He’s sixteen when he dies. His skin is stretched tight and dry over his bones, riddled with scars and half-healed wounds. There are sores on the inside of his mouth. His lips are always chapped. His diet is better now, with the military, than it ever has been before—but a soldier’s rations are not enough for the voracious metabolism of a growing teenager. His stomach is always concave. He is sharp and cruel with hunger.
But he’s grown fast, these last few months, despite the lack of nutrition. Silver stretch marks span his hips. He’s already taller than some of the men—in time, he hopes, he’ll grow to tower over all of them. His hands are big, his fingers gangly, and he trips over the new length of his legs more often than not. The new reach makes him even deadlier with his scimitar.
His hair is limp and brittle, baked dry beneath the searing sun. It hangs in tangled knots around his face. He hacks it off with a blade whenever it gets long enough to annoy him: the ends are uneven, jagged. His palms are calloused from the sword, and his knuckles scraped. His skin loses the pale smoothness of its childhood and grows rough in patches.
Another soldier breaks his nose in a fight, once, and the bridge heals crooked. He likes to think it makes him look tougher, meaner, scarier. That’s good. He wants to frighten everyone who so much as glances in his direction. (Everyone, that is, except for one.) A limp pesters his walk whenever he grows weary, though he does his best to hide it. The bone of his thigh—the one that bastard Qi Rong broke—healed as poorly as his nose did.
But he is nothing if not resilient, and he refuses to let those old, bittered wounds slow him down. Who cares about this body? Who cares whether it aches or not? Who cares what scars it harbors? The only thing it’s good for is serving Dianxia. As long as it can do that, nothing else matters.
And serve Dianxia it does, until a sword slides through its stretched skin and hollow belly and jutting ribs. The blade tips up, and his heart flutters itself to shreds against the steel. He is resilient, but even he can’t claw his way back from this wound. He collapses there, butchered on the battlefield of Xianle. Thousands of boots have trampled the ground to mud, and it smears his skin and uniform in black streaks. Blood pools below him: the only warm thing he can feel. The air is sharp with the scent of iron and salt and putrid, rotting flesh.
He doesn’t know where Dianxia is, but he struggles to see him one last time. He pries his eye open and sees bodies piled on one another—sees men screaming as their entrails pool in their hands—sees horses collapsing in a lather of sweat and blood—sees the glassy, dead eyes of another soldier on the ground across from him—sees a flash of white, a flash of gold, a flash of—
He’s been at war for four years. The blood in his mouth is nothing new, but this time it chokes him. He coughs, spits, shudders at the jolt of agony that follows such a movement. His insides are sluggish and sore without the blood they need. It is a slow death. He supposes he wouldn’t have expected anything better. But to die, even this way, even ugly and unknown and hurting—to die in service of Dianxia is all he could ever dream. For someone worthless like him, it’s truly the best ending.
He is sixteen when he dies.
He does not even know his name.
When he next becomes aware, he is small and shapeless. He hovers over his own body, looking down at it: distant, disconnected. This is his? This was him? No wonder Dianxia had never even spared him a second glance—what worthless trash he is. He’s hardly any better now, he supposes, as he begins to realize just what he is.
This new form is tremulous and weak, flickering in the breeze: a ghostfire. He’s seen them before, but he certainly never thought he’d be one. He feels cold. His flames lick the air, soft and pale and nothing at all like what he wants. He wants to be big. He wants to be strong. He wants to be the angriest, awfulest thing in this whole world.
Dianxia? He casts his awareness around himself. The battlefield is empty, save for corpses and crows. Dianxia is not here. He should be grateful; if Dianxia is not here, he must have gotten away. That’s good. That means he’s safe. It does not stop his own pathetic self from yearning. Dianxia, Dianxia!
Dianxia is the reason he’s still here. Of that, if nothing else, he is sure. The thing that tethers him to the earth is only this: he must protect his god. He drifts away from his own body, searching searching searching—
Someone catches him.
A lantern is not a great form, either.
