“The Ghost King gasped into the Mountain God’s hot, wet mouth. Their tongues danced, heavy and slick, as the Mountain God pressed him into the soft grass of the starlit meadow. Though their robes separated them, he could feel the Mountain God’s arousal through the fabric, hard and wanting. The Ghost King...”
“Doesn’t have to worry about his salary being cut for reading dirty books at work when he was supposed to be running tests on evidence samples.”
Zhao Yunlan fought back a smile as Lin Jing startled.
“Boss, we were just…”
“Reading pornography on the job,” Zhao Yunlan said, grabbing Lin Jing’s phone.
He gave what he hoped was his most intimidating glare. Was it working? Guo Changcheng turned his eyes to the floor, but that didn’t mean anything. The fact that Da Qing was still shoving fish snacks in his mouth indicated that the glare was far from menacing.
Zhao Yunlan sighed and turned his attention back to the text on the phone’s screen. The characters were familiar. Pretty much everyone in Dragon City knew about the Ghost King and the Mountain God. Shen Wei didn’t even watch dramas, but he’d mentioned the characters a few days back when telling a story about students distracted in class.
Scrolling down the page, Zhao Yunlan considered the few episodes he’d seen. While the Ghost King and the Mountain God had undeniable chemistry in the drama, nothing about the show suggested the Ghost King would end up with the ‘Mountain God’s hot, pulsing love pumping into him’.
Feeling his ears starting to burn, Zhao Yunlan abandoned that particular passage to instead search for an author.
“Mountains of Love by mist_at_dawn. What the hell is this?”
“It’s Wang Zheng’s latest story,” Lin Jing explained, “She publishes a new chapter every Thursday and this is the final one. The Ghost King and the Mountain God finally declared their love for one another and now they’re going to…”
“Yes, I know. I read three paragraphs down. You say Wang Zheng wrote this? She didn’t tell me she was writing for a drama.”
“That’s because she isn’t,” Da Qing cut in. “She writes as a hobby. The company producing the drama probably wishes that she and other fans would stop, but since it brings in more viewers, they largely ignore what the fans write.”
“There are others who write stories like this?”
“Loads of others,” Guo Changcheng finally spoke up. “Wang Zheng’s written fifty but there are thousands about the Ghost King and the Mountain God.”
“And are they all so…” Zhao Yunlan struggled for the right word, “… descriptive?”
“Some are, some aren’t,” Lin Jing said. “Wang Zheng tends to write strict romances, while other authors focus on friendship. And then there are the perverts. I was reading one where the Mountain God had tentacles that he used to…”
“Are you sure you’re not the pervert?”
“Pervert is such a judgmental term. What I meant to say was, some authors are more, um, creative, with their interpretations of…”
“Right. We can discuss literature later. After I have the test results from those samples.”
“Fine,” Lin Jing grumbled, “but can I have my phone back?”
“Yes. When your work is done. Speaking of which, the rest of you need to get back to work too, or everyone’s bonus gets cut.”
Zhao Yunlan tried another glare, which seemed to have less of an effect than the first one, then stomped back to his office.
Half an hour later, Lin Jing arrived with the report Zhao Yunlan had waited more than a day for, one palm outstretched for the phone as the other handed over the paperwork.
“Now I know how to properly motivate you,” Zhao Yunlan said as he gave it back. “I’ll remember that for the future.”
He wouldn’t, of course, but Lin Jing didn’t need to know that, nor did he need to know that Zhao Yunlan had used the opportunity to type the address for the story website into his own phone.
Zhao Yunlan liked to think of himself as a good leader.
His team might be unconventional, but they worked well together and were fiercely protective of one another. In many ways the SID staff felt more like family than colleagues.
It was true that they had to get work done and Zhao Yunlan tried to set a good example by not slacking off too much. But after having found the website with the fan stories, he found himself slipping.
Things began innocently enough. Zhao Yunlan decided to read all of Mountains of Love when he got home from work the day he’d caught Lin Jing and the others reading it. Going back to the beginning took time – Wang Zheng had a lot to say about mutual pining, longing looks, and repressed emotions – but the sleepless night was worth it.
In chapter twenty, the Ghost King’s fingers accidentally brushed those of the Mountain God. Fifteen chapters later, the Mountain God fell asleep with his head on the Ghost King’s shoulder. Zhao Yunlan was certain they were going to kiss in chapter fifty, but they were interrupted. Finally, in chapter seventy-five, during a moment of peril when they both thought they might die, their confessions spilled out and the Ghost King let the Mountain God… well, they both did quite a lot of things to each other in that empty meadow under the stars.
