In Sun Quan’s long life, he had been in love many times, just as he had made many errors. He had grown as a ruler and a man. He was a secret keeper, the discoverer or secrets that none would ever know – not to be used for business profit, but to be kept, secret and safe, to learn and expand upon. When it came to love, and the witnessing of love, Sun Quan’s heart always overflowed, no matter how much experience he gained, no matter how wise he became. Love and feeling went hand in hand – they helped him to grow, and they helped him to see the importance of life. Sun Quan was young when he had learned that love could be different from the platonic love he felt for his siblings or the familial love he felt for his parents. It was Sun Ce and Zhou Yu who taught him how important love was, one sunny, lazy spring day in his father’s home of Fuchun.
The thin, hollow sound of a flute echoed through the garden, slipping Sun Quan from his slumber beneath the crabapple blossoms. He blinked at the light shining through the trees, leaves gently weaving with the sound of the music. The grass was warm beneath his back, like a comforting pillow that attempted to pull him back towards the world of dreams when his older brother’s voice disrupted the quiet with a cheerful call.
Sun Quan poked his head above the line of bushes that blocked him from the view of the main path in the gardens just in time to see his older brother Sun Ce running up the path, a brighter smile than Sun Quan had ever seen sparkling on his face and bangs falling over his eyes like a sandy colored waterfall.
“Lord Ce,” Zhou Yu bowed his head. He wore the customary garb of one of the eight students of Lord Water Mirror. Even when visiting home, he refused to take them off – Sun Quan hadn’t seen his face since he’d gone into service.
“Don’t give me that, its just Ce to you.” Sun Ce wrinkled his nose at him, more expressive in Zhou Yu’s company than with anyone else. The smile that followed chased away all of Sun Quan’s dazedness. A sudden chill ran up his spine, even though it was a warm, spring afternoon. He felt like he had just intruded upon a very private scene.
Sun Ce tugged the mask off of Zhou Yu’s face, letting it fall down along his neck. The stony glare that greeted him chilled Sun Quan to the bone. Zhou Yu attempted to push the hand away, but failed. “Ce, I can’t.”
“Of course you can,” Sun Quan’s brother laughed. He put a hand on Zhou Yu’s cheek – a tender display of affection that Sun Quan hadn’t witnessed even between his mother and father. Confucius said that things such as affection weren’t for the public eye. This display, something he’d seen just once between Lord Sun Jian and Lady Wu when his sister was born, made his eyes widen and made his breath hitch in his throat. He had no doubt that his parents did not love each other very dearly, but the late Lord Sun had not been around often due to the many campaigns he was called away on, and such actions were never heard of.
Zhou Yu’s skin was several shades paler than Sun Ce’s – the face beyond the mask was far more mature than the face in Sun Quan’s memory. The younger man was replaced with the face of someone who really could be his brother’s equal. Sun Quan had never wondered why Zhou Yu was Sun Ce’s sworn-brother. They were both brilliant and complimented each other’s vices brilliantly. But as Sun Ce leaned up and touched their lips together, Sun Quan’s mind opened with the possibility that there was something more than friendship between them.
Zhou Yu’s hands came up to meet the hand covering his cheek. “You’re too impatient, Ce.” Sun Quan could swear he saw Zhou Yu’s lips touch into a smile, even as he chided him. “I’m not supposed to do this until I’ve chosen someone worthy of following, and completed my studies.”
“But we all know that’s going to be me, right?” Zhou Yu’s face turned to granite. “Oh come on Yu, I’m going to conquer this country, and only I can do it.”
“You? Beat Cao Cao, and Lu Bu?” Zhou Yu laughed. “You’re just a no one right now, Ce.”
“No, I’m going to do it.” Sun Ce gripped Zhou Yu by the elbows and touched their foreheads together. Zhou Yu laughed.
“You’re too impatient.”
“The world isn’t going to wait around forever, you know.”
Zhou Yu grabbed Sun Ce’s hands from his arms and held them between them, with a very faint smile. “If you tried to rise up now, the Emperor could release an edict and call you a traitor. You’d be killed.” He touched Sun Ce’s cheek. “Right place, right timing, right people.” He said the words like a mantra, and leaned forward to touch their lips together very lightly before he pulled away. He settled his mask back around his face. “Wait, just a bit longer.”
