It happens on a warm summer morning in the middle of July.
The dip of the mattress is comforted by two intertwined bodies, Xie Lian’s arms wrapped around Hua Cheng’s waist and Hua Cheng’s feet tangled around Xie Lian’s legs. Xie Lian’s robes shy away from his shoulder, and sunlight dips downward, encasing his skin in sticky warmth.
He wakes and finds himself smiling.
Bending down to plant a kiss against Hua Cheng’s temple, he shimmies away from his hold, giggling to himself when he feels the way his husband’s arms snake tighter around him, gripping and feeling for the span of his waist.
“Gege…” Hua Cheng mumbles, “gege, come back to bed.”
Xie Lian smiles and leans forward, hovering his lips by Hua Cheng’s ear. “I have to go and meet Feng Xin and Mu Qing today, remember?”
Hua Cheng groans and tightens his grip. “No.”
How stubborn, Xie Lian thinks, his fingers ghosting Hua Cheng’s cheek and pushing a stray strand of his inky black hair away from his face. “I’ll be back in a few hours, sweetheart. You stay here in bed, hm? I’ll just...San Lang?”
Hua Cheng’s eye has shot open, his lips parting in obvious surprise. Xie Lian blinks, leans back slightly, and frowns.
“San Lang? Are you okay?”
Then Hua Cheng’s arms snake away from Xie Lian’s waist, and he rolls all the way over till his back is facing him. He curls up at the edge of the bed, tucking himself into a tiny little ball. He shakes his head.
“Gege can go,” he says, voice muffled by what Xie Lian assumes are his hands. “This one is still tired, ah. I think I’ll sleep for a few more hours.”
Well, all right.
“Mm,” Xie Lian agrees, before wiggling on over to wrap his arms around Hua Cheng’s waist and press his chest into his backside. He leans over his husband’s side, his lips finding a sliver of his uncovered face, and he pressed a featherlight kiss to his skin.
He gasps and reels back. “San Lang! You’re burning up!”
Hua Cheng makes a pained sound.
“Are you sick?” Xie Lian continues. “San Lang! Why didn’t you tell me that you’re sick? Do you want me to go and get medicine for you?” He thinks desperately back to the last time Hua Cheng had fallen ill, when the two had spent the night wrapped up in each other’s arms, reading stories. “Ah...maybe I should cancel my plans and take care of you.”
“Ah—no no, gege, I’m fine,” says Hua Cheng quickly, peeking out from behind his palms till Xie Lian can see his left eye. “You go. Have fun at your tea party, gege, your San Lang will wait patiently here for your return.”
Xie Lian frowns. “Are you sure?”
“Positive,” says Hua Cheng, this time accompanied with a quick nod of his head.
“Okay,” says Xie Lian. “I’ll make it quicker this time. I’ll see you soon, San Lang.”
“Bye bye, gege.”
“—and then he just.” Xie Lian makes a nebulous hand gesture. “He just went silent, and he wouldn’t meet my eyes when I asked him if he was okay.”
“Who the hell does he think he is,” Feng Xin mutters, his fingers curling around his cup of tea tighter.
“I think he’s sick,” says Xie Lian, lips pursing in thought. “He told me he isn’t, but his face was all hot!”
Mu Qing, who’s leaning back in his seat with his hands crossed over his chest, rolls his eyes before saying, “Did you say something to him?”
Feng Xin immediately turns on him, “Are you implying that this is His Highness’ fault?”
“No,” says Mu Qing. “I just asked him a question.”
“Um,” Xie Lian interrupts, “well, I think I said something like...well, I told him I had plans to meet you two, and then I think I said, I’ll be back in a few hours, sweetheart, you stay here in bed.”
“Bleugh,” says Mu Qing, his cheeks dusting with color. Feng Xin is in a similar state, his teeth clenching together. “Damn. You broke him.”
Xie Lian blinks. “What?”
Feng Xin scoffs. “Can’t believe Crimson Rain Sought Flower was moved to a blushing mess by a fucking pet name.”
