Gege is too generous,” he murmurs, and Xie Lian attempts to wriggle free of argue the point. Hua Cheng’s fingers press lightly over Xie Lian’s lips, then, and Xie Lian falls silent, letting Hua Cheng think carefully.

“It’s true, I can get anything I desire. I worked hard for it to be so, because I wanted to be sure that when I found Gege again, he would never want for anything. He spent too long without a single word of kindness, without knowing what it was to laugh easily. He spent too long alone, collecting scraps and eating whatever he could manage to find. He survived. But only survived. I want Gege to be happy, to be loved. But the only thing all the riches in the world cannot give me is Gege’s happiness and love. And so…if I…” Hua Cheng hesitates. “I won’t risk Gege’s heart, not when he’s entrusted it to me. And I fear what will happen if…”

If my desires pain you. I can’t survive that.

Better not to think of them.

Better to be grateful for all that I have been given, when I expected nothing at all.

When I deserve nothing at all, for having failed Dianxia so many times.

Now that Xie Lian knows to listen for the words Hua Cheng can’t speak, the pain borne for more than eight hundred years makes Xie Lian’s eyes prick with tears. He doesn’t know how he would have had the strength to hold on for so long for someone who barely knew he existed, and he’s in awe of his San Lang all over again.

Hua Cheng hides his weaknesses well, but just as he protects Xie Lian’s weakness, Xie Lian will hold this pain close to his heart and soothe it away no matter how long it takes. They have an eternity together, and Xie Lian will savor every moment.

“I trust you,” Xie Lian says simply. “I said so, didn’t I? There is nothing San Lang can say or do that would drive me away. Don’t be afraid, San Lang. Please. I’m yours, and so I want to know your desires, all of them. I want you to touch me. To be selfish with me.” He offers a shy little smile to Hua Cheng, and exhales in relief when Hua Cheng’s shoulders drop, tension sliding away as he brushes at the tear that risks escaping Xie Lian’s eye.

“Well, of course I can’t say no to Gege,” Hua Cheng agrees smoothly, but there’s a disgruntled tone beneath it, like he’s faintly annoyed that Xie Lian has so thoroughly outmaneuvered him.

It makes Xie Lian grin at him, unrepentant, and Hua Cheng huffs another laugh, kissing Xie Lian thoroughly. “It will…take some time,” Hua Cheng says, as he settles them both in bed. He doesn’t clarify what he’ll need time for, but Xie Lian’s fears have dissipated like smoke whisked away by Hua Cheng’s butterflies. Hua Cheng can take as long as needed. “But I’ll tell you my desires, Dianxia.” There’s a fresh confidence in his voice, a fresh ease that was missing before, and warmth stirs in Xie Lian’s chest.

“Alright,” he assures, and burrows into Hua Cheng’s cool chest with a smile on his lips that doesn’t fade all night.

~*~

When Hua Cheng finally comes to him, he’s blushing.

Hua Cheng has no blood, and cannot blush. He’s doing it anyways, the memory of the body strong enough to overwhelm the ghost that remains. Xie Lian doesn’t even let Hua Cheng get a word out before he’s standing in front of Hua Cheng, gently squishing his cheeks to marvel at the beautiful color.

“Gege!” Hua Cheng exclaims, much aggrieved, and Xie Lian smiles sheepishly.

“Sorry, sorry.” His fingers twitch to squish Hua Cheng’s adorable expression, but he settles for a quick kiss instead.

Hua Cheng looks like he’s fully aware that Xie Lian wants nothing more than to reach for his cheeks again, and after a moment, he sighs and nods. Xie Lian lights up and squishes his cheeks again. Even like this, he’s too handsome, truly too handsome, especially with his dark hair pulled up out of his face, highlighting the sharpness of his jaw and the curve of his lips. Xie Lian uses his grip on Hua Cheng’s face to pull him forward into a much different kind of kiss, the kind that leaves both of them heavy-lidded and flushed for new reasons.

“Gege,” Hua Cheng complains lightly. “I’m trying to ask properly! Don’t you want to hear what I have to say?”

Xie Lian instantly drops his hands and steps away, tucking them behind his back. He can’t help the way the smile breaks free. “Yes!”

Hua Cheng stares at the far wall, red still staining his cheeks, and he idly tugs at the end of his ponytail while glancing at Xie Lian out of the corner of his eye. He coughs a couple of times, and Xie Lian stares, absolutely fascinated by this new side of Hua Cheng that is apparently capable of embarrassment. He hopes that he never stops getting to discover new pieces of Hua Cheng, and he wiggles his toes in his shoes in delight even as he waits patiently.

Haltingly, Hua Cheng explains, “When Dianxia saved me the first time, when I fell off the city wall, I used to wish…” He bites his lip, and Xie Lian’s amusement fades. He draws Hua Cheng to a comfortable couch in the corner of the room, and settles next to him, taking his hand.

Bowing his head, Hua Cheng confesses, “I would have been content serving you for all my life even if you never knew who I was. I would have achieved whatever your aims, paid any cost, taken the blood you feared was on your hands and poured it over my own. I would have loved you in any and all forms without expecting you to love me back.”

