“Don’t forget what I told you.”
Duan Fang nodded. “I know, father. Don’t worry about it. This isn’t the first time I’m meeting him. Nothing will go wrong.”
Mister Duan sighed. Nothing going wrong was a given. But as for everything else … He patted his son’s shoulder and then motioned to the entrance. “Well, then. You better go now. The carriage arrived.”
“Mn.” Duan Fang nodded again and pulled the cloak tighter around his body, brushing through his hair with his fingers and making it scatter over the red fur like waves. He gave his father another smile before running out and nodding at the servant that was holding the curtain aside for him.
Mister Duan walked over to the door and watched his son get into the carriage, sighing deeply when they drove off. “Ah, I hope this goes well.” He shook his head and went back inside, pushing the thought off. There was nothing he could do. It was all on his son now. If he still couldn’t convince Young Master Li today, then he could only wrong his son.
Meanwhile, Duan Fang looked out of the carriage’s window, watching the snowy hills roll by and admiring how the icicles hanging from the branches of the barren trees glittered in the morning sun.
This wasn’t the first time Li Hong had invited him to his residence but he couldn’t help admiring the scenery outside again. Every time, it made his heart open up. Or maybe that was the prospect of seeing Li Hong again …
“Young Master Duan, we’ll reach the gates soon.” The driver glanced over his shoulder and called out.
Duan Fang laughed. “Sure.” He pulled down the curtain and leaned back, smoothing out his cloak.
Even after a year, he still couldn’t figure out Li Hong’s mind. Was he looking out for him and didn’t want people to bring up the things of the past? Or was he just ashamed of meeting with somebody from the Duan family and wanted to keep unsavory rumors about himself from being spread?
If it was the latter, then there was nothing he could do. If it was the former … Well, this would only be beneficial to his family and even though Li Hong had never talked about love, he liked to be with him.
There was no security in their meetings but he was willing to give it a try. As long as this man treated him sincerely, he was willing to continue to walk down this path and become his. Yes, he would have liked to live at Li Hong’s side. So if it worked out, that would be for the best. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the time to wait forever. If Li Hong didn’t decide today …
Duan Fang sighed and looked at his hands. If only Li Hong would indicate whether he wanted to marry him or not … As long as he said the word, his family wouldn’t consider any of the other men. After all, the Li family’s situation was one of the best. Having affiliations with them would solve their problems at once. But if Li Hong kept silent … His marriage was the only chance his family had to turn their situation around. It was his luck that his father had taken his feelings into consideration and not decided on somebody else yet.
The carriage stopped and Duan Fang pushed the thought away. Even though he was also doing this for his family, he wanted to treat Li Hong sincerely. So as long as he was there, he wouldn’t think of the wedding. He would just … be like always and hope for Li Hong to raise the subject on his own.
“We’ve arrived, Young Master Duan.” The servant pulled the curtain to the side and held out his hand, helping him off the carriage and making sure that he didn’t slip on the frozen ground.
Duan Fang didn’t pay any attention to it. He just looked at the gate or rather at the person waiting in front of it. His lips curved into a sweet smile and he let out the breath he had unwittingly held at this man’s sight, making it condense into a white cloud. “Young Master Li.”
Li Hong smiled back and walked toward him, giving him a once-over before his gaze returned to his eyes. “Duan Fang.”
The two of them fell silent and just looked at each other.
Li Hong glanced away before looking up again with twinkling eyes, motioning inside. “Why don’t you come inside and have a seat?”
“Mn.” Duan Fang nodded and followed him into the estate, glancing at Li Hong from the corner of his eye. This man, he was as elegant as always, his body clad in a green robe that was half-hidden below the black cloak. His hair was bound with an equally green ribbon, falling down his back in a stark contrast with the white fox fur draped around his shoulders.
Li Hong motioned at a servant to help Duan Fang take off his cloak before he gave his own to the second servant standing to the side. He turned back with a smile that was just right. Not too distant but not overly enthusiastic either. This was probably what people called a scholarly temperament.