His next form is one made of rage and of agony— the greatest agony he has ever known, steeped as it is in his own god’s blood. This body is lean and cruel and dark. It is fashioned in the form of a weapon. It is young but tall, muscled, strong-boned. Its hands are rough and ready for the sword. Its teeth are sharp behind a smiling mask: the mouth of a predator.
It is the first form he fashions for himself, and it is closer, now, to what he truly wants to be. Its skin is smooth and pale, its hair fine and black as pooled ink. It has two dark eyes, matching and entirely ordinary. It moves smoothly, with no limp or clumsiness. It is clean, and well-fed, and perfectly strong. It is beautiful—a flare of fancy on his part, he supposes, as it does not matter if a weapon is beautiful or not.
He finds that he wants to be beautiful anyway.
He dresses himself in black, so as not to distract any eyes from the only one who truly matters, and goes to kneel before his god. Cold mud presses against his knee, his shin, the toes of his oiled boots. He bows his head and bares the nape of his neck. Perhaps Dianxia will want to kill him for daring to come and speak so boldly to him. He wouldn’t mind, if Dianxia did.
“What is your name?” Dianxia demands.
Ah. This is an easy question.
“I don’t have a name,” he replies, his eyes fixed on the ground. His voice stays mercifully steady. It does not crack, the way it tended to do before he died. This body is older, surer. He made sure of that; he does not ever want to be young and weak again.
“Without a name makes one Wu Ming,” Dianxia says, his own voice chilled.
It is a cruel name.
It is no name at all.
“Your Highness may call me whatever you desire,” Wu Ming says.
When he takes Dianxia’s hand, he makes sure his own fingers are warm.
Wu Ming must return, inevitably, to the battlefield where his body rots. The draw of his old bones is almost unbearable after a few weeks; it’s enough, even, to drag him from Dianxia’s side. The battlefield is churned but empty. The corpses have been hauled away, and he follows the deep impressions of hoofprints and drag marks until the toes of his boots touch the edges of a mass grave. The dirt here is dark and fresh.
With a grimace, Wu Ming begins to dig.
It’s hard to find his own body. There are so many, many others. He shoves them aside callously, following that sickening instinct that guides him back to himself. The stink of it is unbearable: fetid meat and sour blood and shit. His own body, when he drags it out of the grave, is soft and infested with thousands of fat gray maggots. He regards it with the upmost disgust—but he knows, bitterly, that he cannot leave it behind. It is still a part of him.
Wu Ming drags his body away from the grave and sets it on fire. It burns, low and slow, for several hours. The smoke that wisps off of it makes him curl his lip, and he paces in irritated circles as his old form, his first form, his most worthless form, finally disintegrates into ash. While it’s still hot, he scoops that ash out with gore-streaked fingers and packs it into a rough cloth bag. He ties the bag to his belt—innocuous, dirty, worthless thing that it is.
He returns to Dianxia as soon as he can, after.
Wu Ming’s next forms are strange things, cobbled together from the bits of memory that remain after his second death: a gangly teenager with ink-wisp hair, a man with broad hands, a woman with sharp teeth and pale skin. He stumbles his way through them to Mount Tonglu. He pieces himself back together there, and uses those calloused hands of his to hold chisels instead of scimitars.
When he emerges from the Kiln, he settles into his true form for the first time.
He is tall and sharp—a man, now, and not a boy. His hair hangs to his back, heavy and dark, and he braids a lock of it with the red pearl earring he took from Dianxia. His skin is jade, but pockmarked with the ropey scars and stretch marks of his youth. His bones are hideously prominent. Each rib presses against his skin every time he breaths, and his stomach caves into itself. All of his teeth are flat, save for his canines, which slope to a cruel point. His left eye is piercing and black; his right is a mangled mess of slumped scar tissue.
He hates it.
The first thing he does, after leaving Mount Tonglu, is fashion himself a new form: a man, with that same dark hair and pale skin, but with two black eyes and broad shoulders and strong muscles. He fashions himself a new name, too. He’s clung to Wu Ming ever since he remembered that Dianxia gave that name to him, but it—well, it’s not really a name to inspire much respect, and he’s going to need respect if he wants to prepare this shithole world for Dianxia.