“But?” Xie Lian prods gently, when Hua Cheng seems stymied.

“But sometimes I—I yearned so deeply for you to know my name. To be seen by you, and only you.”

Xie Lian inhales sharply. It’s…a tantalizing thought. He cannot regret how things have turned out, but there’s something powerful about the idea of Hua Cheng’s name on the lips of Taizi Dianxia of Xian Le.

When Hua Cheng’s eye finally meets his, it’s fervent.

“I want to force Taizi Dianxia to know no name but mine, make him beg for pleasure only I can bestow, make him yield to me, helpless and desperate and utterly mine.”

The embarrassment had been new, and thus precious, but it cannot compare to the dark hunger and possessiveness and need that breaks free of Hua Cheng’s heart at long last. Xie Lian is dizzied by the sight of it, wants more of it—wants to be claimed utterly by it in ways he can’t yet fathom.

Hua Cheng reigns it back in then, mouth tight with shame. “See? Gege deserves—”

Xie Lian doesn’t bother to wait for him to finish. He climbs into Hua Cheng’s lap and interrupts his absurd defense with a searing kiss. He wouldn’t let anyone else overtake his heart, and the idea of being made utterly vulnerable to Hua Cheng as he unravels Xie Lian with his own desires, Hua Cheng’s name on Xie Lian’s lips…it’s unfair for Hua Cheng to expect Xie Lian to stay composed.

“Yes,” Xie Lian whispers, not just to Hua Cheng but to the desperately sad and lost child from so many years ago. “Make me know your name.”

Hua Cheng’s single eye is hot enough to burn. Xie Lian can’t look away.

Finally, Hua Cheng places his hand over his heart. “As Taizi Dianxia wishes.”

~*~

Xie Lian has not seen clothes like this for a very, very, very long time. He reaches out and touches the heavy red brocade, and then drops it when some ancient scolding stirs in his memory, something about how difficult oil is to properly remove from silk. He furtively glances around like someone will leap out from behind the door and blame him for dirtying the fabric, but no one appears. His cultivator’s robes are clean—these days, Hua Cheng would never allow Xie Lian’s clothing to get filthy—and he wipes his fingers against the hem before he dares touch the clothes again.

“Do you need help?” Hua Cheng asks from behind him, and Xie Lian jumps.

“No!” he squeaks, and shoves Hua Cheng back towards the door. “I’ll be fine!”

It’s an utter lie. Xie Lian has never once in his life dressed himself in any sort of formal clothing as the crown prince, and he has absolutely no idea how he’d go about it now. Hua Cheng doesn’t look like he’s any more convinced that Xie Lian is about his ability to don these elegant robes, but Xie Lian refuses to let Hua Cheng see him before he’s ready. Not to mention that as knowledgeable as Hua Cheng is, it’s unlikely that he has any more idea of how to dress Xie Lian than Xie Lian does.

Of course, that means there’s only one option.

“Mu Qing! Mu Qing!” Xie Lian hisses into their personal communication array.

It takes so long for Mu Qing to answer that Xie Lian is half convinced that he’s being ignored. However, just as Xie Lian is about to give up, Mu Qing demands in his rudest voice, “What?”

Xie Lian reconsiders his request at that tone. “En, that is…”

“Your highness? Are you alright?” Mu Qing’s voice turns suspicious. “What’s going on?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” Xie Lian hurriedly assures. “I just had…a question. And need a little help.” There’s a beat of even more suspicious quiet and Xie Lian can practically see the annoyed and dubious look that Mu Qing is surely wearing. “It won’t take long! But no one else can help me!”

Mu Qing pauses. “You need my help?” he asks, and the suspicion, impossibly, manages to rise several more notches. “With what? Can’t Crimson Rain do it?”

“Not exactly…it’s like this. I was, ah, hoping that you could walk me through how to put on more formal robes, like those I wore when I was younger. I want to…ah, surprise San Lang with them, because they were a—aa gift from him! But when I tried to remember how to put them on—”

“You realized that you’d always expected me to do so whenever you were forced to attend such events, and so didn’t actually have any idea how to put them on?” Mu Qing interrupted sardonically. “And so what, you expect me to play servant again? Didn’t I say repairing Ruoye was repayment enough? Isn’t there someone in the Ghost City who could do it for you?”

Xie Lian flushes with mortification at the thought of having to request help from Hua Cheng’s ghostly subjects. “N-No,” he stammers. “That is, you’re the only one I trust to help. Besides, no one else really wears clothes like this here! Please?” He holds his breath, careful to give Mu Qing the chance to decide for himself.

There’s more quiet. “A gift?” he asks, disbelieving.

Xie Lian winces. So much for hoping Mu Qing had gotten distracted by the implication that Xie Lian had gone to Mu Qing because of his lowly origins. Then he thinks of the use the outfit is going to be put to, and blushes again. “Y-Yes. It was a gift. And I want—it’s a surprise. For San Lang. Like I said.”

“You’re a shitty liar,” Mu Qing informs him. “But I don’t want to know more. So fine. I’ll help.”

“Wait, really?” Xie Lian asks, surprised. “You’ll actually walk me through it?”

“Don’t make me regret this,” Mu Qing warns, and sighs. “Alright. What style of clothing is it?”

