Nights like this, Sui Zhou sends Dong-er to bed, and waits for the carriage. Tang Yu smiles at him when he suggests she needn’t wait up, and he knows she’s going to sit up with some needlework in the candle-light, like Tang Fan keeps on trying to stop her from doing, but she accedes to his hint that she stay out of the way.
The goat kid ignores him with the same disdain as always. Sui Zhou extinguishes all the lanterns in the courtyard but one, to see Tang Fan home.
Sui Zhou likes waiting for Tang Fan, like this. It’s a good feeling. Tang Fan is coming back to him, and what he wants, what he needs, Sui Zhou can provide.
He hears cart-wheels in the street outside, but they pass without slowing.
What Tang Fan wants, Sui Zhou wants to give.
Sui Zhou takes the bar off the gate. It won’t be long, now. Wang Zhi is the opposite of Tang Fan in matters of time, always precise like he has a water-clock ticking in his brain. The evening is in Wang Zhi’s hands, so he knows he doesn’t need to worry: Tang Fan will be delivered in good condition, in a timely manner.
Well. Tang Fan’s condition will be satisfactory to everyone.
The fact that Tang Fan returns from visiting Wang Zhi with marks on him, thin red lines as if something was pulled taut against him, small marks that will turn into bruises in a day or two, sometimes even places where the skin is raw—
Well, it doesn’t matter, next to the fact that Tang Fan returns smiling, dreamy, wanting to press himself against Sui Zhou.
A wheel rattles, and then slows. Sui Zhou pulls the gate open without waiting, since there is no guarantee Tang Fan will be in any state to remember how knocking works, and he doesn’t want to make the carriage-driver come down to knock; he doesn’t want the driver intruding.
Sui Zhou takes the stairs from the driver and puts them in place before Tang Fan descends, looking more coltish than usual and tripping against Sui Zhou’s side on the last step. Holding Tang Fan mostly upright with one arm, he hands the stairs back to the driver. Wang Zhi claims the man is “deaf, or as good as.” Sui Zhou isn’t quite sure whether he means the man can’t hear, or won’t talk, but he is noticeably disinterested in the proceedings and doesn’t look at anyone.
Wang Zhi smiles one of his few non-threatening smiles, and closes the carriage door panel. Tang Fan with great dignity pulls himself upright. “I can walk,” he informs Sui Zhou.
“Of course,” Sui Zhou agrees, and gets an arm securely around his waist. Tang Fan leans into him, and Sui Zhou pets his hip with the thumb on the hand securing him. Tang Fan hums.
Securing the gate without letting go of Tang Fan is much more complicated than it would be otherwise, but Tang Fan needs to be held now, so eventually he closes the gate against the night, and half walks, half carries Tang Fan back to Sui Zhou’s bed.
Tang Fan is cooperative in taking off his outer garments, which Sui Zhou doesn’t precisely know, but strongly suspects he just recently put back on. He lets Sui Zhou take off his guan, which, he notices, has only been haphazardly pinned in place. The bed had been heated an hour ago in preparation so Tang Fan burrows under the quilt like the hedonist he is. “Guangchuan, you’re too far,” he whines, so Sui Zhou sheds his outer robes and joins him.
When Tang Fan is like this, he wants to be touched, he wants the warm heat of a body all pressed against him. He likes his hair combed out, but they don’t have the water to fill the bath right now, so it’s best left bound to keep it clean, and instead Sui Zhou puts his hand around the back of Tang Fan’s neck and pets the soft short hairs that grow there.
Tang Fan shivers. “You could fuck me, if you wanted,” he says.
Tang Fan sometimes says things like this when Wang Zhi brings him back, before his mind returns to its whirling knife-sharpness. They never talk about it any other time, and Sui Zhou thinks, although they haven’t exactly discussed it, that Tang Fan is aware that Sui Zhou…
It’s not that he doesn’t—
The man he was, long ago, knew how to want things like this. The battlefield took that man, though, and left him behind in its place. Sui Zhou has had want flensed out of him. He doesn’t know how to want, anymore, anything more complicated than a quiet space where his mind is free from the battlefield, and, sometimes, a warm, safe space that he can give to someone else.
He can’t give Tang Fan the hurts and cruelty that he wants from Wang Zhi, but he can give him this.
“Do you want my hand, Runqing?” he asks.
Tang Fan squirms closer, and presses his whole body against Sui Zhou. He’s a little hard, not very, but Sui Zhou knows he has a youth’s vitality and can work himself hard very quickly. On the other hand, sometimes he just wants to lie with Sui Zhou, seemingly content to ignore what another man would take as an imperative.
“Mmm,” says Tang Fan, and lazily rubs himself against Sui Zhou’s leg. Sui Zhou grabs Tang Fan above the knee to help him snug up against his thigh. “Mmmm,” says Tang Fan, again, happily, and tucks his face under Sui Zhou’s chin, so Sui Zhou smooths some stray strands off his forehead and kisses it. His chest feels broken open with how Tang Fan makes him feel.
Sui Zhou is just thinking, while Tang Fan rubs against his thigh, how once this had been him, how, before, he had known how to pursue this strange thing, pleasure, known how to drive his body after it and capture it, when Tang Fan opens his mouth and sucks on the thin skin over Sui Zhou’s collarbone. There’s a moment, first, where it’s just another sensation, like the smooth give of fresh tofu, like the springing pain of stubbing his toe.
And then, somehow, the sensation of Tang Fan’s mouth turns into something, like how a voice can rise out of the sounds of a crowd and suddenly yield meaning, the small sensation of Tang Fan’s mouth and the sound of his panting suddenly become—
Sui Zhou propels himself backwards out of the bed on the same instinct that saved his life countless times on the battlefield. Because he is not on the battlefield, he gets tangled in the quilt and drags it with him, dragging Tang Fan to the edge of the bed as well.