“And how long do I have to wait?” Sun Ce asked, annoyed, even as he pulled Zhou Yu back as he tried to pull away. “I can’t wait around forever – life is too short.”
“Don’t worry Ce, I’m sure it will come sooner or later.”
Sun Quan would never forget that scene from the day, and the hollow pit it left in his stomach. It wasn’t that they were two men that was the problem. It was the entire display – he knew it was forbidden, not only the relationship but the love as well. Familial piety dictated who to love, but he supposed that was his brother’s way. To go against every tie with the force of a giant wave. When he came in from the gardens later, for dinner, Sun Ce laughed and pulled him into a hug. “Where’ve you been all day, Quan?”
“Oh, just walking around.” He forced a shrug. His back stiffened under Sun Ce’s grip. He glanced from the smile on his brother’s face – nothing like the one he’d seen just earlier. It couldn’t even compare. He glanced at Zhou Yu, wondering what he had that no one else did.
Years later, Sun Quan had all but forgotten the secret he’d witnessed. But his life didn’t give him time to ask his brother or even think on it. After Sun Jian died, Sun Quan studied under Sima Yi. He learned business and learned the value of information. Some information could be used against a person. When his brother broke free of Yuan Shu, he used what he learned to wed the Qiao’s to his brother and Zhou Yu. No matter that he knew the truth – he also knew a good deal when he saw one. Perhaps it was a little bit of bitterness seeping through. His brother would always be able to do what he wanted and love whom he wanted. Sun Ce was a force far too wild and far too clever. He was far more so than Sun Quan, who would never be forward enough for such forwardness, would always have to find another way to get what he wanted. He would always have to use cunning. The little tear of jealousy inside of his heart was set alight and burned into guilt for using the people he cared about in such a way.
Life was short. No matter how many times his brother’s words repeated themselves, no matter how often Sun Ce rushed in ahead, he would never get them out of his head. Sun Ce was a hero and he really could take over China. When Sun Ce said them the first time, Sun Quan wanted to laugh. Zhou Yu had scoffed at him time and time again. But there was a sparkle in Zhou Yu’s eye that Sun Quan hadn’t had until Sun Ce really did it – he really took over the southern lands. His brother really was as great as they said, he really could do it and hold his own. There was something that Zhou Yu had seen and it had frightened him to see it, but to Sun Quan, his brother was a hero among anti-heroes.
But, then Sun Ce was ambushed. No matter how cautious Zhou Yu was about the matter – Sun Ce had still been shot. Sun Quan would never forget Sun Ce’s fever induced screams and nor would anyone else. He couldn’t take it; he had to run out of the room. By the time he had returned, the flames of guilt in his heart had turned to ash and were rebuilt with a hollow sort of sadness. The screams tore through the heart of everyone who stood on silently as they heard the doctor’s explanation. The only one who didn’t cry, didn’t move at all – was Zhou Yu.
“Sun Ce,” Zhou Yu’s voice was sharp like a blade as he caught Sun Ce’s hands as he tried in vain to claw off the bandages. They fell around his face, ripped open and exposing the red and tortured skin beneath. Sun Ce’s eyes were as red as blood. “Listen to me.”
Sun Ce’s fever induced panic almost disappeared like magic. His face contorted in confusion. Crimson tears welled up around his eyes; stinging them and making him clench them closed. “Yu,” his voice sounded too broken for one like Sun Ce. “It hurts, it hurts so much.”
“I know, Ce,” Zhou Yu’s grip on his hands tightened. “And they’re going to keep hurting. Until you let them help you.”
“But they-they’re trying to kill us - if I get them, father will remember me!”
“Ce, Sun Jian is dead.”
Sun Ce flinched. Sun Quan, standing off to the side among the other generals and family members in attendance, also flinched. Zhou Yu continued to speak. “These people are loved ones and doctors. They are trying to help you, Ce.” Zhou Yu paid no mind to anyone else but Sun Ce. Even to the people watching, it was as if they were intruding on a private moment. Even Sun Quan, with tears streaming down his face, and his heart broken at his brother’s fate, felt that he was an intruder.
“It’s dark, how can you tell?”
“Because I can see.” Zhou Yu touched Sun Ce’s uninjured cheek very gently. He swiped his thumb along the unblemished skin. “You’ve been shot with a poison arrow, and it is going to kill you if they can’t take it out at its source.”
