Sui Zhou regards Dong'er carefully as they sit at the dinner table. They are in their usual chairs, though tonight the spot normally occupied by Tang Fan is empty. He'd swept out of the house early that morning, his quick hands still in the process of pinning his braided hair to the back of his head.
"No time for breakfast," he'd said even as he snatched a bun, fresh from the steamer, off Sui Zhou's serving platter and stuffed it in his mouth. He spoke around the bun as he finished with his hair: "The case is nearly solved, but it's delicate. I will be late getting home. Tell Dong'er I'm running low on paper."
Without waiting on Sui Zhou's response, Tang Fan had left in a whirlwind, leaving the house feeling empty and far too quiet.
Sui Zhou glances at Dong'er again. She is reading a thick novel, lifting her chopsticks to her mouth without even noticing what they hold. The last morsel of food on her plate disappears, but all her concentration is on the book as her chopsticks search in vain for more dinner. Sui Zhou sighs, reaches for the platter at the center of the table and, with his own chopsticks, moves a piece of crispy pork to her plate. She eats it without acknowledgement.
"You should put the book away," Sui Zhou admonishes. "As distracted as you are, you could swallow a stone without realizing it."
"Brother Tang instructed me to practice my reading today," the girl says, chewing. "I want to finish this before he returns."
Ever since Tang Fan had taken it upon himself to teach Dong'er how to read and write, the child has soaked up the lessons with a quickness. Sui Zhou is certain he couldn't understand half as many characters when he was her age. Pride lights him from within—for their adopted sister and for the care Tang Fan has taken in ensuring her future—but his present concern smothers it.
He gently takes the book from her grasp, ignoring her cry of dismay. He taps his chopsticks against the lip of her plate. "Eat now, Dong'er. You can read later."
"Yes, Brother Sui," she mumbles, but perks up as she sees for the first time the lovely spread of dishes Sui Zhou has cooked. She is like Tang Fan in this regard: the pleasure of food constantly competing with the pleasure of knowledge. Food often wins. She digs into a bowl of noodles without further complaint.
Sui Zhou takes a bite of his own dinner and idly examines the book that now rests at his elbow. He does not recognize the name of the author, but that is not surprising; he rarely has time to read anything more than official documents and decrees. The title, however, gives him pause. He stops mid-bite, staring at the brushstrokes adorning the innocent-looking blue cover.
"Dong'er," he says sharply, "what is this novel you're reading?"
"The Courtier's Love Affair," she replies slowly, as if he cannot read that for himself. "It's the second in a series. I think it might be better than the first, but—" She shrugs. "We'll see."
Sui Zhou flicks through the cheaply printed pages, feeling his face heat. It's a romance, an erotic one. "This is not fit for a young lady. Surely Tang Fan did not tell you to read this."
"Brother Tang told me to read. He left the decision on material up to me," Dong'er clarifies. She pops a piece of tofu in her mouth. "I've already finished most of the books in his collection, so I've moved onto the novels he writes to help pay for his expenses." She wrinkles her nose. "The earliest ones were not very good, but they were long, so at least they were helpful in teaching me."
Sui Zhou raises both eyebrows. Dinner, as far as he is concerned, is forgotten. "Tang Fan wrote this?"
"Oh, yes." Dong'er slurps up more noodles, then says with her mouth full, "Brother Sui, this is delicious. Is there any more broth?"
Sui Zhou pushes the bowl of broth toward her. The cart-wheels of his mind go around and around as he watches Dong'er eat. He'd known that Tang Fan wrote prolifically— almost all of his possessions that were moved into Sui Zhou's house consisted of crates of books and papers—yet Sui Zhou had assumed these writings were academic in nature, perhaps Tang Fan's important observations in matters of criminal investigation. He'd had no idea that Tang Fan was writing—he glances down at the novel once more—things like this to cover his bills.
Certain that Dong'er is now otherwise distracted, Sui Zhou takes the book with him once the meal is over, not bothering to tidy up the dishes just yet.
He has some reading to do first.
When Tang Fan bursts into the kitchen around midnight, Sui Zhou is waiting for him. He is seated at the worktable, hands resting on his knees. His knives are cleaned and put away; the erotic novel is on the table at his side.
"Oh, Brother Sui, still awake? My case ended successfully! Well, for everyone but the culprit, of course." Tang Fan's eyes dart around the room, taking in every detail, his smile never slipping even as he notices the book. "I'm starving. Is there anything left for me to eat?"
Sui Zhou tips his head to the side, his arms coming up to cross over his chest. His stare is a heavy thing on Tang Fan's face.
Now the smile falters. "It's all right if there's no food. I have some sesame candy in my room—" He turns as if to leave in a swirl of pale robes.
"Tang Fan," Sui Zhou says, and Tang Fan stops in the doorway, shoulders hunched. "You let Dong'er read this?" He taps the novel with the back of his hand, knuckles making a hard thump against the paper.
"Ah." Tang Fan spins back around. His hair has been let loose from its braids, only one simple knot at the top of his head, the rest spilling down his back. He avoids Sui Zhou's gaze and fidgets with the hem of his sleeve. "She has been working on her reading skills. I suppose she might have chosen a book like that to practice."
"This is not appropriate for a young girl like Dong'er," says Sui Zhou evenly.
"Well, you try stopping her, then!" Tang Fan explodes. "It's not possible. She reads whatever she can get her hands on now, and she's getting more clever by the day. If I try to deny her a certain book, it only makes her more determined. And anyway, shouldn't I be encouraging her to read as widely as she likes? As long as she is learning her characters, it doesn't matter what she reads. Furthermore, she's lived almost all her life as a servant, so she is not ignorant of the way the world works. Dong'er will not speak of it, but I know she understands what was to happen to her at the Joyous Brothel if you hadn't—"
Sui Zhou holds up a hand. "All right, calm down." When Tang Fan gets worked up like this, he will talk for hours on end unless Sui Zhou stops him.
Tang Fan pauses to breathe, though it seems to be hard fought. His cheeks are pink and his hands are balled into fists. Sui Zhou can sympathize. He, too, feels anger burning hot through his blood when he thinks of how Dong'er had been treated by Tang Fan's former landlady.
So he tries not to think of it.
Instead he gestures to the book and says, "What I mean is, if young ladies are going to be reading books such as this, they shouldn't be full of bad information. Don't you think?"
Tang Fan's brow draws downward, his mouth pursing into what will soon become a pout. "Bad information?" he repeats like the parrot in the Empress Dowager's apartments.
"Mmm." Sui Zhou picks up the book, balancing it atop one thigh as he pages through. "The author has included many falsehoods. The love scenes are completely unrealistic." He looks up, holding Tang Fan's wide, surprised gaze with his own steady one. "Actually, I would bet two hundred taels that whoever wrote this is a virgin."
Tang Fan chokes on nothing, finally managing to squawk, "What!"
Sui Zhou gives a serious nod. "Dong'er is still an innocent girl in many ways. I would hate for her to be given an inaccurate picture of what her wedding night will look like. If she is going to be reading romance stories, we should make sure they are not so poorly written."
"Poorly written," Tang Fan says mournfully, the tips of his ears and the long length of his neck now bright red. "You really think it's that bad?"
"The drama is fine," says Sui Zhou. "It's only the love scenes that have me concerned." He gazes off into the distance as if considering. "Though I still don't understand why the heroine chooses the low-ranking martial artist over the noble courtier in the end."
"The courtier was only going to use her!" Tang Fan cries. "The martial artist loved her deeply and was supportive of her dream to become a famous song-writer! It didn't matter that he had no money. Was that not obvious?"
Sui Zhou's eyes slide back to Tang Fan. He cannot help the half-smile that touches his lips.
Tang Fan sighs as he realizes. "Dong'er told you I'm the author?"
"Dong'er told me you are the author," Sui Zhou confirms.
"Ah! You are cruel to tease me like that, Brother Sui." Tang Fan throws himself on one of the kitchen stools, pouting in earnest now. "You have no idea what it's like for an artist to be mocked for their work. I really thought you were being serious for a moment there."
"Oh no," says Sui Zhou. "I am serious. The love scenes are all wrong." He meets Tang Fan's wide eyes. "And I am certain you are a virgin."
For once, Tang Fan has no words. He gapes and stammers, but only small noises escape his dropped-open mouth.
