by Matsuo Akane (松雄あかね)
Xian wore his hair down that night. Tien couldn’t keep his hands out of it, nor, after nearly six months away from his lover, could he keep his hands off Xian. He kept pushing Xian off-balance as they stepped through the dusting of snow on the ground, leaving the sounds of merriment behind them to be lost to the crunch of snow under their feet and Tien’s ringing laugh as he buried his cold fingers under Xian’s clothes.
Six months. He had watched the countryside darken from the barren deserts to lush mountains and forests; watched the world slowly die as summer turned to winter during the time he had been away from Xian. There had been changes in the time he had been gone: there were faint threads of white glistening in Xian’s long hair, a permanent wrinkle on his brow that deepened when Xian smiled. Time was passing and Tien felt it in his gut, a thickness that weighed him down at the thought that once the horses and camels were watered, once the supplies were stocked, once the trade had concluded and everyone was fresh and ready to ride once more, he would be leaving this vibrant desert oasis, leaving his more vibrant lover for another six months.
He pulled Xian to him, stumbling into Xian’s home, pressing Xian to the wall and covering Xian’s mouth with his own. Needing to be as close to his warmth as possible, he pressed closer to feel Xian’s skin, the ridges of muscles, the slick sweat. He had to feel Xian’s heart beat; he had to be sure of the reality of finally having him in his arms again after so long. He never wanted to let go again, each moment too little, ending too soon, not nearly enough to quench his thirst for Xian. They collapsed onto Xian’s bed at Tien’s unsubtle insistence. Xian’s bright, breathless laugh broke through their kiss as Tien buried his hands under Xian’s clothes, seeking skin, seeking everything, shoving thick cloth aside in his search.
“Wait — Tien. It’s too cold…and there’s no fire. Wait…” Xian twisted away, reaching to the fireplace while Tien wrestled Xian back onto the bed. He held him in place, determined to get as close as possible, unwilling to wait. He sealed his mouth over Xian’s, concentrating on kissing the fight out of his sorely missed lover — kissed until Xian’s fingers were in his hair, loosening the topknot he wore for travel. There was a pot of oil kept nearby, easy to find with blindly fumbling fingers; dipping his fingers as he pushed Xian’s trousers over the swell of his rear. He may have been gone for half a year, but his fingers hadn’t forgotten Xian’s body, and they slid easily into Xian, who shuddered, clutching at Tien, stretching under him with a faint moan at the back of his throat.
Tien put his mouth by Xian’s ear, murmuring, “I’ll keep you warm. I’ll make you burn.” Xian whimpered, moving into Tien’s fingers as Tien dragged his teeth down Xian’s neck. “But I need you too much to wait.” He pushed Xian onto his side and spooned up behind him, fingers still dragging soft airy sounds out of Xian. Burying his face in the crook of Xian’s neck, he pressed his other hand flat over Xian, cupping the heat of him, and Xian’s hips jerked, unable to decide between grinding forward or sliding back. Xian’s throaty growl had Tien pull himself out. The cold, bitter air made him suck in a startled breath, but then he was pressing in, shivering at the heat, the tightness, the needy sound vibrating through Xian’s back, shifting until he was pressed flush against Xian: a warm, solid line against his front, wrapping himself around Xian as Xian arched, rolling his hips, settling Tien inside him as deep as possible.
Closing his eyes and groaning, shaking with need, Tien moved, exposing himself to the harsh cold before sinking back into Xian’s vivid heat. He stroked Xian through his clothes; stroked him from the inside to the tune of Xian’s moans and softly spoken pleas, shifted, stretching out his leg to get more leverage so he could plunge into Xian like he had been dreaming. It had been too long and it felt too good and Xian moved too well, rolling his hips back into each thrust Tien made, accepting Tien in so deep. Xian’s body drew him in, cradled him and held onto Tien, not wanting to let him go. Xian’s voice and the fingers clutching at his hair also pulled Tien further into Xian, moving, stroking, dragging until it was too late and they were panting hard puffs of misted breath, bodies cooling, Tien slowly softening until he slid out of Xian, Xian soft under his hand. Tien pressed close, shifting so the soft warmth of Xian’s behind was cradled in his lap, nothing between them but their sweat and humid heat.