“What?” said Tang Fan, a little confused and upset. “Sui da-ge, is something wrong?”
Sui Zhou gets a grip on himself. He feels fine. He’s not— He’s not hard, there’s nothing wrong with him, he just felt, for a moment.… He untangles himself from the quilt and shuffles them both to the center of the bed. “Sorry, no, sorry, I—”
He had felt, for a moment, something forgotten, something dangerous: want.
He makes himself relax against Tang Fan so that he can’t feel his tension, but he doesn’t fall asleep until after yin hour.
Tang Fan and Tang Yu are disagreeing about her upcoming wedding. Tang Fan wants to consult an astrologer, to organize a wedding procession and to provide a lavish banquet. Tang Yu refuses to say what she wants, but she also refuses to talk to Tang Fan about any of the preparations. Uncharacteristically, Tang Fan is not noticing his sister’s feelings. Tang Fan is working himself into a frenzy of wedding preparations, as if he has to compensate for every auntie and grandmother they do not have.
Sui Zhou watches this family drama play out, a little helplessly. Weddings have never seemed like something to do with him, even when it had seemed like he might be pulled into one as the groom. Rather, weddings seemed like a seasonal event, useless to complain of, only to be withstood.
“Sui da-ge,” says Dong-er, “Someone should… stop him? Shouldn’t we?”
“I think that Tang Yu is the only one who can stop him,” he says. He isn’t sure she will.
(He would be more worried about it if Tang Yu didn’t seem so pleased by Pei Huai. She’s pleased when he comes to visit, pleased when he flirts, pleased when they argue; it seems promising.)
Tang Yu and Tang Fan do not talk, so far as he notices, but by the end of the day, Tang Fan sits down next to him and makes a noise of displeasure that means he wants to be cosseted. Sui Zhou puts his arm around Tang Fan’s shoulder and pulls him in close.
“She doesn’t want any of it!” he complains. “I just want to give her the best of everything, and she doesn’t want it!”
Sui Zhou makes an encouraging noise.
“She took care of me when we were young, you know, I just want to take care of her,” he mourns.
Sui Zhou can understand that.
He’s been so busy with Eastern Depot business that he’s barely seen Tang Fan for the last week. Someone, somewhere, is taking a bribe they shouldn’t.
(Sui Zhou is of the opinion that all bribes are improper, but he knows that he won’t make anything but trouble by kicking up a fuss over the millions of small bribes that change hands every day. He is paid well enough, and what would he do with more money? Buy a second goat to keep the first one company?)
Small bribes are of no interest to the Eastern Depot, but one thing they take very seriously is the remittance of taxes, and taxes have been going missing. It should be a minor matter to discover the leak, but the leak appears to be occurring somewhere in the paperwork; large barges recorded as small ones, 20 bales of tea recorded as a dozen. Therefore the answer is leg-work: going out to verify the physical matter of the merchandise under question.
The result is that he’s aware Tang Fan has been having one of his brain fevers in pursuit of one of his own matters, for the past two days. But Sui Zhou has not been able to take the time to make sure it hasn’t pulled him too far into the undertows of thought he sometimes gets trapped by. So it’s very convenient, if possibly also very aggravating, that he meets Wang Zhi in a salt warehouse.
“Wang da-ren,” he says, “Are we here on the same matter?” It will be rather annoying if Wang Zhi is about to arrest, or rescue from arrest, some aristocrat who has been interfering with taxes, causing Sui Zhou’s case to collapse with nothing to show for it.
“Sui baihu,” says Wang Zhi. “Of course I have no idea what business the Eastern Depot is on, but I doubt you need be concerned.”
Sui Zhou decides to take that at face value, for the moment. “I wonder if Wang Zhi is able to take some time for another matter that is personal to me?” he says, while his lieutenant tabulates sacks of salt.
Wang Zhi lifts an eyebrow.
Sui Zhou sighs. “It is only that Tang Fan sometimes becomes overly involved in a case and forgets to eat, and I’m not able to look in on him as much as I would like, at the moment.”
The space between Wang Zhi’s eyebrows pinches in the suggestion of a frown.
“Of course, Wang da-ren has many higher responsibilities…” says Sui Zhou, awkwardly.
“I will take charge of this matter,” says Wang Zhi, as if he hadn’t hesitated. “Do not concern yourself with it further.”
Sui Zhou doesn’t.
The sacks of salt match the official tally, so there’s no progress there, but still, he feels an easing of the pressure he’s been carrying.
It doesn’t happen again.
For a while, it didn’t happen.
Tang Fan liked to wait for him in the bathing room, undressed or partly dressed. At first, before Tang Fan understood that it couldn’t happen that way, it had been a fairly transparent attempt to seduce him, but later it had become a habit, a quiet time they could talk together. Sui Zhou would pour water from the basin for him, if he wanted to rinse, and Tang Fan would wait while Sui Zou bathed and do the same.
And sometimes, Tang Fan would watch him. Sui Zhou liked that, mostly. He liked the idea that he was providing something for Tang Fan, fuel for the fire that he couldn’t stoke, but Tang Fan could. Although Tang Fan was not obvious about it, Sui Zhou was fairly sure he was dealing with himself in his room, later.
But since that night in Sui Zhou’s bed, Sui Zhou is unsettled. It feels like the safe routine of their bathing has become a site of potential ambush. What if he sees Tang Fan in his undergarments and— something. What if he feels something. What if that part of him feels something?
With the addition of women to their household, established hours for bathing had become merely a practicality to give everyone their privacy. He can hardly avoid Tang Fan without throwing the entire household into disarray, and if he doesn’t want Tang Fan curious, he wants Tang Yu and Dong-er’s attention on the matter even less.