There was a long moment, where only Sun Ce’s labored breath could be heard. Everyone else waited in baited silence for a reaction.
“No,” Sun Ce finally said, and tried to wrench himself away, but Zhou Yu held him, pulled him into a hug.
“You have to, Ce.” Zhou Yu smiled. Sun Quan had never witnessed an emptier smile. “You’ll be like professor water mirror.”
“Who ever heard of a blind conqueror,” Sun Ce’s laugh was hollow and it dropped a cold stone into Sun Quan’s stomach.
“There’s always a first time,” Zhou Yu said, and pulled back. “Let them save you, Ce. I don’t want to lose you.”
Sun Ce without him looked lonelier than ever. He wavered on his feet, swallowed hard. “One hundred days of pain,” he murmured, mostly to himself. Behind Sun Quan, Ling Tong gave a very sharp sob. “I’ll do it,” he said. “Alright.”
A tear finally made its way down Zhou Yu’s cheek. “Thank you.”
Sun Quan was supposed to be sleeping, but he couldn’t – not when his brother was still like this. The doctors said he was looking much better – all things considering. Even though it was late, Sun Quan had elected to bring his brother tea.
He hadn’t figured on a visitor. Zhou Yu’s back was to the door, so he hadn’t seen him, and he backed into the shadow of the doorway to wait. He didn’t want to interrupt.
“I keep seeing ghosts,” Sun Ce said. Zhou Yu’s hands stilled over the bowl, which he’d been methodically mixing herbs into. Even from where Sun Quan stood, the poignant smell of freshly cut grass and twigs filled the air. He looked to where Sun Ce sat up in bed, supported by a bunch of pillows. “Come on, I’m not going to drink that so stop mixing it.”
“What kind of ghosts?” Zhou Yu asked, sighing as he abandoned his task and moving to sit on the edge of the bed. He put a hand to Sun Ce’s forehead. The Little Conqueror’s face twisted into a scowl and he grabbed the hand, twisting their fingers together.
“I’m fine, Yu, sheesh. You’re worse than mother.”
“We’re all worried,” Zhou Yu touched Sun Ce’s neck. “I don’t want to lose you.” He echoed the statement from the few weeks earlier.
“Come on, Quan’s going to be a good ruler,” Sun Quan held his breath. He didn’t want to be the ruler. Sun Ce was supposed to lead the country – he was the conqueror. “I never wanted to lead, anyway. That’s what you’re for.” Even with bandages covering most of his face, Sun Ce’s smirk was still ever telling.
“Is that why you sent him to learn from Sima Yi?”
“Nah, I sent him to learn because he seemed interested in it, and he’s really good at it, too.” Zhou Yu seemed to think he was lying, but he chuckled anyway.
“You chose a good teacher,” Zhou Yu’s thumb rubbed the skin along Sun Ce’s hand.
“Yeah, I know.” He laughed. The sound echoed through the room and stopped, turning into a cough. Zhou Yu pulled away and stood up.
“I’ve kept you awake too long, it’s already evening.” Sun Quan slunk deeper into the shadows as Zhou Yu turned and surveyed the window.
“No, come on, Yu.” Sun Ce reached out towards the side of the bed Zhou Yu was on. His fingers smacked the edge of the desk. “Ouch, dammit. I’ll never get used to only seeing ghosts.” The curse redirected Zhou Yu’s attention and he sat down again with a frown, holding the hurt hand between both of his and rubbing the fingers with his thumb.
“Who do you see?”
“Father, mostly.” Sun Quan sucked in a breath. Zhou Yu turned his head halfway towards the sound and then redirected his attention. “He’s calling me, Yu.” His laugh made Sun Quan’s chest ache. “I don’t think the poison is gone. I can feel it coursing through my bones like it’s eating me.”
“No, no it’s not.” Zhou Yu said, denial coursing through ever fiber of his body. Sun Quan could feel all the blood rushing from his face as he paled. “I’m going to fix this, fix you. Yu Ji will know how to fix it. You’ll be okay.”
Sun Ce laughed. “You think I’m better because I’m not screaming my head off anymore, don’t you?”