Duan Fang’s heart thumped. He sat down at Li Hong’s gesture and lowered his gaze. This person … Maybe thinking of marrying him was nothing but a daydream. Was he even worthy of his affection?
Li Hong brushed the snowflakes out of his hair and sat down next to his guest. His gaze brushed over Duan Fang’s figure again, taking in the way the hem of his robe had become wet while they walked through the courtyard. He signaled the servant to the side with his eyes to bring in a brazier before he poured a hot cup of tea, putting it down in front of Duan Fang. “I hope your way here was pleasant. I heard there were some troubles at the gate the other day and the patrols are still trying to get the situation under control.”
Duan Fang shook his head. “There were no problems. Who would dare to make trouble when they see the Li family’s carriage?”
Li Hong poured another cup for himself and hid a smile. “I doubt the refugees even know what the crest of my family looks like. And even if they do, they probably don’t care much for it.”
Duan Fang glanced at him and also picked up his teacup. Had he said something wrong?
Li Hong’s hand stilled and he cleared his throat. “Well, you might be right though. Even if they don’t know who the Li family is, they should be able to see that the carriage belongs to a family they should not antagonize.”
Duan Fang nodded but didn’t dare to speak further. Since his family’s situation had worsened and they had had to leave the capital, he hadn’t dared to get involved with politics. He didn’t know where these refugees came from or what the reason for them coming here was. It would make his family’s opponents less wary but showing that so openly in front of Li Hong …
Li Hong took a sip from his tea, wondering what to say. It was more than obvious that his previous statement had made Duan Fang feel self-conscious. What a great way to start their get-together! Ah, if only he could start over … “Well, I am happy that you made it here without complications. I was worried something might happen but I thought I might draw too much attention if I sent guards with the carriage.”
Duan Fang looked at the ground, trying to hide the expression in his eyes. Draw attention … Did this mean Li Hong really didn’t want people to notice his visits to the Li family’s estate?
Li Hong took a shaky breath at Duan Fang’s lack of response. Had he said another wrong thing? What was happening today? A sudden streak of bad luck? He lightly furrowed his brows, tried to lean over to at least close the physical distance but he didn’t dare to do so and could only put down his cup, letting his hand rest on top of the table. “I didn’t want to put you in danger.”
Duan Fang looked up again and nodded but he couldn’t shake the nagging feeling inside. Ah, hadn’t he promised himself not to fret? But with the cause of his worries once again exposed in front of him, he couldn’t help it. Maybe he should just ask?
His lips parted but in the end, he merely smiled. “Many thanks, Young Master Li. I appreciate your concern.” He couldn’t bring himself to do it. No, it would be impolite to be that direct. He would put Li Hong in a bad spot if he didn’t … Duan Fang gulped and faced away, not daring to look at the man any longer. Just imagining it made his heart tumble into an abyss.
Li Hong clenched his hand into a fist below his sleeve. Obviously, he had hurt Duan Fang gravely with his previous words. Or maybe even his attempt at salvaging the situation had somehow backfired. What could he do to make up for that? He had to find out or Duan Fang might drift away from him further. Over the last few weeks, he had more and more often felt that it was already happening. Duan Fang evaded his gaze and more than once he would fall quiet like this, his expression one of silent suffering.
Was it him who was putting him through this? It had to be. What other explanation was there? Or maybe he had some trouble but wasn’t comfortable enough to discuss them with him. In that case, he merely wasn’t a good enough friend. He should work on that but he didn’t know how to go about it. He didn’t even know what to say.
The silence between them stretched and neither of them could think of anything to say. The hour-long conversations they had had in the past where the servants would have to remind them to eat or that it was time to sent Duan Fang home were only a distant memory.
Li Hong closed his eyes. The embers in the brazier sizzled behind them, giving off a faint heat. But despite that, his heart grew cold. This wasn’t the first time he had experienced this. But it was the first time it made his heart hurt this deeply. This person … He didn’t want this person to turn his back on him.