He joins Tang Fan at the same time as always on their regular night. He’s careful to look at Tang Fan exactly as he always does, and it’s— It’s fine. Tang Fan is pleasant to look at; pleasing, familiar, a warm glow lit under his breastbone, but it does not leap into flames.
He thinks about offering to wash Tang Fan’s hair for him. He’d like that, he’s certain, but. The thing feels too dangerous, right now.
Instead, they sit in the same bathwater, and Tang Fan lets Sui Zhou see him looking at his his shoulders, and Sui Zhou lets him see him seeing.
It’s good. It’s fine.
Tang Fan is pretending he doesn’t notice that sometimes, Tang Yu visits Pei Huai during the day and leaves Cheng-er behind. Or he is pretending that he doesn’t notice that she leaves Dong-er, the only one who might serve as a chaperone, behind. Sui Zhou is not so foolish as to make any of it his business, and Tang Yu usually seems happy enough when she returns, but this time she seems flustered.
“Is anything wrong,” he asks, hanging back. Only once, Tang Yu shied away when he came up too close behind her without warning, and she hasn’t since, but he’s been careful since, too.
“No,” she says, “It’s only— Pei Huai.”
He makes the same encouraging noise he would give her brother, and it seems to work for her.
“He wants to let a fortune teller choose the date. He wants— He thinks it’s better to make the wedding as lucky as possible. So much foolishness in such a modern man!” she exclaims, and flaps her arm. “As if! I did everything proper for my first wedding, and it made no difference, did it?”
“How else would you choose the date?” he asks.
“I don’t— I would choose one! Any one I liked! When pomegranate is in season,” she says, with a note in her voice he doesn’t understand.
He looks at her sideways.
“Not for that! I’m content with the son I have. It’s only that… Cheng-er likes pomegranate.” She looks proud, and a little defensive.
He looks at Tang Yu, and imagines her picking the seeds out of a pomegranate, one by one, for someone she loves. It is easy to imagine. “I think you should get married when you like,” he tells her.
Some nights, Tang Fan will climb in next to Sui Zhou in his bed without any excuse. They don’t need excuses between them, he thinks, and he likes that, but he still worries he might hurt Tang Fan in his sleep.
One such night, with Tang Fan next to him, he wakes from a dream. In his dream, Tang Fan is clutching him, panting, and Sui Zhou can’t tell if it’s in pain or pleasure, and he can’t— He doesn’t know—
Except he does know. He knows that he was the one who hurt Tang Fan, not cruelly, but violently, not tenderly like Wang Zhi, but carelessly, and Tang Fan was panting with real pain and Sui Zhou was holding him like a stranger —
He’s hard, he’s so hard that, for the first time, he might actually be able to use his tool.
On instinct, he slides out of his bed like he’s fleeing a pursuer, leaves his room, gets all the way to the gate into the street before he realizes what he’s doing and stops himself from fleeing out into the street wearing only his inner robes. He’s still—
Without trying, without wanting it, another part of the dream falls into his memory: a slit belly, bleeding, the horrible matter of the human body’s viscera exposed. It was him, he knows, somehow, it was him, he slit Tang Fan open and he’s still hard.
He stays there, leaning against the gate, until he starts to shiver, until he’s —
And then, once he’s decent, once he’s safe, he goes into the kitchen and starts to make broth for hand-pulled noodles.
Tang Fan finds him there when the broth has nearly mellowed perfectly, and the noodles are ready to pull. Since Tang Fan is there, he begins to put everything together. Tang Fan silently watches him pull the noodles, without his customary delight. Even when Sui Zhou puts the cooked noodles in a bowl and adds the meat and broth, Tang Fan only watches Sui Zhou. He places the bowl in front of Tang Fan.
Tang Fan looks at the soup, then up at Sui Zhou. “The bed was cold when I woke up this morning,” he says.
Sui Zhou feels it as reproof, although he’s not sure it’s meant that way.
“I couldn’t sleep.”
“Hmm,” says Tang Fan, and starts to eat his noodles. He’s looking at Sui Zhou with a small furrow between his brows.
When he receives Tang Fan again from Wang Zhi’s carriage, he knows he’s— He feels like the night before a morning raid, restless and unable to do anything but compulsively check his sword and armor, but now he doesn’t even have a sword or armor, and he’s checked three times to make sure the bed that is waiting is warm enough.
He doesn’t know what he looks like when he receives Tang Fan into his arms, and he avoids looking at Wang Zhi in case he betrays something with his gaze.
Tang Fan, though, soothes some of his anxiety; he’s a warm and enthusiastic armful, and when Tang Fan gets him bundled up in the bed he only wants to push his face against Sui Zhou’s shoulder.
“You feel good,” he says, and Sui Zhou feels himself grow warm. He makes himself be just as careful and gentle with Tang Fan as if he felt nothing at all. He doesn’t try to prevent Tang Fan from clinging to him; if Tang Fan’s actions make him feel a certain way, he shouldn’t punish Tang Fan for that.
When Tang Fan falls asleep next to him, an arm across Sui Zhou’s chest, that part of him is a little roused, but not enough to disturb the covering of the quilt. He lets himself enjoy the unfamiliar feeling.
It’s raining, the kind of downpour he associates with marching through mud, not being warm and dry inside. It might pull him back to the war, but it doesn’t. The kitchen smells of the broth he’s watching for Tang Yu, and faintly of the wood-polish she has persuaded him to start using. It’s nothing like the battlefield.
He doesn’t hear anything over the wash of the rain, but a shadow crosses the yard, Tang Yu, returning home. Her umbrella has a vane broken, and one section is collapsed, and she looks soaked. She waves at him quickly, and ducks into the side house, presumably to get dry.