Sui Zhou rises from his chair, untying the string from his sleeves and hanging it on its peg. "I left some noodles for you in the covered dish on the side table," he says. "I'm going to bed. Good night."
It's terribly pleasing to leave the kitchen with Tang Fan's tongue still struggling to respond.
Sui Zhou has disrobed and is about to blow out his last candle when Tang Fan storms into his bedroom, waving the novel in his hand.
"All right, explain it to me," he says much too loudly for the late hour. "Show me where I have made mistakes and tell me how they should be corrected, if you're such a knowledgeable lover. What awards have you earned for your lovemaking, that you think you can insult me like that? Are there women across the countryside who have hung your portrait above their beds as a memorial to the only man who has satisfied them? Is that how it is?" He tosses the book on a nearby table with no little emotion.
"I'd like to sleep now," Sui Zhou says, gesturing to the simple underclothes he's wearing, not certain if Tang Fan has even noticed his state of undress.
"Too bad! Neither of us is sleeping tonight, not after what you've said!" All the excitement has turned Tang Fan's cheeks rosy, a warm color made even more so under the single flame of the final candle. "Explain what you mean."
Sui Zhou sighs, props his hands on his hips. It's cold in his room this late at night. Their breath is ghosting through the air. Sui Zhou's is a long stream rising from his lips while Tang Fan's breath makes an army of huffs and puffs.
"For example," Sui Zhou begins, and Tang Fan leans in, hanging on his every word, "when the heroine meets the martial artist in the empty public bath house, they make love five times, I believe."
"Yes." Tang Fan nods, stubborn.
"Five times in one stolen hour?" Sui Zhou levels a pitying look at Tang Fan. "The man must be immortal, if that's the case."
It should not be possible, but Tang Fan flushes even more deeply. "Ah, well, but when there is passion—"
"No amount of passion can drive a man to completion five times in a single hour," Sui Zhou interrupts in an easy drawl. "And even if he could, what kind of fool would rush his pleasure like that? That poor woman." He shakes his head. "She really should have picked the courtier, if this is how the martial artist treats her."
"But he loves her," Tang Fan mumbles feebly, his gaze skating along the floorboards. He heaves a troubled sigh and seats himself on the edge of Sui Zhou's bed. Sui Zhou begins to protest—he cannot sleep there if Tang Fan is using it as a chair—but he realizes how futile this would be, so he just rolls his eyes. Tang Fan is still talking, of course. "My books sell modestly, it's true, but I always assumed it was because there are so many erotic romances in the shops. It's difficult to stand out from the crowd." He turned his huge, sad eyes up to Sui Zhou. "Do you really think my love scenes could be improved?"
Sui Zhou shifts on his stockinged feet, folding his arms over his chest as he considers Tang Fan. He was enjoying the rare chance to needle his friend instead of being Tang Fan's target. Now he's not sure he wants to continue. "You don't need to worry about your book sales these days," he points out. "I pay for most of your expenses."
"It's not about the money," Tang Fan whines, flopping dramatically across the bed. "I have the heart of an artist, Brother Sui. Even if it only brought me a few coins a month, I would still write my romances. Don't you understand that?"
A frown crosses Sui Zhou's face. "I thought you only did it to cover your tab at the noodle shop and buy snacks, that sort of thing."
Tang Fan makes a fist and beats it against his thin chest. "The heart—" he says.
"—of an artist, yes, I heard you."
"But sadly," a sigh gusts out of Tang Fan, "you are right. I am a virgin. And I have no idea what I'm writing about." He rolls over on Sui Zhou's bed, propping his chin on his fists. "If only there was some way to fix this," he muses.
"Can you at least take off your boots?" Sui Zhou asks. "My coverlet—"
Tang Fan's eyes fall on him and widen as if surprised to see him there. "Ah! But you could teach me, couldn't you, Sui Zhou?"
Sui Zhou isn't sure what Tang Fan means, but he has a terrible feeling that he's been outplayed again somehow. "What do you mean, teach you? I'm no writer."
"Obviously." Tang Fan snorts. "I meant, you could teach me about proper lovemaking. For the sake of accuracy."
There are times when dealing with Tang Fan that Sui Zhou must pray for strength. This is one of those times. He pinches the bridge of his nose, hoping to stave off the headache that's surely coming. "I'm going to bed," he says.
"Hm." Tang Fan looks thoughtful. "I had supposed we might start with the basics first, but if you would prefer to go directly to bed—" His eyes dance, and Sui Zhou knows he's making a joke.
Of course he's making a joke.
He grabs Tang Fan by the arm and pulls him to his feet, undeterred by Tang Fan's shout of protest. "It's late. I need to sleep, and so do you."
"Oh, fine, tomorrow then?" Tang Fan grins, twisting around to cast his glittering gaze at Sui Zhou even as Sui Zhou pushes him toward the door. "You can demonstrate what my characters should have done in the bath house, since you know so much about it."
Sui Zhou is a patient man. He has borne all of Tang Fan's eccentricities, his refusal to pay for things, his demands for more and more elaborate meals. Yet even patient men have a breaking point.
Sui Zhou finds his.
He can feel his jaw going hard, his teeth grinding, his nostrils flaring. His hand is still clamped to that willowy arm. He stares at Tang Fan, who, for all his bravado, is wilting a bit, perhaps realizing he has finally gone too far.
"Yes," Sui Zhou says at last in a tight, low voice. "Tomorrow. I will teach you then."
Tang Fan blinks. "What? Really?"
"Of course. For the sake of accuracy." Sui Zhou shoves Tang Fan out of the room before slamming the door on his shocked expression. He feels only a moment's satisfaction in his belly before it's extinguished by cold reality.
What has he done?
He drags a hand over his tired face, then turns to his lonely bed. He can picture Tang Fan there easily, not as he was moments ago, but as he might be if he were Sui Zhou's lover and not his live-in colleague. Robes undone, hair loose, eyes wild with wanting. Sui Zhou can do this because he is very practiced at imagining Tang Fan like that. Some days, it seems to be the only thing he can do.
He curses to himself and burrows into his bedclothes to escape the biting cold. If he has any luck at all, tomorrow Tang Fan will apologize for his goading, or drop the entire thing, and they will go on as they always have.
Sui Zhou has no luck at all.
He is preparing the breakfast porridge when Tang Fan appears the following morning, looking much too fresh-faced for a man who has only slept a few hours.
"So, Brother Sui," he says, pilfering a hunk of cold leftover pork from the cutting board, "when are my lessons scheduled to begin?"
He cannot hesitate nor retreat, Sui Zhou decides. If he does, Tang Fan is sure to be insufferable. And after all, he is curious how far Tang Fan will allow the joke to go. One of them is going to blink, but it will not be Sui Zhou.
"What time would be best for you?" he asks. "I'm off-duty today, so we can start whenever you are available."
He gently lowers two eggs into a pan of simmering water with a large spoon. Tang Fan likes his soft-boiled; Sui Zhou prefers his just slightly more firm; Dong'er will not abide an egg atop her porridge at all—she'll want the pork and bitter greens. The action of cooking has the added benefit of allowing Sui Zhou to keep his gaze on his work and not on Tang Fan without seeming cowardly.
"How lucky," Tang Fan says, chewing his pork. "It's my day off too."
Sui Zhou lifts his eyes to find Tang Fan grinning at him, a smug and determined light in his eyes.
"Then we need only send Dong'er on some errand, and we will have the house to ourselves. Do you think Old Pei would mind watching her all day?" he asks, just as determined.
Tang Fan swallows his morsel of food, making a small choked sound. "All day?"
Sui Zhou nods, stirring the porridge. "We have a lot of ground to cover." He reaches for the side table and retrieves The Courtier's Love Affair . The copy has been well-thumbed and some pages are curling at the corners. "I took the liberty of making some notes this morning," he says, and tosses the book on the counter in front of Tang Fan.
Tang Fan shoots him a questioning look before opening the novel. He flips through the pages, gasping at the amount of red ink slashed through various passages. "My copy! You've ruined it."
"I can buy you another one," Sui Zhou says. "This one will serve as the guide for your lessons. I've marked each scene that needs work."
