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kindly wrapped deceit

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“Why are you here.”

It isn’t phrased like a question. He Xuan’s voice is sharp like ice, but there’s delicate confusion there too, Xie Lian thinks. He fidgets with the corners of his pearly white sleeves, the color serving as a stark contrast to the general gloom surrounding the Nether Water Manor. 

“You have a lovely home,” Xie Lian starts. 

He Xuan squints at him. “Get to the point.”

“Right,” says Xie Lian, and he clears his throat. “I’m here because, well, you’re friends with San Lang.”

He Xuan stares at him for a good five seconds. Then he turns around and stalks away. “If that’s all, you may leave.”

“Wait!” Xie Lian calls after him, and He Xuan pauses. He doesn’t turn around to look at him, but Xie Lian is expecting that, so. “Lord Black Water, ah, I wanted to ask you something.”

He Xuan glances over his shoulder. 

“You see,” says Xie Lian, “it’s San Lang’s birthday in a few day’s time. Oh, well, you probably already knew that, but—”

“I didn’t,” He Xuan cuts in. He turns around fully this time, levelling Xie Lian with a look. “I won’t lie, Your Highness, I try to keep myself as distanced from Hua Cheng as possible. His very existence is about as pleasant as biting into a raw lemon. He’s what it feels like to down an entire bottle of vinegar. I would know, since he swapped my wine out for it once.”

He finishes with a smile, but it’s not...really a smile. It’s more like a stretch of his mouth, east to west. His golden eyes are dark, no mirth swirled in at all. It actually looks a little frightening.

Xie Lian returns the smile, albeit a little more warmly. “I see,” he says. “And the lemon?”

“Fifty years ago,” says He Xuan, a dark cloud passing over his face, “your beloved husband was in my lair, putting enchantments on the fruit I’d stolen from the heavens. I reached for a tangerine, bit into it, and found out Hua Cheng had put the orange peel over the inside of a lemon.”

Xie Lian blinks, leaning closer. “You bit into the tangerine without peeling it first?”

“You can spit the peel out later,” says He Xuan matter-of-factly. “Like the seed of a cherry.”

Xie Lian doesn’t really think the comparison works in this case, but of course he doesn’t say that out loud. Instead, he splays his fingers out across the seat of his robes, patting the bits of dirt away. Hua Cheng had bought him new silk a few weeks ago, the softest kind from the top tailor in Ghost City. It was yet another gift that Xie Lian found himself being on the receiving end of, and this time, he’s determined for that to change.

“I’d like to gift San Lang something for his birthday,” he says earnestly, ignoring how He Xuan’s eyebrow twitches at the confession. “Last year, I actually asked Feng Xin and Mu Qing for their opinions, but, ah…”

He Xuan snorts. “That can’t have gone well.”

“I ended up being a bit embarrassed,” Xie Lian concedes. 

“Just give him anything,” says He Xuan, waving a hand out in front of his face before turning on his heel and making his way over to the cluster of seats in the corner of the room. Xie Lian quickly moves to follow, briefly wondering why He Xuan even has a living room area in his manor. Does he get guests? 

The question must show on his face, as when He Xuan looks back over to him, he’s pulling a face. 

“Hua Cheng,” he says in lieu of an actual explanation.

“Ah…?”

He Xuan sighs, slipping into one of the seats and crossing his legs beneath him. He opens his mouth, and what comes out next is pitched in a high, mocking tone: “Hei Shui, why is the only seat in your crib that god-awful throne? Do you think of yourself as some kind of king? Oh, how I have offended you, Your Majesty. Pah.”

Xie Lian has to work to hide his smile this time. “That does sound like San Lang,” he says as he takes the seat across from the calamity. 

He Xuan pulls a face. “Whatever. As I was saying, it doesn’t matter what you get him. He would be happy with a twig if it was coming from your hands.”

Which is true enough. Xie Lian knows that Hua Cheng would be happy with any gift Xie Lian would give him, of course, but that isn’t the point, is it?

“I’m serious,” He Xuan continues. “I know you weren’t exactly around for the time when Hua Cheng was searching for you, but do you know who was?” A pause for dramatic effect. “Me. That’s right. Bingo. You hit the jackpot. It was me. And I wasn’t even around for all of it—just a few hundred years. But it was enough. Fuck. Enough to last me an entire lifetime. And I’m immortal.”

Actually, Xie Lian has wanted to ask He Xuan about the immortality thing—after all, from what Hua Cheng had told him, He Xuan’s revenge plan led up to the incident with Shi Wudu and Shi Qingxuan. Everything he wanted to happen had already happened. Hua Cheng himself dissipated for a year after accomplishing his own promised duties: being by Xie Lian’s side, watching him reign over the ghosts of his past. 

Xie Lian swallows his curiosity down and trudges forward. It’s none of his business, after all. 

“You’ve known him for longer than I have,” he starts again, then stops, remedies: “You’ve known him physically for longer than I have. I realized earlier this week that asking Feng Xin and Mu Qing for their advice wasn’t the smartest option I could have gone with. They don’t, um, hold San Lang to the highest regard in their minds.”

“And you think I do?”