It’s nice. Nothing is happening, but everyone is safe in his home, safe from the rain, where he could lay hands on them in a minute if he needed to. The soup broth still needs another hour and doesn’t really need his attention, except to make sure the fire doesn’t drop too low or flare too high, and he could ask Dong-er to do it, but he likes that Tang Yu asked him. She probably didn’t mean him to watch it so closely, but it’s a simple enough thing.
“You don’t need to watch it,” she calls, a little time later, hurrying under the verandah to stay dry.
“I’m not, I’m just—” He gestures at the space around them. “It’s warm here.”
She smiles at him. She seems lit up with inner light, the way Tang Fan sometimes—
His eyebrows want to raise and he forces them down. “A good visit,” he says as neutrally as he can, and she giggles.
“Everyone says widows,” she says, a little giddily, “but I never thought!”
“Widows?” he asks.
“You know,” she says, and does a thing with her brows that he only understands because he knows what it means on Tang Fan. “Widows! But I thought, well. It was never like this with He Lin! I don’t think he even— Well, once he gave his parents a grandchild, neither of us… But now I see!”
He stares at her. She has never looked more like her brother than in her giddiness. In her…
He opens his mouth. Closes it. Opens it again. “It’s good, then?” he says, and then regrets it. He wants the best for her, obviously, but.
“Pei Huai,” she says, with wild solemnity, “is a man of great learning.”
He can’t help himself. He covers his face with his hands and starts snickering. Tang Yu starts laughing too, a bright, joyful sound. Sui Zhou laughs so hard he has to take a hand away from his face so he can see, so he can find somewhere to lean against and cackle like a madman, next to Tang Fan’s sister, two fools laughing in a warm kitchen, unheard under the sound of all the rain.
Sui Zhou receives Tang Fan from Wang Zhi in a mood. He is not soft and dreamy; instead, he’s breathless, excited, and trying to drag Sui Zhou back to his room. “Is he—” Sui Zhou tries to ask Wang Zhi, who is watching from the carriage.
“Enjoy,” says Wang Zhi, like a self-satisfied cat.
When Tang Fan gets them into his room, he stops. “Undress me!” he demands.
Sui Zhou raises his eyebrows. Obviously, he is entirely willing, so he’s not quite sure why he’s going slow, unfastening Tang Fan’s ties one by one, making a tease of it.
That’s a lie. He knows why. He likes Tang Fan like this, and he likes how Tang Fan is focused on him, like he’s getting something he wants from Sui Zhou, and he wants to draw it out. He’s not sure where this is going to end, but he’s enjoying this part.
He finds out the cause fairly quickly; as soon as he unties the outer coat, it’s apparent there’s something under his inner garment. He pets Tang Fan through his inner robe to try to puzzle it out; it’s around his chest, under his arms.
“Please, Sui Zhou, take it off, please, I want you to—” There’s a gap where, Sui Zhou thinks, Tang Fan might have have stopped himself from saying ‘fuck me,’ but maybe not. “Please, stop teasing.”
“I think you like teasing,” says Sui Zhou.
“Ugh,” says Tang Fan, which isn’t ‘no.’ He doesn’t move to loosen the ties of his own clothes, though. Sui Zhou pets him through his trousers, and discovers he is already moderately excited. “Sui Zhou!”
He’s so beautiful that Sui Zhou kisses him, and Tang Fan sighs into his mouth. Sui Zhou gives into Tang Fan’s eagerness and unties his undershirt to reveal—
He’s not sure what. Tang Fan has a rope wound around him, clearly intentionally. There are loops of rope around the chest, just below the arms, and then, interlacing with it, over his shoulders, on either side of his neck. He spins Tang Fan around to check that it’s not going to catch his neck, somehow, but it looks stable enough. It’s not done the same as ropes he’s seen securing convicts, at least, but it looks alarmingly similar at first glance.
“What—” he stops himself. This was a present: for Tang Fan, if not him, and if he’s not careful he’ll ruin it. “I’m not sure I understand,” he says, carefully. “Am I meant to take this off?”
Tang Fan turns back to face him. “I thought you could leave it on. For a little longer.” He hasn’t noticed Sui Zhou’s uneasiness, so Sui Zhou pets down his shoulders, makes himself look at Tang Fan again. The rope was clearly arranged to be pleasing to the eye, beyond whatever other function it has, and he can see it, he supposes. He makes himself notice the differences. The rope is much too fine to be used for the transport of convicts, and furthermore, wouldn’t usefully restrain a criminal. Although he supposes—
“How does it feel?”
Tang Fan checks his expression now. “Good? It’s fine, it’s not uncomfortable.” He moves a little. “Not… in a bad way. I wouldn’t want to do hard labour, I suppose.”
“Well, you wouldn’t,” Sui Zhou, agrees, since Tang Fan’s unsuitability for hard labour is an established fact. “And now that I have you like this, what am I supposed to do with you?”
Tang Fan leans toward him, puts his hands on Sui Zhou’s waist. “You could… You could pull me onto the bed, or… or wherever you like.”
Sui Zhou is about to point out that he can do these things to Tang Fan in the regular course of events, before he takes Tang Fan’s meaning. Sui Zhou has learned so many ways to grab onto the human body because the human body does not, precisely, present itself conveniently for grabbing. But now Tang Fan has an easy grip at the center of his body, where a person is very difficult to grab. He reaches out experimentally and grasps the point at the center of Tang Fan’s chest where the lines of rope converge. His fist fits around the nexus easily, and he pulls, a little. Tang Fan sways toward him.
It is, in fact, a remarkably handy way to wrangle Tang Fan. “Hmm,” he notes, pushing Tang Fan back a few steps. Tang Fan goes, easily. He is definitely enjoying the experience of being moved around one-handed, which is making the experience much more enjoyable for Sui Zhou than he might have expected.