Over the course of the next week, he worked his way through all of Wang Zheng’s stories – only because he should take an interest in the lives of his team, he lied to himself. They were as Lin Jing said – sweet romances full of yearning that usually ended in graphic erotic detail.
Zhao Yunlan had never realized literature could be so stimulating. For his own enrichment, he decided to read more.
After he finished with Wang Zheng’s works, he moved on to other authors. Guo Changcheng was right – there really were thousands of stories about the Mountain God and Ghost King on the internet and the writers seemed to delight in putting them into all kinds of situations that would never appear in the drama.
Sometimes they had to stay at an inn with only one bed. At other times, the fate of the world rested on them having sex so filthy that Zhao Yunlan needed a long shower afterword. (If more than washing took place in the shower, that was no one’s business but his own.) The writers made them fuck in an assortment of ways that left Zhao Yunlan having to look up certain positions and terms. He even found the ones with the tentacles. While he appreciated the authors’ creativity, they did little for him.
Not all of the stories were about sex, at least not entirely.
Sometimes the Ghost King and the Mountain God had to pretend to be in a fake relationship, other times they were brought together as strangers in an arranged marriage. They didn’t always have supernatural powers or heroic backstories – sometimes they were roommates, or one of them worked at a coffee shop, or they had been best friends for years. The setting and circumstances didn’t matter - they still fell in love.
As much as he enjoyed the horny ones (there was no shame in being a pervert, damn it), Zhao Yunlan’s secret favorites were the ones where they ended up settled in a house together, sharing domestic life as husbands.
It would have been fine if he’d been able to indulge only at night, but increasingly he found himself reading the stories at work.
He tried his best to cover it by claiming that he needed to concentrate alone in his office, but Da Qing’s pointed remarks about his eyes being glued to his phone rather than his monitor gave him away.
A few web searches on how to hide one’s browsing history helped Zhao Yunlan maintain the ruse of working a little longer, as he was able to read the stories on his computer, but even then he worried about Lin Jing and Cong Bo uncovering the digital tracks he tried so hard to conceal.
As a last resort, Zhao Yunlan started printing some of the stories. Not the longer ones – the SID had already been spending more on paper and toner lately and he didn’t want to max out their budget – but the shorter one-shots could easily be concealed in a folder. For all anyone else knew, he was a dedicated SID chief, reading through case reports.
Da Qing gave him occasional suspicious looks and Wang Zheng periodically smiled at him when he had his head stuck in a folder, but the others left him alone to read in peace.
Zhao Yunlan began writing margin notes to try to make his charade more convincing. At first it was nothing more than marking sections that stood out to him, reminding himself of points he wanted to praise when he left comments for the author.
The problem, he later decided, was his tendency to gather evidence and analyze it.
He did it without thinking, a habit born from his life as an investigator. It was a good practice for Zhao Yunlan, head of the SID, but not the best for Zhao Yunlan, secret admirer of Shen Wei.
Since the first day when he read Mountains of Love, Zhao Yunlan found himself wondering why he was so intrigued with these alternate interpretations of the Ghost King and the Mountain God. He had been a voracious reader when he was younger, but as he’d moved further into adulthood, he found himself reading less for fun. Yet now, he couldn’t seem to stop.
So what had changed? Why was he suddenly devouring countless stories about two characters falling in love in seemingly endless ways? He’d never been partial to traditional romances, whether in books or in television or movies. What was it about the Mountain God and the Ghost King that preoccupied an increasing number of his waking hours?
Some of the writing was good, brilliant even. But that wasn’t it alone. Zhao Yunlan eagerly consumed stories from authors who were just starting out as well as those who really should have been writing professionally. (Who knew, maybe they were.) Da Qing would have accused him of showing up for the porn. It was a plus, yes, but again, not the only allure. There was something about the characters, those two in particular, that drew him in.
Reading back through his margin notes, Zhao Yunlan figured it out.
The Ghost King reminded him of Shen Wei. There were major differences to be sure, but whether it was the secret identity as a professor that the Ghost King maintained, his ability to be terrifying one minute yet endearingly innocent the next, or even his stunning features, Zhao Yunlan couldn’t help but think of Shen Wei as he read the stories.
And, if he was being entirely honest, he saw a bit of himself in the Mountain God. Obviously he wasn’t a god, and pretty much everyone he knew would give him ten kinds of hell if they caught wind that he was making such a comparison, but still…
The unexpected friendship Zhao Yunlan shared with Shen Wei was not unlike that between the Mountain God and the Ghost King. Both the Mountain God and Zhao Yunlan had been entrusted with a secret. Zhao Yunlan couldn’t help but empathize with the Mountain God as he pined after his powerful, awkward, gorgeous friend.
