Xie Lian awakes to the sound of someone screaming.
It’s not loud. It’s nothing more than a ringing at the shell of his ear, encasing him in a thick coat of shivers. They run down his spine and cling to his skin. They prick his heart.
The sound is familiar in a painful way. He inhales sharply when he realizes what it is.
“Your Highness—Your Highness, no, Your Highness—”
“San Lang?” Xie Lian says, the name leaving his lips in no more than a hushed whisper. He flicks his head over to his right, eyes finding the sleeping form of his husband. Hua Cheng is lying on his side, one hand pillowed beneath his left cheek and the other swung over Xie Lian’s waist. He looks calm, peaceful, not—
“Your Highness, no—no, don’t die—Your Highness—”
Xie Lian’s gaze lands on Hua Cheng’s lips, but they’re pinched together, not a sound escaping. The voice—oh, the voice—it’s his. It’s Hua Cheng’s. Xie Lian would recognize it anywhere.
“San Lang,” he murmurs. The yells, they’re louder now, pounding through his ears, a heavy thud.
They don’t hurt, because it’s Hua Cheng, and Hua Cheng would never hurt him. Hua Cheng would never even think of hurting him.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian says again, just slightly louder this time.
Hua Cheng’s eyes flutter open, lids drooping from sleep. Immediately, the hand underneath his cheek reaches out, the tips of his fingers ghosting the outline of Xie Lian’s jaw. They stay there, featherlight, the smallest pressure against his skin. He blinks, gaze hardening through the fresh morning air.
The change in expression is sudden, but not surprising. Xie Lian feels a rush of something warm and sticky course through his chest.
“Gege?” he asks, the lilt of his voice prominent. “Is something the matter?”
“I—” Xie Lian falters. I heard you crying out for me in your sleep. I heard your youngself in my ears. They all sound too much, even for him. Still, he has never lied to Hua Cheng before. “San Lang, are you all right?” he asks, because that much he knows is okay.
A surprised look dawns over his husband's face—the beginning waves of colorful slices of sunrise. Hua Cheng’s hands tighten around Xie Lian’s waist, pulling him closer.
“Me?” he asks softly. His voice is doing that thing again—the one where it curls delicately into the sound of a smile. “Of course I am, gege,” he says. “Did you have a bad dream?”
Did you? Xie Lian wants to ask.
“I’m fine,” he says instead, and Hua Cheng regards him only for a curious moment before he hums and leans forward to plant a soft kiss to Xie Lian’s temple. Xie Lian sinks into it, thoughts of the peculiar incident from earlier simmering beneath the surface of his skin, tucked away to revisit later.
The following night, Hua Cheng falls asleep first.
It isn’t uncommon for this to happen, but it’s not exactly common either. Usually the two will lay languidly on their bed, side by side, swirling around each other like wisps of dawn. Their legs will tangle together in knots, soft curves of elbows buried in crooks of skin. Xie Lian will tuck his face into Hua Cheng’s chest and sigh soundly as his face is peppered with light kisses and long fingers stroke through his hair.
His lids will flutter closed, last speck of light from the glint in his husband’s eyes. Warm, saturated. Like a pool of heat glowing in his chest.
But this—this happens too, occasionally. Not often, but sometimes, Hua Cheng’s shoulders slump down with stress. It’s never enough to be noticed by the untrained eye, but Xie Lian is different. Of course he’s different. He would be able to tell from miles and miles away.
Xie Lian’s hand reaches out, pale wrist visible through the dimly moonlit air. The light falls over them, casting long shadows over Hua Cheng’s face and illuminating every corner.
The sounds fill Xie Lian’s ears without warning. Hua Cheng doesn’t stir.
They bring the same skittery feeling with them, but this time, it’s different.
Xie Lian’s eyes widen.
“... don’t want to know how I feel about this?”
He recognizes the voice with ease. How can he not? It’s the one he’s stood with since the beginning of his time. It’s the one that rests in the base of his own throat.
These are the same words he had told Hua Cheng, all those months ago, in the deepest corner of a cave full of statues.
“Will Your Highness… not tell me?”
And that’s the voice of his lover. Hoarse. Broken. Afraid.
The memories of this night are still fresh in his mind. It’s like it all happened just yesterday. Xie Lian’s eyes, still wide awake and refusing to droop, find the sheath of Hua Cheng’s face once more.
He’s sound asleep, lost in the land of dreams. His body is moving, up and down, breathing despite the lack of need for it. He looks fragile like this—like if Xie Lian reached out and pinched his skin he’d dissipate into a flurry of silver butterflies.
No one would know what lies beneath.
“I’m sorry,” says Xie Lian’s voice, quiet and achingly persistent, “something like this must be said clearly.”
A pause. Xie Lian knows what’s to come.