Mu Qing too is wearing a withering look, one so deadly that Xie Lian can practically feel the impending headache just dying to break through his skull. He reigns it in, however, because Feng Xin and Mu Qing have very obviously caught onto something he’s still somehow in the dark about.
“Um,” he starts, caution lacing through his tone, “guys?”
“He’s not sick,” says Mu Qing definitively. “He was blushing. Because you called him sweetheart.”
“Yes,” Mu Qing nods. “Do you not call him names like that or something? Don’t answer that.”
“Not...too often, I suppose.”
“I just told you not to answer that.”
Feng Xin drills his elbow into Mu Qing’s arm, making the latter yelp in surprise. “He can answer whatever the fuck he wants, idiot.” Then he turns back to Xie Lian and says, “You’re going to have fun with this, aren’t you.”
Xie Lian presses his lips together. “San Lang is a ghost. Ghosts can’t...blush.”
“He’s a devastation rank freak,” Mu Qing scoffs. “He can do whatever he wants.”
Which...is true. Plus, there was that time when Hua Cheng really had been sick. Xie Lian still remembers the way his cheeks were flushed a brilliant rosy color, his face and forehead hot and wet with sweat.
“All right,” he says. “You two might be correct.”
“Of course we are!” says Feng Xin. Mu Qing shoots him another scathing look, and as the two delve into another one of their pointless arguments, Xie Lian’s mind swims.
He decides to test Feng Xin and Mu Qing’s theory.
“San Lang, will you help me make my hair?”
Hua Cheng’s head peeks out from behind the doorway, a cheeky little smile painting his features. Xie Lian smiles back at him, raising the hand with the comb up to the side of his face.
“Of course, gege!” says Hua Cheng, strolling up to where Xie Lian is sitting on a stool and plucking the comb away from his fingers. He quickly gathers Xie Lian’s long brown locks into his hands, threading the silky white ribbon away from the bun atop his head and gently stroking the comb through. “Gege’s hair is getting oily, would you like me to prepare a bath tonight?”
“Mm,” Xie Lian says with a nod, laughing when he feels the teeth of the comb strike his skull. “That sounds lovely, San Lang.”
“Of course,” Hua Cheng murmurs.
Xie Lian bites the inner flesh of his lip, turning his next words over in his mind a few times. He doesn’t know why he’s suddenly getting embarrassed—after all, this is just Hua Cheng. His San Lang, his husband.
So he swallows down his nerves and says, “Thank you, sweetheart.”
Hua Cheng freezes.
Xie Lian can’t see his expression from where he’s sitting, but he does hear Hua Cheng’s sharp inhale of breath—a breath that he doesn’t need to even take—and he does feel the way Hua Cheng’s fingers stutter around the comb that’s still buried deeply in his hair.
So Feng Xin and Mu Qing were right.
“Gege doesn’t have to thank me for anything,” Hua Cheng finally says, voice softened around the corners. “It’s...it’s my pleasure.”
“Yes yes,” says Xie Lian. His heart feels light, fluttering in the wind.
He can’t help the grin that creeps upon his mouth.
The next time is early in the morning, when Xie Lian is working outside in the small garden he’s slowly been cultivating, bent over and tending to a patch of weeds with gloved hands. Hua Cheng comes out a few minutes later, his hand cupped over his forehead to block the sunlight spilling around them.
Xie Lian perks up at the sight of him. This time, the term of endearment rolls off his tongue with ease: “Good morning, sweetheart! Did you rest well?”
Hua Cheng breaks out into a series of violent coughs.
And, sure enough, Xie Lian can just make out the tips of his ears, dusted pink with color.
Hua Cheng slaps his chest a few times, then shakes his head and releases a breath through his lips. “Aha, sorry about that, gege. I think something got caught in my throat.”
Xie Lian’s smile widens. “I see.” Then, just because he’s feeling especially evil, “Are you all right, San Lang? Your ears are red.”
“Are they?” Hua Cheng asks smoothly. “Huh. It must be a trick of the light.”
