Hua Cheng finally manages to tear his gaze away from the cursed shackle on Xie Lian’s ankle, inwardly fuming. How dare Jun Wu? That explains why it took eight hundred years to find him.
Xie Lian lies down on the mat, and Hua Cheng copies him, distracted.
“Let’s rest,” his god says in his beautiful voice, and blows out the candle.
Hua Cheng just lies there for a long time, staring at Xie Lian’s back, his thoughts racing. It’s not like he actually needs to sleep.
He can’t believe he finally found him again. It’s been so long. Years stretching out into decades, decades stretching out into centuries. Dull and lifeless without Dianxia’s presence to give them meaning. And now he’s here, right in front of him.
Hua Cheng could reach out and touch him; he’s only an arm’s length away. Unthinking, he extends a hand to do just that, before freezing and yanking his worthless appendage back. He has no right to touch Dianxia while he’s sleeping. That’s so creepy. He’s already deceived his way into Xie Lian’s bed, and wow, it sounds awful when he says it like that.
He briefly wishes he had found his way into Xie Lian’s bed in a different way, then physically shakes his head to dispel the disrespectful thought. This is already so much more than he had expected. Does Xie Lian not know to be cautious with strangers? He’s asleep with a Supreme Ghost King at his back. At his own invitation.
Xie Lian breathes deeply. Hua Cheng freezes.
He just turns over onto his back, though, and doesn’t seem to have woken up. Hua Cheng still doesn’t move.
He stares at his beloved’s face. It’s even more stunning than he remembered. Xie Lian looks peaceful and gentle even while awake, but in sleep, it’s even more pronounced. He doesn’t look like most martial gods’ statues do: coarse, angry, sharp and broad. He looks like someone a child would immediately trust. And Hong Hong-er did immediately trust him, when the mask fell away and he saw who had caught him.
It’s been so long, Hua Cheng thinks again, mourning for their years apart. He wouldn’t presume to mourn on Xie Lian’s behalf, but… he can tell that the centuries have not been kind to him.
And yet Xie Lian is still kind. He shared the only food he had with a stranger he met only a few minutes ago, then invited him into his home and his bed, unaware that his objectively meager offerings mean far, far more to Hua Cheng than the extravagant feasts and sprawling estate he has back in Ghost City.
Hua Cheng is still frozen, breathing only shallowly, automatically, so as not to rouse Xie Lian’s suspicion, even while sleeping. Xie Lian is inches away from him.
He worries, again, for Xie Lian’s self-preservation skills. He’s a Supreme Ghost King. He could do anything to Xie Lian right now. Not that he couldn’t do anything he liked even if Xie Lian hadn’t invited him into his bed - literally invited him to share a bed! Hua Cheng is still processing that! - but it’s the principle of the thing. He supposes it’s a good thing it’s him? He doesn’t think he’s particularly trustworthy, but at least he’s not someone like Qi Rong. He inwardly shudders at the thought of that green bastard, though he continues to, physically, stay very still.
Xie Lian makes a small noise, then shuffles just slightly closer to Hua Cheng.
Hua Cheng holds his breath for several seconds, then continues his unnecessary breathing when Xie Lian seems to be done moving.
Xie Lian looks so soft, like this. His hair is pillowed behind his head, cloudlike. There’s a small strip of skin visible at his collarbone, where his inner robe doesn’t cover, and Hua Cheng looks away hurriedly before he has any untoward thoughts about it. One of his arms is crossed over his stomach, while the other - the far one - is laid out to the side, palm up, fingers slightly curled. His wrist is exposed, and Hua Cheng stares at it for a while before wrenching his eye away.
He has had thoughts about those wrists. You wouldn’t think a wrist could be erotic, but given eight hundred years, boredom, and lack of literally anyone else worthy of being attracted to, anything could become a fixation. Once, a couple of centuries ago, he spent six or so decades thinking only of Dianxia’s feet.
He carefully stares at a random spot on the wall, not focusing on any part of Xie Lian. He had expected that this would be overwhelming, but… well. He reminds himself not to pray to Dianxia for patience and self-control concerning himself. That would be weird.