Tang Fan spares one last mournful glance at the pages, then looks up at Sui Zhou with narrowed eyes. "Brother Sui is so helpful and kind," he grates out. "Of course you are correct; we will need the entire day. Perhaps more. My lessons might stretch on for three days, I think."
"In that case," Sui Zhou says, equally stubborn, "we should make the proper arrangements with good Dr. Pei and our respective offices. It wouldn't do to be disturbed or distracted while I am instructing you."
"I agree," says Tang Fan.
"Then it's settled."
They stare at each other through the cloud of steam rising from the porridge pot. Neither of them budges.
Dong'er walks into the kitchen and scrunches up her face. "What are you two doing?"
"Pack a few things in a rucksack, Dong'er," Tang Fan says, still not breaking eye contact with Sui Zhou. "You'll be staying with Old Pei for three days."
"Why?" the girl asks.
"Because Sui Zhou and I will be very busy."
Dong'er frowns. "Is it a very high-profile case?"
"Yes," both Sui Zhou and Tang Fan answer in unison.
Dong'er's wide eyes drift away from them in silent judgement. She must notice the book on the counter, but she doesn't mention it. Sui Zhou is absurdly glad. "Okay," she says. "Is breakfast ready?"
"Almost," Sui Zhou says. "Go pack. You can eat afterward."
With one more confused glance between the two of them, Dong'er leaves the kitchen with a shake of her head.
It is mid-morning when Tang Fan returns from Old Pei's. Sui Zhou looks up from stropping his sword and watches Tang Fan enter the courtyard. He looks paler than usual, but then again, there is a chill breeze today. He is not wearing his uniform, as it's his day off, and his robes of ivory and cream make him look a bit like a mourner from a distance, or perhaps a ghost.
"Has Pei Huai agreed to watch her?" Sui Zhou calls out.
"What? Oh, yes." Tang Fan seems to notice him sitting in the courtyard for the first time. He licks his lips, looking away. Distracted, Sui Zhou muses. "Old Pei said it was no problem. He assumes we are working on a very dangerous case, and I let him think what he likes." He fidgets with his sleeve.
"Sensible," says Sui Zhou. He sheathes his sword and sets it aside.
For a moment, they do not say anything or move from their opposite ends of the courtyard. Now would be the time, Sui Zhou thinks, for one of them to blink. Before the joke goes too far.
But Sui Zhou refuses to back down. So too does Tang Fan. He lifts his chin, two spots of color rising on his cheeks as he says, "Shall we conduct my lessons in my room or yours? Or would you prefer somewhere more neutral, like the training room?"
"It makes no difference to me," Sui Zhou says.
Tang Fan gives a regal toss of his head, like one of the glossy horses for sale in the Iron Market. "Let's use your room then. There's no bed in the training room, and if we go to mine, you'll spend all day tidying my things."
"If you kept your things in their proper places, I wouldn't need to tidy them," Sui Zhou points out, a bit defensive.
A smile alights on Tang Fan's lips. Something in Sui Zhou loosens. This is where they are comfortable, prodding each other childishly. As strange as this joke has become, they still have this.
Sui Zhou rises to his feet. "Come on, then," he says, and places his hand at the small of Tang Fan's back to guide him to his bedroom. Tang Fan, to his great shock, goes quietly, almost meekly, his head bowed. Their boots make twin taps along the floorboards as they enter Sui Zhou's bedroom.
Tang Fan takes a deep breath and turns to face Sui Zhou with a lively grin. Sui Zhou wonders at this forced enthusiasm, and something inside him tightens.
"Where do we begin?" Tang Fan asks. Then, spotting his novel on a table, says, "Ah! Here we are. What's the first passage you've marked?" He grabs it up and flicks to the proper page, tapping his finger against the cheap paper. "Oh! The heroine's first kiss, really? What's wrong with that?" He looks at Sui Zhou like he's insulted every member of the Tang clan, living and dead. "I thought it was a very good scene."
Sui Zhou takes the book gently from Tang Fan's slack hands and points to the paragraph in question. "You wrote 'their tongues warred for supremacy like two enemy factions desperate for power.'"
"It's poetic," Tang Fan insists.
"It's all wrong," Sui Zhou says. "This is the woman's first kiss. The man is in love with her already. She should be hesitant, and he should be careful with her."
"Oh, you have no idea how the genre works!" Tang Fan cries, throwing the novel back on the table. "People expect these books to be full of passion and—and—and fiery emotions. Anything else would be boring."
"It's more realistic, and if done correctly, it's not at all boring." Sui Zhou crosses his arms over his chest, repeating, "She should be hesitant. And he should be careful."
"It's easy to say such things and sound like an authority," Tang Fan says, "but you are teaching me nothing this way. You want to prove me wrong? Show me what you mean."
"Fine." Sui Zhou advances a step, and before he knows what he's doing, he's crowded Tang Fan against the wall, one palm planted beside Tang Fan's surprised face. It's the pose the characters in the book found themselves in, and something tugs at Sui Zhou's memory as they look at each other. He has stood in front of Tang Fan like this before, and just as before, he fights the urge to stare at his soft lips, parted on an unspoken word.
Now would be the time, Sui Zhou thinks, for one of them to blink.
Tang Fan does not look away, though, and neither can Sui Zhou.
"I'm going to kiss you now," he warns.
A pinch of annoyance flashes across Tang Fan's face. "Do it, then."
Now would definitely be the time.
He searches Tang Fan's eyes for some weakness, some disgust that will stay Sui Zhou's hand, but he cannot find it. He rarely understands everything that goes on in Tang Fan's mind—it's too quick and vast—but he does notice the way that Tang Fan is leaning ever so slightly toward him. He gives Sui Zhou a doubtful look as the moment stretches on, as if he's unsure whether or not Sui Zhou will actually do what he's declared he will.
Sui Zhou swallows. He will not blink first, not now.
He lifts a hand, the one not pinned to the wall beside Tang Fan's head, and slowly, gently, touches Tang Fan's jaw. Tang Fan gives a sharp intake of breath, his eyes fluttering shut. Sui Zhou can drink his fill now, and he takes in the sight of Tang Fan's face, aching at the beauty of his unkissed mouth. He is careful as he leans in, careful as he closes his eyes, careful as he brushes Tang Fan's lips with his own.
He knows in an instant that Tang Fan has never been kissed, not like this. His mouth parts in shock. A surprised sound, quiet enough for only Sui Zhou's ears, escapes him. Sui Zhou cannot remain unmoved by such a thing, and he crowds closer, both hands framing Tang Fan's face now, deepening the kiss with slow, sure, insistent presses. Their tongues meet, then part, then meet again. Tang Fan tastes of sesame candy; he must have eaten some on his way home.
Sui Zhou's heart, that hateful thing, cannot seem to continue on with the business of keeping Sui Zhou alive. He pulls away reluctantly to try to catch his breath, but then he sees Tang Fan and knows it's a lost cause.
Tang Fan's mouth is still open, still red and wet. His eyes have the half-lidded look of a man woken from a beautiful dream. His skin is flushed pink as a petal.
"A-ah," he says, or tries to, "I see your point." His hands have found their way to Sui Zhou's chest, clawing into the soft blues and whites of the robes there. Tang Fan's gaze falls to them, seemingly startled at what they've done, but he doesn't remove them. "What else must I learn?"
Sui Zhou is certain he will die from this, but he cannot stop his hands from burying themselves into the soft fall of hair at the back of Tang Fan's head. He clears his throat, trying to marshal his thoughts. "The next passage I marked," he says, pleased with how steady his voice sounds, "is the one where the heroine nearly trysts with the courtier in the garden."
"Oh yes, the night of the royal feast." Tang Fan's dazed eyes find Sui Zhou's. "And what terrible misstep did I make there?"
He's not sure how he finds the strength to continue speaking like this is a normal part of their friendship, alone in his bedroom and touching each other like lovers, but Sui Zhou rallies. "The woman's family has fallen on hard times. The courtier knows this, yet he rips her clothes in his haste to touch her. She seems very impressed with his eagerness, but she should be angry. She can't afford to buy new robes. Also, they're in public, and now she must figure out a way to leave the palace without anyone noticing the tears, which would be devastating to her reputation." His hands release Tang Fan's hair, going instead to the belts at his waist and resting there. "Even if he doesn't love her," Sui Zhou murmurs, "he is at least trying to gain her favor. He should really treat her and her clothing with more respect."