“It must be,” Xie Lian agrees, before he’s joined by Hua Cheng in the garden. The two spend the rest of the morning flicking dirt at each other and stealing kisses over the plants, and when Xie Lian feels Hua Cheng wrap his arms around his waist from behind him, he laughs, grabs Hua Cheng’s hand, and presses a kiss to his knuckles.
When they’re rolling together in bed late in the night, Xie Lian mumbles “sweetheart” against Hua Cheng’s lips and whines when he feels him back away and hover up above him.
“Gege is doing this on purpose.”
Xie Lian blinks innocently, long eyelashes batting against the upper portion of his cheeks. “What am I doing?”
“You’re—” Hua Cheng stops, makes a face. It’s absolutely the most endearing thing Xie Lian has ever seen. “You keep calling me that.”
“Do I?” Xie Lian asks, cocking his head to the side. He reaches up and loops his hands around Hua Cheng’s neck. “What do I keep calling you, exactly? Hm?”
“You keep calling me sweetheart,” Hua Cheng blurts, and it’s said so suddenly that Xie Lian’s throat catches in his responding laugh. Hua Cheng stares down at him. “Gege, you’re laughing at me.”
Xie Lian immediately sets his expression back. “I am doing nothing of the sort.”
“Gege is so cruel,” Hua Cheng continues. “Gege hates me. Gege loves to see me suffer. I can’t believe gege would be so heartless to his poor husband, his San Lang, the love of his life.”
This makes Xie Lian laugh again, this time loud and boisterous and cheerful as can be. The sound fills their bedroom, and Xie Lian’s eyes flutter shut when he feels his own cheeks flush with heat. “I didn’t know San Lang likes to be called that way so much.”
Hua Cheng mumbles something, shifting so that he’s rolling over back onto his spot next to Xie Lian. “San Lang is a weak man.”
“I can see that,” says Xie Lian. He turns so that he’s laying on his side, his front facing Hua Cheng. “My husband is so cute. After it happened for the first time, how could I resist?”
“It’s true,” says Hua Cheng with a small nod. “I am very cute. You should stop teasing me and kiss me some more.”
Xie Lian darts forward and pecks his lips. “Okay, sweetheart.”
“What, do you not like it?”
“Mm...only if gege lets me call him sweetly in return.”
Xie Lian raises an eyebrow. “You already call me sweetly. You call me gege.”
Hua Cheng’s expression becomes thoughtful. He lifts his hand to the side of Xie Lian’s face, running his fingers down his skin and right by his neck. “Darling.”
Xie Lian’s eyes widen.
And then, Hua Cheng is smirking. “You’re blushing.”
“I’m not,” says Xie Lian immediately, but the burning sensation on his cheeks says otherwise. He makes a low sound before turning away to face the wall, and when he feels Hua Cheng’s arm come around him, he swats it away. “I’m not.”
Hua Cheng laughs, the sound encasing Xie Lian’s ears and sending a shiver down his spine. “Okay, darling, I believe you.”
Xie Lian huffs, flipping over once again till his chest is pressed flush against Hua Cheng’s. “Go to bed, sweetheart.”
Hua Cheng smiles serenely down at him, leaning over and kissing his forehead. “Okay, darling.”
“Good night, sweetheart.”
“Good night, darling.”
Xie Lian eyes him quizzically. “This isn’t over,” he says, leaning back to poke Hua Cheng’s chest with his index finger.
“Far from over,” Hua Cheng agrees, his grin brightening before Xie Lian loses sight of it completely. He nestles into Hua Cheng’s chest, breathes against his neck, and lets his husband rock him soundly to sleep.
Once Xie Lian has left for the heavens to meet with Feng Xin and Mu Qing, Hua Cheng raises his arms to his forehead, groaning pitifully.
He silently recites a familiar communication array password, lifting his index and middle fingers to his forehead and croaking out, “He called me sweetheart.”
He’s answered by an annoyed grunt. “The hell do you want?”
“He called me sweetheart. Sweetheart. I am going to die, Hei Shui.”
“You’ve already died three times.”
“And I’m changing my password. Never contact me again,” says He Xuan, before severing the connection.