Season of Waiting
The thing about having too much free time was that it left you to ponder about your life. Sometimes, it made you think about things that you would rather not think about, that made you become desperate to keep busy. Still, the plain truth was, when you're watching over ancestral altars, there's not much to keep you busy.
What was there for a man to think about? He supposed, since he was caring for his parents' altars, he might be inclined to think about them. But thinking of them led to thoughts of him, and thoughts of him were always filled with resentment. It was useless to waste his days on resentment.
He didn't like to think too much of his other brothers either, because it would taunt him with memories of a time when they could gather in one place and not want to kill one another. It made the present state seem like such a slap in the face.
His wives? What was there to think about?
So more often than not, he thought of her.
He knew she was never truly his wife. In society, it was recognised, perhaps, but it was never exactly lawful nor fulfilled. Even if it was recorded, he suspected Lao Si might find a way to get rid of that, like he still finally managed to take her away.
Lao Si could take the remains, but he couldn't take away the thoughts, the memories. Those stayed. They stayed now, constantly, by his side. They were a part of her.
He wasn't like Eighth Brother. He never knew love at first sight.
He wasn't like Fourth Brother. He didn't love with a burning passion that ended up scorching her.
He simply loved her.
The truth was, he never expected romantic love in his life. It was useless to expect it in a marriage, as most of his marriages were never his choice to begin with. Besides, he didn't need it, and the world apparently still turned without it.
So to him, she was a childhood friend, who could always be counted on for a laugh. He was honestly and sincerely happy when it looked like there would be a future for her and Eighth Brother. He was happy for Eighth Brother but equally for her.
Later, when she ended things with Eighth Brother, he was angry. He had truly never been so angry with any woman before. Then, he thought it was because of his brother. After all, hadn't his brother's heart suffered enough? And didn't she want this happiness?
He didn't know since when that her happiness became so important to him. He only knew now, that back then, he wasn't so much angry for his brother as it was for her. He truly believed she would have been happy with Eighth Brother, and he wanted her to have that happiness. How she deserved it! Yet she was throwing it away! Wasn't that enough reason for his anger?
It was the wish for her happiness that made him terrified when she seemed to be moving too fast towards Fourth Brother. Lao Si was cold, aloof, distant, whereas his strongest impression of Ruo Xi had always been how alive, warm and fiery she was at Tenth Brother's birthday. How could such two people find happiness? How could Ruo Xi even consider Fourth Brother in the first place?
After that fiasco with the Crown Prince, he became terrified of whose hands she might fall into next, that he began to hint to his father that he wanted her for his own. It wasn't love (so he told himself then), it was a desperate desire to keep her safe. With him, she could be free be her own lively, happy self, right? He could keep his wives in check, he didn't have Ming Hui to belittle her and he wouldn't dampen her spirits with coldness.
Except, he forgot for a moment her fierceness when she fought with Ming Yu all those years ago. He forgot that this was a woman who had already attempted to refuse the Crown Prince and had no qualm about refusing him.
He was a prince and she had dared refused him. By right, he should be furious. By right, he should think she got all that she deserved in exile. So why was it that when he came to see her, he only wanted to take her as far away from there as possible?
And just why, in Heaven's name, did he do the unthinkable and ask for her again? His father was none too pleased with Ruo Xi's refusal and punished her duly for it. For him to press the issue further was like playing with fire. He might as well be asking for an equal bolt of anger from the Emperor for placing aside his rightful pride and asking for a woman who already dared to refuse him once. Neither as a prince nor as a man was this remotely dignified. Up to this day, he wasn't even sure why his father granted him this wish.
When he took that imperial edict in hand, he knew he was tempting fate. There were too many reasons why this edict might never be fulfilled and all of it had to do with Ruo Xi. By taking the edict, in a way, he was placing himself into chains: he was accepting the fate of waiting. Waiting for the palace to wear her out, waiting for a day when she might finally see that regardless of whom her heart belonged to, she always had a resting place with him. He would shelter her from the storms and give her strength, or else bear it with her, like he did once before when she knelt in the rain to beg for Lu Wu to join Thirteenth Brother in exile.
When she became Lao Si's woman, he knew the edict might never see the light of day again. In those years, he tried not to think too much of Ruo Xi. He told himself it was because he couldn't bear to think how she might be unhappy with Lao Si.
The truth was, it terrified him more to think of her being happy with Lao Si.
Still, he didn't hesitate to act when Thirteenth came with her agreement. He didn't even think about how it would look for him to marry Ruo Xi now. He only knew that she needed him to save her now and he would not leave her now. Nothing else mattered.
He told himself he married her only because he was her friend, and he was the surest and safest way for her to leave her prison. He told himself that it didn't matter that she was never his and that she still forever was Fourth Brother's Ruo Xi. He told himself that he didn't care who was in her heart, because, after all, he didn't think of her that way. He was simply a resting place for her, giving her peace.
So why did it hurt when she mistook him for Fourth Brother? Their names, so similar, had always been a source of all the love and hate between them. It ensured that for his entire life, he won't ever be able to forget Fourth Brother. Now, those names also took away his last hope that Ruo Xi might, after all this time, feel something remotely resembling the love he felt for her.
The devastating thing was, he didn't realise all this until the very end. He always found a way to convince himself that his concern, his care for her, had always been due to friendship, and that Thirteenth Brother would do the same. But the truth was, no matter how close Thirteenth Brother was to Ruo Xi, he probably never once thought about marrying her, not like he did. It wouldn't be because of Fourth Brother, either, but simply because Thirteenth Brother never saw Ruo Xi that way. To Thirteenth Brother, Ruo Xi was always purely a friend, a brother.
He did not doubt that Thirteenth Brother wished to protect Ruo Xi like he did, but he didn't want to just protect her. He wanted to protect her, cherish her, keep her safe. He wanted to keep her always like that lively, laughing girl at the birthday party all those years ago, who wouldn't hesitate from slapping and scolding whiny princesses in front of half a dozen princes. It was impossible to keep her this way for always, of course. But he always wished.
All this, he realised only when he spoke the words.
Ruo Xi, in your next life, would you still remember me?
It wasn't even a declaration of love. It was simply an expression of the longings he never till now realised he had, that she might feel a fraction of what he felt. It was then, when she declared that she only wished to forget them all, that he knew his heart broke. It was only then that he knew he had loved her all along.