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Write Me A Better Love Story

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“Huh,” Wang Zhi says one afternoon. “That’s interesting.”

He’s reading a book bound in sedate blue paper, too large to be any of the ledgers recently confiscated from the Minister of the Interior. The title on the cover is The Secret of the Rose. Ding Rong, who has been asked to do at least four impossible things already this morning, isn’t sure what Wang Zhi might find interesting in cheap erotica, but he turns back to his own work without comment. If Wang Zhi has found something objectionable, he’ll just get the Ministry of Censorship to deal with the novelist, Ding Rong isn’t getting involved.

An hour later Wang Zhi puts the book down and calls the carriage. He waves Ding Rong off when he moves to follow.

“I’m just going to see a bookseller,” he says.

“Did you discover seditious material?” Ding Rong asks, skeptically.

“Oh, nothing like that. I just need to put in a special order.”

With that incredibly cryptic remark (since when has he handled his own commerce?), Wang Zhi sweeps from the room. Ding Rong is gratified to see the shadow of Jia Kui slip out after their boss. Someone has to stop him accidentally taking over the country on an overzealous shopping trip.

--

There are two men at the gate carrying a heavy case which, in Dong’er’s experience, hasn’t historically gone well for her.

“Sui-daren is in the bath,” she tells them, which isn’t true – it’s midday, and Sui Zhou left this morning on a two-day mission outside the capital – but it’s what Sui-dage has told her to say.

The taller of the two men, wearing simple but elegant white robes that are ever so slightly stained at the edges, sniffs and pushes a pair of tiny glasses up his face.

“Is the esteemed Hong-daren at home?”

She almost shuts the door in their faces until she remembers where she’s heard that name before. Oh, she thinks, and reassesses the men: the stains on the first man’s clothes are clearly ink, the second man has the simple garb and deferential stance of a shopkeep, and the case between them looks like it would fit large amounts of paper better than a human body.

Tang Fan should be fine, even without Sui Zhou to help him. But maybe, she thinks as she shows them to Tang Fan’s study, she’ll just run down the street to grab Pei Huai while they talk.

--

“Hong-daren, if you would please sit still,” the snippy man with the glasses asks for about the hundredth time that afternoon, paintbrush held meaningfully over his paper. Tang Fan does his best to tilt his head back to the ¾ angle the man had originally arranged him into without losing sight of the bookseller kowtowing on the floor beside his chair. They’re in Sui Zhou’s receiving rooms because the painter complained about the lighting in Tang Fan’s office, and in the sunlight streaming through the open door Tang Fan can see the shadow of Dong’er eavesdropping on what is already turning out to be a mortifying conversation. He’s so glad Sui Zhou is away.

“Wait, say that again – you want what? And get up, please,” he does his best to shuffle the man on the ground into his own chair without eliciting too strong a glare from the painter watching them. If the man paints accurately, Tang Fan’s portrait is going to end up mostly nostril.

“Another book, Hong-daren,” the bookseller says, thankfully rising to sit in his own seat where Tang Fan can watch him out of the corner of his eye. “Your fans are desperate for a sequel to your last.”

Tang Fan has been writing for years now under the pseudonym Kuan Hong – more when he was a penniless academy student, less now that he’s making more money as an official – but this is the first time he’s ever received a house call from his publisher. The irony of having finally ‘made it’ as an author right when he’s on the up-and-up in his professional career is not lost on him.

“That is, of course, gratifying to hear as an artist. I thought maybe this work would be too, hmm, esoteric for my usual readers,” Tang Fan says delicately. He doesn’t often write adventure stories, nor cut-sleeve romance, but something about his latest characters hadn’t let him alone until he wrote their story. He hadn’t expected the book to sell, much less warrant… whatever this conversation is.

“Oh no,” the bookseller is quick to appease him, “in fact, the books are selling so well, the Clear Springs Bookshop would like to commission illustrated editions. With your permission, Liu-daren here will consult with you on the scenes and use members of your household as models.”

From where she’s hiding, Dong’er eeps and drops a wrapped candy into the open doorway. Tang Fan, frankly, feels like doing the same. There’s a lot to unpack in that speech, so he starts with the most obvious point.

“You said the books are selling well? How many have you sold?”

The bookseller tells him a number, and Tang Fan’s mouth drops and stays there no matter how much the painter yells at him.

--

Sui Zhou returns to the city on schedule two days after their troupe departed, dusty and road-sore but ultimately successful. He escorts the captured criminals back to the Northern Administrative Court and, as a reward for a job well done, only does a few hours of work before he lets Xue Ling chivvy him off home to his family.

There is a man he doesn’t recognize in Tang Fan’s study when he gets home, head bent low and close to Tang Fan’s own as the two men consult over a mess of papers. The mess isn’t new – Tang Fan’s office always looks like a cyclone hit a book bindery – but the man is, and Sui Zhou doesn’t like coming home to surprises.

Dong’er forestalls his plan to eavesdrop by shouting, “Sui-gege!” loud enough to wake the dead, and the two heads bent over the desk pop up. The stranger has a nice-ish face, a pair of tiny gold glasses that he pushes up to squint at Sui Zhou, and hair that’s greying into an attractive middle-age. He looks to be about Sui Zhou’s own age, but he’s got the ink-stained fingers of an academic.  

“Guangchuan!” Tang Fan grins up at him and stands, though Sui Zhou doesn’t miss the way he pulls a heavy book over whatever they were working on. “You’re home! Just in time, I’m starving, come look at the duck I got for dinner…”

Sui Zhou lets the familiar comfort of Tang Fan’s chatter roll over him as he’s hustled to the kitchen, but he feels the eyes of the mysterious stranger on him as they leave.