He cleared his throat, finally leaning closer even though he still didn’t dare to reach out. “The plum trees in the garden have blossomed. It’s a beautiful sight. Maybe you’d like to have a look with me?”
Duan Fang nodded and glanced over, a faint hope igniting his gaze, especially when he saw Li Hong this close. Watching the plum blossoms … this could either be a sight shared just by two gentlemen or an experience of two lovers admiring the beauty of nature, couldn’t it? Maybe … Just maybe it was the latter?
He got up and let one of the servants help him drape his cloak back over his shoulders. He glanced at Li Hong who was once again putting on that black cloak with the white fox fur, looking especially handsome. Duan Fang lowered his gaze and followed Li Hong to the door, walking with just a step between them.
His heart thumped loudly in his chest, making him worry that it might be loud enough for Li Hong to hear. Wouldn’t he give his thoughts away then? Ah, but maybe that wouldn’t be bad. Maybe if he did, Li Hong would take the next step. Maybe then, he would have the chance to marry him.
They reached the door to the garden and Li Hong slowed his steps, motioning at the ground. “Careful, it’s … it’s frozen. Make sure you don’t slip.”
“Mn.” Duan Fang smiled sweetly, his heart feeling lighter. Li Hong did care about him, didn’t he? Otherwise, why would he remind him? It was just … was this the feeling one held for a friend or …?
The two stepped outside and Duan Fang looked up at the plum trees, halting in his steps. The crimson blossoms painted a vivid picture among the snow-covered branches. Swaying in the wind with the white snowflakes drifting by, one of them landing on the small petals every now and then, a speck of white on the otherwise brilliant red color …
“It’s magnificent, isn’t it?”
Duan Fang nodded, unable to speak up. Yes, it was magnificent. Looking at them, his heart calmed down, making his gaze soften. Ah, if only he could be like these trees: Their branches swaying in the wind like that, a silent beauty to behold, never parting from that place he had grown from, thriving in that very same spot. Despite the coldness of the world outside. Despite the snow falling so heavily. He would just be there, continuing to live his life like he always had. A sight worth remembering.
Li Hong watched his entranced expression, his own gaze growing gentler as well. He stepped further into the garden, hands clasped behind his back, eyes trained on the blooming trees around them. Soon enough, spring would come. By then, maybe they could sit outside, painting or doing calligraphy, speaking over a cup of tea or wine …
Duan Fang broke free from the sight of the plum trees and hurried after Li Hong, strolling with him through the garden, the distance between them neither widening nor decreasing while the snow on their shoulders accumulated and the worries inside their hearts grew.
Finally, Li Hong stopped below one of the plum trees. He brushed the snow from his shoulders and turned to Duan Fang, his gaze subtle. If he still didn’t say anything, then things might turn even worse from now on. He didn’t want to let that happen. “I’ve always liked plum blossoms. Such a beautiful sight that can even be admired in the cold season. It is a special kind of happiness, wouldn’t you say so?”
Duan Fang nodded. “Young Master Li said that well.”
“I sometimes think that flowers must be like the relationships of people. There are some that will show themselves all year round but when the hard times approach, they will be nowhere to be seen. Then there will be people … that you don’t see all the time but when you do, they manage to warm your heart and they will be there when you need somebody to give you strength.”
Duan Fang looked at him, his lips parting slightly. In Li Hong’s mind … was he just a pretty flower on a summer day or the plum blossom he could admire in winter?
“Duan Fang, I might be too direct with saying this but from the moment we first met, I always thought of you as the kind of person that would be worthy to admire regardless of how the winds changed. I have felt much joy meeting with you over the past few months. Today, I can’t help but notice that you seem absentminded. I apologize for being this frank but I can’t put the worry in my heart to rest if I don’t ask. Did I say something to displease you?”