“Aren’t you?” Zhou Yu’s voice sounded small, so unsure. To Sun Quan, it was almost like watching a mountain crumble.
“I’m just used to it. Pain isn’t a big deal after you get used to it.” Sun Ce raised one hand and touched Zhou Yu’s cheek very gingerly. “Take care of Quan when I’m gone, okay?”
“No, no,” Zhou Yu rejected, dropping his head to Sun Ce’s shoulder. He took a staggering breath. “Its just the fever talking.” Sun Ce ran his fingers through Zhou Yu’s long hair, followed through down the line his chin, let his fingers lightly run over the lines of his face, from his eyes to his nose to his cheeks, and finally to his mouth, the lips of which he traced very slowly and very carefully, as though memorizing the gaunt set of his lips. After a while, he tipped it up very carefully, as though Zhou Yu were the one about to break.
“Sorry Yu, I’m going to go first. I’ve always hated waiting around.”
“You’re insane,” Zhou Yu’s breath stilted. Sun Ce pulled him forward and found his lips, catching them with his own.
“You’ve always known that,” he murmured when he broke it. “Come on, Yu. I’m too impatient to sit around forever – It’d kill me to let you manage the country for me. I’m not a puppet. I’m a conqueror.”
Zhou Yu stood, very abruptly. “You’re a fool,” he snapped. “We’d make it work.”
Sun Ce laughed. “I promised someone one hundred days of pain before I died,” Sun Quan suddenly remembered Ling Tong’s gasp from before, although he was unsure as to why. “I always keep my promises.”
“And I promise, I’m going to find out how to make you better.” Zhou Yu stated. “I promise, I won’t let you leave.” Zhou Yu gripped Sun Ce’s hand like a lifeline.
“You have to, Yu. Who said anything about leaving me, anyway? Maybe I’ll stick around just to haunt you.” Sun Ce laughed, but the sound that burst from the strategist was foreign to Sun Quan’s ears. It released itself from Zhou Yu’s lips as though it were his soul trying to escape and be with Sun Ce, but held back only through sheer force of will.
“I’m going to speak with Yu Ji.” He said, voice strained as he tried to compose himself. He stood very slowly from the bed and released Sun Ce’s hand as though he were trying to move against the current of the Yangtze.
“He’s not going to have any answers for you.” Sun Ce chimed after him, settling back on the pillows. Zhou Yu took a deep breath, pausing again as he tried to pull away.
“I have to try every option.”
“I know,” Sun Ce said, and squeezed Zhou Yu’s hand. He brushed his knuckles with his lips. “I love you.” He smiled that smile – the one Sun Quan had only seen once in his life before. The one reserved for Zhou Yu alone.
Sun Quan backed out of the room and into the hallway, looking down at the tea that was far too cold now. He made to go down into the kitchens to replace it, when the door opened and Zhou Yu stepped out.
“Sun Quan,” Zhou Yu exclaimed, eyes widening in startled alarm. “How long have you been there?”
“I was bringing brother some tea, but it’s cold, so I was going to replace it.” Sun Quan frowned at the cup, as though it had betrayed him.
Zhou Yu eyed him for a long moment, and then put a hand on his shoulder. His eyes flashed with an emotion that Sun Quan couldn’t place, but filled him with the strongest rush of helplessness.
“Lord Yu, brother…he’ll be okay, right?”
“You don’t need to call me lord, Sun Quan.” Zhou Yu smiled very faintly. The smile was very much dead. “I’m going to go see Yu Ji now. I’m sure your brother will be fine. Go in and see him anyway.” Sun Quan swallowed the lie that Zhou Yu wanted to believe and stepped inside the room, leaving the door slightly ajar. It was the last time he had seen Zhou Yu fully alive, because after he saw Yu Ji, Zhou Yu changed.
Zhou Yu had never been able to see ghosts. But Yu Ji did something to him that night. He would never know why – as the dead do not speak of why they do things. But from that night onward, Zhou Yu would always see them. He saw ghosts of cats and dogs, he saw ghosts of chickens, running around the yard, he saw the ghosts of abandoned children in alleyways, of horses in the stables. And of course, he saw soldiers.