In the end, he pulls Tang Fan against him, back to chest, and reaches around to pull him off, with his other hand grabbed onto where the rope meets in the center of his chest. Tang Fan reaches back to clutch at Sui Zhou’s hips, pushes back against Sui Zhou where he’s… he’s not hard, exactly, but he’s hot and heavy and enjoying Tang Fan’s movements against him.
Later, he unpicks the rope wound around Tang Fan, and leaves it coiled by the bed.
Of course, if he were capable— Well.
Tang Fan would obviously not mind.
Tang Fan would like it very much. Sui Zhou would like—
He knows he used to be a man who liked it. He remembers being a youth, burning for the boy who ran errands on the street. He remembers being that youth, but so little of that youth remains. None of his innocence, none of his faith in his superiors, only a wisp of what that youth believed was duty. That youth might as well be another man.
The man he is now doesn’t feel it as a loss. Didn’t feel it as a loss, but—
Once, it was something he enjoyed. He enjoyed the intimacy of having another man in his arms, but also the skin-heat, the blood-thrill, the hot, messy work of it. He liked it, and wonders if he could like it again.
He knows he would like to be able to give Tang Fan what he likes.
He tries imagining it. In his imagination, Tang Fan has just come from Wang Zhi. He wonders if he should be imagining something different; Tang Fan laughing across the table at him, eating Sui Zhou’s food and batting his eyelashes at him. But.
For whatever reason, what he imagines is Tang Fan, flushed, eager, a little soft, clearly just out of Wang Zhi’s hands. He can’t provide any of the details of what’s just happened, whatever has made Tang Fan so shivery and hot, but he can’t imagine it without being aware, somehow, that Wang Zhi was there a moment before, and somehow, made this happen.
In his imagination, they’re already in bed, in a bed, he doesn’t know whose. Tang Fan is in his arms, and maybe he… turns around, presses against him, says “Guangchuan, please…” and then Sui Zhou would…
It's his imagination where anything is possible, so in his imagination, he’s hard, and so, able to do what he needs. He would be hard, he thinks.
He puts his hand on his dick, which isn’t, but it feels good, so he lets himself think about it, Tang Fan saying “Please.”
He’d be… He can feel himself flushing, a little, not his dick, but his face, his chest, his ears, with Tang Fan’s please and the feel of it, what’s coming.
He’d be hard, rolling on top of Tang Fan, preparing to give him what he wants. Tang Fan would be breathing faster, excited, he’d be–
Somehow, suddenly, the feeling changes. It’s like the moment on watch before the feeling of wrongness translates to an arrow in his comrade’s throat, a sick feeling, the moment before survival takes away all thought.
In his mind, Tang Fan’s quickened breath is different, suddenly his breath is hitching, and Sui Zhou–
He feels wild, dangerous. He doesn’t know how it happened, but Tang Fan doesn’t feel safe in his arms any more.
He pulls his hand away from his dick abruptly. He’s breathing heavily, and he’s half hard, but it’s not good. The happy Tang Fan from his imagination is lost, wiped out by the unnatural clarity of the vision of Tang Fan crying, struggling.
Why would his mind go there? That’s not anything he wants, he’s sure. He’s sure, isn’t he?
He feels sick.
Although properly, the wedding isn’t any of his business, the reality of it is that Tang Fan is manifestly unsuited to assuming responsibility for the preparations for the bride.
Tang Yu argues that since all the wealth the family has to pay celebrants is coming from her dowry, she wants the bare minimum, but Tang Fan is in agonies at the idea of his sister going off without a proper feast. So, obviously, between him and Auntie Dong, they manage eight courses he feels proud of.
Lao Pei produces a brother he has never heard of, but Tang Fan greets him as if he has met him before (and has no great opinion of him) along with a wife and family, and, in Sui Zhou’s opinion, the banquet goes well. Pei gongzi starts the banquet stiff and awkward, but has consumed enough wine by the fourth course that he is offering toasts to the bride’s family.
Tang Yu is radiant, Pei Huai seems mildly stunned, and even Cheng-er seems delighted by the festivities.
When Sui Zhou comes out with the final course, Tang Yu catches his eye. “Sui da-ge, thank you,” she says, and holds his gaze. He doesn’t know what to say. How to tell her that her marriage is like a flower blooming outside his window, a spot of colour that grows brighter every day, seeming never to fade. Sometimes the world outside his window is sunny, and sometimes it is overcast, but the flower of her happiness is always there.
Instead he grimaces at her awkwardly, and mutters a traditional blessing to the couple.
On the next rest day, he smells burnt meat in the market. The world turns gray. He can’t feel his skin. He can feel it, but it’s too much.
He keeps going. It’s not bad. It’s not good, either; it’s not anything. But when Tang Fan smiles at him, there’s a little gap where sensation used to be and he thinks, oh, it’s safe. He doesn’t have to worry about any kind of thing rousing within him because he’s hollow.
He thinks he’s doing well, keeping it to himself, but when the afternoon wears on, Tang Fan says “I don’t have to go,” and for a moment, Sui Zhou doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“It’s your evening with Wang Zhi,” he says, stupidly.
“I don’t have to go,” says Tang Fan, again. “If— I don’t know if I should leave you alone.” He’s looking at Sui Zhou as if he’s trying to find something inside him and Sui Zhou knows there’s nothing there for Tang Fan to find.
Sui Zhou feels… angry. With himself. How can he ruin everything, even this? His anger crests and falls into nothing. It’s not any good.
“You should go,” he says. One of them should find some pleasure in the world.
“I don’t know if— I don’t think I’ll like it if I have to know you’re alone like this,” says Tang Fan, unhappily.
If Sui Zhou were a more clever man, he would know what to say, how to explain to Tang Fan that one of them should be able to find what happiness there is. The wrinkle between Tang Fan’s brows is like an ache under his breastbone. He wants Tang Fan to be the one of the two of them who is alive, always alive, but Tang Fan wants him to—
He summons the man Tang Fan needs to see, just for a moment, but it makes Tang Fan’s face soften.