“That’s true,” says Hua Cheng’s voice. Like this, he sounds almost resigned. Xie Lian can’t see him like he had that night—he can’t see the curve of Hua Cheng’s back, bent forward with his head hanging down. He can’t see the rigid outline of his shoulders, braced for hurt.
Xie Lian’s heart pounds heavily in his chest, his throat sucking heavy breaths in as he waits for what’s to come.
“Okay,” says Hua Cheng’s voice once again.
After this—after this Xie Lian would walk up to him, would wrap his arms around Hua Cheng’s waist, would bury his face into Hua Cheng’s hair.
“San Lang,” says Xie Lian’s voice.
“You have been very kind to me.”
A sharp inhale. It’s Hua Cheng—it has to be.
“And I appreciate that, but…”
No. No. What is he doing? That’s not what happened. That’s not what he—
“... I don’t want you to misunderstand what’s between us.”
Stop. No. Stop.
“I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
“San Lang,” says Xie Lian now. He reaches out, fingers ghosting over the lines of his arm. His voice breaks in his throat as it falls out, parched from lost sleep.
“Your Highness.” That’s Hua Cheng’s voice. It’s shaking. Xie Lian has never heard it like this before. “I understand.”
“San Lang,” Xie Lian says, pleading. His fingers tighten around Hua Cheng, tips of nail digging into his skin. “San Lang, sweetheart, wake up. San Lang—”
“Thank you for your kindness,” says Hua Cheng’s voice.
“San Lang,” says Xie Lian, breath choked up now. He feels the hold Hua Cheng has on him tighten all of a sudden, and then he’s gasping as he’s pulled into a firm embrace.
“Gege?” says Hua Cheng. He’s stiff around him, hands threading through Xie Lian’s hair. “Gege, gege are you okay? What happened?”
He sounds panicked—but calm. Like the only reason he’s acting like this is because of Xie Lian. Not because of his nightmare. Because of Xie Lian.
How many of these dreams has Hua Cheng had? How many times has he watched these scenes play out in his mind? How many times has he hidden them from Xie Lian?
“I—” Xie Lian’s voice breaks, muffled by the soft fabric of Hua Cheng’s robes. They’re red as blood, shining even in the night. They contrast his pale skin beautifully, blend seamlessly with the white of Xie Lian’s own sleeves. Hua Cheng holds him, whispering, stroking his back like the wash of tides against rock.
Xie Lian swallows and steadies his breath.
“Bad dream,” he says, soft. He figures it’s not exactly a lie, given the loophole he’s carved. Hua Cheng’s fingers pause their motions, then resume automatically like nothing is amiss. Xie Lian wonders what he’s thinking, wonders if it’s okay to ask.
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng, “you’re okay. Do you want me to stay awake with you?”
“Please,” says Xie Lian.
Hua Cheng is a ghost. He doesn’t need sleep. He sleeps because Xie Lian likes it, because Xie Lian enjoys the thought of the two going to bed and waking up in each other’s arms every morning, because Xie Lian wants to be with him every moment of every day. He sleeps because of Xie Lian.
He has nightmares because of Xie Lian.
“San Lang,” he whispers, tilting his head up till his chin is digging into the spot below Hua Cheng’s neck. He gulps down his nerves—knows he needs to say it. “San Lang, I love you.”
Hua Cheng releases a breath that sounds halfway between a laugh and a surprised gasp. He lets Xie Lian lean away from him, left eye finding Xie Lian’s, and smiles.
“What’s this so suddenly?” he asks, voice quiet and teasing. He chuckles, amusement laced delicately within. “This one loves gege too.”
“I really love you,” says Xie Lian, a tinge of urgency in his voice now. His front tooth sinks into the flesh of his bottom lip, biting, making sure he doesn’t take this too far.
When he had learned of Hua Cheng’s feelings—officially—all the way back in Mount Tonglu, the only thing coursing in his mind was yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes. Because really, if he’s really being honest with himself, he’d known. He’d known long before everything truly came out in the open that Hua Cheng harbored feelings for him, that Hua Cheng had probably been there during his first ascension. Somewhere, hidden beneath the dark, looming shadows of his past.
After all, who else could draw such an immaculate image of the crown prince? Why else would Crimson Rain Sought Flower cling to his side and protect him from harm’s way?
And how could Xie Lian not fall as well? After everything? After the eternal devotion Hua Cheng had displayed for him, after the ups and the downs and anything and everything in between?
That night in Mount Tonglu—it was a pivoting point in their relationship. That hug they shared, the way they clung onto each other for dear life, what more could that mean? Had Xie Lian not been clear enough? Why is Hua Cheng, even today, dreaming about such horrifying things?
Hua Cheng… does he really still…
He gulps the thought down and settles into the hold his husband has on him.
It’s after it happens for the third night in a row that Xie Lian realizes something is very, very wrong.