Xie Lian stares at the carefully displayed clothing and hazards, “One with red brocade silk?”

“I didn’t ask about the type of cloth! Do you have a xuanduan? Or did Crimson Rain give you a set of gonfu? Chaofu? What is the cut of the sleeves? How many layers?” When Xie Lian hesitates, Mu Qing barks, “Did you ever pay attention to how I was dressing you?”

“Not really,” Xie Lian admits. What little he had bothered to absorb as a spoiled teenager had been long forgotten as irrelevant for the life he’d led. “But the sleeves are wide, except the innermost one, and there are five layers.” He frowns, and adds, “There’s jewelry, too.”

“Of course there is,” Mu Qing mutters. “Alright. Are you listening?”

“Yes,” Xie Lian promises, summoning Ruoye as an additional set of hands. He faces the robes with all the preparedness of one going into battle. “I’m ready.”

For once, Mu Qing cannot be faulted in the least. His instructions are clear and concise, and when he speaks, the orders make sense. However, the minute Xie Lian tries to actually follow them, the silk ends up crumpled, the ribbons knotted, and at one point, Ruoye gets tangled up in one of Xie Lian’s sleeves and wriggles pitifully until Xie Lian pulls off that layer to allow Ruoye to escape.

As he stares in the mirror, he’s very aware that he doesn’t look anything like the Taizi Dianxia of Xian Le; he couldn’t even pass as an actor playing the role of a prince on stage.

“Well?” Mu Qing snaps.

“E-En, it’s fine,” Xie Lian says. He’ll figure something out, and begins stripping out of the clothes, leaving them in a pile on the ground.

Mu Qing audibly grinds his teeth. “You tell Crimson Rain that if I don’t win against Feng Xin during the lantern competition at this year’s Mid Autumn festival, you’re never getting my help again.”

“What?” Xie Lian says, but the private communication channel cuts off without a response.

A few moments later, there’s the sound of a fight starting in Paradise Manor, and Xie Lian runs out of his room, still half-dressed, with Ruoye at the ready. He finds Mu Qing trying to get past Hua Cheng, who is fending him off with nothing more than a broom and a smug smile.

“San Lang!” Xie Lian scolds, but from the sour look on Mu Qing’s face, he doesn’t sound very chastising.

Hua Cheng hurries to his side. “Why did you bring him here? I can help Gege! You don’t need to rely on him,” he says, but Xie Lian shakes his head.

“You don’t know how to do this either. Mu Qing does. He’s helping us.”

The sour apple look on Mu Qing’s face intensifies. “Only so long as I don’t hear anything incriminating about your” he gestures vaguely between them like there’s a contagious disease he’s concerned about. “Dianxia, let’s go.” He grabs Xie Lian’s wrist and starts towing him away, which makes Hua Cheng look furious enough to wrap Mu Qing up in another cocoon and hang him up in the center of the Ghost City for the residents to torment.

Xie Lian smiles apologetically and waves away Hua Cheng’s concern, calling, “Don’t worry, San Lang, Mu Qing knows what he’s doing! I’ll meet you for dinner, I promise!” before the doors shut behind them.

When Mu Qing sees the garment crumpled on the floor, he looks like he’s about to have a hernia. “Dianxia,,” he says through gritted teeth. “Stand—stand right there, and don’t move.” The words are familiar, right down to the aggrieved tone of voice, and Xie Lian moves obediently to where he’s directed.

Mu Qing mutters to himself the entire time as he dresses Xie Lian, fingers efficiently arranging the layers of sleeves so they fall properly, fastening the tiny, discrete buttons at lightning speed, even taking the time to braid Xie Lian’s hair and use black jade pins to keep it all in place. The gold and black jade jewelry is last, and Xie Lian touches the fresh piercings in his ear, aware that the weight of the earrings is going to make them sore sooner before later. It’s a sensation he hasn’t felt in a long time, and yet his body remembers it all the same.

Finally satisfied, Mu Qing directs Xie Lian to the mirror.

It’s like staring at his own ghost.

Xie Lian’s body hasn’t changed since the year he turned seventeen. The clothing Hua Cheng had found isn’t exactly the style he’d have worn all those years ago, but it’s similar enough, with similar embroidery; maybe if a year or two had passed, as the wheels of fashion turned, Xie Lian might have worn this very outfit to one of the rare court dinners he was obligated to attend. It’s only his eyes that give away that he’s no longer that same crown prince, too aware of the world.

He lifts his hand to his cheek, watching as the prince in the mirror does the same. It’s strange, and he’s not entirely sure he likes it. It feels like he’s wearing an ill-fitting costume, although the clothes are tailored perfectly.

“Well,” Mu Qing says, satisfied. “That’s that.” He fusses for a moment over the fall of Xie Lian’s torque against the collar of his clothes, and the arrangement of the open robe, then turns away without another word.

The sudden nostalgia is suffocating, and Xie Lian barely waits for Mu Qing to leave before he turns away from the mirror, almost expecting Feng Xin to be at the doorway, waiting to accompany him. There’s no one there, of course, and Mu Qing has vanished.

