"I want mince noodles," Tang Fan says, because he's not dead, and Sui Zhou can breathe again.
Sui Zhou is so exhausted, he can barely do more than sit back on his haunches in the smoking field and stare at Tang Fan, still laid out on the ground before him.
"Mince noodles," he repeats, panting. "Yes. I can make that." He would cook a feast worthy of royalty if Tang Fan wanted it, but of course it's the thought of his most humble dish that has brought Tang Fan back from the brink of death.
Tang Fan's face pinches as he levers himself to his elbows. "Am I dreaming?" He gives a grunt of effort, putting a hand on Sui Zhou's knee for balance. "What are you doing here, Sui Zhou?" As he sits upright, he gasps at the bruises he's no doubt collected, his hand going to the small of his back. "You should be at home, resting. Your wounds—Old Pei said you needed to stay in bed."
"I couldn't." Sui Zhou's voice is raw. He can't remember screaming, but he must have been. The shape of Tang Fan's name is still in his throat. He lifts a hand to wipe the sweat from his brow and sees his fingers are shaking. The desperate energy that had kept him going the whole journey now has no outlet. He drops his hand. "I couldn't," he says again, lacking anything else to say.
Tang Fan watches him in something of a daze. His eyes are clouded, and Sui Zhou hopes that he didn't hurt his head when he was knocked to the ground. The explosion in the sky had been visible miles away. It must have been powerful. Sui Zhou's stomach lurches, remembering how he'd kicked his horse upon seeing it, racing to reach Tang Fan's side. He looks around the quiet, dark field. Western Depot agents litter the ground, some groaning and shifting, some horribly still. There are other men in dark uniforms, their bodies studded with arrows. It's a terrible scene, he realizes. When he'd arrived moments ago, the only thing he'd really cared about was finding the pale shape of Tang Fan's robes against the dirt. Everything else hadn't mattered.
Tang Fan coughs, and Sui Zhou's attention is back on him in an instant. He looks so young with his face streaked in grime and his hair coming loose from its braids.
Sui Zhou wants nothing more than to bring him home.
"Come on." Sui Zhou reaches for him, his fingers digging into the dust-streaked fabric of Tang Fan's robes. Together, they gain their feet, swaying and tottering like newborn foals. "Lean on me," he says, low and quiet.
Tang Fan does so, but Sui Zhou's knees buckle and together they stumble three steps to the side. Only by luck do they manage to right themselves. By the light of a few scattered pieces of burning debris on the ground, Sui Zhou can see the wide pools of Tang Fan's eyes. They stand for a moment, breathing hard.
"We might need to lean on each other," Tang Fan says carefully. He loops his arm around Sui Zhou's waist. Sui Zhou can feel him tremble.
Now that the immediate danger has passed and Tang Fan is there, breathing and alive, all of Sui Zhou's pains make themselves known in one fell swoop. His knees hurt from skidding along the ground to reach Tang Fan as quickly as he could. The wounds he'd sustained in the fight to defend Tang Fan at the palace throb. He can feel blood sluggishly seeping into his clothes, especially at his flank, where he's torn open a still-healing cut during his hard ride. He hopes Tang Fan's hand will not stray from his hip and find this evidence.
Of course, Tang Fan must already know something is wrong. He looks only at Sui Zhou as they walk, their progress slow and painful across the field. At some point Sui Zhou notices Wang Zhi on the ground, the bright flash of his robes like a songbird against a dark sky. He wonders if they should at least check to see if he's breathing, but that would require stopping, and a selfish, primal thing inside Sui Zhou is telling him he must get Tang Fan to safety as soon as possible. So he does not stop, and Tang Fan, for his part, does not seem to take note of Wang Zhi as they step around him.
They find Sui Zhou's horse lipping at some grass near the edge of the wood. Tang Fan gives a shocked little cry at the sight of it. "You rode all this way? You didn't even take a carriage?" His arm tightens around Sui Zhou's waist. "In your condition—"
"I had no choice." Sui Zhou takes hold of the horse's bridle. His other hand is still a steady presence at Tang Fan's back, though he can't look him in the eye.
"No choice!" Tang Fan pulls away from him, and without each other's help, they both must use the horse as a crutch instead. Tang Fan grips the side of the saddle tightly while Sui Zhou holds the beast's head. "Are you trying to kill yourself?"
The horse snorts and stamps its feet. Sui Zhou can sympathize. He swallows around the rawness of his throat and says, "It was faster."
"Sui Zhou…." Tang Fan's hands come up to frame his face, and Sui Zhou startles. Tang Fan wipes away something with his fingertips, and it's only then that Sui Zhou realizes his cheeks are damp.
He doesn't remember crying, but he imagines the tears had joined his screams. He takes hold of Tang Fan's wrists and removes his hands from his face. If Tang Fan keeps touching him, he's not certain what will happen. He fears he might crumble again.
"Get on," he says, gesturing with a glance at the horse's back.