Duan Fang turned to the side and kept his gaze trained on the plum blossoms, thoughts swirling through his head like the snowflakes being blown about in the cold winter wind. Should he be as direct as Li Hong and ask about his feelings and their possible future? Then his troubles could be laid to rest once and for all. Whatever the result, he would at least know. Whether it would make his heart twist in agony or jump in happiness, at least, he would know.
Li Hong’s gaze darkened when he didn’t get a response. “I am not looking down on you or your family if that is what you think. Your grandfather is an admirable man for standing up for his beliefs even in a situation where he knows he’ll displease many powerful people. For you to detach yourself from the situation of the capital, I also think that is the right choice to make. Others might label you a coward but I am of the firm opinion that it takes a different kind of strength to refute your true calling to keep your family safe. In another life, you would have been an admired scholar. You certainly deserve to be.”
Duan Fang smiled lightly. An admired scholar? He liked to hear that but it wasn’t what made him restless. “Thank you for your kind words, Young Master Li. I am afraid you are praising me too much. I would love to aspire to become a scholar but I guess I am not gifted enough or else my family’s circumstances wouldn’t hold me back. To be honest, that isn’t what I worried about. Neither did anything you did ever displease me.” No, although he couldn’t help but question his words every now and then, wondering whether he meant what he said or if there was something hidden in those words, that was merely his fear of disappointing Li Hong. It had never been Li Hong’s fault.
“Then what is it? And what can I do to lift that worry from your shoulders?” Li Hong shifted closer, half of a mind to reach out and grab his hand. He held back though. He didn’t want to give the wrong impression.
Duan Fang reached up and touched the delicate blossoms above his head. “What Young Master Li said about people being like flowers rings true. My grandfather always struck me to be like a tall tree but as they say: A tall tree attracts wind. Sometimes that wind is too strong and the tree won’t be able to take it. Or sometimes the tree will persist but it’ll still wither with time and then another tree might have to be the one to protect the plants below its branches from the wind.
“It’s just that … this tree and that tree will be different. Although they are the same kind of tree, they have grown differently so the plants thriving in their shade will be exposed to the elements in another manner now.”
Li Hong’s lips tightened. Was Duan Fang’s father trying to force him on a way he didn’t want to go? Duan Fang was a filial child. He wouldn’t go against his father’s wishes even if he didn’t agree with them. He wanted to ask just what it was but Duan Fang had spoken in such a roundabout way … Would it be too intrusive if he asked?
He took in how Duan Fang lowered his hand and looked at the blossoms vacantly. He seemed desolate. Nothing like his usual self. It was a look that didn’t suit him. No, this person should always be able to be happy. He didn’t want him to be weighed down by worries. If there was anything he could do to dissolve his troubles, he would do so. “May I ask … what it is that you have encountered?”
Duan Fang finally turned to Li Hong, examining the handsome face. If he was in any position to do so, he would have asked him now. Unfortunately, the one who had to decide wasn’t him but Li Hong. He could at most prompt him and hope for the best. “Young Master Li, I am afraid that … this might be the last time we see each other.”
Li Hong’s eyes widened and this time, he couldn’t hold back. He stepped closer and grabbed Duan Fang’s shoulders, not caring about the snow chilling his skin and soaking his sleeves. “Duan Fang, don’t say such things! Just what is your father requesting of you?” He wouldn’t be sending him to the military to earn another kind of merit, would he? No, that couldn’t be. His father had to know that there would be no way for Duan Fang to return alive. He had never learned to fight, never learned to withstand the drill of the army. Even if he managed to make it out alive, he would be battered and broken.
Duan Fang sighed. “There aren’t many flowers blooming around that tree. There might be some trees extending a branch to shelter a pretty flower though.” He gave a self-deprecating smile and turned away, brushing Li Hong’s hands off in the process. He just … couldn’t take his touch when he had to say these words. “My father wants me to get married. I’m just afraid … whoever my husband will end up being, he might not like me going to see another man. So …” He raised his face to the sky, blinking back tears.