Xie Lian shakes his head free of the old memories, setting them aside with the ease of practice. They have no place here, in Paradise Manor, and despite the lingering, gentle grief, there’s also an undeniable thread of happiness at Mu Qing’s help, and excitement at the thought of how Hua Cheng will react, seeing him like this.

I want to force Taizi Dianxia to know no name but mine.

Xie Lian shivers pleasantly at the thought, and goes to dinner.

~*~

Xie Lian arrives first and seats himself. He’s the crown prince, and needn’t wait for anyone’s permission to relax. There’s a bowl of cherries nearby, and after a moment of dithering, torn between what he’d have done as the crown prince and what he’d do now, Xie Lian begins to eat them, neatly dropping the pits in the small dish that’s been set beside the cherries.

Ten minutes later, Hua Cheng still hasn’t arrived, and Xie Lian quickly grows bored. Finally, halfway through the bowl of cherries, the doors open. It’s a teenager in black servant’s garb, and Xie Lian’s excitement turns to ash—until, that is, his brain processes what he’s seeing, and then he’s simply wide-eyed and breathless. Hua Cheng has found, or made, the very livery that the servants in the royal palace had worn. His eyes—and he has both of them at the moment, one of them a brilliant searing ruby, the other familiar obsidian—are downcast, his hair neatly bound out of his face, a tray in his hands with several different pitchers of juices and water.

Xie Lian almost comments on the lack of alcohol, which Hua Cheng often enjoys even when Xie Lian doesn’t, but stops himself at the last moment, realizing that as the crown prince, of course he wouldn’t have been offered any. It would have been unspeakably rude, considering his cultivation method.

Slowly, Xie Lian understands what Hua Cheng has planned, and his toes curl in his boots.

“Taizi Dianxia,” Hua Cheng greets quietly. “This humble servant apologizes for his tardiness. With your permission, I will be ensuring your comfort during the festivities this evening. Please, allow me to offer you something to drink. Dinner will be served momentarily.”

“Of course,” Xie Lian allows with a quick little smile. No matter how hard he tries, however, it’s far more familiar and intimate a smile than he would have ever offers to a mere servant offering him a drink in his youth. Even dressed in clothing meant to make him blend in, Hua Cheng is still Hua Cheng, and his beauty, elegance, and quickness are readily apparent. Xie Lian is not strong enough to do anything except greet him with unbecoming warmth. He does, however, manage to keep his distance, quietly requesting the pitcher of peach nectar and water remains when Hua Cheng departs.

Dinner commences shortly after. Hua Cheng serves Xie Lian with the utmost respect and diligence, but also in complete silence. It’s a little odd, to be the only one at this grand table. Xie Lian feels unspeakably foolish as he eats alone, even as various entertainers perform during the different courses. His gaze keeps flickering to Hua Cheng, who stands off in the far corner when he’s not bringing Xie Lian food, and wishes that he had Hua Cheng’s company.

As the main courses finish, however, Xie Lian is left both confused and rather disappointed. He hadn’t been able to steal so much as a touch from Hua Cheng, who’d radiated a servant’s perfect composure the entire time, face an unreadable mask. He’s even left alone to savor the last few bites of dessert, the entertainers vanishing as quietly as they’d arrived. Hua Cheng only reappears as Xie Lian sets down his spoon, a single bite of food left on his plate, and bows again.

“If Taizi Dianxia is ready, I will take Dianxia to his rooms,” he says.

Xie Lian’s lips twitch with delight. “Of course,” he says, affecting the same calm, and follows Hua Cheng to a suite of rooms that he’s never seen before.

He’s utterly stunned by their opulence. They don’t spend a great deal of time in Paradise Manor, to be sure, but Xie Lian feels he really ought to have encountered a room like this before. There are enormous, beautiful embroidered silk panels that are masterful examples of the Xiang school across the one wall, portraying the tale of the herder and weaver, the last panel twice the size of the others—except it’s not crows, but butterflies that form the bridge, and as Xie Lian steps closer, he finds himself staring at the red-clad figure stitched into the panel fondly.

“San—” he begins before he catches himself, turning to the rest of the room, admiring the bedding, the cabinets, the delicate pottery and paintings. Although opulent, the room is also exquisite in its aesthetics, elegant without being crowded.

He thoughtlessly steps towards the bed, assuming that Hua Cheng will join him, but all he gets is a final bow, and a soft, “Please, ring the bell to summon me should you desire anything,” before he disappears out the door.

Xie Lian blinks in the quiet room, nonplussed. “San Lang?” he asks, like that will summon his lover. To be fair, normally it does, but this time there’s no reaction at all. He thought he understood Hua Cheng’s plan, but clearly he’d made an error in judgment somewhere.

Unsure what to do next, Xie Lian steps over to the dressing area, absently rubbing his sore ear. As he’d suspected, the earrings were far heavier than his freshly pierced ears could easily handle, and so—he pauses suddenly.

Only one of his ears is sore. As he reaches slowly to touch the other, the first piercing, which had once held a long gold teardrop embedded with carved jade, is empty. He hurries to the mirror, and sure enough, he’s missing an earring.