One moment he’s asleep and the next he’s not.
“No,” Hua Cheng’s voice rings through his ears. Their room is quiet as skittering mice, the only sound coming from Xie Lian’s own breathing. He looks over to his side, sees Hua Cheng sleeping peacefully next to him, and purses his lips.
Peacefully—no. This isn’t peaceful sleep at all.
“Not him,” says Hua Cheng’s voice. Xie Lian flutters his eyes shut, clenches his fists against their bedsheets. “Please, no, not him—don’t—don’t take him away from me too, please no, not him, anyone but him.”
The voice is a hushed whisper, like a real person hadn’t said these words. Xie Lian wonders, briefly, if he’s right. Hua Cheng’s voice sounds like a wisp of thread, floating through the wind. Like a ghostfire. An achingly familiar ghostfire. A colorless flame, desperate to be set free from its cage.
“Stop! Stop! Stop hurting him! Stop! Get away from him! He’s—Your Highness! No, don’t do that do him, don’t—”
Squeezing his eyes shut, Xie Lian rolls over in his place on the bed till one of his legs is slung over Hua Cheng’s waist and the other is pressed completely against his side. Hua Cheng starts awake, his hand moving almost immediately to where Xie Lian is lying.
Xie Lian freezes as Hua Cheng’s fingers pat the top of his head, careful and light. It’s almost as if he’s trying to not wake him up.
Xie Lian glances up, finds Hua Cheng staring off into empty space, eyes raking over the ceiling above. He watches Hua Cheng exhale, shoulders stiffening and relaxing, eyes closing as he snaps his lips together and swallows.
He—he doesn’t seem to realize that Xie Lian is awake. Not yet, at least.
Was he—was he checking? To see if Xie Lian was still there?
Does he do it often?
How much does Xie Lian not know?
“San Lang,” whispers Xie Lian, unable to keep quiet any longer.
Hua Cheng immediately notices, his hand finding Xie Lian’s and wrapping tightly around them. He interlocks their fingers over his stomach, and Xie Lian watches as his smile returns, gracing his beautiful features with full force. Xie Lian doesn’t move, carefully hooking his chin over the blade of Hua Cheng’s shoulder.
“Gege is awake?” Hua Cheng asks, voice light and streaked with unconcealed fondness.
“San Lang,” says Xie Lian. He feels saliva slide down his throat, a clear indication of the nerves itching at the edge of his skin. He’s never felt this way before—talking to Hua Cheng is easy, it always has been. Xie Lian can tell his husband anything, and he knows Hua Cheng will listen to him till the end of time. He knows Hua Cheng like the back of his hand, and yet, and yet—
This. He hadn’t known about this.
The hurt that lies beneath Hua Cheng. Everything he hides away.
“San Lang,” he says again, and he finds that the rest of his words are clogged up in his throat, desperate for release but frighteningly so. For some reason, Xie Lian finds himself stalling. His mind churns faster than the rest of his body, a wheel that rotates constantly.
He finds himself at a loss for words.
“Hm?” says Hua Cheng.
This is where Xie Lian should ask about what he’s been hearing. This is where he should tell Hua Cheng what’s going on.
But just like all those months ago—when Xie Lian had first begun to realize Hua Cheng’s plans of courting him—he can’t find it in himself to face it yet. He can’t say anything. The parallel strikes him suddenly, a rush of cold air seeping through his skin.
Back then it was because he didn’t dare consider that Hua Cheng loved him for himself—for the scrap collector he became, for every intricate ruin he had faced throughout his life. After all, Xie Lian knew Hua Cheng had been alive during the time of his first ascension, when he was the beloved crown prince that every person adored. Hua Cheng had been there to see him at his very peak, when everything he knew of was covered in plates of gold and gems that shimmered in the sunlight. Hua Cheng had been there when Xie Lian wasn’t just Xie Lian—he had been there when he was His Highness the Crown Prince of Xian Le. The future king.
After seeing someone so lavish and beautiful, how could Xie Lian expect anything more? How could he expect Hua Cheng to still see him as someone worthy of such praise?
But what scares him now is different, for now he knows Hua Cheng doesn’t care for any of that. He knows that Hua Cheng loves him in every sense of the word, that every breath he takes is for him. What scares him now is the prospect of being a burden.
He’s had to carry every burden on his own shoulders for the past eight hundred years: being the perfect son, the perfect prince, the perfect martial god, the perfect friend. He drove Feng Xin away because of it. He drove himself to madness because of it.
And now, for the first time in his life, someone else is there to help him carry the weight.
“If something is bothering you,” he says quietly, lips feeling dry all of a sudden as the words spill forth, “you’ll tell me about it, won’t you, San Lang?”
Hua Cheng doesn’t respond for several moments. “What does gege want to know about?”
It’s not a direct answer. Xie Lian sighs.
