Chapter 1 The End
"Do I know you?"
I stood there, shell-shocked, unable to move as tears streamed endlessly down my cheeks. He looked at me, flustered, and patted his clothes, obviously looking for something to dry my tears. When it was clear he had nothing, he stared at me awkwardly for a moment longer, then started walking away. I stared after him. Him turning away from me, his back as he walked out of my life, possibly forever; it was all too familiar, all too crushing. I couldn't, physically couldn't, watched him leave again, yet my eyes refused to look away, refusing to relinquish what might be their last image of him. I slowly raised my arms and took my glasses off. Perhaps the blurriness of the scene would reduce the pain. Suddenly he stopped walking. I held my breath. Will you look back? Just one more glance? Liked I wanted you to the last time we saw each other? He turned slightly. My heart stopped beating. But he only hesitated for a second before walking away again. I bit my lips from crying out. Of course, of course, he would leave. He doesn't know me, doesn't love me. Even when he did love me, he left, refusing to see me for the last time. No, a cruel voice in my head whispered, he refused to see you because he didn't love you. He didn't love you then, doesn't love you now. The thought overwhelmed me and I collapsed to the ground, pain crippling my body. My heart laid broken on the floor next to me, shattered like the first magnolia hairpin he gave me centuries ago. The magnolia hairpin. A thought tugged at the corner of my mind and I grasped onto it, pushing everything else away. Mustering all of my strength, I stood up, put on my glasses, and went over to the painting that proved my, Maertai Ruoxi's, existence. I knew this scene. It was after I ended things with Eight prince, after I opened my heart to Fourth prince, before it all fell apart. That day, I have made a new dessert for the Emperor and the princes, delighting them all. All but one. A ghost of a smile flitted across my lips as I remembered the look on Fourth prince's face when he realized that his dessert was filled with salt. The normally cool and composed Fourth prince was actually caught off guard and had to work to control his expression. Fresh tears sprung in my eyes but I impatiently blinked them away. I needed to see this clearly. The painting was incredibly detailed, from the clothing patterns to the furniture carvings, all was depicted perfectly. Except for one thing. My fingers lightly traced the magnolia hairpin over the glass. I was not wearing the hairpin that day. I was completely sure. Before Fourth prince became emperor, the only time I wore the hairpin was when I asked him to marry me. Why then, did the hairpin appear here? For the painting to be so detailed, it had to have been described by someone who was there at the time. If that was the case, it must have been Fourth prince. Only he and I knew the significance of the hairpin. But why? I closed my eyes in frustration. Why did you do that? You hated me. So why? Why include the symbol of our love in this painting? My eyes flew opened. The answer suddenly became so obvious in my head that it was amazing I didn't see it earlier. He didn't hate me. He loved me. That's why he did it. That was his way of telling me. He loved me. My fingers touched his face over the glass.
"You love me," I whispered
The truth of the simple statement coursed through my body and relief flooded my heart, along with both joy and bitterness.
"You love me," I repeated
How could I have thought otherwise? He was Fourth prince, my Fourth prince. As much as he hated, he loved infinitely more. He would never, could never, have forgotten me. But then what happened? Why didn't you come? As soon as the question entered my mind, I pushed it away. It was no longer important. He loved me. That was all that mattered. I smiled through my tears as my fingers caressed his face.
"I love you," I whispered
Those were my last words as Maertai Ruoxi.
"You seemed better," my mom observed over breakfast days later
I smiled at her, "I feel better," I replied
She smiled back at me, blinking away tears that have formed in her eyes. Guilt twisted my stomach as I thought of what she had gone through because of me. She and my father were on vacation at the time of my accident, and my brother kept it a secret, not wanting them to worry. Only when I woke up were they notified of the situation. They flew back immediately and stayed by my side almost twenty four seven. Even when the doctors cleared my health, my mom insisted on more checkups, noting my despondent mood and lack of appetite. My doctor assured her that it was normal for patients with brain injuries to behave slightly abnormal for a while, but she was persistent. Though all my tests came out normal, my mom was still worried, her maternal instinct telling her that something wasn't right. She had decided to stay with me when I got discharged from the hospital, refusing to back to Beijing with my dad. I tried to persuade her, even enlisting the help of my brother, but to no avail.
"I'll go home when I feel that you're fine," she said
And it was clear to her, no matter what the doctor's report said, that I wasn't. I tried to act normal but there was no fooling my mother. She saw straight through my bravado smiles, to the true melancholy in my eyes.
"What's wrong, sweetheart?" she asked softly over dinner one night, while I was struggling to swallow more than two spoonfuls of soup.
I looked up, the obligatory "nothing" right on my lips, but seeing her, with so much worry and love in her eyes, stopped me. A lump got stuck on my throat and I just couldn't pretend anymore. Tears streamed down my face as sobs after sobs tore themselves out of my body. I didn't hear her move, but suddenly my mother's arms were around me, holding me tight, stroking my hair. She didn't say anything, but no words were needed. I cried myself to sleep in her arms that night, like I often did as a child over much smaller problems. The very next day, I was determined to get better, if not for my sake, then for my family. I wouldn't allow myself to hurt those who love me again. With that resolve, I went to the local library, to research the fates of Maertai Ruoxi's and those surrounding her. Knowing the final endings of the princes was a kind of bittersweet torture. It hurt but it allowed me to have some sort of closure. However, tried as I might, I couldn't find out what happened to Maertai Ruoxi. That name appeared nowhere in historical records, not even in the list of Fourteenth prince's wives. I began to wonder whether it was all a dream, all the happiness, the pain, the love. That was until I saw myself in that painting, until I saw him standing in front of me, until I saw the magnolia hairpin, until I knew that he loved me.