He thinks of a single missing coral bead, and can’t help but laugh in delight, loud and brilliant, wondering when Hua Cheng had been quick and careful enough to steal it. Sometimes, his love for his San Lang overwhelms him, touching some deep and forsaken corner of his heart that he’d set aside for so long, only to realize how badly it needed to be nourished once he’d met his San Lang, given his whole heart to him.

It’s several minutes before he’s able to stop smiling and pretend to scowl in annoyance instead, striding over to ring the bell. An instant later, Hua Cheng knocks in warning and then opens the door silently, stepping inside and bowing low.

“Taizi Dianxia, how may I serve you?”

Xie Lian swallows against the bloom of heat in his core, affecting a frustrated and slightly apologetic tone. “One of my earrings has gone missing. Could it have fallen off at the banquet, somehow? I didn’t see it in my room. Would you please help me find it?”

Hua Cheng finally, finally lifts his head. For the first time, Xie Lian realizes he’s actually several centimeters shorter than Xie Lian. He’s perhaps three or four years younger in this form, and hasn’t yet had his growth spurt. Even so, his presence fills the room, his dichromatic eyes arresting. Xie Lian’s gaze flickers to Hua Cheng’s lips, and he licks his own.

“This one?” Hua Cheng asks, and holds up Xie Lian’s missing earring.

“Yes!” Xie Lian says, delighted, and reaches for it.

Hua Cheng takes a step back, just out of reach, mouth curving into a wicked little smile. Xie Lian’s eyes drop to his lips again for just a moment. “What will I get in exchange for having performed such a service for you?” he asks.

“What do you have in mind?” Xie Lian breathes.

“A kiss,” Hua Cheng says boldly. “I am shameless, and desire a kiss from Taizi Dianxia.” He clasps the earring in his fist and presses it to his heart, like he will keep it there for all his days if Xie Lian says no.

In another lifetime, Xie Lian would have spluttered at the absurdity of a mere servant demanding a kiss. He would have cried out about defilement and presumption. He would have refused, unequivocally.

In this lifetime, it is the most trifling price to pay. He does not even hesitate. He takes a step forward, hyper aware of the height difference between them, and kisses Hua Cheng the way Hua Cheng best loves to be kissed: soft, slick, a sharp hint of teeth and tongue. He pulls away only slowly, eyes dark.

Xie Lian touches his ear. The earring is back in place, gold cool against his skin.

But the jade pendant that had once been around his neck is now missing.

Hua Cheng is once again out of reach, the necklace clasped in his hand, pressed against his heart.

“What is your price now?” Xie Lian asks.

“Allow me to be impudent, for I desire to touch Taizi Dianxia.”

Xie Lian acquiesces by stepping forward. Hua Cheng has to tilt his face upwards to kiss Xie Lian, fingers gentle on his cheek. The weight of the pendant returns to his chest, and then both of Hua Cheng’s hands are sliding along his neck, to the base of his skull, keeping him close so Hua Cheng can deepen the kiss and steal Xie Lian’s breath.

When the kiss breaks, they stay close together. Hua Cheng’s touch lingers, sliding along the smooth silk.

“Will you not steal a third item, to demand an even greater price from me?” Xie Lian asks curiously.

“No,” Hua Cheng replies. “The only thing left I wish to steal is Taizi Dianxia himself.”

Although the words are spoken lightly, there’s an ocean of need trapped beneath the calm surface. Xie Lian doesn’t mind, though.

Hua Cheng has already stolen him, and Xie Lian will seek no other.

“How do you plan to accomplish that, without stealing some new trinket from me to force me to bargain for its return?”

“I don’t need a trinket to steal Taizi Dianxia,” Hua Cheng murmurs. “I have watched Taizi Dianxia since I was a child blessed by his kindness; in doing so I have been privileged to learn more of him than any other, although he does not know my name, nor who I am.” He lifts up Xie Lian’s hand and kisses the palm. His lips are soft. Xie Lian knows without being told that every word is true, and gazes down at Hua Cheng’s dark hair with a heart painfully full. “If Taizi Dianxia gives me but a chance, I will prove myself worthy of keeping him because I know him better than any other, and the only payment I seek from such a service would be to hear my name from his lips.”

“And how will you prove yourself?”

Hua Cheng glances up from beneath his long lashes. “By pleasing him better than he knows how to please himself. Surely if I can convince Taizi Dianxia to yield to my touch, he would beg for my name, that he might bestow upon me his thanks. I live to serve Taizi Dianxia.”

Xie Lian finds himself automatically rising to the challenge, blood hot in his veins. He does not for a moment believe that Hua Cheng will not overwhelm him completely and obliterate him with pleasure in the end. Hua Cheng has touched him in every conceivable fashion, fucked him in every conceivable way, left marks on every conceivable stretch of skin—he knows Xie Lian’s body more intimately than Xie Lian knows his own, just as Xie Lian knows Hua Cheng’s. But he does plan to ensure that Hua Cheng’s victory is hard won.

Xie Lian will yield, will beg, but only when Hua Cheng has ruined him.

His heart beats faster just thinking about it.

“I merely request that Taizi Dianxia suffer one indignity, to ensure that it is me alone to which he is yielding, for which he is begging,” Hua Cheng adds lazily, like it’s an afterthought.