Tang Fan doesn't move. He is staring at Sui Zhou with something like fear, and Sui Zhou's heart sinks like a stone into a cold, bottomless ocean. He realizes he's holding Tang Fan's hands in his, their fingers tangled in a tight knot, and he tears his hands away with dizzying speed. The horse is blessedly stalwart, letting him hang onto the bridle for support instead.
"Don't be so stubborn," Sui Zhou says. "Get on the horse."
"Why must I go first?" Tang Fan demands. His hands ball into fists at his sides. "If I ride in front of you, won't I aggravate your wounds as I lean back? Let me sit behind you on the saddle, and I will stay out of your way."
"You're dead on your feet," Sui Zhou says, sharper than he intended. "If you sit behind me, you'll fall off and I won't be able to catch you! I—I won't—" He ducks his head, ashamed of how his eyes burn again with tears. "I won't be able to—"
Tang Fan reaches for him again, slowly, this time wrapping his arms around Sui Zhou's neck. Sui Zhou tries to twist away, but Tang Fan is surprisingly strong in this moment—or maybe Sui Zhou is just that weak from exhaustion. Tang Fan guides him with a hand on the back of his head until his face is pressed into the sharp point of Tang Fan's shoulder. He stinks of gunpowder, but underneath is the smell of ink and sweets. Sui Zhou sobs. Clutches at him. Holds him as tight as he dares, breathing in the scent he'd thought he'd lost.
"I'm all right," Tang Fan says, a whisper in his ear. "You see? We're alive. We're still alive."
Sui Zhou squeezes his eyes shut.
"Please," he says into the warm skin of Tang Fan's neck, "I need to be able to catch you if you fall." His voice cracks like a dry riverbed. "I need to take you home and feed you."
Tang Fan pulls away, his hand still gentle on the back of Sui Zhou's head. Sui Zhou's hands are on Tang Fan's narrow waist. They are keeping each other upright like a pair of unsteady drunks in a dark doorway.
"Okay." Tang Fan nods like he's made a decision. "Let's go."
He's not a very accomplished rider, and he needs Sui Zhou's help to get into the saddle. As Sui Zhou is assisting him, he senses someone watching them. He turns and sees Ding Rong standing motionless in the dark.
Sui Zhou lifts his chin in challenge. He is taking Tang Fan home, and if Ding Rong disapproves, it will not make any difference.
Ding Rong's gaze flicks over to where Wang Zhi is still laid out.
Sui Zhou nods in understanding. Ding Rong must report this peculiar shadow play to his superior as he reports all things. Sui Zhou doesn't care. The emperor himself could not stop him.
He doesn't wait for any sign of acknowledgment from the eunuch. He heaves himself into the saddle behind Tang Fan, takes up the reins, and directs the horse back the way he came.
It's quiet on the journey back to the capital. The road is empty this late at night. The horse is as tired as Sui Zhou and plods along as slow as a snail. Sui Zhou doesn't dare urge the beast into a trot, as even this gentle pace seems uncomfortable for Tang Fan, who stifles a gasp every time a dip in the road reminds him of his many aches. Sui Zhou gathers the reins in one hand and wraps his free arm around Tang Fan's middle. Just to ensure he keeps his seat.
Tang Fan's fingertips touch his forearm, and Sui Zhou cannot help his flinch as he brushes one of the many cuts on his arm. "You're bleeding again," Tang Fan murmurs.
Sui Zhou doesn't deny it. By the half-moon and the light of the stars, the shiny, wet patch on his sleeve is obvious. Tang Fan's fingertips come away red, and he wipes these on the stained hem of his robe.
"We'll need to change your dressings when we get home," Tang Fan says.
How his heart soars to hear Tang Fan call their house "home." It hasn't felt much like one since Tang Fan had left.
"You really should be in bed," Tang Fan admonishes. He twists in the saddle, trying to glance over his shoulder. "Have you—? How are you sleeping?"
Sui Zhou gazes at Tang Fan's profile: the line of his nose, the pale skin of his cheek, the small beauty mark on the side of his face. The breeze blows a strand of his hair against Sui Zhou's lips, and his eyes slide shut for a moment. "Don't fidget," he says. "The horse won't like it."
With a huff of frustration, Tang Fan faces forward again. Sui Zhou can see the rigid tension in his shoulders as he sits bolt upright, or tries to in the swaying saddle. "Yes, I wouldn't want to bother the horse," he mutters.
They ride with only the sounds of their breathing, the horse's hooves against the packed dirt, and the trill of nighttime insects in the forest.
"The princess and her consort are dead," Tang Fan says at last, so quietly that at first Sui Zhou wonders if he imagined it. "The explosion in the sky—that was them. I tried to persuade her not to fly the contraption, but she wouldn't listen."
Sui Zhou blinks, his arm tightening across Tang Fan's narrow waist.
"They knew it was a death-trap," Tang Fan whispers. "They didn't care. I think they were content to die, as long as they were together."