“You,” he says. He’ll go along with it for now. “I want to know everything about San Lang. Whatever he’s willing to tell me.”
“Everything,” Hua Cheng echoes.
“Everything,” Xie Lian confirms.
Hua Cheng pauses halfway on his next breath. It falls abruptly, and Xie Lian takes a moment to chance a glance in his direction. He’s looking back at him, a soft expression playing at his lips. He looks content. He looks like someone who didn’t just wake up from an awful nightmare.
“Gege already knows everything about me,” Hua Cheng says softly. Then, almost as an afterthought: “Everything important.”
Xie Lian doesn’t miss it. He can’t miss it. He lifts his hand to cup Hua Cheng’s face, palm resting over the sharp curve of his jawline.
“But,” says Hua Cheng then, “if you want to know anything else, just ask me. I’ll tell you.”
“Okay,” says Xie Lian.
He wants to know many things, he realizes.
How long have you been plagued by your past? Does it sit on you like a blotch of ink? Does it ever go away? What happened to you? What can I do to make it better? Can I make it better? I love you, every part of you, don’t you see?
Xie Lian asks Ling Wen about it.
“Oh,” she says. “Did Your Highness not get the message? The communication array is going through some updates. Perhaps it’s a glitch. It should be fine in a few days.”
A few days.
Well. All right.
Xie Lian stays awake the next night.
He thinks, and he thinks, and he thinks.
“San Lang,” he whispers against Hua Cheng’s chest, his night robes sweeping down below the line of his shoulder. “Are you sleepy?”
“No,” says Hua Cheng, and it almost makes Xie Lian laugh out loud. Instead he huffs a breath, steady and stubborn. “Are you sleepy, gege?”
“No.” There’s a smile in his voice, quietly sure. “Let’s not sleep then, okay?”
He’ll make sure Hua Cheng doesn’t have to go through another night of horror. He wonders why Hua Cheng even sleeps in the first place if he knows what pain it’ll bring.
But then he remembers that Hua Cheng does everything for him—and Xie Lian has always encouraged the latter to rest. Xie Lian has always told Hua Cheng to lie down with him, get some shut eye, sleep by his side and rest his head on Xie Lian’s shoulder.
“All right,” says Hua Cheng now. “If gege doesn’t want us to sleep, then we won’t sleep.” He grins, a mischievous glint residing in his left eye. “I wonder… does gege want to engage in other activities?”
Xie Lian smiles, and this time it feels natural. “Don’t tease.”
Hua Cheng’s hands curve around the back of Xie Lian’s neck, gently pushing his thick brown locks to the side and sliding his index finger over the line of his collarbone. He tilts Xie Lian’s chin up so they’re properly facing one another. He laughs.
Xie Lian wonders if he’s laughing due to relief. He wonders if it’s because he knows he won’t have to face yet another flurry of nightmares for a little while longer.
They don’t sleep that night. They don’t sleep the night after, either.
“Gege?” Hua Cheng asks, concern evident in the lilt of his voice. “Gege, you didn’t get any sleep last night either. Are you still not feeling tired?”
“I’m fine, San Lang,” says Xie Lian, coupled with the brightest smile he can muster. “Come out and see the stars with me? I heard from Feng Xin that they’re especially bright tonight.”
Hua Cheng looks hesitantly at him. “But gege, you need sleep.”
“I told you,” says Xie Lian, “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me, okay? I’m really not tired.” He beams as he gathers his robes at his feet, slipping his straw sandals on. “I’ve gone much more time than this without sleep, you know.”
Hua Cheng does know. Of course he knows. Xie Lian almost regrets saying this when he sees the way Hua Cheng stiffens at the reminder of Xie Lian’s past, the way his eyes narrow on his smaller figure. Xie Lian shakes it off, tilting his head to the side and shrugging his shoulders.
And so they lay down outside, curled together, and look up at the velvety blue-black of the night. Every so often, Xie Lian will glance sidelong and fix his gaze on Hua Cheng’s eyes to make sure they don’t close for a second longer than a blink.
He finds himself looking often.
“Do I hurt you?”
Xie Lian asks himself this as he’s disrobing for the night. His back is facing Hua Cheng, hands tangled in the knots of white fabric covering his chest. His head is tilted downward, eyes pointedly drawn on the tips of his bare toes, refusing to look anywhere else.
Hua Cheng is sitting on their bed on the opposite end of the room. Xie Lian hears their covers rustle as his husband suddenly moves to sit up.
“Sorry, San Lang,” Xie Lian says, smiling despite himself. He turns on his heel, throwing a glance over his right shoulder. “Did I startle you? I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry, I was simply thinking aloud.”
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng. His voice is hard, and that alone makes the hairs on Xie Lian’s arms bristle. “What did you just say?”
Oh. This was a bad idea.