Xie Lian’s blood heats still more, heart racing. “Oh?”

Hua Cheng pulls out a red silk ribbon. “With this binding him, he cannot touch me or himself.”

If he so desired, Xie Lian could break that ribbon easily. But it’s not about actually keeping Xie Lian restrained, it’s about reminding him to choose control. Xie Lian will not be able to pull his mind inward and leave his body to fend for itself against the pleasure, as he’d hoped, not without eventually losing control and snapping the ribbon.

And that would constitute a loss.

Xie Lian shivers. Hua Cheng has planned this very well indeed, quietly cutting off Xie Lian’s escape routes. He is trapped, a butterfly in a spider’s web.

Luckily for them both, that’s precisely where Xie Lian wishes to be.

Boldly, Xie Lian takes the silk from Hua Cheng’s hands and takes it with him to the bed. He kneels on the bed and loops the ribbon over wood of the canopy, then twists it several times around his wrists before bringing them together and tightening his fingers in the silk binding the opposite wrist, effectively making shackles for himself. Hua Cheng’s eyes never leave him, darkening to a blood red and pitch black by the time he’s done.

“Touch me,” Xie Lian challenges.

“As Taizi Dianxia wishes.”

Hua Cheng’s mouth is searing against his own, fingers mussing Mu Qing’s careful braids until they’re unraveling, waves falling around Xie Lian’s face. Despite the heat of Hua Cheng’s lips, however, the rest of his body is carefully out of reach so that Xie Lian can’t lean into him without straining the ribbon. He stands like that for long moments, tantalizing Xie Lian with kisses until he’s shivering, hyper aware of the silk at his wrists and the confining layers of his clothes

Xie Lian manages to keep from making a sound, however, until Hua Cheng begins to open the heavy silk robes, one layer at a time. With Xie Lian’s wrists bound, Hua Cheng can’t pull them off completely, but it’s not long before Xie Lian’s front is exposed, and that first touch of Hua Cheng’s cool fingertips against Xie Lian’s hot skin makes him gasp. Hua Cheng finds a series of bruises lingering from the last time they had sex a moment later and strokes over them lightly, making Xie Lian’s skin prickle.

From there, it’s a long, tortuous descent into pleasure. Hua Cheng’s mouth brushes Xie Lian’s jaw, his fingers trace patterns on Xie Lian’s inner thighs, his clothes rub enticingly against Xie Lian’s bared skin. Time slows, until Xie Lian’s been kneeling for an eternity, nails digging into the ribbon binding him as he waits for whatever sensation Hua Cheng will grant him next.

Although Hua Cheng never pays attention to the places Xie Lian really wants it—his throat, his nipples, his cock—sometimes Hua Cheng will touch so enticingly close that Xie Lian can’t quite breathe and he strains for more. In lieu of those areas, however, Hua Cheng lingers on the less traditional stretches of skin where Xie Lian is still sensitive: along his ribs, his spine, and the curve of his ass, until the nerves are almost sparking with pain rather in pleasure, not from being hurt but from being pushed towards some boundary between too much and not enough.

Xie Lian can barely hear Hua Cheng’s breath over his own ragged gasps and moans, but he will not beg, not yet. Hua Cheng’s pupils are huge, and when he comes back for yet another kiss, bruising in its intensity, some thread of control must snap because the heavy weight of the cloth binding Xie Lian gradually falls away, also one layer at a time.

When he twists, he realizes that Hua Cheng’s butterflies, invisible to the eye, are cutting through the cloth with immeasurable precision, slicing only the stitches that hold the garment together, not the actual cloth itself. The part of Xie Lian that has stitched his own clothes cries out, because it will take at least a week to fix the garment, but even that thought vanishes beneath the fact that when the last piece of cloth falls to the floor, Hua Cheng finally, finally, presses against him.

Hua Cheng is still fully clothed in the servant’s garb, and the fabric isn’t nearly as fine as what Xie Lian is used to feeling on Hua Cheng’s body. It’s enough to make him shudder, especially when Hua Cheng’s hips miraculously grind against his own. Sharp sparks of pleasure cascade down Xie Lian’s spine and he has to tear himself free of Hua Cheng’s mouth, pressing his face against the side of his arm just so he can catch his breath for a moment. Even as he does so, Hua Cheng’s cool breath curls against his neck, making him groan.

But then Hua Cheng backs away, still full dressed, and Xie Lian’s head jerks up. He doesn’t want to miss a moment of this. Hua Cheng’s mouth is bruised, the rest of his skin deathly pale except for two spots of color high in his cheeks. It’s the only sign that he’s been doing anything at all, because with Xie Lian’s hands bound, he can’t make a mess of Hua Cheng’s hair, can’t strip away his clothes. The space between them burns with cold.

Hua Cheng suddenly smiles.

With the appearance of that hungry smile, Xie Lian can’t stop thinking about how he must look: naked, covered in soft pink marks from Hua Cheng’s fingers and mouth, shamelessly gripping the silk ribbon so he doesn’t simply launch himself across the room and into Hua Cheng arms, beg him for the name that he most desperately wishes to be called.