Xian laughed breathlessly. “I missed you, too.” A gentle hand caressed his face — a smile in Xian’s voice. “Now would you please start a fire?”
The next day was warmer and Xian was busy sweeping the snow off the walkway while Tien climbed up to clear off the roof. For a while, Tien merely watched Xian move from his perch above. It took a while for Xian to notice the lack of snow being swept off the roof. Once he did, he reached down, gathered up a double handful of snow and threw it at Tien. Tien laughed as the bundle of snow dispersed in the air, too dry and powdery to stick together. But in his laughter, he missed the determined mischief that crossed Xian’s face, the next scoop of snow that was taken up. Xian turned to pack and slowly shape a new ball, lingering over his weapon’s creation and Tien merely watched, his chuckles dying down, sure that this would be another pretty failure. The ball of snow hit him in the cheek, startling him and sparking Xian’s laughter as Tien stumbled back, landing on his backside on the roof, blinking at the horizon, bits of snow slowly dripping off of his chin.
He laughed again, peering over the edge of the roof cautiously, expecting another projectile. “You are deadly with the snow. I’m thankful Turfan gets as little snow as it does. You’d be a prize in the mountains.”
Hands on his hips, smile bright and smug, Xian quipped: “Yes I would. Now get back to work before I make my target the seat of your trousers.”
Lunch was steaming hot, and despite the quickly warming day, Tien spared a moment to warm his hands over the rice. He leaned forward halfway through the meal, content. “Xian, you cook better than any wife.”
Xian simply smiled in that smug way he had. “Well of course. I will never have a wife. I do not wish to eat as though I do not have one. I am no nomad.”
Taking a piece of flat bread, Tien said, “When will you begin planting the grapes?”
“Three to four weeks, when the soil is thawed.” Xian smiled. “Will you be here for it?”
Tien shook his head. “No. I’m sure the caravan will be ready to head to Kashgar by the end of the week.” While Xian’s smile never wavered, Tien swore that it had become flatter somehow. Perhaps it was merely Tien’s own gut, weighing him down with that thick feeling, as dry as the desert sand, as heavy as the Emperor’s throne.
Suddenly, the sword Tien was so proud of didn’t seem nearly as wonderful.
The firelight flickered across Xian’s skin, highlighting the angles and curves Tien caressed. “You are beautiful.” Tien smiled, hands sliding down Xian’s sides, gripping his hips. “My beautiful desert flower.”
Xian wrinkled his nose as he shifted over Tien. “I wouldn’t become a poet if I were you.” Xian’s tone was playful, teasing and fond as he slowly sank down on Tien, sucking on his bottom lip, eyes fluttering closed.
It took a long moment for Tien to gather enough wits to reply, too wrapped up in sensation, in the look and feel of his lover. When he did finally reply, it was with a strained voice. “I’m hurt.” A solid thrust up for emphasis.
“No you’re not.” A smirk flashed down at Tien followed swiftly by a deep moan. “This, however, you can keep doing all night long.”
“I’ll do my best.” Tien gazed up at Xian, a smile playing on his lips, fingers clutching at Xian’s hips, watching Xian writhe in his lap.
Cheekily: “Make sure that you do — oh…” Words cut off by a rich, long moan. Xian really was beautiful, he realized all at once, richer and stronger than he ever had before, and in this moment he wanted nothing more than to never let go, never move away, never shift from this position; to be locked like this forever with the one thing that never failed to make him happy. But it couldn’t last, and soon he was straining, lifting off of the floor, fingers tightening on Xian’s thighs, seeing nothing but heaven.
Later, lying curled together on the Turkish rug in front of the fire, Tien listened to the slow heaviness of Xian’s breathing.