--

The stranger, Sui Zhou discovers when the man shows up at his dinner table like he’s got an invitation, is Liu San, a painter of middling-good reputation as a portrait artist looking to expand his client base. Sui Zhou isn’t exactly sure what he’s doing here, in that case; he really will have to put his foot down if Tang Fan has done something ridiculous like commission a portrait of Sui Zhou. He is, even more distressingly, living here for the foreseeable future while Tang Fan helps him with an illustration project and “figure drawing,” which Sui Zhou desperately hopes is less risqué than it sounds.

Over dinner, Tang Fan is more animated than usual, chatting with their guest about new books and works of art and music, and Liu San keeps up with interesting insights into things Sui Zhou’s never heard of. Every time Tang Fan asks, “Sui Zhou, what do you think?” he can only shrug, so eventually Tang Fan stops asking. Sui Zhou’s not illiterate by any means, but he’s a soldier – his strengths lie elsewhere.

Possibly the most amazing part of Liu-daren’s impromptu stay is how much everyone in Sui Zhou’s extended household seems to love him. Even Dong’er, who usually can be relied upon as Sui Zhou’s one ally so long as he keeps her fed, stares at the man through dinner with a decidedly starstruck look. Tang Yu keeps giggling, Duo’erla appears to have brushed her hair, and even Dr. Pei keeps chuckling at things Liu San says in a disturbingly avuncular way. Only Wuyin meets Sui Zhou’s gaze as Liu San makes another witty comment and the table erupts with laughter and rolls his eyes in sympathy.

--

“He’s staying where?” Sui Zhou demands. Tang Fan, hair still damp from the bath and starting to shiver in the thin inner robe he’s wearing, looks at him like he’s grown a few heads. Usually Sui Zhou would be all too pleased at the inches of wet collarbone on display, but right now it’s making him furious.

“Well it seemed weird to offer him your bed even if you were out of town, and my sister and Cheng’er are using my spare, and what was I supposed to do, make a guest sleep in the courtyard?” Tang Fan whines.

“You didn’t have to give him your bed!” Sui Zhou snaps, trying very hard not to shout and air their dirty laundry for the whole neighborhood. The houses on either side are a lost cause.

“It’s fine! I just put a cot in my room and I’ve been sleeping there.” Tang Fan, who has complained about beds being too hard or too soft or too perfect, predictably scrunches his face up and puts his hand to his lower back like a geriatric old man. “It is hard on my back, though.”

That’s it, Sui Zhou’s had it.

“Move it to my room,” he says.

“What?” Tang Fan whines, “Why? So I can be uncomfortable in your room? How does that help?”

“Sleep in my bed.” Which is not at all how he meant to put it, but is completely what Sui Zhou meant, and now he can’t look Tang Fan in the eye. This conversation is going great.

Tang Fan looks briefly stupefied, and then he makes his sly face that mostly makes him look like a weasel, and which Sui Zhou likes immensely.

“Oh, Guangchuan, what are your intentions?”

“You can take my bed,” Sui Zhou clarifies through his teeth, “I’ll take the cot.”

He pushes past Tang Fan into the bathhouse before Tang Fan can tease him into saying anything more incriminating.

Oh, Guangchuan, he thinks to himself, what are your intentions indeed.

--

A few weeks after the Moment with the Book, Ding Rong hasn’t quite forgotten it – he doesn’t forget anything involving his master – but he has marked it as irrelevant and moved on. As is his morning routine, he goes through Wang Zhi’s mail in the relative safety of the outer chamber before he brings it into his master’s office. It’s technically not a responsibility he was ever given, but the last time Wang Zhi accepted an unscreened package it turned out to be a bomb, so it’s a habit he feels vindicated in.

In amongst the governmental memoranda and rumor scraps from Wang Zhi’s army of orphan spies is a slim package wrapped in brown paper from the Clear Springs Bookshop. Inside, there’s a book, as there ought to be. It’s clearly a novel, but bound more ornately than the usual cheap printing for mass consumption. The cover is of a heavier stock, a blue so deep it’s almost black, with a woodblock print of a chrysanthemum in red ink. The title reads The Rose’s Return.

Ding Rong flips some pages just to make sure there’s no hidden threat and is surprised to find the book has illustrations. There are several illustrations of what Ding Rong presumes are the main characters, a tall, slender woman often holding a paintbrush and a taciturn man with a moustache and a sword, walking in nature or embracing chastely in the sunset or –

“Huh,” he says. “That’s interesting.”

“Oh, is that my first edition?” Wang Shi asks from over his shoulder, clearly violating the two-step mail vetting process.

“Is this one of Tang Fan’s?” Ding Rong asks, vaguely scandalized. He’s pretty sure at this point it’s nothing more harmful than illustrated erotica, and there’s only one author Wang Zhi reads for pleasure and not business.

“Mm. He’s really pushing the boundaries of the genre with this series, I think,” his boss says ruminatively, as if they’re discussing high art and not pornography. “I can lend it to you when I’m done?”

Ding Rong sneaks another look at the picture that caught his attention.

“If this is Tang Fan’s, is that…”

Wang Zhi just puts a finger to his lips and floats off, smirking.

--

Somewhere in the house, Dong’er screams. Sui Zhou’s in his apron cooking dinner so he doesn’t have time to grab anything more than his meat cleaver before he tears off to her room.

“Dong’er!” He shouts as he wrenches her door open, and she screams again, dropping a book to the floor and staring wide-eyed at him from where she’s perched on her bed.