It is a blessing that they are arranged the way they are, Tang Fan's back against Sui Zhou's chest. Sui Zhou isn't sure he could sit impassively and listen to Tang Fan say these things if they were face-to-face. As it is, he can allow his emotions to show in his eyes, the line of his mouth, and know they are safe from Tang Fan's sight.
"Chaodong and his secret lover," Tang Fan says. "Duo'erla and A'lasi. Do you think love must always end in pain and devastation?" His head bows forward. Sui Zhou can see over Tang Fan's shoulder how tightly his hands clutch at the saddle's pommel. "It seems to be the case."
Sui Zhou is exhausted, but he's still able to hear what Tang Fan is saying in the spaces between his words. The implications cut him deeper than any sword could. Still, if this is how Tang Fan feels…
"Perhaps it's best to avoid it altogether," Sui Zhou says.
It's almost a relief, in a way, to have his answer. It hurts, of course, but if he is still permitted to take Tang Fan home, to one day call him Brother again, to cook his meals and stay at his side—
What more can a shattered heart like Sui Zhou's wish for? He was a fool to ever imagine Tang Fan might come to love him in return.
"Then again," Tang Fan says, interrupting Sui Zhou's dark thoughts, "in our line of work, it makes sense that we only see the cases that end in tragedy. How many instances must there be on the other side?" His head tips to the left, weighing the idea. "I know they must exist. I've seen old aunties and uncles strolling together on the riverside, enjoying the weather arm-in-arm. It must be possible, I think, to love in this way. Simply, or quietly, for a very long time, and without too much pain."
Sui Zhou holds very still. He's not sure what Tang Fan is saying anymore. He can't make out the coded message, the words between the words.
Tang Fan's hand, soft and fragile, releases the pommel to rest atop Sui Zhou's where he's still holding onto Tang Fan's waist. "What do you think, Guangchuan?" he asks. His voice is barely audible.
Words are Tang Fan's domain; Sui Zhou has only meager action to speak for him. He closes his eyes and lets his head fall forward until his forehead rests against the back of Tang Fan's neck. Tang Fan sucks in a breath but doesn't lean away. Sui Zhou breathes him in and tries to think of how best to answer Tang Fan's question.
"My cooking has been horrible lately," he says at last, the confession slipping down Tang Fan's neck and under the collar of his robe. He feels Tang Fan shiver in his arms.
"Oh?" Tang Fan's head turns, though he takes pains not to twist in his seat. He sounds surprised, but pleased. "So you have been cooking?"
"For Dong'er. I've lost my appetite, but she's been hungry. She's a growing child." His jaw tightens at the thought. "She's a child, and she's taken better care of me these past few days than I've been taking care of her. She was too polite to say anything at the dinner table, but I could tell she wanted to spit it out. The food was terrible." He squeezes his eyes tight to stop more tears from escaping. Their little girl, their brilliant little girl— "I'm failing her, Tang Fan."
"No!" Both of Tang Fan's hands now clutch at him, cradling his palm in that soft touch. "You—you're trying. I know it's been difficult, but you are doing the best you can. Terrible food is better than none."
Sui Zhou can't stop the hysterical laughter that catches in his throat. "Yes, it will keep you alive at least," he says. Then, sobering, "And what a miserable life it is." Sui Zhou takes a deep breath and slips his hand from Tang Fan's hold, placing it instead on the blameless point of his hip. He looks up at the stars. "So I apologize in advance for the mince noodles. They probably won't be very good."
Tang Fan doesn't seem to have anything to say to that. He is uncharacteristically silent for the remainder of the journey.
They reach the city gates and go through the motions of passing through, of pointing the horse towards home. When they reach the house, Tang Fan scrambles down from the saddle before Sui Zhou has a chance to tie the horse to a post. As if he can't get away soon enough, Sui Zhou thinks. The main doors open at Tang Fan's insistent push, and he stumbles inside in that stilted way he always does after even a short ride, calling for Dong'er as he goes.
"She's not home," says Sui Zhou, following close behind. "Official Pan came to fetch her earlier this evening; he said he urgently needed her help organizing all the files so they can be returned to the ministries. She told me it would take all night."
"Ah." Tang Fan turns and gives him a thoughtful look. "So that's how you managed to leave the house in the state you're in. Dong'er wasn't here to stop you."
Despite everything, Sui Zhou feels a smile tug at his lips. He drops his gaze. "She's a good girl."
Tang Fan watches him closely. "You're her family," he says. "She cares for you."
Sui Zhou sniffs, runs his hand under his nose. What sort of family is he, raising his voice to an innocent child, knocking dishes from her hand? He can feel Tang Fan's gaze on him and doesn't have the strength to return it. "I'll get started on dinner," he murmurs and moves toward the kitchen. His ribs throb, and he tries to cover his wince.