If Xie Lian ever falls again, it will be with Hua Cheng’s name on his lips.

“Please,” he breathes into the infinite space between them.

“As Taizi Dianxia wishes,” Hua Cheng promises.

It’s only now that Hua Cheng is focused on all the places Xie Lian had so desperately needed him to touch that he realizes that Hua Cheng was being merciful. Although he’s shorter at the moment, the bed must have been carefully measured so that Hua Cheng would be able to do this without a problem: fold himself down onto his knees, and gaze adoringly at Xie Lian.

It’s almost too painful to bear, that worship. Even now, Xie Lian worries a little about whether he is worthy of it. Hua Cheng has done everything for him, seen him at his weakest and worst, seen him at his brightest and most beloved, and all Xie Lian wants is his happiness and love for all his days.

But as he gazes down at Hua Cheng, hair sticking to his sweaty skin, panting, clinging to the red ribbon like it is the last of his sanity, and sees the unassailable need in Hua Cheng’s eyes, he has no choice but to believe. No choice but to worship in turn by allowing Hua Cheng to do with him what he will.

“Please,” Xie Lian says again, and is rewarded when Hua Cheng’s mouth takes his nipple between his lips and bites down.

Xie Lian shouts something unintelligible when Hua Cheng’s teeth dig in even harder, then abruptly release in order to lap at the abused bud. Every pass of Hua Cheng’s tongue leaves Xie Lian trembling, stomach tensing and untensing as he waits—and even though he’s expecting it, he’s not in enough control to actually keep from shouting again when Hua Cheng bites down a second time, a noise that turns into a low, desperate moan.

Only when Xie Lian’s nipples have been thoroughly, lovingly abused does Hua Cheng move lower, taking plenty of detours to once again find all the strange places to which Xie Lian reacts.

And then, finally, he’s kissing the soft, delicate flesh of Xie Lian’s hip that points Hua Cheng directly to Xie Lian’s cock.

Xie Lian holds his breath, unsure which would be worse—Hua Cheng carefully not touching him at all, or the casual brush of Hua Cheng’s skin where Xie Lian craves it most. Hua Cheng has done that before, rubbed his cheek and nose against Xie Lian’s cock, licking it like it’s the most delicious treat while Xie Lian tries to convince him to wrap his lips around Xie Lian. His toes curl. He wouldn’t be able to stand that.

He’s so hard, harder than he can ever remember being. He has to close his eyes, and focus on his breathing.

Surprisingly, Hua Cheng doesn’t comment on that, just teases the area around the base of Xie Lian’s cock, coaxing him to spread his legs without a single word exchanged simply so Hua Cheng can stroke the skin right behind his balls. Xie Lian’s breath hitches, and he lets his head fall back, staring at his bound hands. His knuckles are white, nails digging into the silk, but his attention is unrelentingly dragged back towards Hua Cheng’s tongue as he laves gently at Xie Lian’s balls.

The noise that escapes doesn’t sound sane; Xie Lian doesn’t feel sane. He dances along the edge of arousal in ways that make him wonder if madness is manifesting under his skin. It would be so easy to just tear the ribbon and slide down on Hua Cheng’s cock until they’re both satisfied.

“Shall I tell you my name?” Hua Cheng teases. Oh, oh, he’s right there. His lips are brushing the very tip of Xie Lian’s cock.

But he doesn’t wait for an answer before he takes the whole length of Xie Lian into his mouth.

The threads binding him strain and nearly give way. He rolls his forehead back and forth against his forearm, begging wordlessly. He doesn’t ask for Hua Cheng’s name, but he does plead for more, strung out and desperate.

Every time Xie Lian starts to get close, though, Hua Cheng pulls off his cock and tugs lightly at his balls until there’s no chance of him coming.

If he was dancing along the edge of arousal before, now he’s being torn apart by it, an endless ouroboros of need and hunger trying to swallow him whole.

He thinks at some point a few strands of silk snap, but he can’t focus his eyes long enough to determine whether that’s actually the case. Hua Cheng’s grip is iron hard on his hips, refusing to let him fuck Hua Cheng’s mouth. Xie Lian doesn’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse when Hua Cheng offers him a moment of relief and spends long, leisurely moments just brushing kisses and tender touches along the length of Xie Lian’s cock. It’s almost possible to gather himself in those moments.

But only almost.

Xie Lian doesn’t know what makes him break, in the end. He only knows the he needs Hua Cheng, needs him now. He needs Hua Cheng to pin him down and fill him up. He wants to fulfill that most sacred request: that Taizi Dianxia speak Hua Cheng’s name, wrap those beloved syllables with every drop of gratefulness, of joy, of affection that Xie Lian bears for him.

“Your name. Please. Please—I need your name.”

Xie Lian feels Hua Cheng swallow around him, and sobs. How many times has he been caught before he can fall over the edge? Five times? Six? This time is no different. Hua Cheng pulls off him with a little pop that makes Xie Lian sees stars, and murmurs, “My name? Have I pleased Taizi Dianxia?”

“You have, you have, you’ve pleased me, now give me your name, please, I need it, I need it!”

Hua Cheng gazes up the length of Xie Lian’s body, eyes fervent.

“My name is Hua Cheng.”

