Zhang Shi Lan smiled and bowed his head to eat the food that Yu Huang Rong had given him. Both of them couldn’t help but feel sweet. This short moment seemed to be so much more than just one person giving the other food.
To Yu Huang Rong, him giving the food was a show of his feelings and Zhang Shi Lan accepting it was indicating that he had a chance. It was telling him that his advances weren’t unwelcome and that even though the other person was shy, he still very much liked him and wanted to be treated this way.
To Zhang Shi Lan, on the other hand, this was a moment of self-indulgence. He was sure that the other person just wanted to be nice and befriend him but for a moment, he could imagine that there was more. He could pretend that the man he loved also loved him and that this gesture of giving him food was a show of these hidden affections. It was a bit like indulging in a secret love affair, just that they both had a sense of propriety and didn’t dare to go too far.
Finally, both men put down their chopsticks and looked at each other. They held each other’s gaze, thoughts swirling in both their heads. Yu Huang Rong leaned forward, reaching out and putting his hand over Zhang Shi Lan’s. He wasn’t sure if he was going too far. But since Zhang Shi Lan had accepted the food, he felt that maybe there was a chance that it would be alright. Maybe things were slowly changing between them. Maybe taking this step wasn’t too much yet.
Zhang Shi Lan felt a soft touch and wanted to look but he was unable to extricate himself from that sharp look. From the day they first met, it had always been Yu Huang Rong’s eyes that had captivated him the most. Sure, there was no denying that this man was very attractive in everything he did and looking from every angle. But while there were a lot of handsome men out there, his eyes were special. Zhang Shi Lan deeply felt that there was no other man that could look at him like this. His deep gaze … It was as if it touched his soul.
Yu Huang Rong felt emboldened when his touch wasn’t rejected either. He was just one step away from leaning over and kissing those soft lips. In the end, he still didn’t dare to do so. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to but just when he leaned closer to give it a try, Madam Yan’s voice seemed to ring in his mind. Slowly. You can’t force this. You have to take it slowly.
He cursed inwardly but still leaned back, trying to be satisfied with the bit that he had had just now. Never mind. With a bit of time, things would progress further. He could wait that long. Madam Yan had promised to help, Luan Xin had promised to help, and he himself was also working on it. Even though it might not be enough right now, it would be in the future. He would have the strength.
He smiled, his gaze turning gentler. “We’ve eaten now. They said to rest a while before the real event begins. Do you feel that we’ll be able to do it?”
Zhang Shi Lan smiled back at him, his voice lowering as if he was afraid he might disturb this moment if he spoke just a little louder. “General Yu is a capable man. What could go wrong with you performing?”
Yu Huang Rong lightly rubbed Zhang Shi Lan’s hand with his thumb. Ah, how sweet. Hearing these kinds of words from the person he loved … Today truly was a beautiful day. “I’m not worried too much either. Scholar Zhang is truly talented with the guqin. I’m sure the women will enjoy themselves.”
Zhang Shi Lan’s smile wavered a little and he lowered his gaze, finally looking at his hand that was being held in Yu Huang Rong’s. His heart couldn’t help but sour. The women would certainly enjoy themselves. Unfortunately, he would only have this one short moment of self-deception.
Yu Huang Rong didn’t fail to notice the change in Zhang Shi Lan’s expression. His brows raised slightly before he schooled his expression. He shouldn’t let him see that he had noticed. But maybe this was also an opportunity.
He continued to rub Zhang Shi Lan’s soft skin and gave a sigh. “To be honest … I don’t want to marry any of them.”
Zhang Shi Lan glanced up, his eyes widening imperceptibly. What had he just heard? General Yu didn’t want to marry them?
Yu Huang Rong continued, his thumb drawing small circles on Zhang Shi Lan’s skin. “Taking a wife … That is what my family wants. They’re afraid because I’ll have to return to the battlefield soon and it won’t be long until I turn thirty. If I still don’t marry now, they’re sure there will never be any heirs. It’s not that I can’t understand it’s just that … I really can’t bring myself to like the thought.”
Zhang Shi Lan took a shaky breath. This kind of talk, it certainly was food for thoughts It was a way of feeding his own delusions. Hearing something like this, he also knew that he would silently nurse the thought that maybe General Yu was just like him, unable to love a woman. Maybe … he was saying this to hint at something. Maybe there was more to these words than what was spoken on the outside.