"You'll do no such thing!" Tang Fan is at his side in an instant, too fast for Sui Zhou to react. He puts a hand to the small of his back, ducking under Sui Zhou's arm. "How can you think of noodles at a time like this? Our first order of business is to fix those dressings. Old Pei will kill me if I let you bleed to death." He marches them both in the direction of Sui Zhou's room.
"I'm not going to bleed to death," Sui Zhou says. He can already feel his clothes stiff where the blood has dried. His hands itch for his cleaver. He'd promised Tang Fan dinner, as paltry as it may be.
"What about infection?" Tang Fan asks. "Exhaustion? When's the last time you slept through the night?"
"I was about to before you woke me up with that lead the other day. Does that count?"
"Be quiet," Tang Fan hisses, and all but dumps him onto his neatly made bed. "Clothes off, come on. It's too late to fetch Old Pei, and Dong'er isn't here, so you'll have to make due with me as your nursemaid."
"I don't need a nursemaid," Sui Zhou snaps. He doesn't understand the point of all this. Does Tang Fan really mean to humiliate him so thoroughly? And after Sui Zhou broached the subject of his weakness on the ride back to the city? It isn't fair to kick a man who's already on the ground. "What about you?" he says, trying to deflect. "You're the one who was knocked unconscious tonight. If anyone needs looking after, it's you."
"I'm fine," Tang Fan says. "I was only a little shaken."
"We don't know that," Sui Zhou insists. "You could have some unseen injury, or a concussion, or—"
Tang Fan growls in frustration and takes a step back, his hands going to his sash. "All right, if it will stop your complaining!" He strips out of his stained outer robe, then his inner one, then his undershirt. Standing bare-chested in Sui Zhou's darkened bedroom, he holds out his arms and turns in a circle. Besides one pear-shaped bruise turning ugly colors on his back, he appears unharmed. "There! Are you pleased? I'm in once piece, as I said." His hands perch on his hips as he completes the circuit and stands before Sui Zhou. "Now undress so I can tend to your bandages."
Sui Zhou fastens his gaze to the floor. This is becoming intolerable. "I can manage on my own."
Tang Fan heaves a sigh. "Now who's being stubborn?" he mutters, and begins stripping Sui Zhou himself. Sui Zhou doesn't fight him, just lets himself be handled like a doll until he, too, is sitting in only his trousers and boots. "Ah, look at this!" Tang Fan gestures at the bloody knees of his trousers. "Come on, off with these too."
"It's only a few scrapes," Sui Zhou says. "It's not important."
Tang Fan doesn't listen, just kneels on the floor and tugs Sui Zhou's trousers free until he's left in only his brief inner clothes. "Scraped raw," Tang Fan chides, assessing his knees. "You have to be more careful."
Sui Zhou is silent as Tang Fan stands to look him over. Old scars decorate Sui Zhou's skin, scattered amongst the bandages, and there's nothing he can do to hide them. He stares sightlessly at the ground, letting Tang Fan take them all in. Maybe if he doesn't acknowledge this, it will be over sooner.
Tang Fan's slender fingers reach out to trace the path of a scar on his shoulder.
"How many of these are because of me?" he asks in a soft voice.
Sui Zhou wants to say not enough. He wants to tell Tang Fan there will be many more if Sui Zhou is lucky. What is this body of his good for if not to protect Tang Fan?
He wants to, but in the end he says nothing.
Tang Fan removes his hand with a sigh and moves about the room, lighting candles and collecting fresh bandages. The old bloody ones he unwinds from Sui Zhou's body and tosses into a basket to be burnt. He's very careful, working slowly. He applies the healing salve Old Pei had given Sui Zhou and blows on it to lessen the sting just as the doctor had done. Sui Zhou tries not to shiver.
"Does it hurt?" Tang Fan asks.
"I'm okay," says Sui Zhou.
"That is not an answer." Tang Fan's voice is nearly too quiet to hear. He applies the new dressings and wraps Sui Zhou's arm and side and knees with fresh bandages. Every brush of his fingertips on Sui Zhou's skin is the most inventive, cruel torture. It's so close to the sort of touch he craves, but couldn't be farther from it. He must have done something terrible to deserve this, he thinks, and then remembers all the things he's done in just the last few weeks—the ways he's hurt people, acted like a brute, yelled at his own adopted child. He hangs his head. This is a just punishment for such monstrous behavior.
But when Tang Fan is done, his touch still does not leave Sui Zhou. His hands linger at Sui Zhou's chest, sweeping up to his neck, framing his face.
"I thought you were dying," he says in a low, shaking voice, "when I was locked in that cell. I just watched you lying there, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was so frightened."
"I was fine," Sui Zhou insists. "The injuries are all superficial."
Tang Fan ignores this and instead says, "Did you think I was dead when you found me tonight?"
A horrible chill goes through Sui Zhou, leaving him frozen. He stares at the floor.
"Did you?" Tang Fan demands.
Sui Zhou's hands clench into tight, trembling fists in his lap. His mind provides flashes of memory—horrible flashes—the stillness of Tang Fan's body—a dread that had robbed Sui Zhou of all sense. He is nearly pulled back into that moment, but Tang Fan's touch is here now, keeping him grounded. Reminding him of what's real.