“Tell me about the Capital.” Xian shifted, a slow glide of skin, hand settling on Tien’s chest, over his heart. Tien placed his hand over Xian’s and felt full, richer than the Emperor.
Tien smiled. “They get snow as deep as your ankles and calves sometimes.” Xian peered at him with wide blue eyes. “You’ve never seen snow like that, have you?”
Xian shook his head. “Never. What we got yesterday was a lot for us.”
Tien laughed, stroked Xian’s hair back. “That didn’t even make it over my toes.”
“It was still enough to hit you with,” Xian sniffed, laying his head down on Tien’s shoulder.
Tien touched his cheek with a smile. “Very true.”
“Tell me more.” Softly, slurred with sleepy want.
Tien threaded his fingers through Xian’s dark hair. “There are many people of different cultures there, though the majority of them are Han, like me. There are Persians and Dashi, Xinlou and Japanese, and even Tubo, from the mountains to the south. There are few Turks. Personally, I like the Frontier better.” He chuckled. “Though, to be fair, none of the Turks in the Capital are trying to kill me and steal my cargo.”
Xian frowned. “I’m not trying to kill you.” A wicked smirk. “Though depending on what you consider cargo, I just might be trying to steal it.”
Tien laughed. “Not all Turks are bandits. You aren’t. Though sometimes I could swear you’re trying to kill me with desire.”
Xian sniffed, resettled against his side. “Who says I’m a Turk? Aren’t I T’ang like everyone else, like you?”
Tien sighed, thinking of the trouble he had seen in the countryside, the small, violent uprising the caravan had seen from inside the safety of the formidable blue brick walls of Chang’an. There had still been blood on the roadside from the cruel pacification even after the trade and eventual restocking of the caravan. There was even talk in the north of a strong Turkish general that could fulfill a new Mandate of Heaven. And with the T’ang defeat at Talas, the west was becoming more unstable, T’ang rule weakening in the Frontier.
He stroked Xian’s hair softly. “Did you know there is a country to the East?” He said after a moment, changing the subject to lighter talk. “It is several days across the Eastern Sea by boat, I’ve been told. It is a group of islands that they call Japan. I met someone from there this last time.” He raised his head to watch Xian staring at him.
“Water big enough to carry a vessel? Taking days to cross it?” Xian propped himself up on his forearm, looking down in disbelieving wonderment. “Surely this is a fable!”
Tien chuckled. “There’s water that big out there, as far as the eye can see, like the sands of the Taklamankan. I’ve seen it to the South, beyond the Southern Mountains that touch the heavens.” He tucked a strand of hair behind Xian’s ear. “Maybe you could come with me and I’ll show it to you someday.”
The tender and wistful smile on Xian’s face had Tien pulling Xian down to meet his lips. Murmuring just before their lips met, Xian whispered, “I’d like that.”
However, Tien knew that Xian didn’t want to leave Turfan for the nomadic existence of the caravans, and honestly, Xian was no swordsman. Tien rolled them over, hands already mapping out Xian’s body. Perhaps, it was less the curiosity of seeing the sea as it was to be able to remain with each other, to not have to be content with these few glorious days of the year when Tien’s caravan was in town. He settled between Xian’s thighs, nibbling on Xian’s neck and thought about what it would be like to have this all of the time.
“I’ll be working tomorrow.” Xian’s voice rumbled in his chest and Tien could feel it against his chin. He looked up at Xian’s relaxed face; his closed eyes.
“They need you in the grape fields?”
Xian smiled, running his fingers through Tien’s hair and along his neck. “There’re weeds to pull, rope to be mended. We need to make sure we are ready for the planting season.”
“Ah.” He nodded, turning to rest his cheek on Xian’s chest, digging his hand under Xian’s lower back. “I can do the shopping if you’d like me to.” He didn’t have much longer to stay in Turfan and he wanted to spend as much time as possible with Xian before the caravan continued on.
