Xie Lian feels someone stumble into Puji Shrine.
Feels, rather than sees or hears, because he’s comfortably ensconced in the silk sheets of Paradise Manor, looking at the ceiling in comfort as Hua Cheng sleeps, his weight curled around him. He normally doesn’t pay much attention to prayers or followers in moments like these—he’s normally too exhausted and sore and floaty to do much else besides lay there—but this visitor to his shrine is bringing a veritable ocean of misery with them. Xie Lian feels them walk to the altar and kneel, feels them try to pray and come up empty. He gets the feeling they’re not usually the religious type. He understands.
Xie Lian hopes they find the sleeping mat rolled in the corner, that they find some peace in the quiet of his tiny shrine, as humble as it may be. Silently, he wishes that they take some fruit from the offerings on the altar if they are hungry, that they light the small stove in the corner of the room if they are cold.
But he has long since learned that he cannot help every person that comes to him—and, selfish as it is, he is not willing to leave the sanctuary of Hua Cheng’s embrace to personally attend to this lonely traveler on a cold autumn night. He tucks Hua Cheng’s arm tighter around his waist and closes his eyes and waits for sleep to come to him, resigned to simply sending the traveler on his way with a few well wishes— and then the prayers start.
Xie Lian listens for a few minutes, committing them to heart. Then he gently unravels himself from Hua Cheng, dresses in the sleepy darkness, and travels to Puji Shrine.
He lingers outside the door for a few moments when he arrives, glancing in the window. A cultivator dressed in black has lit a few candles at the altar and is kneeling inside, his shoulders bowed in grief. His hands tremble. He is hungry, and tired, and so deeply entrenched in pain that Xie Lian can’t help but remember a version of himself that he has spent hundreds of years trying to forget. To anyone else, this man is simply another in a vast sea of hurt. But he has prayed, and Xie Lian knows his heart.
He sees this scared, desperate, broken man—sees how he holds his head like he has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Like he thinks he can handle the weight of the world on his shoulders.
And Xie Lian thinks, this will not happen again.
“Hello, traveler,” he says, making his way inside. “What brings you in so late?”
Silence. The man’s hands are white with cold. Xie Lian frowns and lights the stove in the corner while he waits for him to answer, hoping the man will warm himself, but he doesn’t move from where he’s kneeling in front of the altar.
It takes a long few moments of quiet, only broken but the soft crackle of flame, before the man speaks. “I was only going to pray,” he says. Then he smiles. It looks painful. “But I’m not very good at it.”
Xie Lian returns the smile. “No matter how good or bad your prayers are, you’re welcome to stay for as long as you like.”
The man’s expression cracks a little, but he inclines his head gratefully. “Thank you, daozhang.”
“It’s no trouble at all.” Xie Lian begins to collect fruit off of the altar, sliding it onto a plate. “Could I ask your name?”
The man hesitates, and then appears to realize he’s hesitated longer than could be considered normal. “Wei Wuxian,” he says. He does not sound like he enjoys saying it. Xie Lian recognizes the motions of a man bracing himself for backlash.
“Ah,” says Xie Lian. He’s heard whispers of Wei Wuxian in his prayers recently, but didn’t pay much attention to the name. He makes a show of being unaffected, and offers the plate of fruit to him anyway. “Welcome to Puji Shrine, Wei Wuxian.”
Wei Wuxian blinks at him, then looks down at the plate of fruit, mildly scandalized. “You’re taking the offerings of your god?”
Xie Lian laughs. “He wouldn’t mind. And you look like you need it more than he does, anyway. I think—oh.” He cuts himself off as a figure slips in the door. Its face is turned away, but Xie Lian’s alarm fades as quickly as it had come. He would know Hua Cheng anywhere.
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng, stepping into the light. He’s still dressed in his sleep clothes, expression slightly wild. His shoulders relax fractionally as he takes in the familiar interior of the shrine.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian says. He doesn’t miss how Hua Cheng has E-Ming strapped tightly against him. “You were supposed to be sleeping.”
“You were supposed to be sleeping,” Hua Cheng retorts. “But instead gege has come to see a visitor in his shrine.” Unspoken, but clear as day, Xie Lian hears: you were gone when I woke up. I didn’t know where you were. You scared me. You scared me.
“San Lang, I’m sorry,” says Xie Lian. He crosses to the door and takes his hand, squeezes it even though he knows Wei Wuxian is staring. “I’ll wake you next time.”
“Gege shouldn’t apologize,” says Hua Cheng softly. Xie Lian sighs, wanting to protest against the statement—but he’ll deal with that later. He squeezes his hand again and turns to Wei Wuxian.
