I drifted off for a while. No, I wouldn't call it sleep because on some level I was conscious of the passage of time and unfortunately, also painfully attuned to my severe headache and burning body. I tried in vain to persuade my weary body that I needed to sleep. But the level of my discomfort had escalated to the point that I could no longer tolerate it. That combined with the overwhelmingly frustrating admittance that I had accomplished nothing today despite the time pressure only thrust me further into the awareness of my own futility. Suddenly angry with myself, I struggled to sit up, pushing against the bed with trembling elbows. My headache worsened and I could feel the blood pounding against my skull in protest. Yet I couldn't afford the luxury of wasting time. I needed to achieve something. I need to be preoccupied so I could at least delude myself into thinking that I was working towards something useful. In retrospect, my whole life had been established upon this haste. I feared time would leave me behind with nothing to cling onto. There was always something waiting to be done, always some opportunity waiting to be exploited, always someone else who would not hesitate for a second to overtake you.
I was trying to tame my throbbing head when Xue spoke, "What are you doing?"
I could feel a layer of moisture accumulating over my eyes, but I contained them. Come to think of it, tears were also a waste of time. Self-pity would solve nothing. "I'm going to look for a way out of the forest."
"Your body would seem to dictate otherwise. Listen to it." Xue slid down the bed so he was beside me. Although I couldn't see his face in the darkness, I could hear his rhythmic breathing and the cool sensation of his hand on my forehead. "This fever is impairing the little judgment you had left."
Annoyance further fueling my anger, I pushed his arm away and threw up the quilt covering my legs. The breeze felt pleasant on my bare skin. Overestimating my physical state, I stepped onto the floor only to have my knees buckle. My frustration intensified. And I cried genuinely for the first time in ten years. I hated myself for crying, even more so for crying in front of someone else. Crying was for the weak, for the helpless, and presently, I fit both categories.
The quilt fell over my shoulders, wrapping me in its embrace. Even without looking, I knew Xue had dropped down in front of the sobbing mess that was once the prideful me.
"Don't look at me!" I shouted pathetically, drawing my arms out of the blanket and shielding my face.
He made no gesture to avert his eyes. Rather he continued to stare at me resolutely. "I can't see your face. Ignore me if you want. I'm just here to ensure you don't die under my roof."
Liar. We were sitting right under the beam of moonlight that stole through the window. I could see his face perfectly so there was never any doubt he could also see me with the same clarity. If I had been in the right state of mind, I would have shoved the blatant lie down his throat. Instead, however, I laughed.
Seeing my conflicted face trying to decide between weeping and laughing while also simultaneously doing both, Xue let out a chain of laughter as well. He held my cheeks gently and used his thumbs to brush aside the salty droplets clinging to my face. "Did you know you are beautiful when you are you?"
I halted my sniffling and breathing altogether and glared at him as if he had told me he was actually a woman. "Who are you?"
"So you impression of me is someone who lies ruthlessly? I'm merely stating the truth." He shrugged as he shoved my exposed arm back into the quilt.
"No, I'm surprised because you just complimented me."
He lifted me, quilt and all, back onto the bed. Leaning over me, he replied, "Don't dismiss the implied detail that you aren't your true self most of the time."
"I have always been my true self." I stated uncompromisingly as my gaze strayed toward the wall behind him, disconnecting eye contact.
"Why don't you look at me while you say that? It will make the lie much more convincing."
Blazing with defiance, I snapped my gaze up and was about to open my mouth to repeat my words when Xue bent down and tenderly pressed his lips onto mine. His hand lightly brushed against my cheek and eventually found its way to the nape of my neck.
To be honest, I enjoyed his kiss. I wanted to pull his body closer. But the realization that the kiss was not meant for me stopped me from responding. Taking advantage of the rush of adrenaline, I shoved his chest backwards and reprimanded myself silently for feeling slightly disappointed as his lips parted from mine. "I'm not Tianyang! Don't confuse me with her! I'm Xia!" I screamed at him while frantically wiping at my lips.
After a minute of silent contemplation, he lifted his head and searched my face. "Is it good or bad that I did that knowing full well you are Xia?"
I was speechless. There was no reason for him to lie at this point, after he had already admitted I resembled his love closely, at least appearance-wise anyway. Yet the truth made no sense. Why would he kiss me? Did he like me? No, that was impossible. But…what was the irritating spark of hope fluttering within me? I couldn't like him. That was also…impossible.
He ran a hand through his hair, evidently as baffled as me. "Forget it. Just go back to sleep. I don't want to see a corpse in the morning."
And so, without any protest, I obediently slid back under the covers. Xue returned to his previous position beside me, although there was a noticeable gap between us that hadn't been there before.
I desperately tried to erase any thoughts of Xue. Unfortunately, the harder I tried, the deeper he crept into my consciousness. Before I could stop myself, I found myself wondering whether Xue was cold without the quilt. What if he became sick? He didn't look like the type to ever be sick, but then again, those people were in fact the weakest and most prone to sickness.
"I'm c-cold." I stammered, purposely clattering my teeth.