"But in the heat of the moment," Tang Fan breathes, "aren't lovers sometimes rough with each other?"
"Sometimes," Sui Zhou concedes, "but virgins should be given special consideration. She is—" His gaze falls once more to Tang Fan's mouth. "Untested. She does not know yet what she prefers and does not prefer. Only a villain would act rashly without consulting her."
"Hm." Tang Fan gives a slow nod. "Your concerns make sense. Young ladies need good role models when it comes to such things." He clutches tighter at Sui Zhou. "How should he have undressed her, do you think?"
Sui Zhou's fingertips catch at the clasp of Tang Fan's belt. "Perhaps like this." He unhooks the metal tang from its eye and unwraps the thing from Tang Fan's trim waist, careful not to let it fall to the floor. Tang Fan's chopstick case is attached to it, as usual, and Sui Zhou would rather cut off his own arm than allow them to be harmed. Dong'er has told him what the jade chopsticks mean to Tang Fan and why he loves them dearly. Sui Zhou places the belts and purse gently on a chair before turning back.
Tang Fan is staring at him the way he stares at their suspects or an important piece of evidence. It's a little frightening to be the focus of all that intensity. Sui Zhou tries not to buckle under it. He tries to breathe.
"May I?" he asks, touching the ties that hold Tang Fan's ivory robes in place.
"Of course," says Tang Fan. He drops his hands to his sides so that Sui Zhou can disrobe him.
There are many layers to get through, but at last Sui Zhou manages the last tie of Tang Fan's undershirt. It falls to the floor to join the heap of his discarded robes, leaving him only in his breeches and boots. It's still very chilly in the room, and Sui Zhou can see the gooseflesh rising along Tang Fan's arms. The way the buds of his nipples tighten.
"Turn around," he says, and Tang Fan does. Sui Zhou is surprised at the obedience, but perhaps he only wants to protect himself from Sui Zhou's gaze. The thought is like a stone in his stomach. He touches the cool, bare skin at Tang Fan's waist with just the tips of his fingers, light as a feather. "Would you like to be kissed again?" he asks.
Tang Fan nods, glancing over his shoulder.
"Here?" Sui Zhou presses his mouth to Tang Fan's shoulder blade. He feels a shudder run through him. He lifts the fall of Tang Fan's hair away from his back and drapes it over his shoulder. "And here?" he asks, kissing the nape of his neck.
Tang Fan makes a frustrated sound even as he trembles. "Are you going to ask every time just because I'm a virgin?"
The snit in his voice makes Sui Zhou smile. "I am only trying to find out what you prefer." His arm snakes across Tang Fan's belly, his hand searching out the shape of his bare chest. His lips are right at Tang Fan's ear. "What about here?" He kisses the shell of it, and Tang Fan cries out.
It is a very good thing, he thinks, that Old Pei took Dong'er for the time being. The noises Tang Fan makes are loud enough to wake the dead.
"I think I enjoy that one most of all," Tang Fan pants, "but they're all fine, really." He whirls in the circle of Sui Zhou's hold and faces him with bright, eager eyes. "Now that I've learned this lesson, may I try?" His fingers toy at the edges of Sui Zhou's robe where they meet over his chest.
Sui Zhou swallows. "The heroine never disrobed her lovers, did she?"
"No," Tang Fan purses his mouth, looking thoughtful, "but maybe she should. In my next book." His fingers fall to Sui Zhou's belt. His eyes are dancing. "Do I have your permission? I promise not to rip anything. You and your clothes are deserving of respect, even if you are not a virgin."
"You're mocking me now," Sui Zhou accuses.
"I'm not," Tang Fan says reasonably. "I am asking what you prefer: to remain clothed or to have me undress you?"
Sui Zhou sighs through his nose. He doesn't know how to explain the truth to Tang Fan, that it doesn't matter what Sui Zhou wants. All that matters, in the end, is what Tang Fan needs and how Sui Zhou can fulfill those needs. If Tang Fan does not understand that by now, with all the powers of his great mind behind him, then Sui Zhou does not think he ever will. In a way, he's relieved that his heart remains a mystery to Tang Fan. It is an unsightly thing, and Sui Zhou can only imagine how Tang Fan would recoil if he saw it.
"Undress me if you want to undress me," Sui Zhou says at last, sounding bored to his own ears. "I don't care either way."
"No? Ah." Tang Fan unties the silken knot at Sui Zhou's belt and carefully removes it, laying it beside his own. "Perhaps you are ambivalent because no one has ever bothered to do this for you." He makes quick work of the ties, pushing Sui Zhou's robes from his shoulders. "Carefully, with reverence." He comes to the undershirts and peels them off Sui Zhou's arms one by one. His touch is so gentle, Sui Zhou must close his eyes. "Like a gift," Tang Fan whispers, pressing his palms to Sui Zhou's bare chest, leaning his slight weight into Sui Zhou's body. "Or something sacred."
Sui Zhou instinctively clasps Tang Fan by the elbows to steady him. He opens his eyes and sees the deep honey-dark of Tang Fan's staring back at him. He cannot breathe when Tang Fan looks at him like that.
They are both naked to the waist, and Sui Zhou wonders what Tang Fan is seeing. The scars from old battles and new misadventures, most likely. They mark Sui Zhou's chest and back the way a heartless lover would notch a bedpost. The thought makes his stomach turn.
He looks at Tang Fan's pleading eyes—pleading for what, he does not know—and he realizes what he must do.
He must blink.
"We need to stop," he says.
"What?" Tang Fan's face drops. "Why?"
"We just— We need to stop." Sui Zhou gives him a small push, trying to create some distance between them.
Tang Fan drops his hands from Sui Zhou's chest. "Yes. Of course," he says in a small voice, staring at the floor. Then, forcing that grin on his face again, he looks up. "After all, it's nearly time for lunch. Will you make me some tofu pudding, Brother Sui?"
Sui Zhou squints at him. "Tofu pudding?"
"Yes, with skewered chicken hearts. Or maybe some duck. Do we have any duck?" Tang Fan bends gracefully to retrieve his clothes from the floor and starts putting them back on. "We can go to the market and get some. We cannot continue these lessons on an empty stomach. Once we've eaten, maybe you can show me something new."
"But—" Sui Zhou says.
Tang Fan claps him on the shoulder and gives him a little shake. "Come on, get dressed. You can't go to the market like that; you'll get us thrown out."
"Tang Fan," Sui Zhou tries again, scooping up the pile of his robes from the floor.
Tang Fan turns to him, framed by the late morning light shining through the paper of the bedroom window. He is smiling, but in a serious way that is rather strange. "Eat first," he says, "then we can decide what we'd like to do. All right?"
Sui Zhou nods, dazed. "All right."
He doesn't know what he's done to deserve the bow Tang Fan gives him. "Thank you," he says, and then leaves to presumably allow Sui Zhou to dress in peace.
Sui Zhou does so, though the cart-wheels of his mind have slipped their axles and his fingers fumble with every tie.
Tang Fan pushes away from the table after they've finished their midday meal. Only a speck of sauce remains on the platter that once held the crispy duck. "You've outdone yourself, Guangchuan," he says, rubbing his belly with a pleased hum. "That was wonderful."
"It was no trouble," Sui Zhou says, despite the fact that the duck had been very fatty and difficult to cook correctly.
"What shall we do with the rest of the day?" Tang Fan runs a fingertip through the smear of sauce and licks it clean. "After a feast like that, we could take a nap, I suppose."
"I suppose," Sui Zhou says doubtfully. He never indulges in midday naps, even on his days off.
"Or we could do other things," Tang Fan says in a light, carefree manner. He shoots Sui Zhou a sunny smile. "What do you think?"
In the hours it's taken to prepare and eat the meal, Sui Zhou's heart has calmed, and now he feels foolish for acting the way he had. He'd pushed away Tang Fan—Tang Fan!—when he had the man right there in his arms. In his bedroom. And Tang Fan is clearly leaving the decision of what to do now up to him, which, while strangely sweet, irritates Sui Zhou to no end. He is supposed to be the experienced one, and here is Tang Fan, treating him like fragile porcelain. His pride, tattered as it is, chafes at such careful handling.