Hua Cheng is the name he eventually decides on for himself. He hopes it will please Dianxia: a city of flowers for the Flower-Crowned Martial God. It certainly doesn’t please the rest of the world—Hua Cheng, in fact, becomes a name most recoil from. That’s okay. That’s wonderful.
Ashes are ugly, difficult things, but with time and patience they can be perfected. Hua Cheng knows, in the way all ghosts know, that he is bound to the ashes of his bones—and to whoever holds them. There is only one person he would ever allow such power over him. Unfortunately, to give an ugly sack of ashes to such a person: unthinkable.
Sorting the proper particles from his ashes is a miserable, tedious process, but it does keep him busy during the long cold years he spends away from Dianxia. When he finally finishes, his ashes are nothing but a fine and silvery palmful of powder. He builds a kiln and burns them again, low and slow, until the powder hardens into sharp shards of graphite. Then he builds a bigger kiln, a deeper kiln, a more vicious one.
Given enough heat and pressure, even the ugliest ashes can form diamond.
He spends hundreds of years workshopping new forms. Some he favors more than others: the tall ones, the strong ones, the beautiful ones, ones with sharp teeth and hard hands. He shirks small, soft forms, and he shirks his true form most of all. Why would he want to look like that worthless creature when he could be anything he wants to be?
The form he wants to show Dianxia is the most difficult to design. Hua Cheng starts with the body—that’s the easy part, the part that doesn’t change so much—and makes it tall. Then he makes it a little shorter (he doesn’t want to intimidate Dianxia when they meet again), but not so short that he feels weak. He makes it lean and well-muscled, but with the narrow shoulders and long limbs of a gangly teenager. He makes it warm, makes its skin pale and smooth, makes its gait graceful.
Its hands he keeps rough, in case he needs to wield a scimitar, but he allows its teeth to flatten into a perfectly white, perfectly innocent smile. He gives it dimples. Its hair is long but fine, silky when he runs it between his fingers. He hides the red pearl earring. As much as he loves it, he doesn’t particularly want to explain to Dianxia that he took it. He will, of course!
Its face is the tricky part. He wants to give it the carefree innocence of a youth, but he doesn’t want it to look weak or needy. It’s a delicate balance. He gives it a sharp chin and nose but allows its jaw to round out, allows the faintest hint of baby fat to fill out its cheeks. He gives it bright golden eyes under thin, expressive eyebrows.
For weeks on end, he nitpicks the little things: the arch of the nose, the shape of the smile, the style of the robes and pace of the heartbeat. He is never happy with it. But, eventually, his time to design runs out: a butterfly alerts him to Dianxia’s presence, and he takes off. There’s no way he’s letting this chance slip by. He doesn’t want to wait another eight hundred years!
He will, naturally, but it isn’t preferable.
When Dianxia asks for his name, he falters. Wu Ming is an awfully suspicious name, and why would Dianxia want to remember that little worthless soldier anyway? Wu Ming was useful, but undoubtedly Dianxia has forgotten him now—and it’s a good thing, too. As proud as he’d been of the form at that time, he cringes to look back on it now.
But he can’t say he’s Hua Cheng, either—that would scare Dianxia. There are such nasty rumors about him in the heavens! He wants a chance to introduce himself properly before Dianxia jumps to any hasty conclusions. If Dianxia knew he was Hua Cheng, he’d be driven off immediately, and he can’t risk that. He just needs a chance.
“San Lang,” he blurts, and hopes he doesn’t sound as uncertain as he feels. “I’m the third son in my family, so everyone calls me San Lang.”
The sound of that name, soft and lilting on Dianxia’s lips, is far better than it should have any right to be.
San Lang can’t help but be proud of himself when his newest form passes every test Dianxia puts it through. Naturally, he’s had hundreds of years to perfect the skill of shapeshifting, and this form is one of his best. He has examined every hair, whorled every fingerprint, curled every eyelash. After he’s spent enough time in it, it’s second nature to keep it in place. He feels happy, as San Lang. He feels good.