“I’ll make jiaozi with Dong-er while you’re gone, and you can eat them when you come back, alright?” he says. It seems like something that he might say, if he weren’t like this, right now.
“Promise?” says Tang Fan, so he does.
Then he has to make jiaozi with Dong-er. She’s starting to have a feeling for kneading the dough, and he could let her do it herself, but she twists it in half and glares at him until he puts his hands on it. There is something about the dough that anchors him, and perhaps he wasn’t entirely lying to Tang Fan.
Then he puts the dough aside to rest under a damp cloth and starts to chop the cabbage, when Dong-er says “I think… there used to be jiaozi with fish.”
He stops the knife’s rocking. “Jiaozi with fish?”
“I think I remember… in my village, there used to be dumplings with fish.” She sounds not quite certain of her memory, but still, it’s worth noting that she mentions it.
Dong-er rarely talks about the place she lived before she was sold. “Do you want to try to see if we can make fish jiaozi like you remember?”
So he goes to market with Dong-er, and lets her sniff her way through the fishmarket, buying anything she hesitates too long over. Then they bring home their haul and lay out the fish. Sui Zhou had fish jiaozi once, while in the army, passing through a coastal village that in all likelihood was one of a hundred fishing villages to stuff their jiaozi with their catch, and he dimly remembers a little of the flavour, and he knows what flavours go with fish.
Dong-er decides she wants to try the mackerel, so it’s going to be fish soup with the rest tomorrow. He chops the meat of the fish finely, then adds ginger and peppercorns, for heat, and green onions, since he can’t imagine not. He and Dong-er contemplate their filling.
Dong-er leans over it. “I think… sesame.” They add toasted sesame oil, and then Sui Zhou adds some of the pork he was planning to make jiaozi with when the afternoon started because he wants the richness, although Dong-er isn’t sure about it.
“If it’s not right, we can try again,” he tells her.
Then they start rolling out wrappers. Dong-er’s are a little uneven, but they all seal, which is the important thing.
Dong-er starts to become anxious when they put the first batch in the boiling water. “Sui da-ge, I don’t think I remembered right. I don’t think that’s the right fish.”
“Dong-er has an excellent memory,” he reminds her, but she’s wringing her apron in her hands while they wait, and when he pulls them out of the water, and sets them on a plate, he doesn’t have to remind her to wait for them to cool a little. Dong-er stares at the plate with something almost like fear.
“You first, Sui da-ge,” she says, so he samples one.
It’s— It might not be the same as what he tasted, all those years ago, unblooded and marching out to war, but it’s close enough to make him feel a pang for that young and stupid boy who thought he went to glory. “They’re good,” he assures her. “You’ll only know if you taste them.”
Dong-er bites one in half, chews twice, and starts to sniffle.
“Aya, Dong-er!” he says, helplessly.
Dong-er chokes, swallows, and starts to wail. She flings herself at him, burying her face in his breastbone, and they don’t put any more jiaozi in the pot for a while.
When Tang Fan comes home, he’s sharper than he sometimes is.
“Dumplings?” he asks, looking Sui Zhou looking in the face.
“Yes, I kept some warm for you,” says Sui Zhou. Tang Fan smiles, brilliantly. Sui Zhou feels… nothing dangerous, at that point. Tang Fan leans into him, and eats a jiaozi. “Fish!” he says, delighted.
“Dong-er,” says Sui Zhou.
“Dong-er?” asks Tang Fan, so he explains their evening while Tang Fan leans against him and makes happy noises that should not be appealing. It’s the happiest he can imagine being.
Tang Fan is absorbed in a case. Not one of the ones that requires much from Sui Zhou; something to do with a palace servant girl seen where she shouldn’t be; Wang Zhi has involved himself because the girl is a servant of the inner palace, and therefore under Noble Consort Wan. Sui Zhou doesn’t understand why he’s involved, but Tang Fan dragged him along and it’s possible that he has allowed himself to be too complacent in acceding to Tang Fan’s demands.
Tang Fan is currently pacing in the palace laundries. “Hai hour!” he says, raising one hand, “Shi hour,” he says, raising the other. He stares between his two raised hands, as if trying to determine which of his two hands has betrayed him.
There are laundry servants, guards, two junior eunuchs, all watching. They are all looking at Tang Fan like he is mad, or embarrassing, or both. None of them know what they are watching, Sui Zhou thinks.
Sui Zhou glances at Wang Zhi, who is sure to be watching Tang Fan with a properly appreciative expression, even if it is also amused, but instead he catches Wang Zhi looking at him.
Sui Zhou raises his eyebrows. Wang Zhi’s face exhibits the tranquility of a bodhisattva. Sui Zhou looks determinedly back at Tang Fan.
Tang Fan’s face abruptly transitions from frustration to enlightenment. “Ah!” He says urgently, “Orphans!”
Then they are all dragged off to look at the registry of children sold eighteen years ago, where it develops that one of those children was a twin.
“Have you discovered you’re the jealous sort after all, Commander?” asks Wang Zhi, sitting down across from him at Auntie Dong’s best table without any warning.
“What?” says Sui Zhou, understandably.
“Tang Fan thinks either you or I have done something to give you a distaste for our arrangement, but I believe most things are simpler,” says Wang Zhi, matter of factly.
He looks— Well, he looks genial, concerned, friendly, but of course Wang Zhi is capable of looking that way while he slits a throat. “It’s not— simple,” says Sui Zhou, skipping the part where he pretends that Wang Zhi isn’t capable of getting him to admit the truth.