“Sui-gege!” she gasps, “what’s wrong?”

Sui Zhou looks around her room, sees only the usual clutter and candy wrappers. No intruders, no fire. She looks a little flushed, but not obviously in danger.

“You screamed,” he says, a bit at a loss.

“Oh, that was – I stubbed my toe,” she says, and kicks the book she dropped further under the bed. She’s such a bad liar. Sui Zhou eyes the book, but apart from a design of some flower in red, he can’t read the title. He’s pretty sure Tang Yu was reading a similar book recently, so probably a novel.

“Don’t read ghost stories if they’re too scary,” he warns her, so she’ll know she’s been caught but she’s not in trouble. She nods her head so hard it’s in danger of rattling off. If he dawdles any longer the meat will burn so he turns back to the kitchen.

As he crosses the courtyard, the hairs on the back of his neck stand up like he’s being watched. There, standing in the shadow of Tang Fan’s open door, is Liu San. He has his signature tablet and brush in hand, the brush moving frantically across the paper, but he’s not looking at his painting – he’s staring unblinkinkingly at Sui Zhou. In the half-light his little glasses shine like some wild animal, or a demon.

Sui Zhou, who has faced Oirat hordes and criminal masterminds, would rather die than admit to being scared of a painter in his own house, so he crosses the courtyard without looking back.

--

As it turns out, there are a variety of flaws in Sui Zhou’s hurriedly concocted plan to invite Tang Fan into his bed. The first and most obvious flaw he discovers that first night when he returns, warmed from the bath, to find a sleepy Tang Fan blinking up at him from his own covers, his features limned in lamplight. Sui Zhou feels his heart thump so hard it’s a wonder seismic activity isn’t reported to the emperor, and he has to turn off the light and find the most uncomfortable position on the cot (not that uncomfortable, by army standards) to distract himself from the temptation of watching Tang Fan sleep.

If he had thought some sleeplessness from seeing the man he loves in his bed would be the worst of his problems, he was sorely mistaken. Instead of separating Tang Fan from the man Sui Zhou is absolutely not thinking of as his enemy (he is not), their new sleeping arrangements only drive home how much time Tang Fan and Liu San spend holed up together on their secret project.

In his more maudlin moments, staring at the hour candle burning down and wondering what Tang Fan and Liu San could be talking about – or worse, “figure drawing” – at midnight, Sui Zhou thinks of the stories he was told when he first went off to war: stories of soldiers’ new brides, left alone at home and burning a candle in the window for every sleepless night they spent wondering when their husbands might return. He always assumed his life would follow a similar storyline, but he never expected he would be the bride in the scenario.

--

On the day that marks the second month of Liu San’s stay in the Sui/Tang Household, Sui Zhou decides enough is enough and he ought to start doing what he’s best at: solving problems. Namely, the problem of how to get Liu San out of his house so he doesn’t have to listen to another improvised poetry duel between him and Tang Fan over dinner.

“I can interview his previous clients,” Xue Ling agrees readily, “but what does Da-ge suspect him of? It would be helpful to know what to look for.”

Bless Xue Ling for his loyalty when he accepts Sui Zhou’s noncommittal “anything suspicious” as answer and scuttles off into the capital. Sui Zhou assigns the rest of the guard to petty cases they can solve without him for the day and heads off alone for the palace. If it’s a problem that involves Tang Fan there’s only one place to start, and the fewer witnesses to this conversation, the better.

“Oh, it’s you,” Wang Zhi says when Jia Kui shows Sui Zhou silently into the well-appointed inner office. He doesn’t look up from the book he’s reading, the cover a familiar dark blue but with a yellow flower printed on the cover, but he does gesture to a tea tray set between the receiving chairs.

Sui Zhou doesn’t sit.

“I’m looking for some information on an individual,” he says stiffly.

“Have you read this?” Wang Zhi asks instead of answering. He holds the cover up so Sui Zhou can read the title: The Rose’s Lover. “It’s the third book in a series, and I think this is my favorite yet.”

“No. I have some questions about –”

“Liu San, yes,” Wang Zhi sighs like he’s disappointed in Sui Zhou for some reason. He waves a careless hand. “He’s harmless, I assure you.”

Sui Zhou frowns, not about to ask how exactly Wang Zhi always seems to know what he’s thinking.

“You know he’s living in my home? What if he gets access to my case records, or something Tang Fan brings back from the office?”

“Liu San is the great-nephew of the Minister of Internal Review and often attends social gatherings in the palace. He has access to more confidential information over breakfast than he could find in your home. Anyways,” Wang Zhi raises one smirking eyebrow, “I would have thought Tang Fan would enjoy having a fellow artist around to talk to. Do they not get along?”

They get along like a house on fire is the problem. Wang Zhi’s got a little shit-eating smirk on his face like he knows exactly that, so Sui Zhou refuses to answer. Wang Zhi sighs theatrically and then straightens into the posture he uses when he’s being Wang Zhi, Commander of the Western Depot, rather than Wang Zhi, harasser of Sui Zhou and shameless encourager of Tang Fan’s worst impulses.

“Sui-daren, would it set your mind at ease if I were to assign some men to him?”

Sui Zhou knows a peace offering when he sees it, so he agrees and retreats as quickly as he can before the feeling he’s being silently laughed at gets too overwhelming.

--

Siu Zhou’s first big break comes unexpectedly, in the form of Duo’erla hitting on him when he drops by the Iron Market on official business.

“Hey, captain!” she shouts at him as he lets himself into their courtyard, “you’re looking like a whole damn dinner!”

Sui Zhou freezes, still attached to their gate. Wuyin just sighs like this is business as usual.