“You’ll still be here?” Tien didn’t want to see Xian’s face just then, the thick happy surprise in Xian’s voice too much at the moment. “That would be nice.” He looked up at the quiet words to see Xian’s soft smile.
Weed pulling was back breaking work, just like planting, and Xian was happy that he had been assigned to mend the ropes. It was work he was good at, and it would leave him feeling well enough to spend an active evening with Tien. He had counted the strands out to begin weaving when there was a heavy grunt from beside him and the bench groaned from additional weight.
“So I hear your trader friend is back from the Capital.”
Xian looked over. “He’s a swordsman, not a trader.”
Zhao grinned, clapping him on the back. “Either way, I’m sure he has news from Chang’an, right?”
Xian turned back to his rope with a shrug. “If he does, I didn’t pay attention to it.”
Zhao chuckled, his large hands reaching for the finished part of Xian’s rope. “You just don’t care for news or politics, do you?” He ran his hands over the rope admiringly. “Good work as always. Strong: it will weather well.”
Xian inclined his head in acceptance. “Thank you. And no, I don’t care for politics. They don’t affect me.” In Xian’s experience, getting involved in politics only meant bad luck and death. After all, look at the crowing hen empress who had been murdered years ago for daring to rule. Though, Xian felt privately, she had merely done what any man had and will do.
Zhao shook his head sadly, clucking his tongue. “You should care. It does affect you. The T’ang will fall. Their Mandate won’t last forever.”
Xian shrugged. “Then they fall and we move on like nothing happened. It means nothing to me.”
Zhao gave a twisted smile, clapped his hands on his thighs and stood up. “Keep up the good work.” Xian did not watch him walk away.
These were things he could worry about when Tien was on the road to take his mind off of worrying about Tien fighting bandits or not having enough water in the desert. Tien wasn’t desert born; he hailed from a farming family west of Chang’an where the lushness was something that Xian couldn’t conceive of. The third son, a boy who would receive no land from his father, Tien had bid his family goodbye and gone to make a living in the Capital and ended up traveling the Silk Road, protecting caravans as they traveled from Chang’an into the West and beyond. Tien had to learn the desert, he hadn’t been born there, and Xian worried for him.
In any case, Xian’s time with Tien was always so short, there was just never enough of it. He’d only just begin to get used to Tien in his bed before he had to leave. He wished that he could keep Tien here, with him, but it wasn’t his place to demand. It wasn’t even his place to ask. Instead, he soaked up as much time as he could with Tien, so that he could weather the long months Tien was gone.
A group of merchants passed by, chatting loudly and expressively about the caravan and Xian turned his face away, feet going cold, fingers trembling, though never faltering in his work. The caravan was already packing up. They’d be leaving in the morning.
Tien would be leaving in the morning.
He scraped his shoe angrily, kicking out at the rope coiled between his feet. It was far, far too soon. He wanted — no, he needed more time. It wasn’t enough. He didn’t know how long Tien would be gone.
And as always, he didn’t know if Tien would live to come back.
Tien stoked the fire, frowning at its flames. The town market had been a good source of news and rumor. And rumor had it that the people were increasingly unhappy with the T’ang. Tien didn’t much care for a lot of things T’ang, but he really didn’t like the thought of lawlessness on the Frontier. It was hard enough fending of the bandits and dealing with gangs in the border towns, he didn’t want it to sweep any further east that it already had.
The door swung open and was kicked closed, Tien spinning at the sudden noise to find Xian standing there, breathing hard, and dropping a small package and his cloak to the side. Tien relaxed, moving to meet Xian, taking him into his arms, holding him close.
“I told you I’d go shopping.” Xian shrugged in his arms, hands sliding down over Tien’s rear.
“Doesn’t matter. I want you.”