Xie Lian isn’t stupid. He knows Hua Cheng’s feelings on this matter. He knows how much he’d rather Xie Lian think anything else.
He gulps it down, trudges forward.
“I’ve just been thinking about it,” he says. His voice falls quieter this time, but he knows Hua Cheng heard him. His heart catches in his chest, eyes finding Hua Cheng’s deep one. It’s clouded, almost frightened, and his entire body has gone incredibly stiff. His fingers curl tightly around their sheets, creating ripples in the patchy linen.
“Don’t,” he says. He looks up, arms circling the air around him. “Gege, come here.”
The fall into Hua Cheng is easy as it always is. Xie Lian’s legs wrap around Hua Cheng’s waist as he seats himself on his thighs, straddling him against his frontside. Fingers cling to his sides, dig past the thin sheathe of his under robes. Xie Lian is enclosed in warmth; he feels Hua Cheng’s sharp nose press into the crook of his neck, breathing in soundly.
Xie Lian sighs, the light trill of the sound undoubtedly reaching Hua Cheng’s ears seconds after it floats past his lips.
“Your Highness,” Hua Cheng says, “you could never hurt me. You are the most precious to me.”
Xie Lian stiffens. “San Lang—”
“You deserve much more than me. You deserve the world,” Hua Cheng continues, unwavering. He backs away till Xie Lian can see him properly, a fond expression painted across his lovely features. “But the world does not deserve you.”
“Stop that,” Xie Lian chides. He shakes his head, lips pressing together in a thin line. “What do you mean by that? More than you? What more could I possibly ever ask for?”
Hua Cheng, who followed him silently through life and death. Hua Cheng, who stood by his side no matter the circumstances, who held him close in the depths of his heart for hundreds and hundreds of years. Hua Cheng, who listened to his woes and comforted his worries, who saw the ugliest parts of him and still, still—
Xie Lian is struck with an inexplicable tug in his chest. It melts at his core, a simmering heat that settles against his bones.
Hua Cheng opens his mouth to respond, but Xie Lian darts down before the words leave his throat. He plants his lips onto Hua Cheng’s, kissing him silent.
It’s slow, barely frantic but tauntingly so. Hua Cheng’s hands tangle at Xie Lian’s waist; Xie Lian’s fingers knot in Hua Cheng’s ink-colored hair. They move, a gentle push and pull, biting and sucking and spilling against one another.
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng when they pull away. His voice is blurry as it falls past his kiss-swollen lips. “You saved me. You loved me. It’s I who does not deserve you.”
He says it in a way that suggests he knows it to be true. With what Xie Lian knows now—with what he’s heard in the fragments of night—it pains him to realize that Hua Cheng’s words are sincere. Completely, utterly.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but for some reason, it does.
Xie Lian finds his gaze drifting, roaming around the surface of Hua Cheng’s face, clinging to every corner of his skin. His arm drifts upward, the pads of his fingers hooking around the thin strap of the jaded black eyepatch. He tugs at it, gentle, and runs his thumb over the thick material. He watches as Hua Cheng’s left eye widens in surprise, blinking up at him as he stares unabashedly.
“Gege?” he asks, lips parting in question.
Xie Lian suddenly feels tender all over. This is Hua Cheng’s true form, after all. Hua Cheng is willing to live by his side, undisguised. The erratic warmth encases him like fruit skin, prodding around his heart in waves.
Hua Cheng doesn’t back down. He leans forward. “Gege, what’s this all about?”
Xie Lian smiles. “It’s nothing.”
“It isn’t nothing,” says Hua Cheng. He pauses, lips going thin. “Gege doesn’t have to tell me anything he’s not comfortable with, but I am here to listen.”
“You always are,” says Xie Lian. And now I want to listen to you as well.
He decides today is the day he’ll finally ask.
“Bed,” says Hua Cheng. He gestures behind him, to where their pillows lie. “Let’s sleep.”
Xie Lian wavers for a moment, gaze flitting between Hua Cheng’s face and his side of the bed. “Ah… actually—”
“Gege, enough,” says Hua Cheng. “You haven’t slept in three days. It isn’t healthy for you.” His brows are pinched together, one hand in Xie Lian’s own. “Is something wrong? Are you feeling okay? I can go to the city tomorrow and see if I can find sleeping aids. I’ll have them made for you if you want, actually. I know someone.”
Xie Lian feels his features soften automatically. He lifts his free hand, the pads of his fingers running down the side of Hua Cheng’s face. Hua Cheng leans into the touch, lips pressing a featherlight kiss to Xie Lian’s wrist.
“Lie down,” he says. He wraps his arms around Xie Lian’s waist and hoists him up with practiced ease. Xie Lian squeals before he can help himself, the sound flying into the air around them as Hua Cheng lowers him into the bed. Xie Lian looks up at him, finds the gentle slopes of his face, and swallows the budding tension down.