Then Dianxia looks at him, and smiles, and says, “What do you want to eat, Hua Cheng?”
He shouldn’t be surprised, not really. Dianxia is so clever. It’s a relief, in some ways—he hadn’t wanted to hide from Dianxia for much longer. It was dishonorable. It was disingenuous. After all, Dianxia deserves to know who his servant truly is. To San Lang’s relief, his identity doesn’t seem to upset or displease Dianxia by any measure.
Still—still, the name Hua Cheng in that voice, it doesn’t feel right.
“I still prefer,” he says, “the name San Lang.”
And San Lang is who he would content himself to be, for the rest of forever, if it would please Dianxia. San Lang is young, and strong, and beautiful. He is all the best parts and none of the bad.
He is still not enough.
“I see your clone is pretty powerful,” Dianxia says, one evening, leaning over a stewpot to peer more closely at his face.
“Of course. But I’m the real thing.”
“Eh? This is your true self?”
“One hundred percent authentic,” San Lang declares. Nothing less for Dianxia! As though he would ever send a mere clone to greet his savior, his prince, his god.
Dianxia pokes him, then, and San Lang has to try very, very hard not to laugh.
Clearing his throat, Dianxia tucks his hands behind his back and decides, “...not bad.”
This time, San Lang really has to laugh. He rocks his chair back on its legs, lacing his hands together behind his head to show off the smooth stretch of this powerful body. “What’s not bad?” he teases. “Do you mean this skin?”
“It’s really well made,” Dianxia says, looking too sincerely at him.
Despite himself, San Lang preens beneath the praise. Well made. Dianxia thinks this form of his is well made. He will be holding onto this form forever now, please and thank you. Anything his god deems not bad and well made is worth keeping around. And, well—he did work really hard on it. He opens his mouth to respond, but Dianxia beats him to it.
“But...” he says, and then hesitates.
San Lang arches an eyebrow. “But what?”
“But, can I see your real face?”
San Lang drops his chair back onto all four feet, cutting his gaze off to the side. He knew Dianxia would ask, one day, though he very much hoped to put it off longer—but this, too, is Dianxia’s right. Everything San Lang is belongs to him. His grotesque true form is no exception. Even so, he can’t bring himself to strip this disguise off just yet.
Dianxia, being far more understanding than San Lang deserves, hastily adds, “I was just asking. Don’t take it to heart.”
“I’ll let you see it someday,” San Lang says slowly, “if there’s a chance.”
Dianxia mercifully accepts this answer and steers their conversation to other, safer waters. San Lang should have been happy to let it drop, but the topic nags him until late that night—how should he deny his Dianxia anything? What a poor servant he is. What a pathetic, wretched, worthless , goddamn—
Dianxia peeks over at him. “If?”
“If I was ugly,” San Lang says, and the words feel like thorns snagging on his tongue. “If my real face was ugly, would you still want to see it?”
Dianxia blinks at him. “Is it? Although there’s no real reason, I think your real face musn’t be that bad.”
Dianxia...really has no idea.
“Who knows,” San Lang says, wry. (He does. He knows it very well.) “What if I’m discolored, disfigured, ugly, monstrous, and horrible; what will you do?”
Dianxia is quiet, for a long moment, staring up at the roof of Puqi Shrine with his hands folded behind his head. San Lang watches the rise and fall of his breath and tries to match it to keep himself from panicking. His heart beats so quickly it hurts. He’d rather forgotten what an inconvenience it is to have a functioning cardiovascular system.
“Well,” Dianxia says, eventually, “to be honest, the reason I want to see your real face is because, you see, we’re already like this…”
“Hm? Like what?”
“We’re sort of friends now, right? If we’re friends, then we should be honest with each other. So me wanting to see your real face has nothing to do with how you look. You ask what I will do—of course I won’t do anything. Don’t worry. As long as it’s your real face, I’ll—why are you laughing? I’m being serious. San Lang, why are you laughing so much? Did I say something wrong?”