“No,” says Xie Lian. “Well, maybe.”

“I don’t. I absolutely do not,” says He Xuan immediately. “Actually, I’m probably worse than your heavenly official friends. They don’t know what he’s like.”

“They’ve fought him before,” says Xie Lian.

“I have the password to his spiritual communication array,” He Xuan deadpans. 

Xie Lian’s eyes widen at his. “Oh, that’s right! I didn’t even consider that—of course you must have it.”

“Did you know,” says He Xuan, “the reason it’s so embarrassing is because he wanted me to go through the five stages of grief every time I had to recite it.”

“Really?”

“That, and because he didn’t want me to contact him too often.”

Xie Lian grins, cocking his head and letting a short bout of laughter escape through his lips. “So he must have yours too, then?”

“I used to change it every week,” says He Xuan. “I got sick of him. But he’d always somehow figure out the new one.”

“Somehow?”

“He threatened me.”

“Of course he did.”

“But back to the point.” There’s a hum settling over the manor, one prickled with the smell of sea salt and withered bones. It’s pungent, but Xie Lian has experienced worse before. He Xuan makes a strangled noise, one that Xie Lian can recognize as forced resignation. “Okay. Fine. Whatever. I’ll help you.”

“Will you?”

“Why do you sound so surprised? Didn’t you literally come to see me to ask me for help?”

“Well, yes,” says Xie Lian slowly, “but I thought it would take more than this.”

“How did you manage to come here anyways?” He Xuan asks, raising an eyebrow. His eyes glint, the golden hue sparkling through the dim lighting of the cave. “There’s no way Hua Cheng let you.”

“San Lang lets me do whatever I want,” says Xie Lian. “But...on an account of this being for his birthday present, I told him I was just going to pop by the heavens for a bit. Say hello to the officials, go to the mortal realm and stop by Shi—” He immediately cuts himself off, swallowing down the next two characters. 

He Xuan hears them anyway. 

He looks away, his brows narrowing into a thin line, lids coming over his eyes as he turns them down to the floor. There are a few moments of silence, the kind that rings heavily around two freshly-acquainted strangers, and Xie Lian waits with a baited breath for He Xuan to say something.

“Yeah, I know,” is what comes out of his mouth finally. Xie Lian falls still. “I’ve run into them a few times during my...travels.”

Travels, he says. It’s a pleasantly stated euphemism. 

Xie Lian makes a decision. “Give me your private communication array password.”

He Xuan snaps his head up. “What?”

“Or,” Xie Lian continues, “I’ll give you mine. You can use it whenever you want.”

Silence. Then, “All right.”

“Great!” Xie Lian nods. “Just recite the Ethics Sutra a thousand times.”

At this, He Xuan smirks. “Smart.”

“Thank you,” Xie Lian smiles. “Not many people understand right off the bat.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not a person.”

“Fair enough.”

And then: “For Hua Cheng’s birthday.” He Xuan looks incredibly pained as he forms the words, and Xie Lian immediately perks up. “Pickles. He loves pickles. They’re his favorite.”

Xie Lian makes an ‘o’ shape with his mouth and says, “Seriously?”

“Don’t cook them,” says He Xuan quickly. “I’m serious. Don’t cook them unless you want him to die a fourth time.”

Xie Lian smiles pleasantly. “Do not joke about that.”

“Right, sorry,” He Xuan huffs. “You can find pickles around here, on Black Water Island. That’s how I found out about how much he likes them. He asked for food and I told him to fuck off and find something himself.” A pause. “No way in hell am I sharing my food with him.”

“Okay,” says Xie Lian. “Um...thank you, He Xuan.”

“You should host a party for him,” He Xuan continues without missing a beat. “In fact, I’m offering my manor to you. I’ll take care of the decorations and everything, just bring him here on his big day and I’ll have it all ready.”

“All right,” says Xie Lian, nodding. “I’ll do that. You said—pickles, right?”

“Pickles,” He Xuan nods.

Okay. Pickles. 

That can’t be too hard.

 

✧✧✧ 

 

“The Nether Water Manor?” Hua Cheng repeats, blinking slowly. “Why does gege want to go to that scoundrel’s lair today?”

“You’ll see, San Lang,” says Xie Lian, humming softly at the feeling of Hua Cheng’s fingers gently rubbing his scalp. They’re laying together, the first speckles of sunlight spilling over the horizon outside. 

Hua Cheng doesn’t say anything for several seconds. Then, “If you really want to.”

“I do,” Xie Lian nods.

So they go to the Nether Water Manor. 

Xie Lian hums as he skips inside with no trouble at all. After all, the enchantments surrounding the island had all worn off after He Xuan had achieved his revenge. Hua Cheng stays behind him, and every time Xie Lian looks back, he finds his husband pulling a face that turns more and more disgusted by the second. 

“Are you talking to He Xuan through your private array?” he asks. 

Hua Cheng’s eyes widen, and he whips over to look at him. “He Xuan?”

Xie Lian pauses. “Yes—ah, that is his name?”

“I didn’t know gege was so familiar with Hei Shui,” says Hua Cheng, a careful smile painting the corners of his lips, one that’s teetering on the edge of looking downright murderous. “Pray tell me, when did this development occur?”

