Hua Cheng looked up from his calligraphy practice - the words still nearly illegible - to find Xie Lian staring out into nothing, fingers idly running horizontally across his neck, drawn along an invisible line.
Back and forth, back and forth.
He had noticed Xie Lian doing that with increasing frequency these past weeks; Xie Lian's constant fiddling with his bandage wrappings, how he absentmindedly brushed his fingers along the bare expanse of his throat when those bandages were off, how he rolled his ankle when barefoot.
The same spots his Cursed Shackles once rested.
He had never felt lighter.
But therein laid the problem. He felt too light, weightless and set to aimlessly drift without the once grounding weight tethering him to earth.
He should be happy. But that incessant feeling of something missing persisted.
The Cursed Shackles were gone, but still, Xie Lian caught himself wrapping bandages around his neck to cover what was no longer there. It was an ingrained habit: had been for the last few centuries. He won't bother with lying to himself, he does miss the shackles. Not so much the energy-binding, luck-stealing aspects of them, but more so the pressure. The constant, familiar weight of them on his skin.
Xie Lian sighed, unwinding the length of bandages he had managed to wrap around his neck while his mind had drifted. He let his finger trail down the deceptively delicate chain links of the necklace San Lang gifted him what felt like forever ago. He cupped the crystal ring at the end, warmed from being constantly pressed to his chest.
At least he still had this with him.
Ruoye, previously settled around Xie Lian's waist, uncoiled enough to seemingly look up at its master, a silent question conveyed in the shape it formed. Xie Lian stared back at the sentient cloth, a fond smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "I'm alright." He stroked a finger along Ruoye's 'head', laughing quietly when the bandage pressed back against his hand, seeking more attention. Xie Lian easily complied, always happy to indulge his loyal companion. The one thing that had remained with him on his long journey. His smile softened at that thought.
Ruoye, like San Lang's ring, would at least stay with him; a steady presence, a constant comfort.
A soft whisper, "Thank you for everything, Ruoye." Without even questioning what the thanks was for, Ruoye climbed up Xie Lian's robes, settling like a pleased cat around the martial god's shoulders. It nuzzled against Xie Lian's cheek in silent acceptance of his words. And Xie Lian pressed closer in turn, relaxing against the familiar feeling of cool silk on his skin, of affections born of centuries of being together.
The brush of wings across his cheek broke him out of his reverie. A glint of silver and then the slightest pressure on the tip of his nose. He gazed cross eyed at the wraith butterfly perched so delicately there. He couldn’t help the tender smile that stole across his lips. With a quiet laugh, he coaxed the little one onto his fingertip instead, admiring how the candlelight caught each individual wing scale when it moved.
“Something weighing on your mind, dianxia?” Xie Lian looked over his shoulder to find Hua Cheng standing in the doorway. Xie Lian hadn't realized he walked to the bedroom but that didn't matter to him right then. He was always happy to see his husband. The butterfly fluttered delicately around Xie Lian's head, alighting briefly on his hair, before flying over to merge with the silver of Hua Cheng's vambrace.
"Ah, San Lang. No, nothing's wrong. Just a bit absentminded today is all." Hua Cheng gave him a slow nod, doubt clear in his eye but he didn't question Xie Lian. He let it go but still made a mental note, as he always did when something troubled the other. He obediently lowered his head to let Xie Lian kiss his cheek, watching the departing back of the martial god for a long moment, catching the aborted movement of a hand about to touch his throat again.
Hua Cheng stepped back, closing the door. With a toss of his dice, he opened the door again to reveal a workshop. He walked through, stopping before a table with a plain wooden box. He sat down, readied his tools, and got to work.
He took a moment to just breathe, to feel the water lap at his skin as his chest rose and fall with each breath. With a loud sigh, Xie Lian opened his eyes and reached for the soap, taking his time to lather himself up. He skimmed the soap along his right leg, slowing when he finally reached his ankle. He let his nail graze along the skin where his shackle once rested. He just sighed and moved on, finishing up.
When he set the soap aside, he locked gazes with a single red eye peeking up at him. Xie Lian just blinked, before a mischievous smile broke across his face. E-Ming just blinked its single eye in confusion before noticing the giant pile of bubbly foam cupped in Xie Lian's hands. The scimitar didn't even get the chance to widen its eye in comprehension before it was buried.
Xie Lian chuckled as he watched the sword shake away the bubbles like a wet dog. He gave the scimitar an apologetic smile, reaching out a hand. E-Ming looked at the proffered hand, up at Xie Lian's face, then back down before nuzzling into his palm. Xie Lian felt the sword vibrate in an imitation of a purr, brushing his fingers across the still bubble-laden pommel and grip.
He scooped up the still purring sword and poured water over it to rinse off the suds, setting E-Ming back on the floor to towel dry it. E-Ming closed its eye in semblance of an eye-smile, content to be pampered by the god.
With a gentle pat to its pommel, Xie Lian sent the scimitar on its way. The sword gave him one last glance before hopping out of the bathroom to who knows where. Xie Lian decided he spent enough time in the water, quickly rinsing off and reaching for his towel.
He walked into the bedroom, shrugging into his sleep robes, tying it closed and hanging up his towel.
“Gege?” Xie Lian jumped, startled at the sudden voice. He caught himself before he could backhand San Lang through the nearest wall…again. He laid a hand on his chest, his heart pounding against it like a raging beast. “Apologies for startling you, gege.” Xie Lian turned to find San Lang standing in front of him, a carved box in his hands and a worried frown on his lips.