"I'm not tired. I don't think I could sleep," Sui Zhou says, and stands to clear the table. "I've been meaning to mention, there is something in your book that I found especially unrealistic."
"Oh?" Tang Fan perks up. "And what is that?"
"The men in your novel." He carefully stacks the platters before bearing them away to the wash basin. "Their...size."
An impish smile passes over Tang Fan's face. For a moment Sui Zhou almost believes he will ask if his characters are too tall with that innocent furrow of his brow designed to drive Sui Zhou to madness. But the impulse must pass, because Tang Fan says with a shade of chagrin, "Yes, all right. I admit I took some liberties. But I am not to blame; readers expect the heroes in these stories to be well-endowed."
"There's well-endowed," says Sui Zhou, "and then there's excessive."
Tang Fan waves a hand in his direction, clicking his tongue. "Oh, come on! It isn't that bad."
Sui Zhou's eyes go huge with disbelief. "You described the martial artist's member as being ten cun!"
"Nine and a half, if we're being precise," Tang Fan interjects.
Sui Zhou huffs, returning to the table to wipe his hands on a clean cloth. "Ridiculous. That's still much too big. A man couldn't even fight properly with such a thing in his breeches. More importantly," he points a finger at Tang Fan's face for emphasis, "it makes it sound as if size alone will satisfy a woman, which is simply untrue. Only a complete virgin would think so."
Tang Fan rises with indignation, palms flat on the table in front of him. "Well! If size is so unimportant, why are so many men obsessed with it? I am only writing what I have heard."
Sui Zhou rolls his eyes. "Why are you listening to men like that, who only care about their own pleasure? They think their manhood is all that matters. A truly generous lover knows better than that."
"Hm." Tang Fan thinks this over, sweeping around the table, his fingertips trailing along the polished wood. "How would this generous lover go about things differently?" He looks up through his lashes, and Sui Zhou feels his throat go tight.
Still, he forces himself to speak. "He would use his hands. His mouth." He will not look away from Tang Fan's wide eyes; he will not drop his gaze to his plush lips. "He would concentrate on his lover's enjoyment. His own would be secondary."
"What a saint," says Tang Fan. A smile curves over his mouth. "And you are sure this man you describe would be more realistic? He sounds rare indeed."
Sui Zhou shrugs, trying to seem unaffected. "It's only common courtesy."
"I'm curious to experience it." Tang Fan has no compunction with gazing at Sui Zhou's lips, it seems. "Would you be willing to demonstrate?"
That is how Sui Zhou finds himself on his knees in his room with Tang Fan spread across his bed. Tang Fan's boots and breeches have been cast aside (gently) and his robes and undershirt are open, parted to reveal his heaving chest, his clenching stomach. His mouth is red where Sui Zhou has kissed him and kissed him in preparation. Tang Fan had tried to rush him with quiet pleas to please hurry, Brother Sui, please , but Sui Zhou only goes all the slower. When he at last takes Tang Fan in his mouth, he is hard, leaking, and so sensitive that the slightest brush of Sui Zhou's tongue is enough to make him shriek into the bolster. Sui Zhou's hands are busy too, one pinning down Tang Fan's narrow hip, the other gently rolling his heavy stones.
"You are going to kill me," Tang Fan gasps.
Sui Zhou cannot correct him, his mouth being so occupied, but he knows in his heart that Tang Fan has it backwards. The noises that Tang Fan is making, the way his hands scrabble at the bedclothes, the taste of him on Sui Zhou's tongue—these are the things that will put Sui Zhou into an early grave. His heart will stop beating, having given all it can.
Tang Fan props himself up to watch Sui Zhou work. Their eyes meet over the bared expanse of Tang Fan's skin. Sui Zhou watches as Tang Fan raises a hand as if to grab hold of Sui Zhou's hair, but he hesitates at the last moment and clenches it into a fist instead. Oh, Sui Zhou thinks, he is trying to be considerate.
"Ah, how would one politely let their lover know—?" Tang Fan stammers. "That is, if I am very close to coming undone, should I—?"
Sui Zhou pulls off his cock with a slurp, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His other hand strokes Tang Fan so that he is not entirely bereft. "You can finish in my mouth. I don't mind."
"Oh!" Tang Fan blinks down at him. "Are you sure? You don't mind the taste? I tried mine once before and it was horribly bitter."
Sui Zhou tries not to picture Tang Fan pleasuring himself alone in his bed late at night, then licking his fingers clean of his spend.
He does not succeed, but he does try.
"It's fine," he manages to say. "It doesn't bother me. Go ahead." And he returns to sucking Tang Fan's cock, his eyes drifting shut so he does not see how Tang Fan's face looks when he finds his end. The sight would surely be the death of him. The taste of Tang Fan flooding his mouth is dangerous enough.
When it's over and Sui Zhou has swallowed every drop, he stays there on his knees, his head bowed, and tries desperately to calm himself. His heart is beating like a drum, and the pulse of it echoes in his cock, so hard in his breeches. He is overcome. Dampness collects at the corners of his eyes, so he squeezes them shut. But the same thought churns around and around in his mind, so that he will never know peace: this game they are playing is all that there can be between them.
"Guangchuan." Tang Fan's voice is quiet, for once. His smooth fingertips brush against Sui Zhou's temple, his cheek. "Oh, Guangchuan, come here. Lay beside me."
Sui Zhou doesn't move for a moment, blinking away the tears in his eyes. He cannot let Tang Fan see.
Tang Fan, for his part, only gets impatient. He grabs at Sui Zhou's shoulder, clutching the fabric of his robe, and gives it a tug. "Come on. You're the most generous man in the entire country. You wouldn't deny me a simple thing like this, would you?"
Sui Zhou drags a hand down his face, snorting as if this is cover for a laugh, and gets to his feet. Tang Fan is a vision in his bed. His hair has come loose from its simple knot, and for the first time, Sui Zhou sees it truly free. It spills across his bed along with Tang Fan's open robes, which have slipped from his shoulders.
"It's strange to be naked while you're fully clothed," Tang Fan complains. He sits up, his hair cascading into his eyes. He sweeps it behind his ear with an elegant gesture. "Would you like to undress?"
If Tang Fan wants him bare, Sui Zhou will be bare. "One moment." He strips off his robes with a soldier's efficiency. Tang Fan watches him as he sets each layer aside. Sui Zhou is still fairly hard, but he does not try to hide from Tang Fan's gaze. He knows he will not win that battle.
Tang Fan's face is always expressive, but even more so now. Sui Zhou cannot name all the things that flit across it as he stands there, finally nude and straight-backed. Tang Fan seems to shake himself from a daydream.
"Come on." He pats the small sliver of bed next to his sprawled form. "Join me."
Sui Zhou goes to him, not surprised at all that Tang Fan is the type of person who craves touch after a bout of lovemaking. He curls sweetly atop Sui Zhou's chest, nuzzling his face into the warmth of his neck. The length of his body is pressed to Sui Zhou's from top to toes. A happy sigh passes through him as he pulls the coverlet over them both.
"You're as hot as a coal," he says, cuddling closer. "It's nice."
Sui Zhou cannot bring himself to joke about replacing the heated brick in Tang Fan's bed on cold winter nights. Even a brick has more sense than he does. He stays silent and lets Tang Fan use him as a bolster.
After a moment, Tang Fan stirs. His hand brushes Sui Zhou's stomach under the sheets. "I would like to learn to be as generous as you," he says, soft against Sui Zhou's throat, "but when I tried earlier, you didn't seem to like it. I know I am inexperienced, but I won't ever learn without practice. What can I do for you, Brother Sui? What would you enjoy?"
Sui Zhou cannot allow himself to even imagine wanting more than this. He has Tang Fan in his bed, he has his taste still on his tongue. He doesn't dare ask for anything else.
He covers Tang Fan's roaming hand with his own, pinning it against his belly. "You don't need to do anything."
"Oh." The disappointment is thick in Tang Fan's voice. "Of course." He rolls off Sui Zhou, giving him his back. "You must think I am truly a hopeless case."
Sui Zhou rolls his eyes at the ceiling. "Tang Fan…."
"No, no, it's all right, really!" Tang Fan steals the coverlet away from Sui Zhou, leaving him naked and exposed to the cold air. He bundles himself into an even tighter ball. "I know this must be very tiring for you, leading a silly virgin by the hand like this. I wouldn't want to waste Official Sui's precious time with such things."