“This is San Lang,” he tells him. “San Lang, this is Wei Wuxian.”
Wei Wuxian bows respectfully; Hua Cheng inclines his head. “Are you a cultivator?” he asks.
Wei Wuxian tries his best to hide a wince. “Of a sort.”
Hua Cheng eyes the black flute hanging from his waist, seems to sense the demonic energy curling around him like a snake over his shoulders. “Interesting.”
There’s a long, heavy moment, that Hua Cheng doesn’t seem to care about breaking. Wei Wuxian squirms a little, glances at the floor, and then turns to Xie Lian. “Are you the keeper of this shrine?” he asks.
“I am,” says Xie Lian. Next to him, Hua Cheng gives him a sideways glance. “I am!” he protests. “Aren’t I, San Lang?”
“You are,” says Hua Cheng indulgently, but his expression hardens as he turns back towards Wei Wuxian. “Daozhang, I have to ask. What business does a traveler like you have in this shrine so late?”
“Prayer,” says Xie Lian, before Wei Wuxian can speak. “Like any other. Daozhang, please forgive my husband’s rudeness.”
For just a second, a ravenous longing flickers across Wei Wuxian’s expression, quick and sharp as a knife. It’s gone as fast as it came. “No offense taken,” he says.
Hua Cheng isn’t swayed. “Is that all that brought you here? Is that the reason why you brought my husband from our bed so late?”
Our bed. Xie Lian tries hard not to flush.
Again, Wei Wuxian’s face shudders with that longing, only softer, sadder. Xie Lian wonders who the one he loves so much is. “San Lang,” he protests, “whatever his reason, he is welcome here.”
San Lang acquiesces, if very grudgingly. Xie Lian pushes the plate of fruit into Wei Wuxian’s hands.
“Why don’t you stay the night?” he says. He knows just as well as Wei Wuxian does that he had come here because he had nowhere else to go. “There’s a sleeping mat in the corner. It’s not very comfortable, but it’s yours, if you’d like.”
“You’re very kind,” says Wei Wuxian. “But to be honest, I don’t think I’ll sleep tonight.”
“Rest, then. At least your body, if not your mind.”
Wei Wuxian inclines his head. Xie Lian realizes that he’s capitalizing on the fact that Wei Wuxian doesn’t have the fight in him to refuse, but can’t bring himself to feel guilty. “Would you like tea?” he asks. “I have some that was grown in this village. I think it’s very good.”
Again, Wei Wuxian inclines his head. He looks more exhausted than before, worn through by a stranger’s kindness.
“San Lang, will you help me?” Xie Lian asks. Hua Cheng knows as well as he does that it doesn’t take two people to make a pot of tea, but lets himself be led into the back room of the shrine that houses the kitchen anyways.
In the darkness, Xie Lian takes Hua Cheng’s hands. “I’m sorry,” he murmurs, quiet enough that Wei Wuxian won’t hear. “I’m sorry I scared you.”
“Gege didn’t scare me,” Hua Cheng protests weakly. “I just…”
“You just woke up and I was gone,” says Xie Lian. “I scared you. I’m sorry.”
Hua Cheng lets out a breath. Xie Lian knows he doesn’t need to breathe. “Come home with me?”
“In a bit.” Xie Lian squeezes Hua Cheng’s hands and fumbles for the stove in the dark. “I need to make Wei Wuxian’s tea.”
“He can make his own tea,” says Hua Cheng, a little petulantly. “Come home, gege. Come back to bed.”
“I need to make his tea.” Xie Lian squints, he can just barely make out the gloss of moonlight on the rim of a teacup. He reaches for it. “San Lang, he— he’s important.”
Hua Cheng wordlessly takes the teacup from the shelf and sets it on the counter, then laces his fingers with Xie Lian’s, arm still outstretched. He draws Xie Lian gently to him, and wraps and arm around the small of his back. “Is he?”
Xie Lian breathes in the scent of his clothes. His head is suddenly heavy where it rests against Hua Cheng’s shoulder, he lets the weight carry him forward into his embrace. He wraps his arms around Hua Cheng’s back and relishes the feeling—the feeling of Hua Cheng underneath his hands, of holding and being held, of the steady twine of their bodies in the silent dark. “He prayed to me,” he murmurs, into Hua Cheng’s shoulder. “He’s—he’s so miserable. He thinks he can save everyone he wants to save. He thinks he can do the impossible, and he is so crushed by what he thinks he can bear.”
Hua Cheng hums wordlessly. His arms tighten around Xie Lian, he presses a kiss into his hair. Xie Lian is woven securely into his hold.
Xie Lian exhales, feeling Wei Wuxian’s pain coursing through him like it’s his own, heart to fingers to toes. “He prayed to me, and I heard myself,” he says.