Dianxia is so earnest, San Lang really can’t help it. He has no idea what he’s asking for. Still, he’s right, isn’t he? San Lang should be honest with him, above all else. It’s not fair for him to keep hiding like this, and from his god, of all people.
“The next time we meet,” he says, and it is a great effort to keep his voice from shaking, “I will use my real appearance to greet you.”
It is the most frightening thing he has agreed to in a long, long time.
It isn’t horrible, greeting Dianxia that way.
Alright, so it is horrible, actually, but not as horrible as it could be. He dresses in his finest and brightest robes and jewels, so as to cover most of his disfigured body and to distract from his face. He keeps his horrible awful terrible right eye covered firmly with an eyepatch. He hides the scars on his face with a thin layer of makeup and brushes his hair with oil until it gleams. He resists, with great effort, the urge to shift his face into something more handsome.
Dianxia doesn’t hate his true appearance—or, at least, Dianxia doesn’t seem to hate it, although he would be too polite to say so if he did. Hua Cheng is twitchy with nerves the whole night, though he does his damned best to cover it, but Dianxia only treats him normally. It gets easier, after that. Dianxia doesn’t bring it up again, and Hua Cheng—
Hua Cheng greets him in his true form, every time after that, no matter how uncomfortable it makes him. Dianxia has asked him for this—for honesty—and Hua Cheng is loathe to deny him anything. Gradually, he begins to realize that being seen in this form isn’t quite as unpleasant as he thought it would be. It’s starting to feel ordinary. This form is nothing beautiful, but neither is it awful enough to garner any unusual reactions.
How odd. Hua Cheng always expected it would at least get him a sneer or two, but the sneers he does get, he suspects, have more to do with his personality than his appearance.
Things continue this way for several months, and then a year passes in which Hua Cheng has no form at all. When he drags himself back together, his true form is the easiest one to reach for. He stumbles back into himself, and then he stumbles home to his god. The first couple of weeks are a simple joy; to be reunited with Dianxia leaves no room for dissatisfaction.
Then comes the question of intimacy.
It is, to Hua Cheng’s great surprise, Dianxia who broaches the subject first.
“San Lang, ah,” he says, his face a charming shade of pink, “I can’t say I’m any good at this kind of thing, but I want to try—to—to be with you this way. So do you also want to…?”
Oh, gods yes, does Hua Cheng want to. There’s more to it than that, though: they have to discuss the ramifications of their intimacy on Dianxia’s cultivation path, and his boundaries, and their general inexperience. Hua Cheng has researched, of course, but he knows book knowledge is no substitute for kinesthetic learning. He has to go and purchase the proper supplies as well—even he wasn’t presumptuous enough to have such things on hand already.
Then there is the matter of—well, of him.
He doesn’t want to obscure his true form completely—a different skin might make Dianxia feel awkward or uncomfortable—but he doesn’t dare show its entirety, either. That form is, without a doubt, ugly enough to make Dianxia rethink this whole endeavour. Unfortunately, Hua Cheng doesn’t have enough time to fuss with the details, but he does his best: he softens his hair, fills out his narrow chest and stomach, smooths the scars off of his skin. The changes are subtle enough that Dianxia shouldn’t notice, since he hasn’t ever seen Hua Cheng’s body so closely before.
Hua Cheng really should have known better than to underestimate his Dianxia.
“San Lang,” Dianxia says, panting as Hua Cheng kisses a trail down the graceful arch of his neck, “San Lang, why are you hiding?”
Hua Cheng pauses, mouthing lazily at the milky skin over Dianxia’s collarbones. “...hiding?”
“Your hair.” Dianxia tightens his grip on Hua Cheng’s hair—just enough to make him close his eye and shiver. “It feels different.”
“It’s nicer for Dianxia this way, isn’t it?” Hua Cheng purrs, peering up through his lashes.
“It’s nice,” Dianxia allows, petting his head gently, “but you know I prefer San Lang’s true form.”