"You're being ridiculous." Sui Zhou turns onto his side. The bed is narrow enough that, for two long-limbed men such as themselves, he ends up pressed close to Tang Fan's back. He props his head up on his fist to get a better look at Tang Fan's face, but Tang Fan counters this by pulling the coverlet over his head.
"Am I?" he says, muffled by the goose down.
"Yes," Sui Zhou says.
The coverlet falls back down so Tang Fan can glare at him over his shoulder. "I think I'm being very reasonable. You're the one who just drank my seed but is too shy to let me touch his prick!"
Sui Zhou opens his mouth to deny this, but thinks better of it and purses his mouth closed. Tang Fan widens his eyes in challenge.
"Is that really what you want?" he asks at last. "To touch my prick?"
A little of the stubbornness leaves Tang Fan's gaze. He softens, turning back to Sui Zhou so they can lie face to face. "Only if you want me to," he says. "I'm trying not to be selfish. It doesn't come as naturally to me, though, so I hope you'll be patient." He looks away like a coy maiden before meeting Sui Zhou's eyes again, as if to check whether he's having the desired effect.
Sui Zhou is filled with so much affection for him in that moment, where Tang Fan is so absurdly himself, that he feels he will burst. He's never met anyone like this man, and he doesn't think he ever will again. He scoots closer on the bed, and Tang Fan obliges by tossing the edge of the coverlet over his bare legs. His arms go around Tang Fan, holding him close. His chin rests atop Tang Fan's head. He can feel Tang Fan's breath against his collarbone.
"If what you want is to touch me," he says, "then that is what I want too."
It is as close to a confession as he can come.
"Good." Tang Fan gives a fluttering sigh against his skin. "Can I try that later? I am so sleepy now." He gives a delicate yawn. "Why don't we take a short rest? When we wake up, you can cook me dinner and fill the bathtub for me."
Sui Zhou smiles, unseen, and allows his eyes to fall shut. A nap actually would be welcome now that Tang Fan's suggested it. He feels wrung out like a dishrag. How quickly things have changed since this morning, he thinks. His heart is exhausted from the effort of keeping him alive.
Tang Fan falls asleep without waiting for Sui Zhou to voice his agreement. He snores, just a little. Sui Zhou joins him, unable to help himself.
He wakes up disoriented. He hasn't dreamed, but his body is instantly alert. It's still light outside, and for a moment he doesn't remember where he is or why he's fallen asleep in the middle of the day.
Then he sees Tang Fan is already awake, watching him from across the bolster, and he remembers.
"Good morning," says Tang Fan, though it's actually late afternoon. "Did you sleep well?"
Sui Zhou rubs flecks from his eyes. "I guess so," he says, fighting the grogginess in his voice. Tang Fan is combing his fingers through his hair, he realizes. Brushing strands away from his face and untangling any knots he finds with surprising gentleness.
"I was thinking," he says. "Earlier, you said a good man will learn to please a woman with his hands and his mouth."
"Mmm," Sui Zhou agrees. His eyes drift half-shut. He could fall back to sleep if he allowed himself. Tang Fan's touch is so soothing.
"But the way you used your mouth on me," Tang Fan continues, "makes me wonder if your long and storied lovemaking experience included men as well. You were very talented and did not seem lost at all."
Sui Zhou meets his gaze. He doesn't try to deny it. Tang Fan is too perceptive for his own good, sometimes.
"You never did tell me about your time in the army," Tang Fan says quietly. He shifts closer, his hand cupping Sui Zhou's cheek. "And we still have not discussed your nightmares."
Sui Zhou sucks in a breath. If Tang Fan is only guessing, he's doing it very well. Sui Zhou has never spoken to anyone about what terrors visit him in his sleep. How it felt to wake beneath the dead bodies of his brothers-in-arms. How some of those brothers had visited Sui Zhou's bedroll, and how he'd cherished them. How his heart still aches with the loss. How he once thought there was nothing else he could lose—and then he met Tang Fan, and now he fears losing something even more precious. How certain he is that he would not survive it.
It makes him tremble to think of it.
And so he tries not to think of it.
He slips out of bed and begins pulling on his clothes. "What would you like for dinner?" he asks.
He can feel Tang Fan's gaze on him without even looking. He can almost hear his mind working, like Sui Zhou's silence on this matter is a puzzle he means to work out.
"Cook whatever is easiest," Tang Fan finally says. "Use up the ingredients you have on hand. It's only the two of us; no need to go out of your way."
Sui Zhou frowns, turning to make sure it is still Tang Fan in his bed and not some imposter. "Really? You don't want anything in particular?"
Tang Fan waves a hand. The coverlet falls to his waist, but he doesn't seem concerned about his nakedness. "I'm sure anything you cook will be fine."
Sui Zhou does not want to make food that is "fine." He's become used to cooking whatever Tang Fan desires, even going so far as to learn how to make unfamiliar dishes that Tang Fan requests. If Tang Fan is not asking anything of him, how can Sui Zhou be useful?
Something of his distress must show on his face, because Tang Fan's brow furrows as he watches him.
"I am trying not to be selfish," he says with heartbreaking gentleness. "Your food is always so delicious. It doesn't matter what you make; I'm sure I will enjoy it."
Sui Zhou nods, only somewhat mollified, and goes to the kitchen to tie up his sleeves and prepare a simple hotpot. He is just putting the finishing touches on the dish when Tang Fan appears, dressed again in his ivory robes but with his hair still undone and hanging loose about his face. It's a shock to see him like this; even when he's just lounging about the house, Tang Fan tends to be perfectly polished, not a hair out of place. He looks even younger, if such a thing is possible.
"Oh, that smells so good," he says, holding his hair back with one hand so he can lean over the pot and lift the lid, breathing in the vapor. "Is it almost ready?"
Sui Zhou doesn't hear him, too wrapped up in how soft and beddable he looks, and Tang Fan must repeat himself before he answers. "Yes, why don't you fetch some wine to go with it?"
Tang Fan does so, and they share the meal at the dinner table in their usual seats. Tang Fan's study is at Sui Zhou's back, and the suit of armor from his military days stands in front of him. He drinks warm broth and then cool wine and wonders why he chose this seat when Tang Fan and Dong'er moved in with him and a dinner table became a necessity. He doesn't particularly enjoy looking at the armor while he eats. But the chair is to the right of Tang Fan, and affords him many chances to watch him eat, so Sui Zhou supposes it has its advantages.
At the moment, Tang Fan is chewing a bite of his dinner with his eyes closed, moaning in a way that always affects Sui Zhou. "Gorgeous," Tang Fan says, nearly on the verge of tears. "Perfect. So tender. So balanced. Better than any I've ever had."
"It's just odds and ends I had on hand," Sui Zhou says. "It's nothing special."
Tang Fan looks at him with a mixture of pity and hurt. "Don't say that, Brother Sui." He drops his eyes to his bowl. His cheeks have gone pink again. "Don't ever say that."
When they finish eating, Tang Fan jumps to his feet and begins clearing the dishes. Sui Zhou gives him a questioning look. It's not often that Tang Fan helps with clean-up after a meal. He's more likely to disappear to avoid any chores.
Tang Fan catches his eye and gives him a self-effacing shrug. "Let me take care of these this time," he says. "You can heat the water and fill the tub."
"Ah, right, you wanted to bathe," Sui Zhou says, remembering.
"I thought we both could," says Tang Fan. He holds the stack of dishes precariously in his arms, his eyes resting carefully on Sui Zhou. "Can we? Share the bath?"
There is an army inside Sui Zhou's heart, and it is forever at war with his conscience. At the moment, the tide is turning in his heart's favor, much to his dismay. "If that's what you want," he says before he can think to say otherwise.
Tang Fan smiles. "It is." He looks so pleased as he carries the dishes to the wash basin, Sui Zhou is transfixed by him.
Then he remembers he must heat the bath water, and he goes to light the fires and prepare the scented oils he knows Tang Fan likes best.
The tub is generously sized for a private house, but even so, it is not meant to hold two full-grown men. Tang Fan solves this problem by sitting astride Sui Zhou's lap as soon as he climbs in. He winds his long arms around Sui Zhou's neck and grins. There are water droplets all along his lashes.