He also saw ghosts of heroes past. Of people he had met, of people he had loved. He saw the ghost of Yuan Fang when he passed, smelling very lightly of flowers. When Guo Jia passed, they took a moment to smile at one another, although Guo Jia had always had one foot in the doorway of death. Taishi Ci had hugged him, and apologized. They all saw him only for a moment to smile and ask him to give their final messages, except for Sun Ce, who came time and time again. He paced around his office whenever he was working; he lingered by his side when he fought – offering up little tidbits of advice while he strategized, often to push the quickest route with no call for strategy. Sun Ce had been the only one able to pull his own ideas off. No one else had the caliber any longer. No one else was such a fool.
“Hurry up, Yu.” Sun Ce’s voice whispered whenever he was alone in bed at night, when Xiao Qiao was in her chambers or in another palace, miles and miles away. He would feel a familiar pressure against the mattress and very soon after, the warm touch of Sun Ce’s hand on his skin. “You’ll never be able to keep up with me if you wait much longer.” If Zhou Yu closed his eyes, he could see his smile, feel the curve of his palm against his cheek. “You’ve always been slower than me, though.” Then the warmth would leave. “Take care of Quan, alright?” Sun Ce’s laugh echoed around the room until he opened his eyes and found himself alone.
When the arrow came finally, Zhou Yu was sure that Sun Ce had sent it.
Impatient as always, to get down the path of the underworld and onto what was next. Sun Ce was tired of waiting for him.
Sun Ce was very wrong about one thing. Pain did not get any easier to bear, no matter how many years went by. Zhou Yu closed his eyes and felt the numbness of poison lick through his veins and into his heart. Numbness and nothingness creeping closer, a blanket that took the pain that had plagued him for so many years finally found.
“Fall back,” he gasped at Gan Ning, who held him even as darkness touching the corners of his vision. His sword slipped out of his grip and hit the dirt, forgotten, as his fingers went numb. Gan Ning, for his part, took one look at the arrow and knew – it had been encased in death.
When he looked up again, Sun Ce stood before him, standing a little out of reach and waiting. Still full of the vigor of youth with his hands on his hips, cocky as always. His hair fell over half of his face, forever a disaster, even in the afterlife. “Come on, Yu.” Sun Ce smiled and stretched out his hand.
Zhou Yu found himself reaching out, out of his body beyond the pain, out to catch him in his arms. Warmth followed Sun Ce wherever he went. “Finally,” the Little Conqueror laughed. “You were getting old!”
“I’m not old,” Zhou Yu frowned. Sun Ce cupped his face with his hands and a rush of warmth flowed through his palms. Zhou Yu felt younger than he had since Sun Ce’s death. Only the wisest could grow old in a changing world like the one left for them. The days of old strategy and battle plans were coming to a swift and brutal end, and the way of the future and the business were about to arrive. Zhou Yu spared a thought for Sun Quan, well versed and brilliant in his business studies – ready for the new world that was lurking around the edges of chaos, waiting to strike. Lu Xun and Sun Quan would have to take care of the rest – the world was changing too much for the rest of them.
“Life’s too short to grow old in.”
Sun Ce’s smile shone like the brightest stars in the sky. His fingers were dark and warm against Zhou Yu’s pale and frozen skin. Zhou Yu finally leaned in and kissed him, afraid to close his eyes and also afraid to move too fast or hold to close in fear of him disappearing like another apparition. But he didn’t – and eventually he closed his eyes. The world went white as pure snow, and Sun Ce’s laugh tinkled in his ears like a chime.
Zhou Yu never once suspected that Sun Quan knew, but Sun Quan preferred it that way. As the years went on, he watched Zhou Yu become more and more detached. With Lu Xun, they developed plans for the future that had developed less out of the old ways of strategy and more out of the new ways. How to make a long lasting kingdom, how to best take care of the kingdom Zhou Yu and Sun Ce forged and expound upon the profits they were presented. Wu would flourish, Sun Quan would make sure of that until his dying breath. Sun Quan was the keeper of secrets and the dirty man in the business. Zhou Yu would never use marriage in a strategy, so Sun Quan would, quietly, the same way he got the Qiao’s to marry his brother and Zhou Yu, and he forged the marriage alliance with his sister to Liu Bei.
Sun Quan was a ruler first and a businessman second, the same way his brother was a warrior first and a ruler second. His brother’s philosophy had always been to rush in ahead because life was too short and glory had to be claimed, not waited for.