Yu Huang Rong glanced up, once again meeting with Zhang Shi Lan’s gaze. He smiled. He really wanted to say the truth. He wanted to blurt right out that he liked him, that he had loved him for many years. Unfortunately, he was afraid that this might not be the right moment yet.
He could only give another sigh and stand up, letting go of Zhang Shi Lan’s hand. He walked over to the window and looked out. “I’ve always imagined marrying somebody I love. Coming here, doing these things … While I do appreciate Madam Yan’s effort to let us get to know these women, I’m still afraid it won’t be enough. I can’t see myself falling in love with any of them. There’s just … no room in my heart for them.”
He glanced over his shoulder, looking at the person that occupied every last inch of this heart. Ah, if only he would turn around. If only he would say something, indicating whether he was prepared to hear the words he really wanted to say.
Unfortunately, Zhang Shi Lan couldn’t turn around. He had folded his hands in his lap, covering them with his sleeves to make sure General Yu wouldn’t be able to see how they trembled. His heart wasn’t calm. He felt as if he had just been struck by lightning, his whole body somehow aching, somehow crying for release. He wanted to turn around, wanted to look at him, wanted to ask him about all these things going through his head. But he knew that he would never dare to do so.
He was a coward at heart. Only able to live in these delusions, hungering for every glance he could get of this man but unable to speak his true thoughts. What a coward. It really would’ve been better if he had been born a woman. Then maybe … maybe this wouldn’t be a problem.
With neither of them daring to speak the final truth, they fell silent again, until Madam Yan came over to bring them to the venue. She took one look at their faces and knew that something must’ve happened. She sighed and gave General Yu a dissatisfied look. Just what had he done this time?
Yu Huang Rong looked in the other direction, pretending not to notice anything.
Zhang Shi Lan had calmed down in the meantime and folded his hands in front of his body, silently following Madam Yan. He didn’t dare to look at Yu Huang Rong. The peace of mind that he had just managed to regain was a fragile one. If the General said anything, then it might shatter into pieces. He didn’t trust himself right now.
The three of them made their way over and came to the meadow. Yu Huang Rong could already hear the women on the other side of the lake but they were still hidden from view by the trees on their side of the bank.
Yu Huang Rong stopped walking and grabbed Zhang Shi Lan’s hand, pulling him back. Zhang Shi Lan gave a light yelp and collided with Yu Huang Rong’s chest. He stared up at the man he loved with his heart beating madly in his chest and his breath caught in his throat. He didn’t dare to move and could only look at him, completely stunned.
Yu Huang Rong opened his mouth and wanted to speak up but, in the end, he didn’t know what should say. He had wanted to set right what he had probably done wrong before but unfortunately, he didn’t know how. What should he say? Tell him that that hadn’t been all? That he actually loved him?
But wouldn’t he be completely overstepping a boundary then? Wouldn’t he make Zhang Shi Lan even more flustered? Then this event might end in a total disaster. And even though he didn’t care if neither of them got one of these women, Zhang Shi Lan wouldn’t want to lose face. His skin just wasn’t thick enough for that. It wasn’t thick enough to just drop out on this either and go home with him. And there were still all those other issues.
Yu Huang Rong took a deep breath and forced himself to smile. “I hope I haven’t said too much before. Right now, this isn’t the moment to think about that kind of thing. Just … Let’s just do your best. We’ve practiced this enough. I trust in Scholar Zhang’s skills. So let’s … Let’s do this together.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded, still slightly absent-minded. Right now, this was almost like on the day back then. Him lying in this man’s arms, unable to get out a single word. Ten years had passed but he hadn’t managed to progress by even a single step. He was still just as awkward as his youthful self. Maybe even more so. After all, a grown man should be able to boldly confess his love, shouldn’t he? Maybe …
He reached up, putting his hands onto Yu Huang Rong’s chest, feeling his heartbeat. It seemed fast, faster than normal, but maybe this was just his own heart that he felt. He looked up and smiled, putting all the feelings he had bottled up over the years into that one gaze. “Thank you. I am … looking forward to doing this with General Yu. I have long admired you. So this means a lot to me.”
He didn’t say I love you. He didn’t dare to and he also knew that even if he managed to say the words, it wouldn’t change that this between them was impossible. But still, this was his small confession. To himself and also to Yu Huang Rong. Maybe the General would never know what he meant with these words but it was alright as long as he had said them. He couldn’t expect anything more. It was already good enough this way.