Even though Hou Dong would’ve liked to ask about his doubts immediately, he also knew that it wasn’t the right moment yet. He should take some time to make himself at home and let Kanuen sort his thoughts before he started to ask. Thus he took a look around. There wasn’t much in the room other than a bed, a trunk that was probably used for storing clothes and a small altar on the other side. There wasn’t even a desk.
Hou Dong raised his brows, his gaze resting on the altar. Kanuen had already told him that the people in his country took their belief much more seriously than his people in Hua but he wouldn’t have expected that it was to this degree. It made him slightly anxious.
If he as an outsider who didn’t believe in the god of Sou wanted to make a place for himself here, wouldn’t that lead to trouble? Could it be that the townspeople wouldn’t be able to accept him once they noticed that his beliefs were completely different? He wasn’t too hung up over the customs of Hua and would be willing to pretend for Kanuen but there would inevitably be slip-ups if he didn’t really believe in this. Would that be a test for their relationship?
Kanuen chuckled when he saw Hou Dong’s serious expression and rubbed his shoulders from behind. He could imagine what his lover was thinking about, seeing how he looked at Iana’s shrine. "Don’t think too much. Even though we do believe in Iana, it’s not like the people here are unreasonable. You aren’t a citizen of Sou. It is expected for you to believe in something else. And everybody will accept that. My family as well. Although …" He glanced at the door and his gaze flickered slightly. "To be honest, my family is a bit peculiar in this regard. But even if that may be the case, they won’t say anything against you either. I met you when I fled from the bandits. In their mind, that is also what Iana had in mind for me. They will think that it was my fate to leave Sou and go to that desert and arrive at that oasis exactly that day for us to meet. In their eyes, you are my destined one so even if you are unable to believe in what they believed, they will also be willing to accept that. Or, well, at least they’ll only try to convince you slowly."
Hou Dong finally stopped looking at the altar and raised his brows at Kanuen. "Convince me slowly? Like what?"
Kanuen rested his chin on his lover’s shoulder and wrapped his arms around his waist. "Well … It could be that you’ll have to listen to them speaking about our god every day. Like explaining to you why something has happened or how important Iana is to us with every second sentence. You should get used to that thought."
Hou Dong patted the hands on his stomach and gave a smile. "I don’t mind that. As long as you’re not angry that I’m unable to believe in your god, it’s alright."
"I guess it might be difficult to believe this if you haven’t witnessed anything that would show you that Iana is there."
"Have you? Experienced something like that I mean."
Kanuen’s gaze grew complicated. For a moment, he didn’t know how to answer. "Well … I was always sure that Iana was there, silently watching over us, indeed influencing our fate."
Hou Dong looked at him, unsure what to do. Since this would be his new life, he wanted to know more but something in Kanuen’s gaze told him that asking wouldn’t be such a good idea. His lover seemed as if this was a difficult thing for him to say.
Hou Dong glanced over the rest of the room again, quietly taking in the bright blue blanket and the yellow pillowcase, as well as the carvings on the bed and the trunk, looking for something else to say.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much. He could hardly half ask him about the aesthetic values of the kingdom of Sou, could he? Well, there might be something like that as well but something told him that this would likely have to do with their god as well. In that case, wouldn’t he make Kanuen think about that once again?
He didn’t feel at ease with that thought. After all, there were only a few things that might be going through Kanuen’s head: He had believed in that god. He had also believed that his god would always guide him in everything he did and that whatever happened was his fate.
But how long would he be able to believe that? Maybe he could even when the bandits attacked as long as they didn’t do anything to him. But then he had run away, escaping from the fate that his god had prepared for him. He had arrived in the desert and been regarded as somebody else’s possession once again. In fact, the very thing he had fled from had almost happened to him again. Even twice.
Whether or not there was a fate that was decreed by this god he believed in … It was probably a question that was hard for him to answer right now. Maybe there was and it was his fate to suffer through such violence. But if it was, then he’d have defied his god’s orders. If you really was as pious as he seemed to be, then that would be hard to stomach for him.
On the other hand, if escaping alone was enough to shatter his belief, then returning to Sou and seeing this altar and being confronted with his family that still believed in this very same god, must also be difficult. Even if his own belief was still there he might at least be unhappy with what his god had in store for him. That should be allowed, shouldn’t it?
Hou Dong once again patted Kanuen’s hands before he turned around and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. His fingers lightly brushed through Kanuen’s hair and he leaned down, kissing his forehead. "I’m with you. If you want to talk, then I’m here. If you want some time for yourself that you can spend alone, then I’ll also give you that much space. You just have to say the word."
Kanuen tightened his grip around his lover’s waist and closed his eyes, leaning into him. "Thank you. This … It’s just a little strange to come back here after these few weeks. A lot has happened. A lot has changed. It makes me … think."
Hou Dong almost asked what it made him think of but he held back in the end. Anyway, Kanuen would’ve told him if he wanted to. Since he hadn’t, that could only mean that he wasn’t willing to speak about it yet or wasn’t ready to. He had to accept that.