Foiled again. Hua Cheng sits back and blows several strands of stray hair out of his face, avoiding Dianxia’s gaze. “I’m afraid that form is not...fit for this.”
Dianxia frowns, as though considering this deeply—and then turns very, very pink. “Oh,” he says, sheepish. “Because it has no blood flow, right?”
Hua Cheng blinks at him, baffled.
“Because without blood, San Lang could not—” Dianxia’s eyes dip towards his crotch, then jump right back up to his face. “I—I understand.”
San Lang, too, understands. As soon as he does, he rocks back on his heels and laughs so hard he chokes himself very unsexily on his own saliva. Dianxia scrambles up to pat his back, flustered and stumbling over hasty apologies. By the time San Lang can breathe like a normal human again, the both of them have gone soft and giggly.
“Dianxia is so clever,” Hua Cheng says, wiping his eye. His voice hiccups around another little laugh. “That wouldn’t—wouldn’t work very well without blood, would it?”
He can give his true form a heartbeat, and circulation, much the same as he can force it to breathe though it has no need to—but if this is the reason he can shield Dianxia from the whole of his true self, then he’ll gladly keep that information to himself. It isn’t lying. He wouldn’t lie to Dianxia.
“But, San Lang,” Dianxia adds, “why do you have to change so much of yourself just so you can have a heartbeat?”
Such a direct question is harder to weasel his way out of.
“Well,” Hua Cheng says, and then clears his throat and adds, “Well.”
He usually is better at this sort of weaseling.
“Hm.” Dianxia touches his hair softly, a gentle smile on his face. “I love every part of San Lang, and so I want to see every part of him. When he is ready, I hope he will show me.”
“It’s Gege right now, San Lang, please.”
“Gege,” Hua Cheng amends. “Gege, this one is—that form is—truly, in this sort of situation—”
Gege graciously interrupts before he can stumble himself into an even bigger hole. “This gege understands. San Lang doesn’t have to show me right away, or at all. But I want you to know that I could never be disgusted with you. The most beautiful thing to me is not your form, but your trust. That you would trust me to see your true form, to love you no matter—that would be the best for me.”
“Gege, I trust you! Of course I trust you. I only…” Hua Cheng hunches his shoulders, scowling at the bedsheets. He’s only terrified. Wretched, cowardly, miserable thing he is—he’s so terrified. It is not a very sexy feeling. It is certainly not productive to a very sexy night.
“It’s okay.” Gege reaches out, cupping Hua Cheng’s face. “Love, it’s okay. Take all the time you need. This one will wait.”
And wait Gege does—it is almost six months before Hua Cheng can muster the courage to strip himself of all embellishments before his god. He does so several minutes after he’s fucked Gege silly, one night, hoping vainly that the endorphins will render Gege more amendable to his deformities. (His own endorphins go a good deal towards making him more courageous.)
They’re in the baths, curtained by hot water and curling steam, when Hua Cheng finally shakes off the vestiges of his last disguise. He cannot bear to meet his gege’s eyes. Gege doesn’t notice, at first—he’s too busy rubbing shampoo into Hua Cheng’s hair, humming a cheerful little tune to himself. Then his hand brushes over Hua Cheng’s shoulder, over the thick knot of an ancient scar, and he falters.
But Gege is abundant in his mercy—he does not ask, or comment, or pry. He merely continues, his hands roaming the planes of Hua Cheng’s narrow back and the sharp knobs of his spine. Fingers touch his ribs, the prominent spaces between them, before curling around to skate over his hollow stomach and the ugly deathscar below his sternum. His hands settle, at last, over the silver stripes of stretch marks on Hua Cheng’s hips.
“San Lang,” he sighs, and rests his cheek between Hua Cheng’s shoulders. Hua Cheng feels the flutter of his lashes against damp skin. He wants to respond to his god’s call, but his throat is too tight with fear. “Thank you.”
Hua Cheng bows his head and shudders. Dianxia, he manages, in their communication array. Dianxia, I’m sorry.
“What are you sorry for, sweet boy? You did exactly what Gege asked you to.”