“Hua Cheng.” Xie Lian gasps the name in relief, and speaking it is it’s own ecstasy, it’s own release, even as his cock twitches. “Hua Cheng, Hua Cheng, I need you, please.”

Hua Cheng stands, and cups Xie Lian’s face. “As Taizi Dianxia wishes,” he breaths yet again, like it’s a mantra. Like it’s an oath.

Xie Lian moans against his mouth, and starts to relax his hold on the red silk, but Hua Cheng’s fingers are suddenly gripping his wrists tight. “No,” he warns softly, and Xie Lian’s whole body tenses like he’s going to come. “Not yet.”

He can’t possibly hold on longer. He can’t.

He does so anyways, because Hua Cheng has asked him.

Hua Cheng undresses somewhere behind him as Xie Lian tries to breathe. He stares up at his wrists, and only now notices that the silk has dug into his wrists, leaving faint marks. When Hua Cheng climbs on the bed behind him, Xie Lian feels the bedding shift, and shudders in relief when Hua Cheng presses against his back, wrapping his body around Xie Lian’s.

“Hua Cheng, Hua Cheng,” Xie Lian begs softly. He tilts his head back onto Hua Cheng’s shoulder and is rewarded with a kiss. “Please.”

Smiling against Xie Lian’s mouth, Hua Cheng slides oiled fingers between Xie Lian’s thighs, opening him up with only the barest of patience, while Xie Lian urges him on with his body in every possible way. Hua Cheng must finally be losing the last shreds of his control, because he’s not nearly as thorough as usual, which means Xie Lian’s toes curl with the delicious friction of Hua Cheng finally, finally, finally sliding inside him.

When Hua Cheng starts to fuck him, however, Xie Lian loses whatever reason he has left. He rocks back onto every thrust, calling Hua Cheng’s name like it’s a prayer of his own, a call to worship. Even as his hips thrust, Hua Cheng’s mouth makes a mess of Xie Lian’s neck and shoulders; now that he’s fractionally shorter than Xie Lian, his mouth can trace brand new paths along Xie Lian’s skin.

Xie Lian’s cock is so hard. It’s so hard, and Hua Cheng is hot and strong all around him, inside him, making Xie Lian desperate for that little push to get him over the edge.

And with the very last fraction of his sanity, he hopes he knows how to get it.

“Hong-er,” he breathes. “Please, Hong-er. I need you.”

Hua Cheng’s eyes are searing in the glimpse Xie Lian catches right before he kisses Xie Lian like his life depends on it. Xie Lian answers.

With a tiny shift of his body, each of Hua Cheng’s thrusts roll against the spot inside him that makes Xie Lian jolt with pleasure. Twice—thrice—and on the last thrust, Xie Lian comes utterly untouched in long ribbons across the floor, and the red ribbon breaks.

The pleasure undoes him completely, but it does not satiate him. After so long being tormented, he hungers still.

Once Xie Lian stirs, he doesn’t hesitate for a second; he twists in Hua Cheng’s hold and shoves him down to the bed before sinking back down on his cock. His hands are still tangled in the silk. Hua Cheng’s eyes are huge, a protest or a plea on his lips, but Xie Lian kisses him into silence. He rides Hua Cheng anyways, desperately chasing pleasure—both his own and Hua Cheng’s. He needs to feel Hua Cheng come inside him.

He needs his San Lang.

“San Lang,” he cries, and oh. No matter how sweet it is to have Hua Cheng’s name on his lips, to Xie Lian, Hua Cheng is San Lang, and no other. “San Lang, San Lang, San Lang!”

With a growl, Hua Cheng fucks up into him, and Xie Lian no longer knows who’s leading, only knows that their bodies are tangled together, their breaths panting against each other’s lips. Xie Lian’s nails rake across skin. Hua Cheng’s fingers tangle in his hair.

They are exactly where they need to be: worshipping each other.

This time, when Xie Lian comes, the universe fades away at the pleasure, and he smiles down at his San Lang.

~*~

Xie Lian wakes up from his doze wrapped around Hua Cheng, who barely looks more awake than Xie Lian feels. Hua Cheng idly strokes Xie Lian’s messy hair. Actually, they’re both a mess, and Xie Lian flushes slightly as he realizes that he can still feel Hua Cheng’s seed inside him. He pulls Hua Cheng down into a kiss and licks past his lips, filthy and slick.

“Was that everything you wanted, San Lang?” Xie Lian asks softly, running his fingers across Hua Cheng’s chest. “To have me—Taizi Dianxia—say your name?”

“Yes,” Hua Cheng says. “But I think I like when Dianxia calls me San Lang most of all.”

Xie Lian glances up at him sharply, and it’s his Hua Cheng curled against him, empty eye socket and scars and sweet smile. It’s enough to make his heart burst. “I’m still happy San Lang trusted me.”

“Is that so?” Hua Cheng asks, and his smile widens as he lightly pins Xie Lian down against the sheets and straddles him. “Because I have all sorts of things I would request of Dianxia.”

Xie Lian gazes up at Hua Cheng; at long last, his heart is unburdened. Xie Lian smiles brilliantly. “Good. I want to hear them all.”