Hua Cheng leans over him and plants a kiss to the corner of his eye. “Close,” he whispers.
The corners of Xie Lian’s mouth quirk upward as he does just that: he closes his left eye.
Hua Cheng leans over further, kisses the edge of his right eye next. “Close.”
Xie Lian shuts it as well.
“Good,” Hua Cheng hums. Xie Lian feels the heavy weight on him disperse, feels the mattress dip from next to him. “Now, gege, sleep.”
But how can he? How is he supposed to fall asleep when he knows what lies after? Fatigue clings to his skin, hangs heavily at his eyes like a slug on honeydew leaves. It threatens to take over, but Xie Lian persists. He won’t fall asleep—he doesn’t dare to. Not when Hua Cheng is right here, by his side, plagued by nightmares every night of every day.
He steadies his breath. He knows, logically, that this can only go on for so long. Hua Cheng has moved on to forcing him into bed, forcing him to close his eyes, even. Xie Lian is many things, but denying his husband—hiding from him—it’s something he simply cannot do.
He looks over to Hua Cheng and finds him already settled in at his side, half-drifting already.
“San Lang,” he says before he can truly think his words over, side feeling heavy from where it’s pressed into the bed, “you dream, don’t you?”
Hua Cheng’s eye flies open, brazenly staring back at Xie Lian through the crispness of the night. He stiffens, but Xie Lian wouldn’t have known if it weren’t for Hua Cheng’s palm curling around his hip bone. His lips, stitched together, part.
“Gege?” he asks, quiet. “What are you talking about?”
“You dream,” Xie Lian repeats, firmer this time. “I can hear them. Your dreams.”
“Oh,” says Hua Cheng.
“It’s an error with the communication array,” says Xie Lian. He gulps, feels his throat bob up and down like a rubber duck at sea. “It should be fine… soon… but.”
“Ah,” says Hua Cheng. His gaze adopts a faraway look, like he’s enveloped deeply in thought. Xie Lian stares, doesn’t dare look away. “His Highness needn’t worry about such silliness.”
“It’s not silly,” says Xie Lian immediately. “San Lang, am I right then?”
Hua Cheng is silent, which Xie Lian supposes is answer enough. He exhales, heart pinching in the confines of his chest.
“I see,” he says, voice barely above a whisper. His eyes close shut, pressing deeply into the tips of his cheeks. Breathing quietly, he feels a hand on his jaw, fingers curving over his skin and running down his face. The touch is nimble, quick and easy like it was built for this. It’s meant to be comforting, Xie Lian knows.
Somehow, that doesn’t sit right with him.
Because Hua Cheng shouldn’t be comforting him right now—it should be Xie Lian. Xie Lian should be the one running his fingers over the lines of Hua Cheng’s face, it should be Xie Lian who holds his husband close to his chest, heart to heart, mouth to forehead. Soothing.
“Your Highness,” says Hua Cheng, “please don’t cry.”
Is he crying? Xie Lian’s eyes fly open, a trickle of something warm and wet sliding down his cheek. A tear. It falls off of his face and lands on the sheet below.
“This one is sorry,” Hua Cheng continues, devastation leaking from his voice. His tone is hard, hoarsely quiet and rough around the edges. He sounds like the memory from the second nightmare Xie Lian had overheard—the one where Xie Lian was cruel enough to reject him. Reject him. “I’m sorry,” Hua Cheng continues, snapping him back to the present. “Is gege mad? Do you want me to sleep outside? I can go—”
“No,” says Xie Lian. Hua Cheng’s hand freezes where it is, still perched on the outline of his face. His thumb is dangerously close to the wet tear streak, smudged like a crumbly yellow road. “I want you right here, with me.”
“Oh,” says Hua Cheng.
“I’m not crying.” Xie Lian lifts his own hand and wraps his fingers around Hua Cheng’s wrist. Hua Cheng visibly flinches this time, retracting his hand immediately like it’s second nature. Xie Lian holds onto it steadfastly, doesn’t let it roam too far away, clutches it like a lifeline. Hua Cheng’s skin is cold to the touch, just as it always is. Never to Xie Lian, though. To Xie Lian, Hua Cheng is warmth personified.
“Are you sure about that?” asks Hua Cheng, and it’s meant to be teasing. Xie Lian knows it is. Hua Cheng is trying to lighten the mood as he always does. He’s trying to direct Xie Lian’s attention away from the matter at hand.
And, just as always, it doesn’t work.
“San Lang,” says Xie Lian.
“Yes?” says Hua Cheng.
Hua Cheng hums, but it falls flat. Xie Lian can practically see the gears turning in his head. He’s sure that Hua Cheng knows exactly what he’s talking about.
“How long what?” he murmurs quietly, though still loud enough to reach Xie Lian’s ears.