He had hoped. Against all odds, he had hoped that Li Hong would bring it up today, that maybe it had been enough time for him to consider. But it seemed he had been wrong. On his own accord, Li Hong wouldn’t ask him. So now was the last chance. If Li Hong still didn’t ask after he said it so blatantly …
Li Hong looked at the other person in silence. Marriage … Yes, he should have expected this. Duan Fang was at that age. And even if none of the influential families would dare to send their daughters to marry into a family that was on the decline such as the Duan family, some men might not have as many inhibitions. After all, just Duan Fang being a man would make it impossible for him to be somebody’s first wife. He would get nothing more than the status of a concubine or, if he was lucky, that of a consort. That wouldn’t anger those in power too much.
It was unfair to Duan Fang but still beneficial to his family. Even if they couldn’t reach their peak state again, they might at least recover slightly, allowing them to hold on longer, giving them a chance to one day thrive again. Naturally, Duan Fang wouldn’t reject if an offer was made regardless of how he felt about it in his heart.
Duan Fang sighed. Still nothing, huh? It seemed he could only give up on his hopes. Anything else would be delusional.
Li Hong didn’t dare to look at Duan Fang and missed his pained expression. His own heart twisted in agony at the thought of never seeing this person again. Duan Fang shouldn’t be confined in some back courtyard. He should be allowed to follow his aspirations, to show his brilliance to the world. Li Hong gulped and then forced himself to smile. “Then … do you already know who …?”
Duan Fang faced away and shook his head. “No, not yet. There … have been a few offers but my father hasn’t decided yet.”
“I see.” Li Hong clenched his fists. “But you should know who made an offer, right? Are they … are they decent men? Do you have a … preference for whom you’d like to marry?”
Duan Fang gave a humorless smile in return and glanced at Li Hong. His preference … He had one but the person hadn’t asked and likely never would. He couldn’t even say if Li Hong would ever regret this or if he had just thought too much of their relationship. Maybe all of this had been one-sided from the beginning. “I’ll leave it to my father. He will do what’s best for the Duan family. I can’t ask for more than that.”
Li Hong nodded, his heart sinking further. “I guess so.”
The two of them fell quiet, neither of them daring to look at the other person. Instead, they gazed at the blood-red plum blossoms, time slowly trickling by.
Finally, evening arrived. Duan Fang sighed and turned to Li Hong, taking a long look at the face of the man he loved. This would be the last time they saw each other. Since Li Hong wasn’t willing to make an offer of his own he could only bid these sentiments goodbye and bury them at the bottom of his heart. From now on, he had to be open to something else. He would have to think on behalf of his husband from now on even if he was unable to fall in love with whoever that would be. That was just how life was.
“Duan Fang …” Li Hong looked back at him, his gaze growing even more complicated. He didn’t want to lose him but he didn’t want to drag him down either. What should he do? He had thought about it since the moment Duan Fang mentioned that he had to get married but he couldn’t decide.
If he asked whether he could imagine to marry him but Duan Fang wasn’t willing after he told him everything … then even if his husband allowed him to go out later on, wouldn’t their relationship worsen or even break apart? But if Duan Fang married somebody else and his husband locked him up in the back courtyard, then everything was for naught and he would regret it for a lifetime. They wouldn’t be able to see each other either. Then where would be the difference?
His own guilty conscience, his own regrets, a life worse than death for Duan Fang. Could he allow himself to let that happen? Just because he felt insecure and doubted his chances? If he didn’t take a risk, then how would he know?
Li Hong glanced at the ground and took a deep breath. He couldn’t foresee the future. He didn’t have time to ponder any longer either. If he didn’t speak up now, then he might lose this person forever.
He looked up again, his gaze brimming with determination although his heart was beating madly and his back was drenched in sweat. “Duan Fang. Would you …” He took another deep breath, trying to calm himself down. “Would you be able to imagine marrying a man even if … he wasn’t quite like the others and there might be things you’d miss out on if you were with him?”