Hua Cheng is quiet for a moment. His breathing swells in his chest where it’s pressed against Xie Lian’s own, steady, no heartbeat. Xie Lian closes his eyes.
“Well,” Hua Cheng says finally, “we should make Wei Wuxian’s tea.”
Love swells in Xie Lian’s heart so warm and expansive that he’s helpless to do anything but smile. He lifts his head and kisses Hua Cheng once, softly, and then can’t help but kiss him again. “Thank you,” he murmurs against his lips.
Hua Cheng kisses him back, deeply. “Gege doesn’t need to thank me.”
“I will anyway,” says Xie Lian.
When they return, cups of tea in hand and looking slightly more disheveled than they had twenty minutes earlier, Wei Wuxian is kneeling at the altar again.
“Praying again?” Xie Lian asks, even though he knows he hasn’t been, or he would’ve heard something—but he’s curious as to why a demonic cultivator would turn to a god.
Wei Wuxian gives him a look that is slightly miserable. “I’ve been trying,” he says. “It’s hard.”
Xie Lian agrees. “Why pray to a god?” he asks. “A demon would be easier, don’t you think?”
The misery on Wei Wuxian’s face intensifies. “A demonic cultivator’s prayers are unfit for a god?” he asks, but it’s more statement than question. “I just thought— because His Royal Highness the Crown Prince descended, maybe he would— never mind. I wouldn’t know. I don’t think anyone’s ever done… this before.” He gestures at himself.
“Your prayers aren’t unfit!” says Xie Lian quickly. “Your prayers are far from unfit. The god hears you. But ghosts, like— like Crimson Rain Seeks Flower, for example, are very powerful.” He can feel Hua Cheng smiling behind him. “Maybe he could help?”
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to respond, and the door to the shrine bursts open.
Xie Lian’s hand has drawn Fang Xin halfway out of this sheath before he knows it; he whirls to face the door. Next to him, the killing intent radiating from Hua Cheng has chilled the room by several degrees, Xie Lian can practically see the waves of demonic power radiating from him. E-ming vibrates with intensity in its sheath.
In the doorway is a tall cultivator dressed in white, his hand on his sword. His eyes search the room wildly until they land on Wei Wuxian, Xie Lian sees his expression crumble minutely as he takes him in, alive and unhurt.
Wei Wuxian himself is staring at the two of them, at the light and darkness respectively blasting from their auras. His eyes move to Fang Xin, to Ruoye curled around Xie Lian’s wrist, to E-ming. His jaw drops.
“Ah,” says Xie Lian awkwardly. The cultivator in the door is making no move to sheathe his sword, but Xie Lian relaxes his stance anyway, then looks at Hua Cheng until he does the same.
Wei Wuxian hasn’t blinked this entire time, but his gaze is now flicking rapidly between the cultivator in the door and the two of them. “Lan Zhan,” he says, and then stops himself. He looks at Xie Lian. “Are you…?” he begins.
“Yes,” says Xie Lian quickly. “Ah… well. This is awkward. Yes.” He nods to the cultivator in the doorway in greeting. “Hello, traveler. My name is Xie Lian. This is my husband, Hua Cheng.”
The cultivator in white—Lan Zhan, Xie Lian assumes—nods, but doesn’t lower his sword. “Wei Ying,” he says, “are you hurt?”
“Wh—“ says Wei Wuxian. “Lan Zhan— I mean, no, I’m not hurt, I’m fine, put your sword down!”
Hua Cheng is still leaking a fair amount of killing intent from his aura. Lan Zhan’s eyes flicker towards him worriedly.
Xie Lian raises his hands. “Daozhang, I’m not going to hurt you.” Lan Wangji looks unmoved, his expression stony. “Or Wei Wuxian.”
That gets some response. Lan Zhan’s face relaxes slightly, but his hackles and his sword stay raised.
“There’s no need for your weapon,” says Xie Lian placatingly. “I promise, I’m not here for violence. I won’t hurt you or Wei Wuxian.”
When Lan Zhan makes no sign of moving, Hua Cheng steps forward, just once. Very threateningly. Xie Lian is kind of impressed at how much threat he can put into one step.
“He won’t, but I might,” he says. “Dianxia said to put the sword down. Put the sword down, little cultivator.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian hisses, staring at him imploringly.
Lan Zhan’s eyes flicker to him. He must see something in Wei Wuxian’s expression, because he hesitates, then lowers, but does not sheathe, his sword. In front of the altar, Wei Wuxian lets out a breath of relief. He bows to Xie Lian and then Hua Cheng, deeply, and then drags Lan Zhan out of the room.