It didn’t take long for them to bare each other, nor did it take long for them to end up on the bed, blankets scattered, Tien sitting in Xian’s lap, his back pressed to Xian’s chest. Xian’s hands wandered across his chest, along his thighs, spread him open, took him in hand, pressed into him slowly until he was completely inside, a filling heat. His head rolled back onto Xian’s shoulder. They rarely did it this way, usually Xian opening up for Tien, though Tien usually never minded. Though this time, there had been some hesitance.
“I’m sorry.” Whispered against his ear, hot puffs of breath ghosting along his cheek. “I know you have to ride tomorrow, but I couldn’t wait who knows how long.”
Tien shuddered against him, hand gripping the outside of Xian’s thigh. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine. I want this, too.” He lifted up, ready to move when Xian’s hands tightened roughly on his hips, pulling him down and holding him there.
“No. Not yet. I want to feel you around me. Let me take care of you.”
Xian stroked him, keeping him in place in his lap, hands moving everywhere, a solid presence inside him. The touches along his inner thighs, when Xian took him in hand, made him tremble, close, reaching for the pinnacle, falling over and plunging into the depths of pleasure. Xian gently nudged him forward onto his hands, hands sliding down his flanks, and then he moved. There was the slick slide of him, the solidness of him, the everything of him, and he put his head down, closed his eyes and just felt. And made sure that he would remember.
Later, when the night was at its stillest, Xian slipped out from under Tien’s arm and quietly tied a jade charm to the sheath for Tien’s sword. He had asked Zhao’s wife to make it for him in order to keep Tien safe. Smoothing a hand over the scuffed leather of Tien’s armor, he wished once again that Tien could stay with him. Standing up, brushing off his knees, he slipped back into bed, curling up as close to Tien as possible.
The winds were high the day Tien’s caravan left, Xian holding his turban on his head, hiking up to the big dune just outside of town. His clothes flapped around him as he watched the caravan spread out into a jagged line. He could hear snippets of the riders’ shouts, but he couldn’t make out the words.
There! That was Tien, shouting. Xian squinted against the harsh winter sun, trying to make out Tien in the small figures before him. He thought that it was the rider in the front, but he couldn’t be sure. They all looked the same as the caravan curved around a dune, slowly drawing further and further away, until they finally disappeared behind a dune. Xian was left alone in the strong, cold winds, his home to his back and his lover leaving him behind. He stood there for a moment longer, before turning and trudging back to the town before the wind could blow up enough sand to make travel difficult.
“An-yin, Rasil, Gylapo, you three in front; Tien, you and Gal take the rear. Quan raise the camels!” The riders thundered down the ranks of slowly rising camels to take their places, checking the linking ropes and keeping an eye out for bandits on the horizon. They had been on the road for five months, circling the Taklamankan Desert, and had left Anxi six days ago to head toward Turfan once again. They had traveled to Kokand, a city outside of T’ang rule, turned toward Kashgar and taken the lower road through Khoan and up to Dunhuang before turning toward Turfan and Kokand, again, so they could head beyond Kokand to Samarkand and south into Persia.
“How much longer until we get to Turfan?” Gal asked him as they took up their positions behind the caravan, wiping his forehead of sweat, the day proving it would be a hot one already.
Tien twisted in the saddle, scanning the horizon, a hand shading his eyes. “Best guess would be two or three days. Keep a lookout. This is prime time for a bandit attack.”
“This close to a town and a source of water, I wouldn’t be surprised.” Gal grinned at him, nudged their horses together. “We’ll make it, though. We’ve already seen two attacks this trip. But if we do, I’ll make sure they don’t get that pretty charm of yours.”
Tien shook his head good-naturedly. “This pretty charm will keep the bandits away altogether.”
Gal laughed, reigned his horse back and trotted up on Tien’s other side. “You should give it to me. You’ll just get another one when we reach Turfan. I’m sure you’ve got another pretty lady waiting to keep you safe from harm and warm at night.”
“No.” He gave a soft smile, remembering that last night in Xian’s arms, remembering the striking figure Xian cut against the sky as he watched the caravan snake through the desert. “My only pretty is waiting for me back in Turfan. I’ve no others. I’ve had this since we left Turfan the last time.”