“Sorry, San Lang. I just didn’t expect you.” He hadn’t gotten snuck up on in so long; he knew he had been quite absentminded as of late. He glanced at the box. He tilted his head, admiring the intricate markings etched into the wood. He blinked in startlement when the box was pressed into his hands. He looked back up, searching for answers in that dark eye. "San Lang?"
"Open it, gege."
Unable to refuse, his curiosity peeked, he gently lifted the lid and peered inside. His eyes widened, lips parted in surprise. What greeted him were fine pieces of jewelry. He looked at Hua Cheng in stunned question but the man merely nodded his head, gesturing back to the items within the box.
Xie Lian set the box on the edge of the bed, lifting the first piece from its place.
It was a thick black choker, threaded with white flower motifs. A matching red pearl to the one in Hua Cheng's braid was set between silver butterfly wings and dangling from a thin (but nigh unbreakable) silver chain. Xie Lian brushed his finger along the patterns, marvelling at the silky texture. Hua Cheng's voice cut in then, "It was woven with silk from my wraith butterflies. Allow me?"
Xie Lian nodded and let Hua Cheng take the choker, stepping closer, nearly chest to chest. Gentle as always, Hua Cheng set the opened necklace around his throat, playfully brushing cold fingers along Xie Lian's skin as he clasped it shut. The choker fit snugly around his neck, the coral pearl resting just above the hollow of his throat.
Hua Cheng hummed approvingly, stopping Xie Lian from looking in the mirror. "Not yet, gege. Try on the other pieces first."
Xie Lian did as suggested, picking up the next set.
It turned out to be two pieces; a matching pair or wristguards, polished silver engraved with plum blossoms and peonies. They were certainly impressive works of art, perfect mirrors of each other. Xie Lian will always be in awe of Hua Cheng's skills. He fitted them on, enjoying how light the metal was, admiring the way the candlelight shone across their gleaming surface, not truly surprised at how well they fit.
The last piece was a silver anklet carved with butterflies to match Hua Cheng's vambraces. Tiny bells attached to the anklet were just a bonus to match with the ones on Hua Cheng's boots. Hua Cheng was already down on one knee, his hand up to receive the piece of jewelry. Xie Lian set it on the offered palm, raising his right leg.
Hua Cheng took his sweet time, lightly curling one hand around Xie Lian's calf, letting his hand slide down the smooth expanse of skin before actually clasping the anklet into place. Xie Lian huffed softly at his husband's flirtatious actions, setting his foot back on the ground. Xie Lian caught the proud smirk on the Ghost King's face when the bells made a soft tinkling chime.
Hua Cheng stood up, holding Xie Lian's hand and leading him to the full-length mirror.
Xie Lian couldn't lie even if he wanted to. The pieces were gorgeous and - at the risk of sounding narcissistic - suited him well. He hadn't had a need for such finery in centuries, but he really did love these ones. Hand-crafted with such care by his most faithful.
Xie Lian would always treasure these.
Hua Cheng was a solid presence at his shoulder, their eyes locking in the mirror's reflection. He smiled, sharp canines peeking from behind his top lip. "What do you think, gege?"
"San Lang...they're beautiful! But...why? I don't understand."
Hua Cheng let his hand rest on the choker, fingers skimming across the silky material as Xie Lian watched through the mirror. "You always touch your neck when lost in thought, or your ankle when you sit. I figured this may help."
Xie Lian raised his own hand, letting his fingers brush Hua Cheng's still on his choker. "What about the wristguards then?"
"I noticed Ruoye is more of a belt these days...I've seen you scratch at your wrist sometimes too."
He leaned against his husband's chest, tilting his head back to look up at the other. A brilliant smile was already formed, the knowledge of just what this man would do for him always made him fall that much more in love. It fluttered in his chest like a swarm of wraith butterflies, gentle wing beats warming his heart with each thought. "Thank you, San Lang."
Hua Cheng wrapped his free arm around Xie Lian's waist, holding him as close as he could. He touched the red pearl butterfly, "This way, you'll always have my mark, the proof of my favor when you come across ghosts outside of my city."
Xie Lian turned in his hold, his back to the mirror, and gently traced the shell of Hua Cheng's pointed ear, letting his finger trail down the soft lobe, then that sharp jaw. He cupped his husband's cheek, the fondness in his chest growing as he felt Hua Cheng lean eagerly into his touch. He brought up his other hand to cradle Hua Cheng's other cheek, framing his face with both hands, and stood on his tiptoes. He placed a soft kiss to his forehead, down to his eyelid, one to his eyepatch, his nose, and then finally his lips.
Hua Cheng sighed gently against his mouth, wrapping his arms around the god's waist, content to just feel the other against him. Xie Lian pulled back slightly, brushing a thumb over his husband's cool cheek. He glanced up through his lashes with a whispered, "Thank you, San Lang."
Hua Cheng pulled him close again, leaning down slightly to rest his cheek on Xie Lian's head. Xie Lian moved his arms to wrap around the other's neck, fingers tangling in those long locks. "For you, Gege, anything." They swayed slowly to an unheard song, more than happy to stay in each other's embrace for as long as possible. They had nowhere better to be; they were already home, safe in each other's hearts.