Duan Fang looked at Li Hong, not understanding what he meant. Was he asking him whether he wanted to … marry him? But what could Li Hong be lacking? He parted his lips but still didn’t know what to say. He didn’t dare to keep quiet though. If there was a chance, he couldn’t risk it. “I’m unsure if I understand what Young Master Li is saying.”
Li Hong turned to look at the blossoms again, feeling nauseous. Would Duan Fang think lesser of him if he admitted to it? After all the time they had known each other, he couldn’t imagine it. Duan Fang wasn’t that superficial. He still couldn’t help but worry. “I mean if … if there was a man that … although he loved you, he wouldn’t be attracted to you in … a physical way.”
Duan Fang blinked his eyes. “Can there be such a thing?”
Li Hong stiffened, making Duan Fang regret his words.
“I … I mean if there was, then … I guess it is enough if he … if he loves me?” He wasn’t sure if he understood what Li Hong meant though. After all, how could one love somebody but not desire them physically? But regardless of what the answer was, hadn’t he decided that he wanted to try? He loved Li Hong. Whatever the other man’s feelings for him were, if he could live at his side, he would be content.
Duan Fang nodded to himself, keeping his gaze trained on Li Hong’s eyes. “If I love him … then I won’t ask for anything from him. Not even his love. But if he loved me back, then all my wishes in this life would be fulfilled.”
Li Hong heaved a sigh of relief. He could see that Duan Fang was unsure about what he had meant but, at the very least, he hadn’t outright rejected him and he seemed firm in his decision that love alone would be enough. That was already good. More than that, even. “Duan Fang, if that’s the case, then … do you want to marry me?”
Duan Fang’s heart fluttered and his determined gaze unwittingly softened. He wasn’t daydreaming, was he? “Do you want to marry me?” he asked back, his lips curving into a careful smile. He didn’t dare hope yet. It had taken too long. He couldn’t believe that things would turn out well just like that.
Li Hong nodded. “Very much so. I was just afraid that I might burden you. Marrying me … it might not be as fulfilling as you hope it to be.”
Duan Fang lowered his gaze, unable to conceal his happiness any longer. “Even if it was, then wouldn’t that be my problem? You don’t have to worry about it.”
“Loving somebody also means worrying about them, isn’t that so? Well, since you don’t mind, then … I’ll come over to your family’s home tomorrow to talk to your father. Would that be acceptable?”
Duan Fang nodded. “Mn. I think he wants to prepare for my wedding fast. If Young Master Li waits any longer, he might give me away to somebody else.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there.”
The two of them fell silent for a spell before Li Hong sighed. “It has gotten late. I should send you back. Do you think I should accompany you?”
Duan Fang’s smiled broadened. It seemed Li Hong was serious about this. “Well, then you’d have to tell my father immediately …”
“I don’t mind. Isn’t it better if he knows sooner? I don’t want to arrive at your family’s house tomorrow only to be told that you were ushered into another man’s home at dawn.”
“I doubt that would happen.”
“Who knows?” Li Hong motioned to the door. “Let’s go. Even if I don’t talk things through with him today, I can at least inform him about my intentions.”
The two of them walked to the carriage side by side, still one step apart as if nothing had changed but both their hearts felt lighter. Li Hong helped Duan Fang into the carriage and they sat next to each other, quietly enjoying each other’s company.
Duan Fang couldn’t help but glance at Li Hong every now and then, his heart thumping every time he did. Ah, to think that the man he loved was willing to marry him … He still couldn’t help but feel that it was too good to be true. Looking at him reassured him a little. If he could, he would have reached out and taken his hand but he was afraid it might be too much. After all, Li Hong had only just asked him and had even insinuated that he wasn’t physically attracted to him. Although Duan Fang didn’t understand yet what exactly that was supposed to mean, it made him feel that touching him might be unwanted.