“How long,” Xie Lian repeats, “have you had such dreams?”
This time, Hua Cheng doesn’t visibly react. Xie Lian recognizes it with ease: resignation. Hua Cheng knows Xie Lian won’t let up till he’s given answers. They’ve always been like this, after all.
“Ghosts don’t dream,” he says. A final bout of ignorance.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian presses. There’s an edge of desperation there, he thinks. “Please.”
Hua Cheng stares at him for a long time. Then: “For as long as I can remember.”
He offers nothing more. Xie Lian feels his breath hitch in his throat. Oh. Oh.
“It isn’t gege’s fault,” says Hua Cheng. He shakes his head despite the awkward angle. “Never gege’s fault.”
“But, San Lang—” Xie Lian falters a step, searches for what to say. “They’re all about me.”
“No, gege,” says Hua Cheng. “They’re about me.”
Xie Lian says nothing. He waits, patient.
“Sometimes,” Hua Cheng continues, but his voice is coarse, like peeling a shelled clove of bruised garlic, “my thoughts betray me. Sometimes I feel—weak. I am weak. All I’ve ever wanted to do is protect you, protect you from everything, from—”
“San Lang,” says Xie Lian. He feels a layer of gloss pool over his eyes and hushes it away. “San Lang, you do. You’re the only one who ever has.”
“That frustrates me,” says Hua Cheng. He rolls over onto his back. Xie Lian reaches over and covers his hand with his own. He squeezes, gentle, as Hua Cheng lies still at his side. “All of these selfish idiots, only ever thinking about themselves. Never about others. Never about you.”
“But,” says Xie Lian, “I have you for that, don’t I?”
This seems to catch Hua Cheng by surprise. He turns his head so that it’s facing Xie Lian, expression stitched in a way that suggests he’s in deep thought.
Comfort. Solace. That’s what he needs right now.
“San Lang,” Xie Lian says. His mouth feels dry all of a sudden, but he sticks to the confidence that’s surging quietly through, the one he feels only in Hua Cheng’s presence. “I would move mountains with my bare hands for you.”
Hua Cheng blinks once, then twice. His mouth trembles. The hand above his waist flips open, palm pressed securely against Xie Lian’s.
“As would I,” he says.
“You make me happy,” says Xie Lian. “So happy. I know what happiness is because of you.”
Hua Cheng moves again so that he’s lying on his side. He swings his leg over Xie Lian’s thigh, their hands still clasped tightly together. Like this, they’re centimeters apart from one another. Nose to nose. Xie Lian can see nothing around Hua Cheng’s face, vision filled by the paleness of his features. It’s like moonlight—the kind that falls around stargazers in a blanket. Like clouds.
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng then, “which did you hear?”
Oh. The dreams.
“Only three of them,” says Xie Lian.
“Is this why you haven’t slept?”
Xie Lian glances away. He bites his lip.
Hua Cheng’s eyebrows furrow. “Gege.”
“How could I sleep?” says Xie Lian, looking back to him. “Every time I did I would wake up to your voice in my head.”
“Oh,” says Hua Cheng. “They woke you? I’m sorry, you should be able to sleep peacefully—”
“San Lang,” Xie Lian chides. “That’s not what I meant.”
Hua Cheng’s mouth snaps shut with a sharp clack.
“You—” Xie Lian stops, searches his mind for memories from nights before. He breathes, careful. “The first one, you were crying for me.”
Hua Cheng’s hand tightens around Xie Lian’s. He says nothing.
Xie Lian continues. “The second one, we were back in Mount Tonglu. In the cave. I—” At this, Hua Cheng freezes, eye widening. It’s visible, even through the dense night air in their room. Xie Lian swallows before he finishes. “I said something I would never say to you. Ever. In any life of mine.”
“Never,” Xie Lian cuts in. He’s pressing it in deep, he knows, but he has to tell Hua Cheng this. He has to make sure he understands. “What you saw in your dream that night, it would never happen. It can’t happen, San Lang.”
“I know that,” says Hua Cheng, but his voice is much quieter now. “I know that. Of course I know that.”
Hua Cheng angles his head so that his chin is pointed downward, his eye narrow as it stares somewhere in the general area of Xie Lian’s chest. Xie Lian sees this and moves his free hand, the one tucked between their bodies, up to his heart. He clutches his robes, pushes the cloth into his palm. It’s smooth to the touch.
Hua Cheng’s gaze doesn’t falter away.
“There’s no but,” he says, voice stiff. “I didn’t plan what happened that day. I expected nothing to come out of it.”
Xie Lian lets his hand free, reaching out and taking Hua Cheng’s chin between his fingers. “What I heard,” he says, and Hua Cheng barely flinches. “Is that what you thought would happen?”
At this, Hua Cheng turns to looking nervous. His cheeks puff out, almost like he’s embarrassed by something. By this.