"You already have the quilt." He said indifferently. However, in stark contrast to his words, he slid under the quilt after a while, probably when he decided I had already fallen asleep. By the gradually increasing warmth on my back, I could sense Xue was moving as close to me as possible without actually touching me. He pulled the quilt higher up so that I was covered from neck down. I fell asleep in darkened silence, adorned with Xue's calm breathing.
Why is it so hot? I groaned and rubbed my eyes groggily, annoyed at the excessive heat. I soon found the source of heat and on many levels, I wish I hadn't. Apparently sometime during the night I had curled up next to Xue and had thrown my arm and leg over him. Berating myself for my carelessness, I immediately sat up and disrupted all body contact between us. No wonder it was so sweltering hot. I had a fever and Xue added to the temperature by radiating his own body heat. I reached up to wipe sweat off my forehead when I realized my forehead was abnormally cool for someone who was supposed to have a fever. Furthermore, I no longer had a headache nor felt the slightest discomfort. The fever had receded in a night. Lucky! This meant I could get back to work today. Wait a minute…if I didn't have a fever, then what was the source of that intense heat? Slowly, my eyes traced to Xue's back. He was usually up much earlier than me and the magnitude of my movement should have more than woken him given his acute sensitivity. Oh no…
I crawled to Xue and tentatively placed my palm on his forehead. I didn't even need to compare the temperature with my own forehead to conclude that Xue had a fever. Oh God, he must have caught it when he kissed me last night! Damn it Xue! Who was the one always telling me to think before I act?
I couldn't go outside and retrieve medicine, food, or even water for him because I probably wouldn't come back alive. There was nothing I could do but stand and watch. But at that point I wasn't panicked since a fever was rarely lethal. After all, if I could survive through it, I was confident Xue would have no problem defeating that same virus. That was before I saw the contorted look of pain on his face. Following my intuition, I peeled the quilt away and saw that he was clutching helplessly onto his stomach. When I had pried open his garment, I panicked. There were layers of bandages wrapped around his abdomen, which was a clear enough indication of injury even without the red patches soaking through. A freshly open injury and a fever could only mean one thing: infection. Even Xue couldn't battle off a reopened wound, a fever, and an infection simultaneously. He needed medical attention and even then recovery can't be guaranteed since I had no idea how long the infection had persisted. But I was certain of one thing: the longer Xue went without treatment, the higher chance his life would be in danger. Worse, no one knew except for me. I was the only one who could save him. Yet his life would mean my death as to help him I would have to reveal myself.
I may have no control over death, but I could choose the reason for it. If I'm going to die, I might as well save a life rather than prolonging it at Xue's expense.
I took a deep breath at the door. And before my determination wore thin, I pushed open the door and ran for the center of the camp, screaming for help. "SOMEONE HELP! XUE'S SICK! SOMEONE GO GET LIU HUA! PLEASE!"
I never reached the center of the camp. At approximately one fourth of the way, one of the men had caught me and forced me on the ground with my hands restrained behind my back. "Please help Xue! He's going to die if you don't get Liu Hua right now! I'm begging you!" Tears were streaming down my face and soaking the soil below me. My vision was blurred and my arms were burning from the pressure the man was applying to them. But I didn't care. As long as Xue was saved, it didn't particularly matter what happened to me.
"Someone go fetch Miss Liu Hua! Commander Xue is in dire need of medical attention." A man from somewhere behind me commanded. The delay was probably due to his verification of the legitimacy of my alarm.
"Thank you." I whispered, closed my eyes and stopped struggling.
Since Xue had been addressed, the men's attention turned towards me. The man who was restraining me pulled to my feet only to strike the back of my knees, forcing me to a kneeling position. "Who are you?"
Another man, whose voice I recognized as the one who had called for Liu Hua, came around to see my face. After a brief inspection, his eyes widened in surprise, "I know you. You are the traitor Commander Xue was supposed to have killed."
"Are you sure?" The first man asked gruffly.
By now around ten men have gathered in front of me in a semicircle. Most of them helped validate the assertion that I was the Imperial spy who should have been dead by Xue's hands.
"Why are you still alive? Why were you in the Commander's dwelling?" The man who had recognized me asked.
I could have told them the truth. None of them would believe it and Xue would face an interrogation once he regained his health. Since I was going to help him, I might as well carry it out to the end. "Xue couldn't kill me in cold blood. Instead, he let the forest do the job. But I found my way back and decided to take up shelter in his house for the night. I met no resistance from him but it was probably because he had already been sick then. This morning I saw his condition and decided I might as well repay my debt. A life for a life."
Although none of them made any remarks immediately, I could see a few men with admiration for their Commander gleaming in their eyes. No one dared to articulate that opinion because it meant admitting weakness. Yet it was clear that many of them approved of Xue's inability to kill a woman. Well, Xue, this is as far as I can help you. The rest is up to you.
"What should we do with her?" The man pressing me down on my knees asked the others.
From amidst them, I saw one man step forward. He was the man who had caught me trying to escape the first time and it was obvious from his earlier actions that he had a remarkable distaste for leniency. "She's an Imperial spy. The information she could relay to the palace is detrimental to us. The Commander made a mistake letting her go the first time. Let us not repeat that mistake. Besides, as far as I'm concerned, she was probably the one that inflicted the wound on the Commander while he was in his sleep."
"So you propose?"
"We kill her."