Gal snorted, leaning out of his saddle to peer up the line. “A waste. You should have one in every town.”
“Don’t you? I’m sure you’ve got your own lovers to give you charms.” Tien nudged his horse so he could see up the other side of the line. A rider was heading toward them to relieve one of them to make the rounds of the caravan.
Gal chuckled. “I’m certainly working on it. This is my first time in the Taklamankan. When we head back toward Chang’an, then you’ll find me with a warm bed at every stop.”
Quan reined his horse in and turned quickly to take up position beside Tien and Gal. “Tien, you’ll do the rounds. Get An-yin to take over for you.” Tien gave a sharp nod and spurred his horse forward, heading up the other side of the caravan, keeping his eyes on the horizon and the camels.
It was just past mid-day and Tien fingered the jade charm on his sheath, wishing that the Flaming Mountains would appear behind the next dune, wishing that by sundown they would see the grape fields of Turfan stretching out before them. He was going to see Xian again, and two more days was two days too many to wait. The hollow hooting and hollering of Turkish bandits cut through his daydream and he looked up to see bandits pouring over the dune next to them. Someone shouted a warning and the riders drew their swords, closing in to protect the caravan.
“Circle up and don’t let a single bandit live!” The camels began circling, grunting their displeasure at the sudden attack. The riders turned to meet the charging bandits.
Tien ducked under a blade and brought his own up under the Turk’s attack, blade slicing along the Turk’s ribs. He yanked hard on the reins, his horse rearing up to turn, its hooves coming down on another bandit’s outstretched arm. He followed through with a sharp snap of his sword into the bandit’s neck. He turned to find his next opponent before his last had crumpled to the ground. Gal cut in front of him, a pair of bandits on his tail and Tien turned his horse quickly, to let one of the pursuing Turks charge into his blade.
There were simply too many of them, however, and the bandits broke through the riders’ line and made for the circle of the caravan. Tien chased after them, spurring his horse forward, pacing Quan who had broken from the knot of battle to protect the caravan as well. Tien took out a bandit with a hard cut at the shoulder while Quan tossed a jagged dagger at another’s back. Tien’s horse trampled over the fallen corpse and raced around the bend of camels to cut off another bandit who had managed to get a hold of the first camel’s lead.
The camels moved slowly, one at a time, groaning as they were disturbed again. Tien came in fast, hunched over his horse’s neck, sword out, the harsh sunlight reflecting down its blade. Another bandit came out from behind the Turk with the camels’ lead, darting between them and blocking Tien’s attack. The Turk tugged at the lead and the camels loped into a trot, uncurling like a snake. Tien turned his horse to give chase. He barely missed the bandit’s sword, and leaned back suddenly to face the Turk who had lost him the camels’ lead.
“Quan! The camels!” He slapped the flat of his sword on the Turk’s horse’s flank, startling the horse into an unprepared rear. He flicked his blade into the unbalanced Turk’s thigh, sweeping up under his arm to hack at the vulnerable soft spot of his underarm, that place where no armor could protect. Tien flicked the reins and his horse jumped forward, stretching into a fast gallop. The others, alerted by his shout and having cleaved through a good portion of the bandits, also turned and raced to the head of the escaping caravan.
Drawing up alongside the bandit leading the caravan, Tien swept his sword down, jarring his arm as the Turk blocked, then ducked as the Turk followed through. Ahead of them were two Turks, riding hard down the dune to meet up with the caravan. Tien spared them only enough attention to know they were approaching, instead he focused on getting past his opponent’s sword. He shouldered his horse into the Turk’s, trying to knock him off-balance and flicked his sword out, brushing the Turk’s sword out of the way and clipping the Turk in the shoulder. Rearing back for a disabling blow, he saw two of his fellow riders move to block off the two incoming Turks. He snapped his blade down, cutting the bandit off of his horse and called for Gal to grab the lead. He looked up in time to see a Turk loose an arrow. He flung himself to the side and tumbled back off of his horse as the arrow sank into his shoulder.