Tang Fan's hands stroke up and down his back, tuck a loose strand of hair behind his ear. They unknot the headband that's gone askew on Sui Zhou's brow and lay it aside. Sui Zhou curls in on himself, wishing he could forget how Tang Fan looked, motionless on the ground.
"So you know how I felt," Tang Fan says, still stroking Sui Zhou's hair. "You know."
Sui Zhou cannot speak; he feels too sick. If not for Tang Fan's touch, he'd be back in that wretched field. He knows it like he knows the sound of Tang Fan's light footsteps in the courtyard.
"Look at me," Tang Fan says. His hands cup Sui Zhou's jaw, trying to raise it. "Guangchuan, look at me."
Sui Zhou gathers his tattered courage like a cloak around him and looks up into Tang Fan's face. His heart sinks at the sight. He's so pale, his eyes so sad, his entire being a picture of distress. This is Sui Zhou's fault somehow, and he hates himself for inflicting this pain on someone as gentle as Tang Fan.
Tang Fan takes a deep breath as if he, too, must shore up his courage before speaking. "I am not afraid of dying," he begins, and Sui Zhou cannot help the wild, animal fear that rips through him at that. He clutches at Tang Fan like he can keep death at bay by holding on as tight as he can.
"I am not afraid," Tang Fan repeats, his voice a soothing whisper. "I know our lives are dangerous, and I have accepted that. We could try to live more safely, of course—we could open that restaurant of ours—" There is a smile in his voice, warm as a platter of fresh wontons. "But I know we wouldn't be content with an ordinary life. I need to solve cases, and you need to help people. And even if we did give it up, that's no guarantee. People die every day in ways that have nothing to do with perilous criminals. I could be run over by a cart-horse tomorrow, or eat poison fish."
"Please don't," Sui Zhou chokes out, and what he means is please stop reminding me of all the ways I cannot save you.
"Sorry," Tang Fan says, understanding. He combs his fingers through the tail of hair at the back of Sui Zhou's head with a rueful smile. "My point is, you and I could die at any time. I don't want to die, of course, and I—I want even less to see you—" He falters then, his hands stilling in Sui Zhou's hair.
Sui Zhou stares up at him, his brows furrowed. Tang Fan at a loss for words is a rare sight. His pale cheeks are flushed, his tongue darts out to wet his trembling lips. Sui Zhou cannot begin to guess what he's trying to say.
"Oh," Tang Fan whispers helplessly, "I am not afraid of dying, but it seems I am afraid of this."
Sui Zhou doesn't understand; no one is braver than Tang Fan where it counts. He thinks of how light Tang Fan felt in his arms when he was sick from the poison that was also killing Duo'erla, and how he still insisted on taking every lethal antidote. He watches the same grim determination take over Tang Fan now. He's a slight figure, but he stands tall in front of Sui Zhou, not letting him go.
"No," Tang Fan says, his eyes faraway as if he's talking only to himself. "No regrets. Whatever happens, as long as I remember that, it will be all right."
"What are you saying?" Sui Zhou asks.
He meets Sui Zhou's eyes, his own twin flashes in the candlelight. "I'm saying, if you or I had died today, there would be one regret left in my life. And that is one too many."
His hands gentle at Sui Zhou's jaw. Knuckles brushing his cheek. Sui Zhou's breath catches. He wonders if perhaps he is lying dead outside of a cell door after all, and this is some heavenly dream. Tang Fan, touching him in a way that has nothing to do with playing nursemaid. Tang Fan, as brave as he's ever been, staring unblinking into Sui Zhou's eyes.
"Sui Zhou," he says. "Guangchuan. Would you let me—?"
"Anything," says Sui Zhou, and he means it down to his marrow.
As slowly as Tang Fan moves, the kiss should not be a shock. Still, Sui Zhou gasps. Tang Fan is so soft, and his mouth must be the softest thing of all. It brushes against Sui Zhou's like a whisper, and Sui Zhou opens to it. They are holding fast to each other, and Tang Fan is kissing him, and before he can think better of it, Sui Zhou is pulling him into his lap. Tang Fan slips into place like he belongs there, his hands never leaving Sui Zhou's face. The kiss becomes heated and desperate. Sui Zhou's hands spread across the bare expanse of Tang Fan's back, where he can feel the thrumming of his heart all across his bare skin. It's the most alive Sui Zhou has felt in weeks.
It seems too good to be true.
It cannot be true.
The thought, once it enters Sui Zhou's mind, burrows like an insect.
He pulls away to look up at Tang Fan. The sight is something out of Sui Zhou's filthiest, most indulgent fantasies: his kiss-reddened mouth and flushed cheeks, his hair slipping free from its arrangement, his beautiful eyes.
"What's wrong?" Tang Fan asks, his voice a wrecked, panting thing. "Was I—? Did you not enjoy it?"