There’s a moment of surprised silence between the two of them. Hua Chen turns to Xie Lian curiously, tilting his head. “Lan Zhan?” he asks. “Do we know him?”
“Wei Wuxian does,” says Xie Lian. “It’s good enough for me.” Then he realizes that Wei Wuxian doesn’t know that they have the hearing of gods and is talking at an audible level, several feet from the shrine. “Shh,” he says quickly. Hua Cheng smiles amusedly at him, and he and creeps closer to the door. “They’re talking.”
“Did you just try to fight a god? ” Xie Lian hears Wei Wuxian hiss.
“He threatened you,” says Lan Zhan, and then seems taken aback by his own words. “He threatened us,” he amends.
“That’s Xie Lian! He’s a martial god! And his— his husband, Hua Cheng, he’s a Great Calamity!”
Lan Zhan doesn’t respond.
“You’re so dumb,” says Wei Wuxian fondly. “Gods, Lan Zhan. Let’s go apologize, okay?”
“They threatened you,” Lan Zhan repeats.
“They’re deities! Lan Zhan, please.” Wei Wuxian’s voice grows heavier, more desperate. “I can’t have the gods turn against me too.”
There’s a long moment of silence, and then Xie Lian hears footsteps, heading towards the door. He jumps back and tries very hard to appear like he and Hua Cheng were deep in conversation as it opens.
Lan Zhan steps into the shrine, followed closely by Wei Wuxian, and bows deeply. “Your Highness the Crown Prince, Crimson Rain Seeks Flower. I apologize deeply for my rudeness earlier.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” says Xie Lian hurriedly. “No need to apologize. I’m glad Wei Wuxian’s… friend has come. You’re welcome to stay as well, of course.”
Lan Zhan bows deeply again. Then he turns to Wei Wuxian and simply looks at him for a moment, his eyes a well of relief.
In the quiet and still, Xie Lian can see how Wei Wuxian's expression is blown open with shock, like it has been ever since he saw Lan Zhan. Now that the imminent threat of offending a pair of deities has been resolved, he reaches for Lan Zhan’s sleeve, and his awareness of Xie Lian and Hua Cheng’s presence seems to fall away.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, “Why are you here? What happened? Are you hurt? Are you alright? How did you find me?”
The shaking of his hands intensifies where they curl around his white sleeves. He is letting himself be completely vulnerable in front of Lan Zhan; there is something soft within his shock and confusion. Their bodies curve towards each other like magnets.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Zhan. His voice is rich and low, lips curling warm around the two syllables, so tender as to be almost reverent. Xie Lian sees Hua Cheng glance over at them in interest, and then to Xie Lian; their eyes meet. Hua Cheng’s face is beautiful with love as he holds Xie Lian’s gaze.
Ah, Xie Lian thinks, Here he is. The person who Wei Wuxian loves so much . He crosses to Hua Cheng and begins to help him tidy the altar, letting them have their moment. He is indescribably relieved by Lan Zhan’s arrival. He is indescribably relieved that Wei Wuxian has someone who loves him.
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng quietly, as he finishes organizing the last of the offerings. “Should we go home?”
Xie Lian glances over to Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, who are in quiet conversation. They are touching at a single point and somehow also entirely enveloped in one another, completely absorbed in their corner of the shrine.
“Hm,” he says. “Yes, let’s go home.”
Later, they lie quietly in the dark of their room in Paradise Manor. Hua Cheng’s arms are wrapped securely around Xie Lian’s waist, his breath slips softly over the bare skin of his shoulder. It’s as soft and still as it was before Wei Wuxian ever entered his shrine, before he had ever left the bed.
Hua Cheng presses a kiss to his shoulder. “Still thinking about him?” It’s not accusatory. Xie Lian lets out a breath.
“About them,” he says. “Lan Zhan too.” Hua Cheng hums inquisitively, and Xie Lian feels it vibrate through his back. “I wanted to help Wei Wuxian because he was like me,” he says. “And… maybe I do need to help him. Maybe I can help him in the future, if he ever asks it of me again.” Xie Lian turns in Hua Cheng’s grip, to hold him as well. It’s what he’s always liked most about sleeping together, being close to each other. They are pressed so closely together in the darkness that he can’t tell where he ends and Hua Cheng begins. In the dark, in their bed, Hua Cheng’s every breath his own. They are inseparable. “But now I’m glad he’s like me.”
Hua Cheng makes another inquisitive noise, sleepy and soft.
“I’m glad he has someone who loves him just as Hua Cheng loves me.” Xie Lian smiles into Hua Cheng’s sleep shirt. Something he’s come to recognize as contentment is blooming in his chest. “I think he’ll be just fine.”