He hit the ground rolling, pain flaring. The arrow snapped off, and the shouts of the riders grew dim. He rolled onto his side and grasped what was left of the shaft of the arrow, preparing to yank it out. Sand flew up around him and there were hands on him, pushing him back.
“Not yet. Let us get something to cover it, first.” An-yin, that had to be An-yin. There was more commotion and there was Gal falling to his knees in front of him, grinning widely, pressing a dagger between Tien’s teeth.
“Do not fear. Your pretty charm will save you.” They yanked the arrow out, ignoring his muffled scream, and pressed something against the wound, working to bind the cloth to him. He slowly opened his eyes, panting as they tied off the bandage and moved to take the dagger from his teeth. There was a hurried, hushed conversation around him and he was being hauled up. “Come on. You’ve got to get on your horse. We’ve got to get to a town.”
“Did we save the caravan?” he murmured in Gal’s ear as he was hoisted onto his horse.
“Of course we did. Your pretty charm has been working hard.”
The next time Tien opened his eyes, he was slumped over in the saddle and Gal was riding close, a hand on his good shoulder, though there wasn’t much that didn’t hurt. He straightened, sitting up in the saddle, good hand going for his reins. Gal’s hand closed tight around his arm.
“Oh. You’re awake. Good.” Gal’s teeth gleamed in the low light. “You slept until sundown.” He jerked his chin toward the west. “We’ve been riding hard. We lost Gylapo and the Captain. Quan is injured, too.”
Tien grunted an acknowledgement, took the reins from Gal and concentrated on staying in the saddle.
The next time he opened his eyes, it was to a cool hand on his forehead and a mumbled voice: “He’s burning up. He needs more water.”
“How much longer until we get to Turfan?”
“I don’t know. Hopefully soon.” And then he was being manhandled onto his horse.
The next time he opened his eyes, it was to the simmering glow of the Flaming Mountains and the wash of green stretching out as they crested a dune. Tien’s cracked lips stretched into a smile and he imagined what his homecoming would entail. He could already see Xian on the horizon; long hair blowing loose, bare and beckoning and he blinked stinging eyes and willed the illusion away.
“Look, we’re almost to Turfan.” He wished that he could trust the voice beside him, but he knew it was just an illusion, just a demonstration of what he could have if he only stayed. There was no way they could actually be at Turfan, no way they could be an hour’s ride away from Xian. It was too good to be true and Tien wouldn’t let himself be taken in by illusions.
“Tien, look, we’re almost there.” If this was real, if it was true then he’d stay, he wouldn’t leave when the caravan moved on. If he could touch Xian soon, he’d never leave again. He understood: if you have it, don’t let it go. He didn’t care what the Buddhists said, don’t ever let go. And every time he left Xian, he risked loosing him and this time had been too close and he couldn’t believe that he was really this close to home.
Xian ran to the center square. The caravan had arrived and with it, he hoped, Tien. Everyone, including the animals, looked tired and worn. The rider leading the caravan had bandages wrapped around his arm and leg, blood showing through. Xian’s heart beat hard against his chest and he held his breath and scanned the line for Tien.
Two riders, riding close together appeared toward the end of the caravan, one slumped, the other holding him steady. As they drew closer, Xian went cold, recognizing Tien as he swayed on his horse. He shoved past a couple people and ran up to Tien’s horse.
“Tien?” he called out.
“He needs a healer. Do you know where one is?” the man holding Tien up asked. He had a disarming smile on his face, but worry in his gaze. Xian nodded. “May we ride? He’s in no condition to walk.”
Xian paled, but reached out for the reins of Tien’s horse. “This way. I’ll lead you.”