Auntie Dong brings out a bowl for Wang Zhi that Sui Zhou didn’t hear him order. Perhaps he didn’t; perhaps bowls of soup simply appear before him whenever he sits down at a table.
“In my experience, at the root of a complex thing there is often a simple thing,” says Wang Zhi. He picks some gansi out of his soup and eats it.
And there is jealousy. Of course there’s jealousy. How can he not be jealous of the things Wang Zhi gives Tang Fan? But the jealousy is a small thing next to all the other things. It’s like the irritation he feels when Dong-er puts his knives away wrong side up; of course he feels irritated, but next to all the other things about Dong-er, it’s a speck of dirt, easily brushed aside. He pokes the huntun floating in broth.
“No,” he says, and then, “Well, perhaps it’s simple, but that’s not it.” He doesn’t want to discuss this in Auntie Dong’s shop. He doesn’t want to discuss this at all, but Wang Zhi isn’t going to let this go; he’s not the letting-go type.
He looks up at Wang Zhi. The commander of the western depot reflects nothing back.
“You know about… my situation,” says Sui Zhou, and then is not sure if Wang Zhi does. He doesn’t think Tang Fan would necessarily speak about… Well, he’s only ever spoken about it in circumlocutions with Tang Fan, but Tang Fan knows. He doesn’t think he would mention it to Wang Zhi.
On the other hand, it is never wise to assume that a thing is hidden from Wang Zhi.
“I do,” says Wang Zhi.
Sui Zhou tries to see in his face if they are speaking of the same situation. “Well. For a long time I haven’t been able to,” he makes a gesture with hand not holding his chopsticks, “and Tang Fan–”
“Wait,” said Wang Zhi, holding up his hand. Sui Zhou reflects somewhat glumly that he has become used to men telling him to stop speaking so they could use their minds more effectively, and picks out a huntun and eats it. Somehow, although he knows it tastes as good as always, he isn’t enjoying it. “Do you want to finish your soup?” asks Wang Zhi, finally.
Sui Zhou wishes he did. “No,” he admits.
It dawns upon him, following Wang Zhi out of Auntie Dong’s, that Wang Zhi had expected this to go differently. He had chosen Auntie Dong’s because he thought it would prevent Sui Zhou from making a scene. It’s unlike Wang Zhi to misjudge someone like this.
Wang Zhi must have been—
He’s wondered, before, at Wang Zhi’s— feelings? Does Wang Zhi have feelings? At the degree of Wang Zhi’s investment in their arrangement. But if Wang Zhi is making a mistake as simple as this, he certainly cares.
It certainly feels more private in Wang Zhi’s carriage, but Sui Zhou is aware they are in the middle of the city. Once the carriage starts moving, the sound of the wheels on the stone paving gives an even greater illusion of privacy. Well. If he isn’t sure of Wang Zhi’s judgement and ability to be discrete, his own secrets aren’t their greatest problem.
Wang Zhi waits for Sui Zhou to speak. Sui Zhou tries to decide exactly what he wants to say. Finally he says, since he thought they both knew what they were talking about it, but it can’t hurt to be sure, “Since I returned from the border, there is a certain part that has not— Not because of injury,” he thinks he should clarify, “but rather there was no— desire.”
He looks at Wang Zhi. Wang Zhi has one eyebrow raised in what he thinks might be surprise, but his face does not yield very much. Sui Zhou struggles on. “I know Tang Fan would like— that is. I couldn’t, but.”
He looks at Wang Zhi again. Wang Zhi has both eyebrows raised. Sui Zhou grimly struggles onward. “Except that lately I have been. There has been.” He chokes.
Wang Zhi waits a beat to see if he recovers and then delicately suggests, “Desire?”
“Something. Like,” Sui Zhou admits. “I think I could. But also I fear that I might… hurt Tang Fan. Sometimes.”
“It is not possible that you would hurt Tang Fan,” says Wang Zhi with an absolute confidence Sui Zhou wishes he could share.
“Sometimes, it feels like I might. And further, that part still does not—” His entire face is red, he can feel it.
Wang Zhi is looking at him with the sort of fascination he normally reserves for Tang Fan at his most idiotic, which Sui Zhou finds particularly galling, since he knows that whatever affection Wang Zhi feels for Tang Fan, he feels practically none for him.
“Let me… be certain I understand this: For some time your organ has not had its usual abilities, and this did not worry you because there was no use you wanted to make of it. Now you desire to put it to use, but your organ is not ready to serve.”
Sui Zhou nods, since this is basically the case if he leaves out the greater part of his turmoil, and the way Tang Fan feels in his arms, and a hundred other things that Wang Zhi presumably doesn’t care about.
Wang Zhi put up his hand to indicate he isn’t finished. “Further, your feelings on my arrangement with Tang Fan have not changed.”
Sui Zhou makes a face.
“They have changed?”
Sui Zhou is in agonies. This is like being a boy with his first erection, although the case is almost the opposite. “I like it. When he comes home to me. More. I like it… differently.”
“You are aroused,” says Wang Zhi. Sui Zhou allows himself to briefly entertain a fantasy of throwing himself from the moving carriage. He makes himself nod.
Wang Zhi stares into the distance for a moment, and Sui Zhou tries to pretend he is anywhere else. Then Wang Zhi knocks on the front panel of the carriage, and the carriage comes to a stop.
“I am half-minded to leave you to suffer the consequences of your idiocy and lack of imagination,” he says, and opens the front panel. Sui Zhou infers he is meant to leave the carriage and begins to get out, very awkwardly. “I will let you know which mind prevails.”
As soon as Sui Zhou’s feet hit the road, the carriage begins rolling again. Sui Zhou looks around. He has no idea where he is. He begins walking.
Tang Fan is clearly seeking some kind of distraction, and immediately involves himself in the case of the wandering Daoist priest found murdered in the yards of a cart-rental business. Sui Zhou was mostly relieved that the case didn’t seem likely to become political.