“It’s ‘meal,’ Aha. He looks like a ‘whole damn meal’.”

“Oh,” she says considering, and sounds the word out. Sui Zhou, with great effort, peels himself off the gate and comes into the courtyard. Duo’erla being effusive is nothing new, but her vocabulary has certainly been… growing recently.

“Where did you learn that phrase?” he asks, as if he didn’t need Dong’er to explain it to him a few nights before.

“The new book, obviously! There are way more swears in this one, and more sword fights and sex. It’s much better,” she says. And then she shouts, perfectly cheerfully, “limp-dick prick!” before hauling a saddle off the block into their shed.

Sui Zhou feels winded by the exchange, which is not necessarily a new feeling for his relationship with Duo’erla, such as it is.

“You can blame Tang Fan,” Wuyin tells him, leaning in conspiratorially. “I do.”

“Tang Fan?” Sui Zhou asks, nonplussed. From inside the shed, they hear Duo’erla shout, “choke and die, pisshead!”

Sui Zhou leaves the Iron Market with the name of a contact seen selling dubious counterfeits and a stack of bound novels with flowers printed on their covers.

--

The books answer several questions, certainly, and inspire a whole host more. Military history or biography are his usual genres, so he’s not exactly sure how to go about assessing…fiction? Romance? Adventure?

“Erotic historical romance with speculative elements,” Dong’er tells him when she catches him reading, and Sui Zhou sincerely hopes his ears wither up and fall off so he never has to hear his little sister say the word “erotic” again, much less about a book they’ve both read. Certainly not a book with so many scenes that – suffice to say, her sexual education is much more comprehensive than his had been at her age. Hell, even he learned a new position from the last book, though he has doubts about its feasibility.

He forgoes scolding her for reading dirty books – she’s lived with Tang Fan longer than she has with him, surely that ship sailed long ago – and instead says, “I knew he wrote…romance. I didn’t realize he wrote…”

“Cut-sleeve erotica?” Dong’er asks cheerfully, and Sui Zhou mentally dies a little more. “He usually doesn’t! This is his first series, and it’s doing really well. I think it’s because the characters have such a satisfying dynamic, don’t you agree?”

She says this with a significant amount of eyebrow raising, and Sui Zhou isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do with that. The stories are about a rebellious prince who disguises himself as a princess to solve crimes in their kingdom who falls in love with a soldier wrongly accused of a crime. Their character dynamic seems to be largely passionate arguments about justice followed by the princess getting kidnapped and the soldier singlehandedly defeating increasingly more ridiculous numbers of enemies before ravishing her on the nearest available (not always horizontal) surface. The first book had a lot of tasteful fade-to-black scenes that only hinted at passion with similarly restrained illustrations, but the following books are borderline pornographic. (Duo’erla was right, there were a lot more fight scenes and sex in book three, though Sui Zhou isn’t sure if that’s a mark of quality)

Speaking of the illustrations –

“Is this what Tang Fan and Liu San have been doing?”

Dong’er nods enthusiastically.

“Did you see my portrait?” she makes grabby-hands at the book and flips to a point – he’s slightly annoyed to see – farther into the book than where he’s read. He tries to ignore the words printed on the facing page as she shows him the picture: the princess, clothes ripped suggestively to hint at her lack of breasts, hands raised to protect a crouching child in fancy clothes with Dong’er’s face. The ruffian threatening the pair with a club bears a striking resemblance to Wuyin, which explains why he’s the only one who hasn’t converted to Team Liu San.

Now that he’s seen two and a half volumes of illustrations, Sui Zhou is starting to get an idea of what Liu San has been doing squatting over his home like a vulture. He sees his family in every drawing: the little Mayor’s Daughter is clearly Dong’er and the kindly but misguided King has Pei Huai’s face. Even beyond the obvious facial models, he recognizes clothes he’s seen Tang Yu wearing around the house or Duo’erla’s forms in the stances of the Pirate Queen, and every child looks like Cheng’er with more or less hair. Even the goat (identifiable by the ribbon Dong’er tied around its neck that has somehow miraculously avoided being eaten) shows up in the background a few times.

The prince is clearly Tang Fan himself. The features are a little different, a little more delicate – the princes’ eyes aren’t as large or his mouth so full, and his hands aren’t as boney or ink-stained – but nevertheless Sui Zhou recognizes his affectations, his lanky posture, his little quirky smile. A lot of the princess’ dresses look suspiciously like the ruined one Madam Cui gave them after that case and which Sui Zhou is pretty sure he’s seen floating around their laundry.

Sui Zhou remembers “figure drawing” and has to suppress a full-body shudder.

In fact, now that he’s had a chance to really compare his family to the illustrations, the only person conspicuously absent is himself. The most obvious character to map him onto would be the ex-soldier but, apart from a similar moustache and nose, they don’t share a lot in common. The soldier is more grizzled than he is, his muscles more rippling in the (many, improbable) scenes where he loses his shirt in the heat of battle. Is Liu San is that built under his artist’s robes or did they hire some no-name soldier to model for the more passionate scenes? Has Liu San or this mystery soldier been holding Tang Fan close late into the night while Sui Zhou waits up like a fool?

Sui Zhou isn’t sure if he’s more thankful that his privacy was respected or heartbroken that he now has three books worth of published content outlining Tang Fan’s ideal man – and proof that he isn’t it.

That’s a lie, and a bad one. He’s devastated.

“Dong’er,” he says, because it’s that or cry or hit something, “go send a message to Wang Zhi. Tell him he can drop the tail.”

Dong’er just reaches into her robe and fishes around for a scrap of paper which she hands to him.