The knowledge of Fourth prince's love was better than any kind of medicine, filling me with strength. It was what I needed to put the past behind me and move on with my life as Zhang Xiao. Along with my mother's care, I wasgetting better, adjusting to my life in modern times once again. I still remembered Fourth prince's advice to me when we first met, "make the best of the situation." That time, I needed to completely become Maertai Ruoxi to protect both my and Jie'jie's lives. It was the same now. I needed to go on living now, so my family can go on living too.
"I'm sorry, Mom," I whispered, "for worrying you."
She reached across the table for my hand, squeezing it gently, "Don't be silly. I'm your mother. That's what I do. That's what I'm here for."
"I'm fine now," I said, smiling, "You should go home, Mom. You know Dad can't cook. I don't know how he's been surviving without you."
She raised an eyebrow, "Trying to get rid of me already?" she teased
"Actually," I said slowly, "I was thinking about going with you."
My mom's eyes widened in surprised.
I shrugged, "I'm kind of tired of life here. I'm thinking of making a fresh start. My company has a branch in Beijing and I thought I could apply for a transfer."
My mom blinked away new tears as she came over to hug me.
"Oh, honey. That would be great. I would love for you to come home."
Enveloped in her warm embrace, I knew I made the right decision.
"I can't believe you're doing this," my brother, Zhang Min, said, as he handed me some of my books
"I think you mentioned that a couple of hundred times now," I replied casually as I looked at the books in my hand and, a minute deliberation, tossed them in the box.
My application for the work transfer took less time than I thought to get approved. In a week, I would be moving from my apartment here to the company's apartment in Beijing, which was a couple of blocks away from my parents' home. My mom had already left, wanting to get everything ready for me there, but my brother stayed behind to help me pack.
He shook his head, "Don't misunderstand, I'm ecstatic. But I just don't get it. You were so excited to leave home. You basically ran from your graduation ceremony to the airport. So why the change of mind?"
Growing up as the youngest child and only daughter of a university professor and dance teacher, I often felt suffocated. My father was a kind and calm man, but years of teaching had made him a tough disciplinary. He was the one who taught me how to read and was the one who expanded my readings beyond the obligatory school books. He would give me texts from ancient philosophers and encouraged me to form my own opinions from their writings. Sunday dinners usually meant lengthy book discussions. I used to love having those conversations with my dad, but as I got older, I began to grow weary of them. My mom, a dancer in her own time, made sure that I would not lack in the art department. She would bring me to dance lessons, art lessons, singing lessons, and even taught me to cook at home. Though I did enjoy some of the activities, I resented at being forced to go to them. When it was time for me to go to college, the obvious choice was Peking University, where my father teaches. It was a prestigious university and I was thrilled to be accepted, but a part of me long to get away. So, when I graduated, I purposely applied for jobs in different cities. Thinking back now, I wondered how much that had hurt my parents. It took years, but I now realized that those Sunday conversations was my dad's way of bonding with me, and all those lessons my mom arranged was so I could find something to be passionate about, just as she was passionate about dance. Of course, going back to ancient times and thinking that I would never see my parents again helped put things in perspective.
Ge'ge glanced at me cautiously when I didn't answered, "It's not just to get away from that cheating bastard boyfriend of yours, is it?"
"Ex-boyfriend," I corrected, "And no, that's not it."
He continued to look at me doubtfully. Sighing, I turned to face him.
"Life is…fleeting," I replied, "Before, all I wanted to do was to get away, to be free. But now I know that freedom and family aren't exclusively from one another. If I had died in that accident, the thing I would regret the most is not spending enough time with Mom and Dad. They raised me, cared for me, loved me, and I abandon them for something…something that is no longer important. Family is most important to me now. Being here by myself isn't freedom, it's loneliness." A loneliness I experienced too much of already. I closed my eyes briefly, "I want to be with you guys. I don't want to lose you. I don't want to be alone again." I choked on the last word as tears threatened to fall down my cheeks.
"Hey," Ge'ge said softly, pulling me in for a hug, "You will never be alone nor will you ever lose us. No matter where you are, we're your family, and that will never change." He patted my back soothingly, "But I'm glad you're coming back, Xiao Xiao. I've missed you."
I took comfort from his warmth, hugging him back.
"My little sister is not so little anymore," Ge'ge said wistfully, "You know, you've really matured, Xiao Xiao. You were in a coma for a couple of weeks but it seemed like you aged ten years,"
I choked back a laugh. He had no idea how close to the truth he was.
A/N: I know this have been done a million times over, but I wish to do a fresh take of the sequel on my own. This is my first attempt to write in first person so I know that there are many mistakes, but I hope you enjoy the story just the same. See you soon!