"You know I did," Sui Zhou says. His eyes skate away from Tang Fan like a file testing a knife.
"Oh. Yes." Tang Fan wriggles in his lap, the seat of his trousers right atop the undeniable evidence of Sui Zhou's enjoyment. He seems very pleased with himself. "Then why have we stopped?"
Sui Zhou looks back up at him. Bravery can be faked, just like love. His spine will be as hard as iron though his stomach is turning to water. "You don't have to do this," he says. Each word is a stab in his gut.
Tang Fan blinks for a moment. "I told you," he finally says. "I want to. I want to live a life free from regret. And also I—" His hands fall to Sui Zhou's shoulders. "I know that lately you've been lashing out, acting recklessly. You shouldn't have to go through this alone, Guangchuan." He folds himself closer to Sui Zhou, his lips at his hot ear. "I'm here now. I'm here with you."
Sui Zhou flinches as if struck across the face. "You know about that?" Of course Tang Fan knows about Sui Zhou's disease, the weakness that rots him from the inside. It couldn't be hidden forever from one so sharp. And Tang Fan, who is so very brave, seems to think he can wade through that swamp, fool that he is. How many poisons will he drink, hoping to find a cure? A hundred, a thousand decoctions wouldn't make any difference. The Tang Fan of his nightmares knew what this one has not yet learned: that Sui Zhou himself is the disease, a bane to all around him, and there's no cure for that.
He should have known better than to think this was anything more than one of Tang Fan's heroic gestures.
He finds the strength to take Tang Fan by the hips and lift him, light as a feather, from his lap. Tang Fan cries out in protest as he's pushed away, but Sui Zhou ignores him. "There are still linens in your old room. Go. Get some sleep," he says in a flat, even voice.
Tang Fan sits, stunned, in an inelegant sprawl across the bed. He stares at Sui Zhou open-mouthed. "Go? Do you not want me here?" He scrambles closer, trying to catch Sui Zhou's eyes. "Your condition is nothing to be ashamed of, if that's what you're thinking. Old Pei explained it to me. I should have noticed it sooner, but of course—" His voice goes strained and tight. "Of course I was so preoccupied with certain pieces that I could not see the whole."
"'Nothing to be ashamed of.'" Sui Zhou nods his head, his jaw going tight with suppressed anger. "So you've invited yourself into my bed out of pity, and I am not supposed to be ashamed. I see."
"You are deliberately misunderstanding me," Tang Fan snaps.
Sui Zhou searches the floor for his robes, spotting them in a messy pile beside the bed. He's not having this conversation more than half-naked. He leans over to make a grab for them, but Tang Fan blocks his reach.
"Is your pride that fragile?" he demands. "Why won't you let me help you?"
"Because I am not interested in becoming one of your regrets!" Sui Zhou shouts, louder than he meant to. The words echo in the night-still room long after they are said, underscoring the terrible silence that follows. Tang Fan's face—he looks bereft, so pained that Sui Zhou is compelled to explain himself. "You see how far I've fallen since you left. Eventually, you will tire of trying to piece me back together. It's a waste of your time, and I won't let you do it."
Tang Fan sucks in a breath. His face, so pale a moment ago, takes on a reddish tinge. "I don't even know where to begin," he murmurs. His hands come to hold Sui Zhou's shaky, boneless ones. "Let me work backward. First, you're quite bold to think I need your permission for any of the things that I do. Second," he attempts a smile, "as I told you before, I am looking now at the whole, and it is not lying in a broken heap. And third—" He blows out a sigh, his smile faltering. "I know you've suffered. But do you really think you're the only one?"
Sui Zhou's brows draw downward. Tang Fan is not making any sense. "You've been just fine," he says. "I'm the one that couldn't handle losing you."
" Fine? Just fine?" Tang Fan gives a harsh laugh. "Have you seen the dormitories I'm supposed to be living in? I can't stand the sight of that awful little cot. And I certainly can't sleep more than a few minutes at a time even though I'm always so tired—"
"You've been working on a case," Sui Zhou interrupts. "That's not too unusual for you."
"Really!" Tang Fan's eyes go comically wide. "Well, did you know I've had no appetite either these last few weeks? Aunt Dong's dishes taste like ashes to me now. All I can think about is your cooking. And this case!" He throws his hands in the air. "It's like my brain can't see the pathways correctly! Like I'm looking at everything from the bottom of a muddied well." He gives a short, hiccuping wail. Tears are gathering in his lovely eyes. "I'm not fine. I'm telling you, I'm not."
"Tang Fan," Sui Zhou whispers, soft, his own problems forgotten for the moment. He cannot stand to see Tang Fan in pain. He opens his arms, and Tang Fan goes to him in an eyeblink, clutching at him as Sui Zhou folds him in his arms.
"You've at least recovered somewhat. You're sleeping better; you've tried to cook. I've been completely hopeless," Tang Fan says into the skin of his chest. "Don't you see? I would be dead without you."
