Ou Ming Dong watched the frail figure in front that was bathed in the golden light of the setting sun. His gaze turned solemn and he walked over, reaching out and gently grabbing Xi Lan by the shoulders. “The wind is cold. Why don’t you go back inside?”
Xi Lan raised his gaze to the sky and sighed. “I should. It wouldn’t do for me to get sick right now, would it?”
Ou Ming Dong furrowed his brows but still forced himself to nod. “Young Master Zhai would certainly be distressed.”
“I guess so.” Xi Lan turned around and gave him a faint smile, touching the warm hand on his shoulder for a fleeting moment before he stepped away and returned to the hut.
Ou Ming Dong looked in the other direction, his gaze traveling over the distant mountains that Xi Lan had just been looking at. In the end, he sighed and followed him into the hut. He busied himself, putting a teapot on the stove before he went to concoct the medicinal liquids just as Xi Lan had taught him.
While he fanned the flames, he could not help but glance over, his gaze softening when he saw Xi Lan sit at the table with a dreamy expression. He watched him for a moment before he turned back to the small stove.
In only two days, Xi Lan would leave to go and marry that Young Master Zhai just as his family had arranged it. Then this dream of a life together would come to an end. There was nothing he could do about that.
He got up with a sigh and took the teapot from the other stove, filling a cup and bringing it over to the table. “Drink this to warm yourself first.”
Xi Lan raised his head and smiled. “You’re always thinking on my behalf.”
“I …” Ou Ming Dong smiled back, swallowing the words he thought back down. “I owe you my life. Naturally, I should think of you in everything I do.”
Xi Lan lowered his gaze to the teacup and nodded. “I almost feel ashamed when you put it like this. It was just a slight effort on my part that day but you’ve spent so many years repaying me. Am I not just taking advantage of your good heart?” He sipped the tea but didn’t taste anything. “Have you decided yet what to do after I get married?”
Ou Ming Dong watched him, his heart stirring once again. How much he would love to just steal him away before things could happen but … Xi Lan was sick. What kind of life could they lead together if they eloped? He would hardly be able to provide for him and Xi Lan would get worse with time and might even die prematurely. Could he do that to the person he loved?
Even though there was hardly any relationship between Xi Lan and that Young Master Zhai, that man had treated him sincerely so far. At the very least, Xi Lan had gotten slightly better since he sent over all these herbs. When he lived at his estate, things might turn even better for him. That was what he wanted for him. How could he stand in his way now that he had a way out of having to live with an illness-riddled body?
Ou Ming Dong looked at the floor and tried to hide the emotions welling up in his eyes. “After you get married? Of course, I will still follow you. You saved my life so it is yours. Until the day either of us dies, it will be yours. You getting married does not change anything about that.”
Xi Lan slowly lowered the cup, once again becoming lost in thought. “How could that be? You should have your own life.”
“This is my life and it is the life I chose to live. Nothing you do or say can change that. If you don’t want me to follow you, I will have to accept it but I will still stay close by, making sure I will always be there should you need me.”
Xi Lan looked back up, his gaze resting on Ou Ming Dong’s handsome features. Always there for him … It would be great if he was not saying that just out of gratitude. “Do you not cherish your own life? Your freedom?”
“I chose to follow you on my own free will. What is there to regret?” It was just a pity that his family was not willing to accept his feelings for Xi Lan. Otherwise, the situation would be different. With the power of his clan, they would be able to help him as well. But they would never allow him to wed somebody in Xi Lan’s condition. Not even — or maybe especially — when he had saved his life before.
Xi Lan nodded slowly. “Very well. Since you have decided, there is nothing I can say against it. I just hope you won’t regret the years you have wasted on me. If you ever do, just come and tell me. I will understand and let you go. I just … I just want you to say goodbye to me to see you one last time and have a few words. We can … drink a cup of tea together and maybe play a round of weiqi. You can tell me about the plans you have, the places you want to see, the person you want to marry … Whatever is on your mind that day.”
“I will.” Ou Ming Dong smiled and then turned away, walking back to crouch down in front of the little stove. He picked up the bamboo fan and tended to the fire, making sure they stayed the right temperature.
That day … it would never come if his heart did not turn cold. The kindness of that year would not be forgotten, the life-saving grace not ignored. Even now, when he closed his eyes, he could still feel the gentle touch from when Xi Lan changed his bandages, the soft fingers that supported his head when he guided him to drink the tea and concoctions. He heard the soothing voice that told him not to be afraid, not to fear the darkness lingering in front of his eyes and that everything would be alright in just a few more days, a few more weeks.
Shrouded in darkness, enveloped in that person’s warmth, he had chosen to believe every single word. He had accepted his help and stayed until the day Xi Lan took off those bandages and he opened his eyes again for the very first time. Seeing the outward beauty of this person that had long touched his heart, he had lost the last of his inhibitions. Right then and there, he had decided that this was the person he wanted to spend his life with. Alas … things had turned out different.
Ou Ming Dong took the pot with the medicinal liquid from the stove and carefully filled a bowl, making sure not to spill a single drop. The herbs used for this were precious. If something went wrong with the wedding at the last minute, they would not be able to afford a new batch. So he had to make sure that none of it was wasted. Xi Lan had to nursed back to health as much as possible.
He took the bowl with both hands and carried it over to the table, putting it down in front of Xi Lan. “It’s still hot so be careful.”
“I know. Thank you.” Xi Lan put down the teacup and picked up the blow, blowing onto the surface of the medicinal liquid to make it cool down a little before he drank it sip by sip. The warmth spread through his body, making him feel comfortable.