"I've always liked writing love scenes in bath houses," he says. "It's so luxurious. All the bare skin and fragrant scents. The steam. The heat." He flicks at the surface of the water, spraying some playfully at Sui Zhou's chest. "It's good, don't you think?"
Sui Zhou answers honestly. "I've never been with anyone in a bath, actually."
"No?" Tang Fan's eyes go wide. "A first for you too then! Do you think we will be able to fumble our way through it when neither of us has done this before?"
A smile tugs at Sui Zhou's lips despite himself. Tang Fan had wanted to touch him, and he is certainly getting his wish now. Beneath the surface, their legs are pressed together, Tang Fan's knees bracketing his hips. "I've always considered the bath a place for cleanliness. Lovemaking can be messy, and I hate to sully perfectly good water."
A frown pulls at Tang Fan's lips. "Oh, I didn't consider that." He sits further back, making a seat of Sui Zhou's thighs. "Would you like to leave?"
Sui Zhou watches how the warm water is chasing a flush up Tang Fan's skin, turning his chest and shoulders pink. The steam is causing a few strands of hair to curl about his face. He's lovely like this. It would be a shame to spoil the picture he makes. His hands go to Tang Fan's waist to steady him so that he doesn't slip.
"We can stay," he says. "You're right, it is nice, especially in this cold weather."
Tang Fan whips right back to a smile, pressing close once more. "Isn't it? It's a good opportunity for me to practice my kisses again. What do you think?"
Sui Zhou blinks up at him, an amused tilt to his head. How is this his life? "If you like."
"Wonderful! Now, let's see if I can remember the important points." Tang Fan's hands slide from Sui Zhou's shoulders to cup his face. He wipes away a drop of water from Sui Zhou's cheek with his thumb, and Sui Zhou feels his heart lay down its sword for the hundredth time. It is always surrendering to Tang Fan.
Tang Fan, of course, does not notice. Cannot ever notice. "Gentle. Careful. How am I doing so far?" His voice has dropped to a whisper.
"Not bad," Sui Zhou manages to say, just as quiet. The sound of the bath water sloshing against the wooden slats of the tub is louder than they are.
"Slowly. No rushing." Tang Fan bends down and brushes his lips over the skin of Sui Zhou's temple. His cheekbone. His mouth tickles along Sui Zhou's facial hair, and his breath of laughter flows against Sui Zhou's lips. "Though I feel a sense of urgency, I should be mindful. Savoring each taste instead of bolting down the meal."
Sui Zhou cannot say what possesses him, but he cannot stand this torture one moment longer. He only knows that if he is to have Tang Fan only tonight, or two nights, or three, he must make the most of it. He grabs a fistful of Tang Fan's hair and pulls him close, crushing their mouths together. Tang Fan gasps, then moans, then melts in his embrace.
Sui Zhou pulls away almost immediately, blinking water from his eyes. He must be going mad. "I'm sorry," he begins to say, "I shouldn't have—"
"Shush," says Tang Fan, and braces his hands against the wooden slats behind Sui Zhou's back so that he has enough leverage to kiss him with the same kind of fervor. They trade kisses back and forth while the water laps around them. Some of the kisses are hard and biting, others are as soft as snowfall. Sui Zhou can feel himself hard beneath the water, his straining length brushing against Tang Fan's.
Tang Fan pulls away, mouth wet, eyes bright. "I still need to touch you," he says. "Do you—?"
Sui Zhou does not bother with words. He grabs Tang Fan's hand and plunges it into the water, guiding his fingers around his cock.
Tang Fan strokes him experimentally once, twice. Then, with a determined, triumphant smile on his face, he sets a rhythm that has Sui Zhou shaking.
"I am so sorry," Tang Fan says, kissing him.
"For what?" Sui Zhou asks.
Tang Fan's eyes glitter. "For the way I am about to sully this perfectly good water."
Sui Zhou's head falls back against the wooden wall of the tub and he lets loose a groan, letting Tang Fan explore him, and eventually, letting him make good on his threat.
"I don't understand," Tang Fan says later, when they have left the bath and dressed in soft house robes, their hair gathered in loose tails. "Why can't I sleep here with you?" He's sitting on Sui Zhou's bed again, pouting like a child who's been denied a favorite toy.
"You'll be more comfortable in your own bed," Sui Zhou says, extinguishing the lamp by the window.
"If you're afraid you'll strike me in the middle of a nightmare," Tang Fan says, "I'll remind you that we shared a nap this afternoon and nothing happened."
Too perceptive, Sui Zhou thinks as he blows out the candles on his table. "Just because nothing happened this afternoon does not mean it won't happen tonight," he says. "I can't control when the nightmares come."
Tang Fan frowns, picking a stray feather from the coverlet. "So what is your plan, then? You will simply never share your bed with anyone for the rest of your life?"
"I don't know," Sui Zhou answers with as much honesty as he can. "Probably."
A strangled sound escapes Tang Fan's lips. "That is no plan at all!" He crosses his arms over his stomach, hunching in on himself and not appearing to be moving from Sui Zhou's bed anytime soon. "Do you know, I have written a hundred scenes where the heroine sleeps beside her lover and have not once had the same experience?" He looks up at Sui Zhou, eyes calculating.
Sui Zhou braces himself. He has the distinct sense that he is about to be run through by Tang Fan's sharp mind. He has clearly figured out the code words that will allow him into the garrison around Sui Zhou's heart.
"Brother Sui," he says sweetly, "I want to sleep here tonight with you. Please let me?"
Sui Zhou looks at him, freshly bathed and glowing in the light of the last few candles. Something in his throat is clawing away at him. "I do not want to hurt you," he says.
Tang Fan does not make any false promises that he won't. He merely shrugs. "I'm willing to risk it."
In Sui Zhou's opinion, Tang Fan is far too willing to step into danger on a normal day, so it seems hypocritical to allow him to do that in his investigations but not here in Sui Zhou's bedroom. It is a weak argument, but one that wins for the moment. Sui Zhou sighs.
"All right," he says, and Tang Fan is giddily crawling under the coverlet before he's even finished speaking. "For tonight. But if I start striking out in my sleep—"
"I will be sensible and move out of the way," says Tang Fan, settling against the bolster. "Come on." He flips back the bedclothes in invitation. "It's too cold in here without you."
Sui Zhou goes to him, because he cannot deny Tang Fan anything—or at least, he is not strong enough to deny him this. He is welcomed into the warmth of Tang Fan's body, becoming his pillow once more, and holding him to his chest without complaint. He worries the beating of his heart will keep Tang Fan awake all night, and he thinks darkly of how he'd rather cut it out than allow that to happen, but Tang Fan falls asleep right away. For tonight, there is no need for a knife.
He tries to stay awake for as long as he can, listening to Tang Fan snuffle and snore, but eventually he succumbs and sleeps deeply.
Sui Zhou cannot say his sleep is completely peaceful. He wakes twice in the night, which isn't unusual for him. What is unusual is the moment's worth of panic that grips him when he feels the heavy arm slung across his waist. But then he hears Tang Fan's breathing and smells the scent of Tang Fan's washing powder, and he is able to rest a few more hours.
He wakes much later than he normally would, the sun already suffusing through the windows. Unbelievably, Tang Fan is already up, shuffling around Sui Zhou's bedroom. Making tea, Sui Zhou realizes. He sits up in bed and scrubs a hand over his sleep-worn face.
"Good, you're awake." Tang Fan's eyes fall on him. He is smiling, holding one sleeve back as he pours the hot water into the pot. Sui Zhou wonders if he is dreaming after all.
Tang Fan serves him a cup of hot tea in bed, then clambors beside Sui Zhou to drink his own. They sit there side by side, sipping quietly. Somewhere in the courtyard, a bird is singing. The sounds from the road are just beginning to build, the capital rising to meet the day.
"I was thinking about what we might do," Tang Fan says at last. "We have all of today to ourselves, after all, and most of tomorrow."
"Hm?" Sui Zhou drinks his tea. It's surprisingly good.
"You could fuck me," Tang Fan says.
Sui Zhou chokes on his tea.
"Careful!" Tang Fan pats him on the back. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," Sui Zhou wheezes.