“No need, he dropped this off when he brought my copy of the last book. He said to give it to you if you ever read them.”

The paper, when he unrolls it, reads: Assigned to the case of Liu San: Sui Zhou and Xue Ling, to cease surveillance at their discretion.

Dong’er must see something in his face because when he kicks her out so he can cook his feelings out, she goes without a word. Though he does notice her stealing the book, presumably to keep him from burning it. Smart. He still needs to finish and see what happens with the pirate arc.

--

The case, as far as Sui Zhou is concerned, is closed. Mystery solved, heart crushed. Liu San won, he gets to stick around being clever and artistic and bosom friends with Tang Fan. Sui Zhou will keep feeding Tang Fan and pretending to sleep chastely near him at night and being stupidly in love with him for the rest of their lives until Tang Fan gets bored and finds his ideal partner and leaves Sui Zhou’s house for them because it’s not going to be Sui Zhou and that’s fine. Sui Zhou is fine.

Now that he’s found out about the books and how obvious it is that he isn’t in them, he’s determined not to bring it up. He’s a grown man, he can acknowledge he has the expressive range of a brick wall, and he’s not about to beg Liu San of all people to give his face to ruffian #43. If Tang Fan doesn’t want his boring stony face in his romances, that’s his artistic choice.

The universe, of course, is committed to slapping Sui Zhou in the face with his determination. Well into the fifth month of Liu San’s stay in the Sui/Tang household, Sui Zhou loses his weekly pissing contest with Commander Wan and gets sent home early for disrespect. On the way home he picks up half a farm’s worth of food, planning to cook his way through his bad mood, only to be let into his own courtyard by the painter.

“Sui-daren, if I can beg your assistance?” the man asks. Sui Zhou, encumbered by vegetables and defenseless against manners, can only agree. It’s probably the most words they’ve ever exchanged.

Once he’s dropped off the food and changed out of his uniform he follows Liu San, wondering what throw-away character he’s going to be – with his sleeves tied up for the kitchen, maybe a farmer? A cat burglar?

“This way, please,” the man gestures him into the bathing room, of all places. Maybe he wants Sui Zhou to be some sort of water monster?

It’s late afternoon and overcast outside so he has to blink his eyes against the change in light inside the room, and when he does he’s faced with the sight of Tang Fan, fully clothed in Madam Cui’s ruined pink dress, grinning up at him from the tub. His long hair is hanging over the wooden edge of the tub, the top half twisted up in the glittering pins and artificial hair pieces that make his female disguise, but his face is clear of the usual makeup.

He looks like a water imp, like a spirit Sui Zhou would gladly follow into a watery death just to be close to.

“Guangchuan! You agreed!” he exclaims.

I have no idea what I agreed to, Sui Zhou realizes.

“Okay so,” Tang Fan says, waving a hand around and sloshing water out of the tub as he explains his artistic vision, “in this scene, the soldier has saved the princess from a mountain ogre and they get stranded on a mountain but there’s this hot spring, but it’s a magic hot spring, and it makes them-“

Sui Zhou stops paying attention to Tang Fan’s chatter – partially because this scene must be from the book that’s not published yet so he doesn’t know why they might be facing a mountain ogre, and partially because he’s learned Tang Fan’s habits by now and he’s pretty sure this is the lead-in to a sex scene and if Liu San makes him take off a scrap of clothing or heavens forbid get in the tub, Sui Zhou may just die or run screaming into the mountains to live as a hermit.

Thankfully Liu San guides him with terse, impersonal directions to sit on a stool pulled up behind Tang Fan’s head and hold his trailing hair up. Liu San doesn’t tell him where to look or what to do with his face, so he stares at the opposite wall and repeats I can do this to himself so he doesn’t stare at the drop of water rolling down Tang Fan’s exposed neck.

“Thanks for helping, Guangchuan,” Tang Fan says quietly as Liu San retreats behind his easel.

“Hmm,” Sui Zhou replies, still not looking at Tang Fan. The other man seems to happily take the noise as agreement, which honestly sums up a lot of their conversations.

“Sui-daren, move closer, please,” the painter calls. Sui Zhou’s knees bump up against the tub as he scoots forward and there’s not a lot of space left for Tang Fan’s hair, so he transfers all the hair to one hand so he can wrap the silky mass once around his wrist. Tang Fan makes a sound and lets his head fall a little farther back, exposing the very unfeminine jut of his Adam’s apple.

“Too hard?” Sui Zhou asks, immediately slackening his grip, scared of hurting Tang Fan.

“No!” both Tang Fan and Liu San shout at the same time, so he puts the tug back into his hold. The sound of Liu San’s brush starts up again.

“Guangchuan, you have eyebags,” Tang Fan says. He’s staring up at Sui Zhou through his eyelashes, which Sui Zhou tells himself is just because of the angle, but it’s very distracting all the same. “You need to sleep more.”

“You’re the one that’s always staying up writing,” he murmurs back, tugging a bit on the hair in his hold.

Tang Fan huffs and turns his head a little farther towards Sui Zhou, away from Liu San, and the neckline of the dress shifts to show an additional sliver of chest.

“What can I say? My adoring fans demand more of the story! Who am I to deny them?”

Sui Zhou is distracted by a thin red line that the shifting dress has revealed. He frowns, using his grip to turn Tang Fan’s head even farther and craning his neck over Tang Fan’s shoulder so he can look closer.

“What is that?” he demands. It looks like a scratch, fresh, from something thin like an arrowpoint or fingernails.