Kanuen also kept quiet for a moment longer before he sighed and patted Hou Dong’s chest. "It’s going to get late. We’ve traveled for a long time and today you even had to fight the bandits. How do you feel?"
"It’s alright. My men and I have been through worse. Actually, these bandits weren’t that strong. They might be if a normal person has to deal with them but we’re not called warriors for nothing." He leaned forward and kissed Kanuen’s cheek. "There is no need to worry."
"I’m not worried now that they’re gone. I was just thinking that you might be tired. Do you want to lie down?" He motioned at the bed, making Hou Dong pause.
It wasn’t like they hadn’t spent nights together before. But now, they were in the house of Kanuen’s family with his parents close by. Wouldn’t it be … a little awkward to sleep together in the same bed?
Kanuen laughed at his expression. "What’s there to worry about? Didn’t I already say that my parents think that everything was preordained by Iana? They already regard you as the person I’m supposed to be with. So don’t think too much."
Hou Dong nodded. Actually, he wasn’t that tired yet. With everything that had happened and the new things he had seen here, he was actually rather excited and would’ve liked to take a closer look around. But it wasn’t just them, was it? And even though Kanuen hadn’t been the one to fight, his nerves had probably been stretched taut while he had to wait for their news. It would be better to take a break and let him sleep for a while.
Hou Dong let go of Kanuen’s shoulders and then took his hand, leading him over to the bed. "Then I guess we should lie down."
Kanuen sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at his lover, giving him a smile. Hou Dong requited his gaze and suddenly didn’t know what to do. This … Even if Kanuen’s parents were alright with it, this wasn’t really the moment, was it? But right now … The danger was over. The goal they had had was also achieved. Was there still anything holding them back?
He gulped and then heavily sat down next to Kanuen, reaching over and taking his hand. Anyway, they had only arrived today. They should give it some more time. If they couldn’t even talk about some of these things, then they definitely shouldn’t do any more than that. It was better to wait a while longer. Anyway, he still wanted to marry Kanuen. Why not wait until then? Come to think of it …
Hou Dong looked over and rubbed the back of Kanuen’s hand with his thumb. "We’re back home. So …" He licked his lips and leaned closer. "You’re safe now. How about … marrying me?"
Kanuen smiled and reached up with his other hand, caressing Hou Dong’s cheek. "Didn’t we already talk about this? I thought it was a given. After all, who was the one who told me that I should pay him back with my body when he found me in the desert?"
Hou Dong leaned back, his ears tinging red in embarrassment. "You didn’t take that seriously, did you? I mean … I do want you to stay with me but not because you feel you have to."
Kanuen shook his head. "I never did. If I had, all the things in the past few weeks probably wouldn’t have happened. Maybe I would be somebody else’s possession now, never to see Sou again."
"I’m sure that wouldn’t have happened."
Kanuen shook his head again. "I appreciate you saying that but it’s the truth, isn’t it? If not for you, that this wouldn’t have been possible. Well, even if I had returned somehow, there would still be the bandits. I would never have been able to return to this life."
Hou Dong furrowed his brows and squeezed Kanuen’s hand. "Anyway, you’re back. And I did what I did because I felt that it is the right thing to do. There’s nothing owed."
"A life is owed. Some happiness is also owed."
Hou Dong smiled and leaned back over, giving Kanuen a kiss on the cheek. "I’ll remember the happiness. As for the life … If you want to, you can spend yours with me, then we can count it as being even."
Kanuen nodded and wrapped his hands around Hou Dong’s neck, his fingers brushing along his spine. "Let’s do that then."
Hou Dong grabbed him by the side and then pushed him onto the bed in response. "Indeed. Let’s do that." He pulled the blanket up and then closed his eyes, prepared to accompany Kanuen to sleep for a while.
Kanuen watched his expression for a bit before he inched closer, putting his head on Hou Dong’s chest, closing his eyes as well. His hand rubbed over Hou Dong’s robe and he couldn’t help but smile. "Maybe we should have taken the outer robes off."
Hou Dong brushed over his face, giving a low murmur. "I forgot. It’s probably not as cold here in the night, is it?"
Kanuen shook his head. "No, the temperature is quite moderate. The blanket should be enough."
Hou Dong opened his eyes and sighed. "Do you want to get up again?" To be honest, he suddenly felt that he didn’t want to. Before, he hadn’t noticed as much because he was still trying to wrap his head around things and running around, getting to know the place and the people but now that he had actually laid down and closed his eyes, he suddenly also felt that he was a little exhausted. He didn’t really want to get up again just to take off his robe.
Kanuen’s fingers once again brushed over Hou Dong’s robe. "No, it’s alright. Anyway, it’s just for a while. We can still take it off later."
Hou Dong nodded and then just brushed over Kanuen’s back, slowly falling asleep. He dreamed of the seemingly endless sand dunes outside of Sou, the swaying motion of the horse trudging forward and the weight of the small person leaning against him. His lips curled up and he pulled Kanuen closer, basking in the warmth he gave off.