Xian chewed on the side of his thumb while Tien was being looked at. The other rider had left after getting Tien settled, only to return with the man who had been leading the caravan. Xian ignored them in favor of willing the healer to be finished and Tien to be all right. They spoke softly amongst themselves and he couldn’t help but overhear them. He closed his eyes as they mentioned the attacks, speculated on Tien’s health. A fever? Xian’s mouth pressed tight and he wound his fingers as tightly together as he could. He barely managed to not leap up and start pacing like a soon-to-be father. Instead, he chewed on a knuckle and tried not to imagine what exactly had happened out there on the desert sands.
The healer let him sit by Tien’s bedside after assuring Xian that he would be fine with rest and water. Dehydration and blood loss, the healer told him. Xian had almost embarrassed himself by crying in relief before the healer could move on and attend the other rider. Xian, left alone, placed a hand on Tien’s bare shoulder; the other was wrapped tightly with fresh bandages.
“You fool. You absolute fool.” Xian pressed his forehead against Tien’s chest.
It didn’t take long for Tien to be up and about almost like nothing had happened. The wound itself didn’t heal that quickly, and Tien didn’t have use of that arm. The caravan also stayed, waiting for its riders to recuperate and heal, as well as hiring new riders to replace those lost. They needed to beef up the caravan since the Frontier was getting more dangerous as T’ang control weakened.
The caravan was packing up, however, ready to depart in a couple hours. Tien wandered to the grape fields to look for Xian, whose strained smile that morning had shown that he did indeed know about the caravan’s imminent departure. Xian was in the second field he looked in, near the edge, away from the others, tending the vines and double checking the supports.
He turned, straightening, a happy smile that quickly turned to a confused frown. “Aren’t you supposed to be packing up? Isn’t the caravan leaving today?”
Tien nodded, stepping closer to Xian. His hand slid down Xian’s forearm to grasp his hand. “Soon. It’s heading down into Persia and then turning back to head straight to Chang’an. I imagine it will be more than a year before the caravan returns to Turfan.”
Xian turned away, slipping his hand out of Tien’s, reaching for the grape leaves and gently wiping them clean. “Then why are you here? I’d imagine there is a lot to do before you go.”
Tien cupped Xian’s chin, turned his face. “I’m not going.” Xian stilled, staring as though he didn’t understand. “I’m staying here. If you’ll have me.”
“Why wouldn’t I have you? I have you every time you are here? I’ll always have you, even if you are so cruel as to tease me like this.” Xian’s mouth was turned down, his eyes shut tight, eyebrows furrowed. Tien brushed his mouth over Xian’s frown.
“Because this time it wouldn’t be temporary. This time there will be no caravan leaving, this time it will be permanent.”
“You won’t stay. You never do. We both know you won’t ever stay, so why are you doing this?” Xian jerked away, voice rising. “You’ve got your work, I’ve got mine. Go pack up your horse.”
Tien held fast, hand splayed over Xian’s back. “I’m not going anywhere. I have no work to do.”
Xian shook in his grasp and shoved him away. He shouted, “I don’t believe you!” He stepped back, snarling, “I’ve got work to do. So go to your caravan and stop lying to me!”
Tien smiled and turned back toward town. “I’ll pick up dinner, then?”
Xian snorted angrily, kicking dirt at him. “You do that.”
Tien smiled slowly as he walked back toward town, the sun beating down on his and the fresh scent of growing grapes wafting up around him. This was home now and he couldn’t wait to see the look on Xian’s face that night, well after the caravan had left and he was still sitting in Xian’s home.
Oh, yes, he understood, all right. Don’t let go, once you find something that never fails to make you happy, don’t let go.
And later that night, when the door opened and Xian froze, dropping the food he had purchased on his way home, mouth open, breath short and rapid, Tien knew what happiness really meant.
“I’m hurt.” Tien teased, not hurt at all by Xian’s disbelief or the way his jaw worked over silent words.
“You’re still here!” Xian’s voice was high and reedy, his blue eyes showing white all around.
“You’ll have me, then?” Xian wasn’t careful of Tien’s wound as he flung himself into Tien’s arms, and Tien wouldn’t have it any other way.