Hua Cheng shakes his head. What isn’t he sorry for? He’s ugly. He’s so ugly. Dianxia deserves better than this broken, remembered shell of a man.
“Ah, San Lang, don’t say sorry again for this. I won’t hear it.” A kiss to his spine, to the jutting blade of his shoulder. “To me, this form is the most beautiful.”
Hua Cheng would never call Dianxia a liar—but he does think it, just a little, and then has to grit his teeth against the guilt that follows immediately in that thought’s wake. “Dianxia,” he manages, swallowing hard. “You don’t have to say things like that. This one knows his form is flawed.”
“Mm, it is.” Dianxia’s fingers trace the line of one stretch mark. “This is San Lang’s most flawed form.”
Shame burns in his chest and stings in his throat. He squeezes his eye shut and prays Dianxia will believe the dampness clumping his lashes is due to the steam around them and not a thing else. “Yes, Dianxia,” he whispers.
Dianxia’s arms tighten around him. “I love this form, San Lang,” Dianxia says fiercely. “Never think otherwise. I love you. I love all of you. I am so grateful that you let me see you today. Thank you, San Lang. Thank you.”
Hua Cheng shakes his head again, desperate. “Dianxia, please, you have nothing to thank this lowly servant for. This form is really too—”
“Say ‘you’re welcome,’ San Lang,” Dianxia orders, and who is Hua Cheng to disobey his god in anything?
“You’re welcome,” Hua Cheng says automatically, “but Dianxia cannot possibly like this form more than the others.”
“And why not?” Dianxia demands. For a moment, Hua Cheng sees a flash of the imperious king he would have been. It delights and disorients him in equal measure. “San Lang does not get to decide what I do and do not like. If I say I like this form most, then who is he to disagree? Who is anyone?”
“This one does not mean to offend Dianxia,” Hua Cheng says meekly. “San Lang apologizes.”
“I forgive San Lang.” Dianxia nuzzles against his back, his gentle touch a sharp contrast to the forcefulness behind his words. “I know this is not your favorite form. I know you don’t like it, but I do. It makes me happy to see all the different parts of you—good and bad. San Lang can argue all he likes, but he really knew I wouldn’t hate this form. He wouldn’t have shown it to me otherwise. He must have had faith that I would never turn away from him just because of how he looks; so why does he listen to his insecurities now?”
“...I worked really hard on the other forms,” Hua Cheng mumbles, in lieu of an actual answer. “Dianxia doesn’t like them?”
Dianxia clicks his tongue. “Don’t put words in my mouth, San Lang. You know I like all of your forms—they’re all very beautiful! You really are an artist of all mediums.”
“I wanted to be beautiful for Dianxia,” Hua Cheng admits quietly, ducking his head. “I wanted you to think I was beautiful.”
“I did. I do. ” Dianxia’s fingers touch the line of his deathscar. “But ah, San Lang, you are really wise, aren’t you?”
“To voice your insecurities like this,” Dianxia explains, “where your gege can help you fight them. How clever of my San Lang!”
“I did not mean to make Dianxia feel obligated.” Hua Cheng’s hands curl into fists at his sides, his shoulders tensing. “Please ignore this one.”
“Never!” Dianxia bites him, hard enough to sting, and Hua Cheng’s eye snaps wide. Dianxia licks the skin apologetically before continuing: “San Lang, never ask that of me. I will never ignore you. I’m not saying these things out of obligation, I’m saying them because I mean them and you deserve to hear them. My poor San Lang has been alone with these nasty thoughts too long. He should have some of his gege’s words to fight them, shouldn’t he?”
Dianxia steps around to stand in front of Hua Cheng. He presses up onto his tiptoes, gripping a handful of Hua Cheng’s hair and guiding him down for a soft, sweet kiss. Hua Cheng returns the kiss greedily—this, at least, he knows how to do; this, at least, he can feel confident about. Then Dianxia draws back and kisses the crooked bridge of his nose, the high arch of his cheek, the mangled scar of his right eye.