Sui Zhou closes his eyes, helpless against the truth of this. He slips a hand into Tang Fan's loosened hair and holds him close.
"So I think," Tang Fan continues, lips brushing Sui Zhou's skin, "we are meant to lean on each other. But we must agree. I don't want to bully you into—"
"All right," Sui Zhou says.
Tang Fan pulls back to stare at him. "All right?"
Sui Zhou raises one eyebrow and runs his hands up and down the length of Tang Fan's bare back. "You're very convincing."
The heel of Tang Fan's hand rubs at his eye, wiping away the tears. "And you're very decisive," he says, smiling shyly. His gaze falls to Sui Zhou's lips, and he hesitates. "Can I still—?"
Sui Zhou is the one to kiss him then, closing the gap between them until he is swallowing Tang Fan's sigh of relief. His hands still shake as they hold Tang Fan, but that is fine. They will learn to be steady, Sui Zhou knows. He grips Tang Fan tight and hauls him back into his lap, where he belongs. He takes his time, mapping the shape of Tang Fan's mouth, tasting the quiet desperation on his tongue. He could do this all night; he could do this for a lifetime. He ignores the hissing snake in his head that tells him he doesn't deserve such a thing; if Tang Fan needs him like this, then it doesn't matter what he deserves or not.
No regrets, he thinks as they kiss. It's not a bad way to live a life.
Tang Fan breaks off with a small, needy sound. He tucks his wet lower lip into his mouth as if chasing the taste of Sui Zhou there, and Sui Zhou is certain he's never seen anything as erotic as that careless gesture.
"Here is how we are going to be with each other," Tang Fan says, and Sui Zhou experiences a dizzying sensation similar to when Tang Fan swept into his home, chose his rooms, and named his own minuscule rent. "I know you will always fight to keep me safe, and I know now I cannot stop you from risking yourself," he says, looking into Sui Zhou's eyes, "but it must go both ways. I may not have your strength, or your skill with a sword—"
"If you gave me one day to teach you a few basic self-defense maneuvers..." Sui Zhou begins. It's an old argument.
"Be serious!" Tang Fan slaps his chest with his palm. "We both know my strengths are here." He taps a finger to the side of his head. "Luckily, your disease is a mental one."
"Luckily," Sui Zhou says, dry as sand.
"Don't be obtuse. It is lucky. It means I might actually be able to defend you from it." He loops his arms around Sui Zhou's neck. "As you defend me from people who mean to run me through."
Sui Zhou cannot hide the doubt in his expression. "And how will you do that? You can't fight my nightmares for me, Tang Fan."
"Those are just a symptom." Tang Fan's eyes are bright as lamps. "I've been thinking about what treatments might work for you."
Sui Zhou presses a kiss to the corner of his clever mouth. "And is this part of your treatment?"
"Oh no," Tang Fan laughs. "This is its own wonderful thing." He looks down at Sui Zhou, marshaling his face into something more sober. "I asked Old Pei about it, and he said that your condition is not uncommon, especially among veterans."
This surprises Sui Zhou. "Are you sure? I've never heard any speak of it."
"Would you have ever spoken of it, had your friends not seen the evidence of it first?" Tang Fan counters.
Sui Zhou concedes his point with a sigh.
"Anyway." Tang Fan draws his fingertips along Sui Zhou's face, tracing the path with his gaze as well. "There are several veterans who come to Pei Huai looking for a cure when their symptoms flare as yours did. He cannot do much for them, of course, but I had an idea." He looks carefully into Sui Zhou's eyes. "He will write to these men, if you want him to, and propose you all meet."
Sui Zhou frowns. "Meet?"
"Yes. To speak, or—" Tang Fan shrugs. "I'm not sure, actually. All I know is these men understand what you're dealing with in a way I'll never be able to. Maybe it will help, to know you're not the only one."
It's not something Sui Zhou has ever considered, but he considers it now. "I may not be able to speak of it," he says, "not to strangers. I could barely stand it when you and our friends tried."
"That's all right," Tang Fan says. "Perhaps in time, you'll be able to. At any rate, even if it doesn't help you, it might help some of the other veterans." He widens his eyes in innocence. "Do you think you could try? If only for their sake?"
A smile tugs at Sui Zhou's lips. How does this man know him so well? "If it might help one of my brothers," he says, "I will try."
"Good." Tang Fan cuddles close, like a cat in need of attention. "What else must we agree to? Ah, yes. I will be true to you, Guangchuan, and I have no doubt you will remain true to me."
Sui Zhou nods. That goes without saying.
"And I will move back home, of course," Tang Fan says with a sniff. "Those government dormitories aren't fit for rats."
A thrill of happiness runs through Sui Zhou. He kisses Tang Fan's temple in celebration. "Will you move your things back into your old room?" he asks. He would never dare ask the question behind the question, but he knows Tang Fan will understand what he means all the same.