Xie Lian exhales, feels a stinging sensation at the corners of his eyes.
“If I’m so unlucky,” he says, voice warbled, “how did I manage to get you?”
“Ah,” says Hua Cheng. He looks up slightly so that their faces align once again. “That’s easy.”
Hua Cheng nods, the pillow moving with the bob of his head. “My luck is simply so overwhelming that it cancels yours out, gege.”
“I see,” says Xie Lian. The smile in his tone is more than evident. “See? My San Lang is so lucky, so funny, so lovely to me. How could I ever think differently of you? There’s nothing to misunderstand between us. There never has been.”
“The thought of losing you,” says Hua Cheng suddenly. Xie Lian falls silent, lays back and listens intently. “The thought of losing you again…”
“I have you,” says Xie Lian immediately. “I don’t want to leave you ever again.”
And Hua Cheng stares at him, a flickering smile gracing his lips. It’s nothing like his usual ones. It isn’t teasing, nor is it on the borderline of a smirk. It’s fond. It’s filled with gallons upon gallons of love.
“In the third,” says Xie Lian, “you were crying to someone else.”
“I know which one that is,” says Hua Cheng. “The one from the night after I dreamed of Mount Tonglu. I remember.”
Xie Lian nods, cautious. “I’m… I’m not sure I know what it was referring to.”
Which isn’t exactly true. Xie Lian has an inkling of a feeling—a small seed of doubt plastered in the back of his mind. He remembers pain, raw and clear as day. He envisions the sharp blade of the knife and pooling scarlet blood. A face, half-smiling and half-crying, a sight that surfaced in his own nightmares for hundreds and hundreds of years. A sight that still sometimes comes back to him, in the deepest parts of night, when he’s wrapped in the arms of someone who defies every one of those memories.
So Xie Lian understands Hua Cheng. He’s possibly the only one who can.
“Good,” says Hua Cheng. He lifts their enclosed hands and kisses the skin of Xie Lian’s wrist. The touch is light, inviting. “It's good that you don’t know.”
“Then I won’t ask,” says Xie Lian. He takes another breath. “San Lang, why didn’t you tell me?”
“Gege shouldn’t have to worry about this,” says Hua Cheng, firm. “All of this. It’s ridiculous.”
“Nothing about you is ridiculous to me.”
“But this is,” says Hua Cheng. He laughs, and it sounds humorless. “It is.”
“It’s not,” says Xie Lian. “I have nightmares too, don’t I? Do you see me as any less because of them?”
“I…” Hua Cheng looks conflicted, lips curled and fraught. “Gege, of course I don’t.” There’s a faint glint of something Xie Lian recognizes to be understanding there, like Hua Cheng is slowly unravelling Xie Lian’s point. He looks small like this, body bent around Xie Lian like a wilting flower.
“Then?” says Xie Lian, gentle as ever. “San Lang, I love you. I love every part of you. Your past, your present, your future.” He gently flicks Hua Cheng’s nose and watches the surprise bloom on his cheeks. “Even the parts of yourself that you’d rather hide away.”
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng, and it’s followed by nothing.
“Will you tell me?” Xie Lian asks. “The next time it happens, will you tell me?”
Hua Cheng looks conflicted for a long moment, and Xie Lian spends the time haltingly anxious. He knows the answer already, of course. This is Hua Cheng. Hua Cheng would never refuse anything Xie Lian asks for. Still, Xie Lian wants to know for sure. He wants to make sure Hua Cheng is okay with it.
“Yes,” says Hua Cheng. “If gege wants me to tell him, I will.”
“And do you want to?”
Again, Hua Cheng hesitates. If anyone else were to see him like this, they’d call him out on sheer uncharacteristic behavior. But this isn’t the Hua Cheng displayed for everyone else—this is the Hua Cheng reserved solely for Xie Lian. The truest, most vulnerable version of himself. Hua Cheng isn’t one to care for his appearance around others, but this—this is where Xie Lian knows it matters. The bravery showcased in their binary is unparalleled.
“Yes,” says Hua Cheng. “I do.” He sounds like he means it.
Xie Lian knows he does.
He scooches down on the bed, down till his head is level with Hua Cheng’s chest. He ignores the surprised hitch he hears from up above, instead untangling his hand from where Hua Cheng is still holding it and wrapping his arms around his middle. He settles close, resting his ear against Hua Cheng’s frontside, and breathes in slowly.
“Gege,” says Hua Cheng again, “what are you doing—”
“Shh,” says Xie Lian. He doesn’t let go. Rather, his grip tightens. “I haven’t slept in three days, San Lang. Remember?”
Hua Cheng huffs a laugh, the sound travelling right down to where Xie Lian is laying still. “All right,” he says. “Sleep well, my love.”
“Sleep well,” Xie Lian agrees, “my love.”