“I love San Lang’s face,” he murmurs, his breath warm and humid where it brushes Hua Cheng’s skin. “He really is so cute. I love the way he wrinkles his nose when he’s annoyed, and the little furrow he gets between his brow when he thinks, and the way his lips feel when he kisses me. When he smiles at me, it’s like the whole world lights up.”
“Dianxia flatters this one,” Hua Cheng says, resting his fingers on Dianxia’s hips. His hands tremble. “You don’t have to go through all this trouble. Really, this San Lang is fine.”
“And if I want to?” Dianxia asks seriously. “San Lang, will you let me?”
Hua Cheng sucks in a deep, wavering breath. He wants this—he wants Dianxia’s love, his praise, his affection, always. But it is already overwhelming. He doesn’t know what he’ll do if this continues. If Dianxia stops now, though—
If Dianxia stops—
“Please,” Hua Cheng whispers, his voice cracking. “Gege.”
“Shh. Shh, San Lang, sweet boy, I have you.” Gege kisses his face once, twice, before moving down the line of his throat and pressing his lips against the nasty, gnarled scar that took Hua Cheng’s life. “San Lang, this scar reminds me of how much you’ve sacrificed for me. It makes me so sad, but it also reminds me of your strength and your devotion. How could I not love it, too?”
Hua Cheng’s chest hitches, and he shifts his hands to clutch Gege’s hair. The strands are heavy and wet between his fingers, the floral smell of their shampoo rising into the steam.
Gege moves down, scattering kisses across Hua Cheng’s ribs and stomach. “I wish San Lang had never gone without food in his first life,” he sighs, open-mouthed and warm against pale skin, “but this only makes me want to feed you more. San Lang, it’s a good thing you like my cooking.”
Hua Cheng can’t help but laugh, wet and broken though it is. “A very good thing,” he agrees hoarsely. This true form of his will never change—will never put on weight, or muscle, or heal its scars beyond what it already has. He suspects that Gege knows this. He also suspects that Gege doesn’t think it matters much at all.
“And these—” Gege kneels, kissing the stretch marks on Hua Cheng’s hips. “San Lang is so tall! He grew so fast! These are just plain cute, San Lang. You have little stripes.”
“Gege,” Hua Cheng says, unbearably fond and unbearably broken. His eye stings, and he blinks it furiously. “Gege is too generous.”
Gege straightens up, tangling his fingers into Hua Cheng’s hair. “Hardly. I could do this all night.”
“This San Lang does not think he could survive that,” Hua Cheng says. It’s only half a joke.
Gege’s eyes soften, and he touches the pads of his fingers to Hua Cheng’s cheek. “One day. We’ll get there.”
Hua Cheng is not sure if this is a threat or a promise. He feels a little thrill either way. Breathing shakily, he bends and presses his face to Gege’s shoulder. “Gege,” he pleads. “Mercy.”
“Alright, my San Lang. You’ve been so brave today. Gege is so proud of his sweet boy.”
Hua Cheng whines, torn between the pathetic happiness of a praised dog and the embarrassment of a teenager with his first crush.
“We’ll do more tomorrow,” Gege decides, petting him gently. “Okay, San Lang?”
Hua Cheng shivers—fear and excitement and hope all tangled messily in this skin—and agrees.
Hua Cheng’s true form is a flawed thing. It carries stretch marks and scars and the bones of a starved youth. It is too narrow, too scrawny, too awkward. It limps in the cold. It does not breathe and its heart does not beat. Its hair is rough, its hands calloused, its joints sharp. It is, in all ways, his worst form.
It is his most honest.
It is his god’s favorite.
Gege makes it a point to tell him so regularly, and to prove it with soft kisses and long, leisurely touches. It is hard to feel good in his true form, when Gege can see every part of him; he overthinks everything. It is not a form he spends all of his days in. It is, however, a form he will allow Gege to see in full now. It is a form he is slowly, slowly learning to feel comfortable in.
Sometimes, when Gege says he’s beautiful, Hua Cheng even believes him.