So many stories featured the Mountain God buying a house for the Ghost King as a wedding present. That was not the only reason Zhao Yunlan had been perusing real estate websites between the stories he read. (It was a major reason, yes, but definitely not the only one. There were others. Zhao Yunlan just needed to think of what those were.)
Reading the stories allowed Zhao Yunlan to indulge in a fantasy that would likely never come to fruition, but that was still fun to dream about. That couldn’t possibly cause trouble.
Except that it could.
“Zhao Yunlan, you don’t need my expertise to solve this.” Shen Wei was sitting in the chair across from Zhao Yunlan’s desk, giving him a look that could safely be classified as fondly annoyed.
“Maybe not your expertise, Shen Wei, but definitely your calming presence. Besides, it got you out of work early and now you don’t need to call a cab to get home. If you want to thank me, you can make dinner.”
Shen Wei smiled. “Very well. To thank you for interrupting my work, I will cook you a meal.”
“If you say it like that, Shen Wei, I’ll interrupt you every day.” Zhao Yunlan knew he was likely being a little too forward, coming a little too close to letting his true feelings slip, but Shen Wei didn’t seem to mind as he shook his head in feigned exasperation, still keeping that same soft smile on his face.
The ride home was relatively uneventful. Zhao Yunlan had a tendency to chatter, but with Shen Wei silences were often comfortable rather than awkward. He parked, they gathered their things, then made their way into the apartment building.
“I’m going to drop my stuff off,” Zhao Yunlan said when they made it to their respective doors. “I’ll be over in just a bit.”
He stepped inside, tossing his folder on the coffee table and his jacket on the couch. He took a minute to fix his hair and put on a more flattering shirt. After preening in the mirror, he found paper to leave a note for Da Qing.
It was when he went to place the note on the table that Zhao Yunlan realized how much trouble he was in.
The neat characters on the tab of the folder told him all he needed to know, yet he opened it in the foolish hope that he was wrong. This wasn’t his folder – it was Shen Wei’s. They must have gotten mixed up on the ride home.
Which meant that right now, in Shen Wei’s apartment, possibly even in Shen Wei’s hands, was a folder containing one of the stories Zhao Yunlan had been reading, one that was both steamy and soppy, full of margin notes comparing Shen Wei to the Ghost King.
It was fine. There was no need to panic.
Knowing Shen Wei, he’d started cooking as soon as he’d gone inside. It wouldn’t make sense for him to read student grade reports before dinner. He had probably dropped the folder on his desk to deal with later.
All Zhao Yunlan needed to do was play it cool. He would walk across the hall with Shen Wei’s folder and ask to trade. There was no reason to talk about the contents of his folder. If Shen Wei asked, he could say it was a confidential personnel document – Guo Changcheng’s performance review. Yes. That was perfect. Not very interesting, not the kind of thing he would consult with Shen Wei about.
Cover story concocted, Zhao Yunlan summoned his courage and knocked on Shen Wei’s door.
“Come in,” Shen Wei called.
That was a good sign. It likely meant he was in the kitchen, already at work on the food. Zhao Yunlan felt the knot in his stomach unwinding as he stepped inside.
“Shen Wei, I grabbed your… ah.”
The knot returned, tighter than before, at the sight of Shen Wei sitting at his desk, Zhao Yunlan’s folder open in front of him, the pages of the story spread out on the table.
“I can explain,” Zhao Yunlan began, his mind desperately trying and failing to conjure a convincing lie. “I was, um…”
“Admiring my eyelashes it seems,” Shen Wei offered, not glancing up from the desk. “And my backside.”
“I…” There really wasn’t anything to say that could get him out of this mess and right now all Zhao Yunlan wanted was to hide behind the safety of his own door before mortification killed him. “I’ll be going.”
He set Shen Wei’s folder on the chair closest to the door, then turned to leave.
Zhao Yunlan didn’t dare turn around as he heard the shuffling of papers, followed by the sound of a desk drawer opening.
“Before you go,” Shen Wei said, his hand closing on Zhao Yunlan’s wrist, “you should see this.”
He led Zhao Yunlan back to the desk where, on top of the folder of humiliation sat a large three-ring binder, opened to a page marked with careful notes in the margins.
“That’s Mountains of Love,” Zhao Yunlan said, instantly recognizing the text. “But why do you have…”
Zhao Yunlan did as he was told, though he knew what it said. This was the Ghost King’s inner monologue from one of the middle chapters, long before he realized the Mountain God returned his feelings.