Kanuen also slept for a while but his dreams weren’t as restful. A pair of hands grabbed for him from the darkness while a deafening silence surrounded him. Kanuen pressed his eyes shut, hoping that those hands would disappear and that he would hear something if he concentrated enough. Maybe the voice was just too quiet for him to hear or too far away?
He listened as intently as he could and finally, the silence was broken. He wanted to heave a sigh of relief but then the sound got clearer. Instead of the voice he had expected, footsteps sounded. Somebody was walking toward him.
Kanuen tensed up, his whole body going rigid before his hands trembled. Who? Who was there? His lips parted and he wanted to call out but in the last moment, he stopped himself. What if this person wasn’t well-meaning? What if this person would hurt him? What if …
Kanuen shrunk back into the darkness, covering his face with his hands. Tears silently streamed down his cheeks and his shoulders shook.
Why? Why was he questioning these things? Why didn’t he have the serenity to confront these matters anymore?
He wanted to pull back further, to find a spot where he could hide, where he could sort out his thoughts and feelings and regain his calm but a pair of hand grabbed his shoulders.
Kanuen gasped and tried to shake them off but he couldn’t reach them. He opened his eyes with a start only to find himself in a dimly-lit room. He breathed heavily, glancing around to find just who had grabbed him. The hand on his shoulder was still there but when he looked, it turned out to be a familiar one.
Kanuen closed his eyes again and heaved a sigh of relief, carefully grasping that hand. It had just been a dream. He wasn’t trapped in the darkness. Nobody was trying to catch him. He was back at home and Hou Dong was even with him. There was no need to panic.
Kanuen brushed over his cheek, wiping the tear stains from his cheeks before he put his head back on Hou Dong’s chest. He should just go back to sleep. Having a nightmare every now and then wasn’t a big deal. He could deal with this. He just … had to close his eyes again and fall back asleep.
Kanuen stared at the other side of the room. Below his fingers, he felt Hou Dong’s strong heartbeat. The sound even reverberated in his ear. Ba bump, ba bump … It calmed him down but it also made the silence around them more pronounced.
Kanuen’s gaze slipped to the window. When they went to sleep, it had been in the afternoon. Now, a few hours had gone by and the sun was already setting. There was probably only an hour of light left.
Kanuen hesitated but finally sat up, once again wiping his cheeks to make sure there weren’t any tears left. He looked at Hou Dong next, making sure that his lover still slept before he leaned down and kissed his cheek. Well, now was as good as ever.
He climbed over Hou Dong, making sure not to wake him up and took another look out of the window. At this time, everybody in the town would be asleep. He wouldn’t disturb anybody and nobody would disturb him. He sighed lightly and then left the room.
Back inside, Hou Dong cracked his eyes open when the door shut. He rubbed his eyes and turned to the side, reaching out for the person beside him. When he only touched the empty bed, he paused and then opened his eyes completely, even lifting his head although it was obvious that Kanuen wasn’t there. "Kanuen?" He turned to the other side but nobody could be seen there either. Where had he gone?
As if to answer his question, the entrance door sounded below. Hou Dong frowned and got up, peeking out of the window. After several weeks together, he was familiar with every angle of Kanuen. Even looking from a distance he was sure that the person on the street was his lover.
Hou Dong frowned and rubbed his head. Just where was he going? Night had almost fallen. Even though this was his hometown, shouldn’t he be a little more careful?
Hou Dong hesitated and then rushed after him. Anyway, even though they had made sure that none of the townspeople were missing, nobody had helped them make a headcount of the bandits. If one of them was still wandering around out there, trying to sneak into the town at night to get some of their things and take revenge or something … No, he didn’t even want to think about it.
Hou Dong left the house and followed Kanuen down the road, just reaching the end when he saw him turn in the front. He cursed under his breath and accelerated his steps to catch up. He just wanted to make sure that Kanuen would be alright, not make him feel that he was keeping tabs on him. Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to catch up. When he turned at the same corner that Kanuen had taken, he saw him enter a building.
Hou Dong sighed and slowed down. Well, as long as he was in a building, he might as well wait in front of the door and make sure that nobody followed him in. It wasn’t like any of the bandits would be waiting to ambush him inside, right?
He walked over and then leaned against the wall next to the door, crossing his arms in front of his chest and looking up at the star-lit sky. Ah, the temperature had gone down even though it wasn’t as exaggerated as in the desert. Was Kanuen wearing enough? Should he still go in and put his outer robe over him?
Before he could make up his mind, a thud sounded inside and quiet sobs could be heard. Hou Dong perked up, staring intently ahead, trying to discern the voice. That … was Kanuen, wasn’t it? But why? Had something happened? He wanted to rush in but then he hesitated. What if … what if Kanuen had come here because he didn’t want him to know? But he was his lover. He should be comforting him …
Hou Dong didn’t know what to do but doing nothing seemed wrong. He inched closer to the door and peeked inside, trying to see how Kanuen was doing. The picture he saw … He didn’t know what to make of it.