"Maybe I shouldn't be so blunt. I've offended you." Tang Fan's eyes go liquid. "I didn't want to say 'make love' because that's too vague. In my mind, we've already done that, a bit. I want to be clear about what I'm asking."
Sui Zhou shakes his head, clearing his throat to dislodge the last of the stray tea. "We cannot do that," he finally manages to say.
Tang Fan sits up taller. "Oh, it's definitely possible," he says proudly. "Old Pei explained it to me once when we were drinking. It's only a little more complicated, but two men can certainly—"
"No, I mean," Sui Zhou gestures between his own chest and Tang Fan's, tracing an invisible line between their hearts, a road that will never be traveled, "we cannot do that, you and I."
Tang Fan's entire face falls. "Why not?" he demands.
"Because!" Sui Zhou cannot believe he must explain this, and to a man who is supposed to be so clever. "You are—" He gropes for the correct words. "You're still a virgin."
"Only by the most narrow definition," Tang Fan says, waving a hand. "When you consider all I learned yesterday, I hardly think it matters."
"It does," Sui Zhou insists. He takes Tang Fan's empty teacup from his hand and places it with his own on the floor so they're out of the way. He needs Tang Fan's full concentration. He holds his gaze and says, as evenly as he can, "It's not some frivolous thing you can decide to do on a whim. Your first time should be—" He looks away then, his courage failing. "It should be with someone you love."
There is a long silence. Tang Fan's voice shakes when he finally speaks. "Someone I love?"
"Yes." Sui Zhou swallows. "That would be best."
"You…" Tang Fan says, a fierce growl in his voice. "You white-eyed jackass."
Sui Zhou cannot even respond before the bolster hits him square in the face. It's quite firm, for a bolster, and the shock of the blow is enough to stun him. Tang Fan strikes again and again, beating him about the head.
"Ow! What are you doing?" Sui Zhou cries, ducking in an effort to protect himself. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he notes that Tang Fan has finally found a weapon he can wield.
"Who do you think you are?" Tang Fan shouts. "'Someone I love?' Fuck you! Fuck your ancestors! You're supposed to be smarter than this!"
"What are you talking about? Stop beating me!" Sui Zhou finally grabs the bolster and tugs it out of Tang Fan's hands. He feels the petty urge to give Tang Fan a few whacks of his own, but the desperate, angry look in Tang Fan's eyes stops him. "What do you mean, smarter?"
"Are you joking!? Argh!" Tang Fan makes a grab for the pillow, but Sui Zhou is faster. He flings the thing aside and instead takes hold of Tang Fan's wrists. They grapple for a moment until Sui Zhou succeeds in pinning Tang Fan down on the bed, hovering over him to keep him in place.
"What is wrong with you?" he shouts.
"You call yourself an investigator?" Tang Fan shouts back. "I had you figured out in a matter of days; how can you be this thick-headed?"
"What?" Sui Zhou stares down at him. "You—what?"
Tang Fan struggles, but cannot break the hold Sui Zhou has on his wrists. "I said, I knew you were in love with me in a matter of days. Look at the evidence!" His hands, still pressed into the bed, begin counting off, Tang Fan's fingers sticking up one at a time as he talks. "You trusted me to assist with your work; you saved Dong'er for me; you let us move into your home; you pay every bill I ask you to; you cook for me and keep me fed; you let me use the bath before you; you've risked your life for mine more times than I can count; you risked your position; you always buy the washing powder I like best; and you agreed to play this silly game so we could kiss!" All ten fingers fan out against the bedclothes. "It wasn't difficult, Guangchuan! What is taking you so long?"
Sui Zhou feels like his mind is being pulled along by a single old donkey while Tang Fan's has an entire team of horses. "You knew?" His heart falls down into his stomach. He should have known he could never remain a mystery to Tang Fan, not forever. Not for very long at all.
He releases Tang Fan's wrists. Retreat is the only option. He stumbles off the bed and onto his feet. How foolish he must seem, how pitiful. He needs to escape.
"Ah! Where are you going?" Tang Fan nearly falls to the floor in his haste to follow. "Wait! I'm sorry. I forgot all your advice." He slips between Sui Zhou and the door, blocking his path. His hair is hanging in his eyes. He grips the sides of the doorframe like he's prepared to fight if necessary.
"My advice?" Sui Zhou asks in bewilderment.
"I should have given you special consideration," Tang Fan says in a rush. "I needed to be more gentle with you."
Sui Zhou snaps, "That's for virgins."
"I know." Tang Fan stares at him, unmoving, determined. "You may not be virginal in body, Sui Zhou, but your heart—" He looks so pleading again. "I must remember to take care with it."
Sui Zhou cannot think beyond the obvious question. "Why is that?"
"Because." Tang Fan's face transforms into a look of such deep fondness that Sui Zhou feels light-headed. "The someone I love is you."
For a moment, Sui Zhou thinks he has misheard. Then he thinks, ah, Tang Fan can be truly cruel with his jokes. Then he realizes that worry has marred Tang Fan's face, and he perhaps needs to respond before it gets any worse.
He can only ask, "Are you sure?"
Tang Fan lets go of the doorframe, instead cupping Sui Zhou's face. He is hesitant. He is careful. But he is also smiling. "Come back to bed with me. I will show you," he says, "if you don't mind teaching me."
Sui Zhou allows himself to be led by the hand back to the bed, where Tang Fan undresses him slowly, and kisses him gently, and convinces him easily to do things Sui Zhou did not think were possible.
It is nearly dinnertime when Dong'er returns the next day. When she enters the kitchen, Sui Zhou is cooking with his sleeves tied up. Tang Fan is reading a book while snacking on some raw carrot that he has stolen from the cutting board. It is a familiar scene, one they have played out a dozen times, but Dong'er pauses in the doorway, her eyes narrowing at the sight.
"How is your case progressing?" she asks. "You know, the very dangerous, high-profile one?"
"Oh, that?" Tang Fan crunches on his mouthful of carrot. "All solved satisfactorily." He glances in Sui Zhou's direction, and they share a wordless look, twin smiles on their lips.
Dong'er is not impressed. She lifts the lid from a pot to sniff its contents. "Well, at least I was able to learn some useful things while staying with Old Pei. I can bind wounds now. Also, I learned how to diagnose fifty different kinds of poisoning."
"That's good," says Sui Zhou, though he is still looking at Tang Fan and not at all listening. "Very good."
"Then Old Pei allowed me to perform an autopsy," Dong'er says. "On a demon we found in the forest."
"How nice," Tang Fan murmurs, still gazing adoringly at Sui Zhou.
Dong'er huffs and points to the griddle plate. "The meat is burning," she says to Sui Zhou.
Sui Zhou curses and leaps into action to save their dinner while Dong'er steals a piece of carrot for herself.
Tang Fan clears his throat, turning back to his book. "Dong'er, after dinner I need your help. I have some boxes that need to be moved tonight."
"Oh? What boxes?" she asks as Sui Zhou gives Tang Fan a look over her head.
"Just some odds and ends," Tang Fan says easily. "My clothes, a few books. My ink. Oh, and my hair ornaments."
Sui Zhou's eyebrows are now at their highest, but Tang Fan ignores him in favor of eating another bite of carrot.
"Sure," says Dong'er. "And where in Brother Sui's bedroom would you like me to store them?"
"Dong'er!" Sui Zhou says.
"What?" She turns her overly innocent gaze to him. "Am I supposed to pretend I don't know what's going on? All right, then." She turns back to Tang Fan. "Brother Tang, of course I will help you temporarily move your things into Brother Sui's room for no real reason. After all, I am just a simple child who doesn't know anything. Completely unrelated, I think I will be moving into your old room, since it's as far away from Brother Sui's as possible."
Sui Zhou uses his knife to point at Tang Fan. "This is your bad influence. You and those books of yours."
"Me?" Tang Fan cries. "How is this my fault when clearly—"
Dong'er allows their good-natured argument to follow her out of the kitchen and into the courtyard.
It is only when she finds The Courtier's Love Affair in the training room that her own horrified voice rings through the house: "My book! What did you do to it?"
Sui Zhou and Tang Fan stop for a moment, grinning at each other.
Tang Fan tips his chin toward the pot. "Is dinner almost ready, Guangchaun?"
He gives Tang Fan a kiss as he passes him to get a platter from the kitchen shelf. "Almost, Runqing."