“Guangchuan!” Tang Fan squeaks, his hand coming up to tug the dress back into place. “it’s nothing, I just scratched –“

“Freeze!” Liu San shouts, and they both do. Tang Fan’s hand is still tugging up the neckline of his dress in a way that actually exposes more of his chest to Sui Zhou where he’s leaning over his shoulder, a proprietary grip on his hair tugging Tang Fan’s head almost back onto his own shoulder. The hold is far, far too intimate for two colleagues, and Sui Zhou feels flayed open and exposed even with all his clothes on. For a second he can’t breath and he knows Tang Fan isn’t either, his chest still where Sui Zhou is still staring at it and is that the edge of a dark nipple –

Tang Fan starts to giggle. Just a little, clearly trying to hold their position but unable to keep it in.

“I’m sorry, Guangchuan,” he whispers, “this must be so terrible for you. You’re so shy.”

Despite his mortification, Sui Zhou is in fact enjoying the heat of Tang Fan’s head against his hand immensely, though he would rather they be without the audience and the silly costume. He’s so rarely invited to put his hands on Tang Fan without some fatal threat hanging over them. It wouldn’t do to tell him that, though. Sui Zhou is just here to help a friend with his book and to take up the space for Tang Fan’s ideal man: tall, sensitive, gallant, good at poetry and sword fighting and not bogged down by nightmares of war that keep him up screaming some nights.

Tang Fan’s still giggling into his throat and Sui Zhou is being slowly undone by the feeling of his nose rubbing against his neck, so he says, “it’s not terrible.”

Tang Fan blinks up at him, but he doesn’t say anything else for as long as it takes Liu San to finish the painting. If Sui Zhou doesn’t stick around to admire the painting or to help a very wet Tang Fan out of the tub, he’s got a complicated dinner to prepare and no one can prove he ran for any other reason.

--

After that, the books suddenly seem to be everywhere, from the gilded copies on the Dowager Empress’ bookshelf to mass-produced but still illustrated copies that the Clear Spring Bookstore hurries to churn out for the merchant class. Story houses put on readings for those who can’t afford to buy books themselves, and it’s not uncommon for courtiers and maids alike to quickly sweep a familiar blue cover out of sight when Sui Zhou comes to call on Imperial Guard business. Tang Fan is clearly delighted, even if he’s careful not to reveal his relation to the mysterious Kuan Hong beyond his immediate circle.

The question everyone can’t stop asking is, “what happens next?”

Sui Zhou will admit he’s waiting for the next volume in the series with almost as much fervor as Dong’er, though he’s sick with anticipation for a different reason. Will it be better or worse, less embarrassing or more jealousy-inducing, to see another man painted in his place when he sees the final hot spring scene?

But he waits and waits, and waits some more, and no books are forthcoming. Tang Fan, who for almost six months was alive with a manic energy as he churned out three books back to back, becomes listless and ill-tempered. He picks over Sui Zhou’s case work, makes Dong’er memorize increasingly nonsensical pieces of academic minutia, and even goes back to the office to harass Senior Pan (much to everyone’s relief in the house).

Without any new chapters to illustrate and with an increasingly long list of waiting clients following the books’ popularity, Liu San leaves for the home of a new patron with the promise to be back when Tang Fan starts writing again. The cot is moved out of Sui Zhou’s room, Tang Fan returns to his own bed, and everything goes back to the way it was.

If only Tang Fan wasn’t in such a funk, Sui Zhou would be enjoying the peace in his home. A peace which is further interrupted by everyone somehow thinking he has anything to do with Tang Fan finishing a book that he has to restrain himself from reminding everyone he isn’t even in.

Dong’er spends meals trying to weasel plot spoilers out of Tang Fan, unsuccessfully. When Sui Zhou catches her riffling through Tang Fan’s office looking for his writing notebook, she throws a snack at him and demands, “Sui-dage! You have to get Tang-dage to finish the book!”

Hua Pei, who has been hanging around less since Tang Fan got gloomy, pulls Sui Zhou aside one day when he sees him on patrol to ask about Tang Fan’s health and mood.

“It’s just, you see,” he says, low like they’re sharing a secret, “Tang Yu is so worried about him, and she’s also very anxious to find out what happens in the next chapter of – Hey! Sui-daren! Where are you going!”

Even Madam Cui, proving her own terrifyingly large information network, sends a parcel addressed to Tang Fan with a note that reads, “the girls thought this might provide some needed inspiration.” Tang Fan opens the box, screams, and promptly runs off to hide the gift. The box rattles ominously as he goes.

One day, Sui Zhou opens his gate an hour after Tang Fan has left for the office to find Wang Zhi’s carriage parked out front and Ding Rong gesturing him inside, despite Sui Zhou’s whole house being right there. Really this is too much.

“What exactly is he doing?” Wang Zhi demands as soon as Sui Zhou has lifted the curtain on the carriage. He doesn’t have to specify who they’re talking about.

“His job, I think,” Sui Zhou says dryly. Wang Zhi scowls at him.

“Only one of them,” he snaps. “After all I’ve done for you both, this is how he repays me? Is he still sleeping in your room?”

Sui Zhou really would rather not know how Wang Zhi knows about their sleeping arrangements. Also, what has he done to help Sui Zhou recently?

“There’s no need, now that Liu-daren has moved out.”

“Useless man!” Wang Zhi exclaims, crossing his arms petulantly, and Sui Zhou isn’t sure if he’s complaining about Liu San, Tang Fan, or Sui Zhou, or maybe all three of them.

“Tell him to get his act together and finish the series,” he demands petulantly. Sui Zhou opens his mouth to argue and looks at him – really looks, in a way he usually doesn’t, and sees a 17 year old who holds the balance of an empire in his hand, furious over the delay in a silly romance novel and realizes –

“Wang-daren, are you also wondering what happens to the prince and the soldier?”