To see him is enough. To know that he is safe and fed and happy will get me through the rest of my days. Every fiber of my being aches for him and there are times when just the sight of him makes it hard to breathe. I want him to wreck me, to take me apart and remake me into something whole, not just this empty shell I show the world. I can never tell him. If he knew, it would shatter what we’ve built. But I can keep him close and protect him. That will be enough. Because it has to be.
As he finished reading, Shen Wei pointed at a note in the margin. There, in perfect characters, was Zhao Yunlan’s name, connected to the Mountain God’s by a line drawn on the page.
“I stumbled across these stories by accident a few months back,” Shen Wei said, his voice low. “I asked Jiajia what was distracting my students in class. She didn’t want to show me at first because of the more… amorous… scenes, but eventually she left a printed copy of this one on my desk. While I read it, I couldn’t help but think of you and me and… anyway, I ended up reading more. Guo Changcheng has been helping me print them off when I show up at SID headquarters. I knew I shouldn’t but…”
“So that’s why we’ve been buying so much toner lately,” Zhao Yunlan said. “And here I was trying to save paper.”
“I can compensate the expense,” Shen Wei said, worry creeping into his voice. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Shen Wei, you are a valued SID consulting. There is no need for you to pay back anything. Instead, I think you and I should do some consulting.”
“Consulting? On what?”
“The contents of this binder for starters. We’ll work our way through your notes and see how they compare to mine. And if we find that we’re in agreement, which I think we will – great minds being alike and all that – then we can take those parts and write a story of our own.”
“Zhao Yunlan, that line is horribly cheesy, like something rancid_tofu would write.”
“First, don’t knock rancid_tofu. They’re one of my favorites. Second, did it work?”
“Good. Then pull up a chair, I’ll order food, and we can…” Zhao Yunlan gasped as Shen Wei’s lips collided with his own.
Maybe, he thought, it was like something out of one of the stories that they’d been reading, two fools needlessly pining until a ridiculous disaster brought them together. But that was alright. Because Shen Wei was finally in his arms and Zhao Yunlan had no intention of letting him go.
“Zhao Yunlan, you didn’t.”
It was normal for Shen Wei to get up before him, but Zhao Yunlan usually found him in the kitchen of the house they now shared, or marking student lab reports. He couldn’t ever recall waking up to Shen Wei sitting in the living room staring at the laptop, the one he still needed help to operate.
Which meant that Zhao Yunlan had forgotten to shut it down the night before, leaving the last page he’d been looking at pulled up on the screen. Damn it. It was a careless mistake, one that he of all people definitely shouldn’t have made, especially after last year’s fiasco with the folder.
“It’s pretty awful, isn’t it?” There was no point in trying to hide what he’d done – he might as well wait for Shen Wei’s judgment.
“I wouldn’t say awful, so much as… private. You told the whole world how we… you even included the bit with your tongue and my… why did you call it a throbbing member?”
“Synonyms are hard.”
“Apparently they’re not the only thing that’s hard,” Shen Wei said as he kept reading.
Damn it, it wasn’t Zhao Yunlan’s fault. Shen Wei had been very late getting home the previous night, called to Dixing right when his classes had ended. Was it wrong for Zhao Yunlan to spend the evening daydreaming about his absent husband?
(For a moment, he heard Da Qing’s warning against mixing wine and the internet echoing in his head. He tried to shove it away.)
“I’ll delete it. Here, let me…”
“Not yet,” Shen Wei said, refusing to surrender the laptop. “At least let me finish reading it.”
Zhao Yunlan ran an awkward hand through his hair as he waited for Shen Wei to make it to the bottom of the page.
“Gazing at the Ghost King sleeping next to him, the Mountain God marveled at how his life had changed. Each day he woke up resolute in the belief that his heart was full, incapable of loving more, but by nightfall the Ghost King proved him wrong yet again. Why the Ghost King had chosen him, the Mountain God couldn’t say. He wasn’t worthy but…”
Shen Wei stopped reading and stood up, reaching for Zhao Yunlan’s hand.
“What are you…”
“Taking you to bed. Now.”
Zhao Yunlan wasn’t normally one to argue when Shen Wei dragged him to their bedroom, but there was still something that needed sorting.
“All right. Just let me delete the story and…”
“You’ll do no such thing. The debut work from sexy_hot_guardian already has a large number of hits and comments. You’d make the entire internet sad if you took it down. You’ll simply have to add another chapter later where the Ghost King finally convinces the Mountain God that he is worthy. But that can wait.”
“Well, it stands to reason that if the Mountain God needs convincing, then so do you. I have no intention of letting you out of our bed until you have been.”
And with that, Zhao Yunlan had no choice but to follow, marveling at how his own very real life had been changed by two fictional characters falling in love.