“Oh,” says Xie Lian. He jumps onto a rock that’s been darkened by the water splashing upon its surface and twirls around to face him. “Well, we’ve always been on friendly terms, ever since the time when He Xuan was posing as Ming Yi.”

“And this is why you want to celebrate my birthday at his place?”

“He offered, actually,” says Xie Lian. 

Hua Cheng stares at him blankly. “I see.” A huff. “Gege, you know I would do anything for you. You also know that the only reason I’m doing this is because you want me to.”

“I know,” says Xie Lian, smiling cheerily back at him. “Come now, San Lang ah, follow me.”

Hua Cheng looks like he absolutely does not want to follow him, but he does anyway, and Xie Lian is in love with him. 

When they enter through the gates of the dark, looming palace, it’s to the sight of the entire interior decked out in bright, neon pink streamers. There are baby pink balloons bunched together at every corner, and the walls are lined with magenta pom-poms. In the middle, a banner reading HAPPY BIRTHDAY PRINCESS is strung using glittery silver string. 

Xie Lian chokes at the sight.

Then, He Xuan comes out of a corner, a mini confetti cannon in his hands, and he pulls the string with unsheathed glee. 

“Happy fucking birthday,” he says smugly as the pink and white confetti falls around his face, “asshole.”

Xie Lian turns to see Hua Cheng with his jaw dropped. 

“Oh, I’ve rendered him speechless,” says He Xuan, grinning wickedly. “Your Highness, I must thank you. This would not have been possible without you. Did you bring your gift?”

“Oh!” says Xie Lian. “Yes! I did! San Lang, this is for you!”

He brings out the jar of pickles from the insides of his robes, silently thanking the talisman that had made the concealment magic possible. He quickly skips over to his husband’s side, holding out the jar and smiling sweetly up at Hua Cheng.

“Happy birthday, San Lang!”

Hua Cheng stares down at the jar, his mouth snapping shut with a sharp clack.

“Gege,” he starts, “what’s this?”

“Oh!” says Xie Lian. He smiles, wrapping his fingers around the lid and spinning the jar open. “They’re pickles! He Xuan told me they’re your favorite.” He extracts a small one out, humming to himself as he lifts it up to hover right in front of Hua Cheng’s lips. “Say ahh, San Lang.”

Hua Cheng opens his mouth automatically, and Xie Lian drops the pickle onto his tongue. 

The ghost king’s face goes through a multitude of expressions in the next moment. Someone is laughing behind them, and Xie Lian glances over to see He Xuan leaning against the wall, now decked with a pretty pink party hat atop his head, snickering as he watches the scene unfold before him.

“Revenge tastes sweet,” he says, walking up to them. He looks over to Hua Cheng. “Just like that pickle in your mouth, right, Crimson Rain?”

Xie Lian’s gaze flickers over to Hua Cheng, finding that the latter’s cheeks have a strange bulge on both sides. Like he’s—like the pickle is still in his mouth. Like he hasn’t swallowed.

Realization dawns upon Xie Lian in that moment.

“Oh,” he says. “Oh. Oh, San Lang—you...you don’t like pickles, do you?”

“Yes he does,” says He Xuan immediately, his eyes not leaving Hua Cheng’s face. “Don’t you, Crimson Rain? Don’t you like the gift your husband spent so much time preparing for you?”

Hua Cheng looks like he desperately wants to say something, but in his current state, all he can really do is glare at He Xuan. And he does. And Xie Lian feels like something is very wrong. 

And then, Hua Cheng chews. Slowly. Agonizingly slowly. He swallows, and licks his lips.

“Delicious,” he says, articulating every character. 

“Really?” He Xuan says. “Then you should eat another.”

“Ah…” Xie Lian says, looking between the two nervously. “You don’t have to, San Lang, ah…”

“Nonsense,” says Hua Cheng, looking down at him, his gaze softening. “Gege collected them for me?”

“Um. Yes.”

“Then I will eat every single one.”

“Excellent,” says He Xuan. 

“You know,” says Hua Cheng, “it’s fascinating how you have these kinds of decorations at your disposal.”

He Xuan’s face immediately drops.

“Your birthdays over the years have been quite lonely, hm?” Hua Cheng continues, clicking his tongue, and flitting his eyes over to look at the pink-covered walls. “Or...the Wind Master preferred their lady form, did they not?”

“Shut up,” He Xuan snaps.

Xie Lian inwardly cringes. “All right!” he says, clapping his hands out in front of him. “He Xuan, you told me you made a cake, right?”

Hua Cheng rounds on him. “He told you that? How?”

“Through the communication array,” Xie Lian murmurs, eyebrows furrowing. “How else?”

Hua Cheng stares at him. Then, “Hei Shui.” He Xuan flinches. “I’ll be dropping by tomorrow.”

“You’re not welcome here.”

“I’m still keeping tabs on the money you owe me.”

“Fuck you,” says He Xuan.

(Later, when He Xuan rolls out a pink-frosted cake and presents it to the two of them, Xie Lian ducks as the insults between the two calamities erupt once again. And well. At least the cake tastes good.)