“How can I not be?” Wang Zhi demands immediately. “They were in a volcano, what if they die before they can reclaim the prince’s crown and get married? There are so many plot threads still unresolved, what about the evil queen-“

Sui Zhou doesn’t usually know how to handle the commander of the Western Depot, but he knows how to handle one of Tang Fan’s fans.

“Dong’er!” he shouts, “Get in here!”

--

“I have been told that I am to return and, to quote, ‘make sure those two idiots get over themselves so the rest of us can sleep at night,’” Liu San says, standing at Sui Zhou’s gate with his artist case. He bows deeply.

“He hasn’t written more,” Sui Zhou warns him. In actuality, Tang Fan has entered a new stage where he furiously writes for hours, burns every page, declares over the meal Sui Zhou cooks for him that he’s never writing again and they’re going to open a noodle shop and live in honest obscurity, before repeating the process over again. Dong’er has taken to hiding at Pei Huai’s for dinner to avoid flying bits of paper and brushes.

“I hope I can rely on Sui-daren to be my ally, in that case,” Liu San replies, bowing deeply.

“Uh, okay,” Sui Zhou says. He did his best; Liu San will learn quickly enough if he really is back to stay. Lacking much else to do and seeing the signature of Wang Zhi’s irrefutable will all over the painter’s return, he gestures the man inside. If Tang Fan doesn’t get writing, he won’t be surprised if their next guest arrives with an Imperial Edict. “I’ll get the room ready.”

--

Somehow in the month he was gone, Liu San has ceased to be Sui Zhou’s enemy. Ally is still a strong word for what they are, but Sui Zhou has to grudgingly concede that the man is the reason he gets to sleep tonight in a lumpy cot perpendicular to Tang Fan, hearing his little snuffling breaths as he dreams.

When Sui Zhou comes in after his bath, Tang Fan is for once already in the bed, looking up at him like he did months ago from the blanket cocoon he’s made. If he’s cold Sui Zhou’s bed has drapes, but Tang Fan has never once put them down.

“No night writing?” he asks, sitting at the head of his bed to pull off his boots. Tang Fan shrugs. The lamplight gleams on his pouting lower lip and Sui Zhou is glad he’s sitting down.

“Can’t write, the spirit is gone, I’m destined to a life bereft of art and beauty,” Tang Fan says mournfully. Then, in a more honest tone, “Sorry to kick you out of your bed again.”

“It’s no trouble,” Sui Zhou says, and then, “I like seeing you in it.”

The night has quieted to only the cicadas calling outside and the gentle fizz of the lamp between them burning down as Tang Fan blinks up at him.

“I mean, I like seeing you rest,” Sui Zhou corrects, which isn’t better. “I don’t mean I watch you, I just – you’re always so tired, it’s good-“

“Guangchuan,” Tang Fan says, and snakes a hand out of his blankets to place it on Sui Zhou’s knee. Sui Zhou freezes. This is the moment, he knows. The moment he’s gone too far and Tang Fan will tell him to stop pushing and he will be so kind about it that Sui Zhou might cry.

“I like being in your bed,” is what he says, and he’s smiling, and Sui Zhou shorts out. Tang Fan’s hand, large, nobly-fingered, so beloved, sneaks up towards his thigh and Sui Zhou thinks he might explode so he blurts –

“But – the prince’s soldier!”

The hand stops, withdraws, and Tang Fan props himself up on one elbow to scowl at Sui Zhou.

“What? What about a soldier? You mean my book?”

“I’m – I’m not like the soldier in your book,” Sui Zhou says lamely.

“You mean you’re not an ex-soldier who’s become a pirate captain blessed by the sun god himself to return a disguised prince to his throne to avert total war?” Tang Fan asks, eyes narrowed. “Because that’s fiction. If anyone was like my characters, I’m going to get sued for plagiarism.”

“No, I mean,” Sui Zhou growls in frustration and gestures at his whole person, “smart! Brave! Capable of incredible feats of hand to hand combat and not riddled with traumas!”

“I’ve seen you fight off 12 men with sabers while drunk,” Tang Fan says with a bitchy little scowl on his face, an expression Sui Zhou secretly loves, “and you’re plenty brave and handsome. Dong Gu practically proposes every time she takes your order, and I bet if Dong’er was older she’d-“

“But I’m not in your book!” Sui Zhou says desperately, trying to figure out how quickly this conversation got out of hand. Tang Fan sits up properly.

“What are you mean you’re not in the book!” he demands. “You’re in every one! I named the soldier after you – his Bu has the same radical as Sui and Xiang uses Xin from Zhou!”

Tang Fan sketches the characters in the air with an aggressive finger and Sui Zhou doesn’t doubt he’s a second away from getting a calligraphy lesson. This is why he consults Tang Fan on cases: his mind takes for granted what for others requires feats of mental gymnastics, but in practical conversation it’s maddening to be expected to keep up.

“How was I supposed to make that connection?” he asks.

“How did you not??” Tang Fan demands, furious, “aren’t you a detective?”

“Okay, maybe you named the character with the barest resemblance to my name, but I’m not in any of the illustrations! Even the goat is in the illustrations!”

“Okay,” Tang Fan says, starting to gesture wildly, still too tangled in blankets to pace. “So Liu-daren took some liberties with his portrayal, he always insisted on more muscles because of readers expectations, but honestly, I think it mostly looks like you.”