Xie Lian moves.
Hua Cheng has only a second to consider scooting out of the way before Xie Lian’s arm is over him. Xie Lian is touching him.
“Wrmgh,” Xie Lian mumbles incoherently, and snuggles into his chest.
Hua Cheng stares down at him. He feels like his skin is on fire. He’s about ninety percent certain it isn’t.
Xie Lian wraps his arm around Hua Cheng’s waist even more securely and nuzzles his face into Hua Cheng’s neck.
Hua Cheng has no idea what he’s supposed to do. He has one arm awkwardly raised and the other awkwardly squished between them. His god is cuddling him. This is not what he expected! At all! What is Xie Lian doing?
Xie Lian relaxes a little, then, pressed up against Hua Cheng. He breathes out, sounding content, and… Hua Cheng doesn’t have the heart to push him away, or wiggle out of his arms, or whatever he’s probably supposed to do. (Is there a “supposed to do” in this situation? Hua Cheng doesn’t know. He’s never shared a bed with anyone who wasn’t a sibling, before, and they certainly never tried to cuddle with him.) He slowly lowers his arm until it’s resting on Xie Lian’s shoulders.
Xie Lian sighs happily and tries to scoot closer. Hua Cheng is pretty sure that’s physically impossible, at this point.
Hua Cheng is pathetically grateful that their knees are bent in such a way that it’s really only their chests and legs pressed together. His god is cuddling him, he’d be surprised if this painstakingly realistic form didn’t have some sort of reaction to that.
Xie Lian mumbles something else into Hua Cheng’s neck, and his lips moving against Hua Cheng’s skin are… well. Hua Cheng has studied languages for a very long time, and he could not possibly pick out words to describe it.
Xie Lian’s skin is warm: the truth, and a simple, objective observation. His lips are soft: another true, simple, objective observation. Where he is touching Hua Cheng, Hua Cheng feels like he is being branded, and he doesn’t think he can handle it for another second, and he would not exchange it for anything in the world: this feels more like the truth than anything else.
Xie Lian’s breath keeps gusting across his skin, and he feels chills every time. He’s certain he has goosebumps.
Xie Lian’s hair is tickling his nose, and Hua Cheng revels in it. It’s messed up, now, strands coming out of the half-bun Xie Lian favors, but it is no less perfect for those imperfections.
He almost regrets making this form so realistic. It’s beginning to sweat. He’s fairly certain Xie Lian is sweating too, though he would have to move to be sure, and he doesn’t want to disturb him.
It’s warm. It feels like the heat is consuming him. He’s surprised he hasn’t burned away yet.
He wouldn’t give this up for anything.
He endures this terrible, wonderful experience for what feels like hours. Xie Lian doesn’t move for a long time, his face tucked into Hua Cheng’s neck, his body tucked into Hua Cheng’s arms. Hua Cheng holds the precious frame he’s been unknowingly entrusted with, and wonders. Is Xie Lian as starved for touch as he has been? Through the veil of sleep, does Xie Lian feel as relieved to be held as he does?
He promises himself that he’ll slip away as soon as Xie Lian moves. He doesn’t know how Xie Lian would react to waking up in the arms of a stranger, even if he was the one to place himself there in his sleep.
Xie Lian shifts, after a long, long time, and Hua Cheng takes the opportunity to lift his arm and then Xie Lian’s and deftly hop over him to stand at the edge of the mat, carefully not panting even though he feels like he needs to. He’s a ghost. He doesn’t need to breathe at all, he reminds himself.
He heads over to the altar table, grinds some ink, spreads out a piece of paper, and begins to paint.
It’s meditative. He could paint the God-Pleasing Crown Prince of Xianle perfectly in the depths of madness, and has, many times over. He watches Dianxia’s form take shape under his brush, until the black lines are all set down on paper and it’s time to grind another color of ink.
He looks at the yellow ink he’s using for gold, on the God-Pleasing Prince’s mask, and remembers what it was like to be caught, when he was expecting his consciousness to break along with his body on the ground below.
Xie Lian had saved him then. Hua Cheng will do everything he can to protect him now.