Li Hong glanced over at Duan Fang from the corner of his eye when he felt his gaze once more, his hands sweating. Was Duan Fang thinking about what he had said before? Was he reconsidering? But he had seemed happy … Li Hong finally couldn’t take it any longer. He turned to him and cleared his throat. “Duan Fang …”
“Yes?” Duan Fang faced him, his lips unwittingly curving into a smile. Even if his body wasn’t desired, having Li Hong’s heart was enough. Wasn’t that what he had always dreamed of?
Seeing Duan Fang’s expression, Li Hong felt stupid. Why was he worrying so much? He was way too insecure about this! He cleared his throat again and then smiled as well. “I saw you glancing over. Is something the matter?”
Duan Fang tightened his lips and his gaze darted around. He didn’t know where to begin. He glanced at Li Hong’s hands again. Whatever it was that Li Hong had meant before, he would be able to live with it. But he should at least make sure, shouldn’t he? “Young Master Li … I don’t want to be insensitive but … can I ask you something?”
“Of course.” Li Hong tilted his head, watching Duan Fang’s expression while waiting for him to speak up.
“I just … I’m afraid I don’t understand what exactly you meant before when you said that … you weren’t attracted to me physically. Is it that … you don’t want me to get close?” He paused and then lowered his head again. “Would you like me to keep a distance in the future? Even after we’re married? I mean … I can do that!” He rushed to look up and reassure Li Hong. “If you don’t like it if I touch you, then I won’t. I’ll walk three steps apart from you and make sure you never have to see my body or —”
Li Hong shook his head and gave a wry smile. “You’re thinking too much. Actually …” He reached out, offering Duan Fang his hand. “I don’t mind being close to you. In fact, I like it. If you would sit closer and just hold my hand, I would feel like the happiest man alive.”
“Then …” Duan Fang glanced at the hand that was still being offered and hesitantly reached out.
Li Hong smiled, clasping his fingers around Duan Fang’s before he inched closer. “I’m sorry if I confused you. I was in a rush before because I feared you might leave without me ever telling you my feelings and then getting married to another man while I remain alone, wondering each day if things could have been different if I just spoke up. I didn’t make myself clear enough.”
Duan Fang nodded slowly. “I see. Then, would you mind explaining now? I … I’d like to understand.”
“I don’t know if I can explain in a manner that will make sense to you but I’ll try.” He took a deep breath, keeping his gaze trained on Duan Fang’s hand that was tightly held in his to reassure himself. He wouldn’t lose him just because he revealed his innermost thoughts. “Since I was young I would look at others and even though I would sometimes think that a woman was beautiful or that a man was very handsome, I never thought any more than that. When I heard others talk about how they wanted to get married to these people and be intimate with them or wanted to visit … a flower house to take care of their needs, I only ever wondered why.
“I’ve never … desired to do any of these things. With no one. The thought never crossed my mind and the longer that was the case, the more I couldn’t help but feel that something was wrong with me. I was wondering whether I should even get married or not.
“Well, it’s not like I could have refused to do so. My family wouldn’t have allowed that but I still feel that I’ve let my wife down. And I never could have imagined doing that to another person again. Especially not a person I love.”
Duan Fang examined his expression, taking in the way his eyes drooped and his smile stiffened. Obviously, he had suffered from these thoughts. No wonder he hadn’t proposed to him. He hadn’t wanted to get married. And now … he changed that conviction for him. Thinking about it like that, he felt sweet. “I don’t mind.” Yes, since Li Hong loved him enough to do this there was no reason to mind anything. What he felt or not … How was it important? This man was so good to him, he would need to lack eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to feel to think that he would be shortchanged in this relationship. Finding a man like Li Hong was his good luck cultivated from prior lifetimes.
Li Hong’s smile brightened and he squeezed Duan Fang’s hands. “It’s nice that you’re saying this but I would understand if you changed your mind in the future. To be honest, since we’re both men I wouldn’t mind if you went out sometimes to … take care of it in another way.”