He put the empty bowl down with a sigh and looked back at Ou Ming Dong. “Just two more days.”
“Yes. Just two more days.” He gave a smile that he didn’t feel and reached out. “Come, I’ll help you to bed.” He took the fair hand that Xi Lan extended into his, unwittingly marveling at the jade-like skin and soft texture once again. He took a deep breath and supported him over to the bed. He stepped back, giving him a long look before he went to get a wet towel and helped Xi Lan wipe his face and hands. “Tomorrow, you should take more medicine. The way to the city will seem long and arduous to you. You have to prepare your body.”
“I’ll leave everything to you.” Xi Lan lay back down and watched Ou Ming Dong tuck him in as one would do with a child or a person one cared deeply about. He looked at those hands that had been so rough when he found him but were now carefully, gently brushing over the quilt, making sure that he was covered but did not feel stuffy. His gaze lingered on the faint smile on Ou Ming Dong’s lips before he closed his eyes.
He would never believe that his feelings were not reciprocated.
Unfortunately, it was too late now. The conversations had been had, the gifts exchanged. Only the vows were yet to be made. But even if he ran away beforehand, he would make trouble for his family.
Xi Lan sighed faintly and then emptied his head, not thinking about anything. One last day. They still had one last day. He might as well enjoy it and not think about anything else.
Ou Ming Dong looked at that sleeping face for a moment longer before he extinguished the lamp and went to bed as well.
The next morning, Ou Ming Dong got up early and brewed the medicine as usual before he went to wake up Xi Lan, assisting him through the day.
The two of them tried to enjoy this last day that they could spend together without anybody else interfering. Eating together in the morning, going out and wandering around the mountain top afterward, sitting by the stream at midday, huddled together in thick coats to guard against the cold while they reminisced the past years.
Only in the evening did they return, their minds still filled with happiness from the closeness they had been able to share. But soon enough, it was time to go to bed again and the realization that this had been the last day like this dawned on both of them.
Xi Lan looked up from where he was sitting on the bed and finally reached out, taking that calloused hand into his. “Tomorrow …”
“Tomorrow is still a few hours away. You … you should sleep tight. You will need your energy. You have to get up earlier than usual to put on the robe.”
Xi Lan continued to look at him but finally just sighed. He wanted to take his hand back but Ou Ming Dong held onto it.
“That … I’ll stay next to you tonight. Just … just to make sure you’ll be alright.”
Xi Lan nodded and their gazes met for the blink of an eye. There was sadness and unwillingness but they both knew that there was nothing they could do.
Ou Ming Dong once again extinguished the lamp and then sat down on the edge of the bed, holding onto Xi Lan’s hand throughout the night, refusing to give up this last bit of warmth that he could still borrow from this person before he would become another’s possession.
The sunlight spilled through the window much too early, waking both Ou Ming Dong and Xi Lan from their slumber. They looked at each other before they turned away. Ou Ming Dong got up and brewed the medicinal liquid while Xi Lan went to comb through his hair, looking into the bronze mirror with a lost expression.
They ate and finally, the time had come to prepare to set off. Ou Ming Dong took a deep breath and got up with a smile. “Let me deal with the dishes one last time and help you into the wedding outfit afterward.”
Xi Lan nodded and continued to sit at the table, watching Ou Ming Dong quietly. These were indeed the last moments. He looked down at his hand, tracing the lines of his palm. He remembered Ou Ming Dong’s warmth and once again looked up at that familiar figure.
Just then, Ou Ming Dong finished and turned back, their gaze once again meeting in midair. He held his gaze for a moment and then went over, stretching out his hand. Xi Lan put his own on top and let him pull him to his feet. They both remained in that posture, remembering last night when they had held hands.
“There is still half a day until we would arrive at the Zhai family’s mansion.”
Ou Ming Dong closed his eyes. At this moment, Xi Lan wavered. Enveloped in this familiarity, he did not want to lose it and he felt like he was prepared to face any consequences if they just ran away now. But how could that be?
“We would not be able to pay him back, your family would not be able to bear the Zhai family’s anger and people’s ridicule. Let me help you prepare.” His gaze turned hard, hiding the pain below, and pulled Xi Lan to the other side of the small hut. He picked up the wedding robe and stared at the bright red fabric. He closed his eyes, taking a trembling breath and then turned to Xi Lan, helping him into it. “You’ll be the most beautiful bride, the best spouse a man can wish for.” He picked up a comb and brushed through his hair, pulling it up and fixing it with the coronet. “Try to be happy with him. Even if you cannot love him, try to find a sense of belonging with him.”
Tears gathered in Xi Lan’s eyes but he nodded. “I will.” What other way was there?
He turned around, looking into Ou Ming Dong’s eyes and reached up, lightly brushing over the small scar on his eyelid. “If you can, leave some time in the future. That would be best for you.”
Ou Ming Dong smiled and brushed Xi Lan’s shoulders, making sure the robe fit as intended. “Unfortunately, I was always bad at that.” He leaned forward and their lips met for just a moment, giving both of them the faint sense of what could have been. “Let’s go now.”
Ou Ming Dong supported his savior outside and helped him into the palanquin that was waiting before he got onto his horse and rode at a distance from him. Only once did he glance back at the hut where they had spent the past few years before he turned back to the front.
The past was the past, a possibility was nothing more than that. Xi Lan had a bright future ahead of him. Who was he to deny him a long and healthy life?
With that thought, he continued to ride on until they reached the Zhai family’s estate. He watched that Young Master Zhai help his savior out of the palanquin and into the estate while he stayed outside and quietly listened to the ceremony proceed.