Sui Zhou paid only a little attention to the murdered Daoist, while mostly busying himself with his own duties.
It feels good: comfortable, with Dong-er spending the sixth day helping Tang Yu, and Tang Yu dropping by to visit the odd evening when everyone is home.
Except that Tang Fan doesn’t come home at his usual hour, one day, and when he appears he seizes Sui Zhou by the hand and pulls. “He went to Joyous Brothel,” he says, urgently, pulling Sui Zhou out into the street.
“Monks are men too,” he points out, but Tang Fan isn’t listening, instead explaining something to do with the rental of an ox-cart, so he gives up and follows, since it is apparently one of the those cases Tang Fan specializes in, that is, ones that are unnecessarily complicated.
At the brothel, Tang Fan leads him to Wang Zhi, who has been waiting there with several Western Depot men, presumably by pre-arrangement.
Rather than admit he has no idea what’s happening, Sui Zhou stands behind Tang Fan like he’s standing guard, which is in any case never a bad idea. When Tang Fan is in this condition, a troupe of bandits could come through and he might not notice.
Eventually, a man runs in at a breakneck pace, yelling about his ox, and Sui Zhou is able to congratulate himself on his foresight when the man pulls out a knife. Sui Zhou disarms him before Wang Zhi’s men react.
Tang Fan is radiant.
Wang Zhi sighs, and gestures at his men. “Take him away,” he says, but he’s looking at Sui Zhou, even after his men have removed the … ox criminal.
That sigh might have been for him. Sui Zhou imagines that it is the sigh he gives when he is faced with a troublesome official he must dispose of. He should probably be more worried.
“I had hoped— Well, in any case. Luoye, please tell Cui mama we are in the blue room and not be disturbed.” Wang Zhi rises to his feet and leads them through the brothel, toward the back where— well. The private business of the brothel is transacted.
Sui Zhou doesn’t recognize the blue room, or rather, it looks like every other room in the brothel that he has seen, which has not been very many of them, except that there’s a desk in one corner.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou both linger awkwardly in the doorway as Wang Zhi goes directly to the desk, and, bending down, removes a box that neither of them had noticed beneath it.
“Come in and close the door,” Wang Zhi directs, and Sui Zhou notes that they both do without any hesitation.
“Having thought about your difficulties barely at all, the solution was too obvious to be worth discussing. However—” He gives them both a very aggravated look, apparently for forcing him to make this explicit. Wang Zhi seems… angry? Annoyed? There’s something there beyond his usual performance, and Sui Zhou checks to see if Tang Fan is seeing it too.
He is. He’s looking at Wang Zhi with concern.
Wang Zhi is not looking at either of them. He removes a key from inside his robes and unlocks the box to display…
A selection of—
While some of them have enough stylization to be slightly ambiguous, for the most part their shape makes their function obvious.
“I presume I needn’t explain their use. Make yourselves free of them here or take the box home to explore at your leisure.” He smiles at Sui Zhou, tightly. “If you cannot give satisfaction with these, then there is no hope whatsoever. I will absent myself.”
Sui Zhou gapes. He can certainly, uh. Imagine. Giving satisfaction.
But events are proceeding too fast for him and this situation feels very like he is about to get pushed out of Wang Zhi’s carriage and abandoned in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. “Wait—” he says, without thinking.
Wang Zhi raises his eyebrows politely. “Is this really a situation in which Sui da-ge requires the tutelage of this humble eunuch?” His voice is so dry it blisters, like a winter wind.
“Wang Zhi,” says Tang Fan, luckily, since Sui Zhou has no idea what to say. “You don’t think— You really don’t think that what’s between you and me is— Is in any way about something that Sui Zhou wasn’t providing me? You don’t think that, do you?”
Wang Zhi turns to Tang Fan without changing his expression whatsoever. “Isn’t it?”
Sui Zhou doesn’t like to see him look at Tang Fan like that, and he doesn’t— He doesn’t exactly know what’s happening, but he knows it’s not what he wants, and he… “Stop that,” he says to Wang Zhi, “I don’t see why you’re behaving like this, but it’s not necessary.”
“I am being helpful,” says Wang Zhi, but not quite as brittly, now with a more normal degree of irritation.
“Yes,” says Sui Zhou, “thank you,” and then, because he feels like he is catching up on the situation, “Tang Fan, do you want— If Wang Zhi stayed with us here. In this room and—” made sure you were safe. He can’t say that.
The alternative is so much worse. He can feel himself blushing. “Provided tutelage. Would you like that?”
Tang Fan’s face becomes transcendent. “Wang Zhi!” he says, turning to him, urgently, his eyes huge, an expectant question.
Wang Zhi looks at both of them. Sui Zhou thinks he sees, there, something a little— Something a little real. Something mostly for Tang Fan, but that he’s being allowed to see too.
Finally, Wang Zhi sighs again. “Tang Fan, you really are remarkable. Very well.”
“Not if you don’t like it,” says Sui Zhou, worrying now that this might be Tang Fan’s strange persuasion pulling Wang Zhi into something against his will.
“Worry about yourself,” says Wang Zhi, crossly. “Wait here, then. If I am tutoring, there are more items I would like to have to hand.”
When Sui Zhou wakes up in the morning, nearly hard, Tang Fan is already pushing against him, and very awake, happy, safe and sound.
“Guangchuan, please, let me suck on it,” says Tang Fan, “Guangchuan, please!”
Sui Zhou groans, half at the prospect, half in dismay. “Runqing, it won’t last!”
“It— I don’t care, just—” Tang Fan flails about and nearly smacks Sui Zhou in the face grabbing onto the item left by their bedside.
“You can use this on me later, just let me suck on it for now!”
Sui Zhou is unable to decline this offer.