Duan Fang’s eyes widened. Was his husband-to-be telling him to … cheat on him with another person after marriage?
Li Hong sighed at this look. “I know that it isn’t romantic to say this. To be honest, suggesting it hurts. But … I don’t want to be the reason for you to miss out on something and I feel that my lack of interest in these matters might result in that so … I would understand.
“Although I would like it if we could try to work something out first. After all, it’s not like I can’t do it at all. It’s just that I’d likely not take the initiative so you might not feel as comfortable getting intimate with me. I want you to be prepared for that and understand what it will mean for your life with me. Right now, I still haven’t talked to your father. You can still take back your previous words and marry someone else.”
Duan Fang shook his head and reached out with his other hand too, clasping Li Hong’s hand. “I won’t. Young Master Li, maybe I’m being too direct but I’ve liked you since long ago. Even if you never touched me, I’d still take that over being with a man I don’t love.”
“Mn. Don’t worry. I won’t let you down. We will figure out together how to go about it.”
Duan Fang nodded and looked at their hands again. To be honest, he could take it even if Li Hong only shared the bed with him once or twice a year. Sure, he would like it if they were closer than that but he didn’t want to force anything. As long as he didn’t have to keep away from him and could get close to him like this, then everything was alright.
Just holding his hand … might be enough. It still made him feel that he was a special person to Li Hong, that the man he loved wasn’t indifferent to him. In fact, Li Hong opening up to him and admitting how he felt about something he might have never told to anybody else made him feel like he was the most important person to him. Even if he couldn’t fully understand, he could at least be sure that he held a place in his heart.
That, for sure, was enough.
I hope you liked this story and I hope you’ll take the time to read this personal message that comes with “Just Hold My Hand”.
I wrote this story for the Asexual Awareness Week 2019 because, in that year, I figured out that I am asexual and aromantic. This realization took a burden from me that I hadn’t even known I was carrying. Before that, I had often felt a disconnect from the people around me, an alienation that made me wonder if there was something wrong about me.
Only when I stumbled upon the term asexual — and sometime later aromantic — did I realize that I was simply not as heterosexual as the things I had seen while growing up had made me believe.
“Just Hold My Hand” is the result of this journey. The story can’t speak for the experience of all aces since asexuality is a spectrum covering many identities but it is part of what I have experienced: Duan Fang’s questions to Li Hong are the self-doubts I felt for many years before realizing my sexuality. Li Hong’s explanation is me coming to terms with this part of my identity but he is also my reluctance of getting involved in a relationship.
This story is very personal but I hope that it’ll help to spread awareness of what asexuality is or at least of what it can be. And I hope that by doing so, it can — somewhere down the line — contribute to somebody else’s realization about their sexuality so that this person won’t have to doubt themselves as long as I did and won’t have to experience the same feeling of alienation I felt, freeing them from the burden they might otherwise carry.
Yan Su Su
PS: If this story or my message spoke to you, then maybe you’d like to visit the website of AVEN, the Asexual Visibility and Education Network, at http://www.asexuality.org to learn more about asexuality and help spread the word.
After announcing it for a week, here is “Just Hold My Hand”. If you remember my post from last week, you might be wondering “What about the Hobbits and Marilyn Monroe now?”
Well, today’s my 25th birthday and Hobbits celebrate their birthdays by giving out presents instead of receiving them so I had long planned to write a story for you guys. As for Marilyn Monroe … You can probably guess after the note originally accompanying the story so yeah, just this much: Today, Asexual Awareness Week hits off which is very important to me because I would have been happy had I known about it (and asexuality as a whole) much, much sooner. So this story is a first step for me to spread some awareness this week.
As for the rest of the week: I’ll post some personal stuff, talk a bit about asexuality in my other stories, and also put together a list of gay romance featuring aces that I’ve thrown on my to-be-read list. (Might even manage a review if I’m fast 😁)
Anyway, consider this my coming out 😊