"You know what?" Tang Fan looks around Sui Zhou's bedroom as if noticing it for the first time. "My old room had such a draft, but yours is so nice and warm, even in the middle of the night." He regards Sui Zhou with a look that is both cunning and soppy. "Don't you think it would be better if I moved in here with you?"
"Much better," Sui Zhou agrees, and kisses him again.
"After all," Tang Fan murmurs when they part, "my favorite pillow is already here." He tips his chin toward the head of the bed, where a tiny corner of the soft, pink thing is barely visible, tucked under Sui Zhou's usual bolster. "You kept it, hm?"
"You never asked for its return," Sui Zhou says, hands roaming across his skin. "It stopped smelling like you after a while, but yes. I kept it."
"I worried you might have burned it," Tang Fan says. "You would have been well within your rights." His eyes go soft. "I am sorry, Guangchuan. I should have never—"
"No." Sui Zhou places a kiss on his lips to stop his words. "No regrets. Not anymore."
Tang Fan makes a hungry noise and swoops down to taste Sui Zhou. As they trade kisses, Sui Zhou is aware of how little they're wearing, and how good it feels to press his naked skin to Tang Fan's. He lays back on the bed, pulling Tang Fan down with him, and basks in the sensation.
The pale glow of dawn starts showing through the windows. Sui Zhou wishes for once it would stay away and let the night stretch on—just like this, with Tang Fan safe in his arms.
Tang Fan must notice it too. He props himself on his hands above Sui Zhou, caging him in. A willing prisoner. "There's so much I want to do with you," he says, "but you must be so tired. I know I am."
Sui Zhou would be lying if he said he was anything but the most exhausted he's ever been. His entire body is one glorious ache, and his eyelids feel as if they're weighed down by heavy coins.
"We have time," he says. His hands cup Tang Fan's beloved face. "Sleep here with me? For a few hours, at least." He kisses those lips, that perfect cheek.
Tang Fan hums as if debating this. "Only if you sleep in late and let me handle breakfast," he says.
Sui Zhou pulls away, concern painting his features. Tang Fan laughs.
"I will stay out of your kitchen, I swear. Only lend me a few coins and I will fetch something from the food stalls." He leans down and nuzzles against Sui Zhou's neck. "You deserve a little more rest. I can feed you, for once."
"Are you afraid to try my cooking?" Sui Zhou says, and it's only half a joke.
"Not at all!" Tang Fan lifts his head, eyes wide and scandalized. "Even your least successful dish is twice as good as anything I've eaten lately, trust me."
Sui Zhou lets a sliver of his amusement show. "Living off snacks, hm?" His smile slips from his lips as he thinks of the last dinner he cooked for Dong'er. "I wasn't lying earlier. My cooking has suffered. I get distracted; I can't concentrate the way I usually do. It's like I've lost all my focus."
Tang Fan taps his fingers against Sui Zhou's bare chest in thought. "It's very important that you enjoy cooking again. Old Pei said it channels your emotions." Then he brightens. "This is another way I can help! I will simply oversee you."
"Oversee me," Sui Zhou repeats, unimpressed.
"Yes. I will be right beside you, making sure you aren't distracted." Tang Fan nods, his enthusiasm reaching every corner of his grin. "I'll even choose the recipes for you. You're sure to improve that way."
"I'm not sure that will be helpful," Sui Zhou says as tactfully as he can.
"Of course it will," Tang Fan says, once again making himself comfortable in the hollow of Sui Zhou's neck. "Under my expert direction, you cannot fail. I won't let you." He shifts slightly. "Am I too heavy? I don't want to make your injuries worse."
Sui Zhou can't even feel them when he's holding Tang Fan like this. He pulls the bedclothes over them, covering their entwined bodies. "You're fine where you are," he says. "Let's sleep now."
Tang Fan kisses him like he can't bear to fall asleep without tasting him one more time. "What shall I have you cook for me?" he murmurs against Sui Zhou's lips. "Some tripe in that sweet sauce, I think, and maybe the pork you make with the marinade."
"Not mince noodles?" Sui Zhou asks.
"No, we should start with something easy."
"There is nothing easier than mince noodles."
"Your mince noodles are sacred," Tang Fan says. "You courted me with those noodles, Gaungchuan. When your cooking returns to its usual high standard, you can make them again, but for now, you'll have to practice on something else."
Sui Zhou feels something slip into place in his chest. "I see." He tugs Tang Fan's pillow until it's underneath both their heads. "I didn't know I was courting you. I just thought you were hungry."
"I suppose it could have been both." His hand rests on a part of Sui Zhou that isn't covered in bandages, just a little under his heart. He grows quiet, and Sui Zhou thinks he might be sleeping until he says, "I could never regret you. Never. You know that, don't you?"
Sui Zhou picks up Tang Fan's slim hand and presses a kiss in its soft palm. He knows very little, he's realizing. But he's learning. Soon, he will even believe it.
He waits until Tang Fan is snoring on his shoulder, then drops into the most restful, dreamless sleep he's had in months.