Sui Zhou doesn’t even – what does one say to that? The soldier in the book has about a hundred abdominal muscles, and his hair is always glossy and black and his moustache is trimmed and he doesn’t look like he never sleeps properly or scowls at criminals all day and he just doesn’t understand how Tang Fan can look at that and say it looks like Sui Zhou. Tang Fan takes one look at Sui Zhou’s face, and a thundercloud passes over his own.

“I’m going to kill that man,” he says, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and grabbing a boot.

“Wait, it’s not Liu-daren’s fault,” Sui Zhou says desperately, kicking himself for going against his own promise to never bring up the illustration thing. “Forget I said anything. I get it, you’re young, you don’t want a man who’s old and messed up like me, you want beauty-“

“What!” Tang Fan shouts, standing with only one boot on.

“Shh! It’s late, Runqing-“

“Don’t you Runqing me,” Tang Fan shouts, waving a finger in his face, “What do you mean I don’t want you because you’re not beautiful? You’re the most handsome man I know, and I’ve been in love with you since our trip to Yunhe!”

“Keep your voice down – what?” Sui Zhou is dumbstruck. Tang Fan is fuming but at least has stopped trying to get dressed enough to kill their guest in the middle of the night, but Sui Zhou’s brain is still stuck in a rut, replaying “in love with you” on repeat without processing it. “What do you mean?”

Tang Fan actually stomps his foot.

“Guangchuan! I’ve been in love with you for years! I wrote a whole romance series with characters that look just like us as the leads, and you didn’t even notice? Typical,” he says, sitting down with a dramatic huff and crossing his arms. “I thought you were just being polite about not wanting me back!”

Sui Zhou is so out of his depth, as he has been from the moment he ran into this man in Dong Gu’s noodle shop.

“Is that why you were so secretive about what you and Liu-daren were doing?”

“Yes,” Tang Fan admits, deflating and sitting back down, “I thought you were embarrassed by my crush on you, so I tried to keep it as out of the way as possible. Liu-daren had to draw you when you weren’t paying attention so he could get your face right. Guess he failed, huh.”

“No,” Sui Zhou says. “Yes.” He’s not sure what he’s even agreeing or disagreeing to. Everything is quite different from what he thought, he’s realizing. Liu San, that creepy weirdo. And Dong’er knew and didn’t tell him? Betrayal from every side.

“Guangchuan,” Tang Fan says in the voice that always precedes some ridiculous request that Sui Zhou will inevitably agree to. His eyes are smiling and he’s creeping closer to the point where their beds almost meet. “Are you a gentleman or not? I told you how I feel, it’s only honorable that you give me a reply.”

He blinks big eyes at Sui Zhou, teeth catching his lower lip in that impish grin Sui Zhou has always been weak to.

“Yes,” Sui Zhou says, immediately, even though that’s not really a response, not even close to all the things he feels but doesn’t know how to say. Yes to everything, to anything.

Tang Fan huffs a laugh.  

“Close enough,” he says with a shrug, and then, “come to bed, Guangchuan, and kiss me already.”

Sui Zhou goes where he’s bidden, heart full, and Tang Fan blows out the lamp.

--

“This is the last book in the series,” Tang Fan says, dropping an unbound stack of papers beside Wang Zhi’s tea tray. “Complete with Liu-daren’s original illustrations, though I have some feedback to aid in his artistic growth.”

“Oh?” Wang Zhi says, casual as you please, but he can’t stop his eyes roving over the handwritten characters on the first page. “I’m not a printer, why are you bringing these to me?”

“The printer already took their copy, these are the originals. And since you’re such a great patron of the arts and a dear personal friend,” Tang Fan says, laying it on thick, “I thought you might enjoy seeing the fruits of your labors early.”

Wang Zhi gives into the temptation and pulls the stack into his lap, away from where Tang Fan is messing about with teacups and liquids.

“This humble one thanks you,” he says absently. He’s not reading, honestly, he’s just turning the page over to admire Tang Fan’s calligraphy. If he happens to notice the first scene picks up right where the last book ended, who can blame him? The Emperor pays him to be observant.

“I already have some ideas for my next series,” Tang Fan says in mock consideration, “I was thinking maybe it should be about a meddling eunuch who gets his comeuppance for messing with his friends’ lives, what do you think?”

“Hmm,” Wang Zhi agrees, finally looking up at his friend. “And will it have a happy ending, do you think?”

Tang Fan smiles at that, his open, honest smile, before it twists into something much closer to a leer that Wang Zhi would be happier never seeing again, thank you. Under the truly horrible smirk, Tang Fan looks – calm. That’s the word. Steadied. Also maybe horny, which Wang Zhi would like removed from his presence as soon as possible.

“Yes, it will be, I think,” Tang Fan says. “Thank you.”

“Mm. Good. Now get out,” Wang Zhi says, “and take your miniature terror with you.”

“No!” Dong’er cries from where she was hovering at the door. “Tang-dage hasn’t let me read it yet. I want to read the pages after you’re done.”

Wang Zhi gives her a hard stare, and she grins back with the angelic face that has beaten him in every game they’ve ever played.

“Okay,” he concedes, “but no getting food on the pages.”

Dong’er immediately pulls two parcels of snacks out of her robes and hands them to Tang Fan before plopping down in his vacated seat, hands out expectantly. Wang Zhi grudgingly passes her the page he’s already finished reading.

Tang Fan leaves the two of them to their identical reading poses, popping one of Dong’er’s candies in his mouth as he strolls out of the palace.

That’ll keep them occupied for a while, he thinks, and hurries himself home to Sui Zhou, Sui Zhou’s bed, and a few uninterrupted hours to themselves.