The temperature began to dip as fiery orange flooded the horizon followed by a tinge of purple, slowly spreading across the skies as the sun said its sleepy goodbye accompanied by the soft twinkle of stars; its counterpart, a crescent taking its place in the sky. The cool night wind was like a blessing against sun-scorched skin as the soldiers began to settle for the night. Rare was the sky totally devoid of clouds, but tonight was an exception - the bright crystals dotted the dark canvas, shining their light onto the earth below.
Zhao was lying on his back, his head propped up by his arms, a soft melodious hum resonating from his throat. It had been some time since they got to relax like this; everyone was busy with the rebuilding of the village that by the time night fell, everyone was too exhausted to do anything but eat and then sleep the night away before the sun rose again. The rebuilding of the village was done save for some minor details that could be completed within half a day’s work.
The sound of water splashing followed by a brief period of rustling cloths reminded Zhao why he was staring at the sky; he detected movement at his peripherals and turned his head to see a fully-clothed Yue heading straight for him. Her wet hair was flat against her scalp, the ends still dripping water; staining the collar of her top – a dark smear growing steadily across the beige.
Yue released a content sigh as she lowered herself onto the earth and crossed her legs, her arms stretched out on either sides behind her back to prop her upper body up as she gazed at the stars shimmering above them. The platoon was ready to leave tomorrow, and everyone was relishing in the moment of having completed a daunting task.
Yue’s lips grew into a small smile at the soft hum emitting from Zhao; it made her forget the predicament she was in. She was allowed momentary refuge from everything that had happened; getting thrown back in time; having to join the army; getting hunted; the prospect of dying. At this moment in time, it felt as though time was standing still; that nothing bad had ever nor will ever happen.
They didn’t need words between them as they enjoyed nature’s symphony, from the flowing water to the singing of insects, the breeze echoing the peacefulness of the night.
“I’ve brought us some wine.” Lang announced, and with his arrival three clay bottles lay cradled in his arms as he settled down near Zhao’s head.
Although the night was still young, it was evident that all three individuals were exhausted to the bones. Zhao looked ill, with his shrunken frame and pale pallor; Yue was covered in bruises, her fingers covered in calluses and patches of torn skin; even Lang had dark eye circles beneath his almond-shaped eyes.
Lang waited patiently as both Zhao and Yue turned to face his direction; he passed one of the bottle to Yue whilst Zhao pushed himself off his back to join them.
“We should say something before drinking shouldn’t we?” Yue asked light heartedly.
Lang cocked an eyebrow before exchanging a glance with Zhao.
“Alright then,” Zhao began. “To the success of our mighty nation!”
“Boo!” Yue jeered before shutting up upon the look of disapproval Lang threw her way.
“Hmm… How about to happiness and good health!” Yue cried out, lifting her bottle high above her head towards the stars.
“To happiness and good health!” echoed the two males as they mimicked Yue’s actions.
The bottles chimed against each other before their holders brought them down to their lips, downing down an entire mouthfuls of exquisite wine. A burning sensation rushed down Yue’s throat followed by an overwhelming explosion of bitterness in her mouth causing her to cough and splutter accompanied by tears coursing down from her burning eyes.
A rare roar of laughter erupted from Lang’s lips as he watched the young girl before him go red from both the alcohol and the embarrassment. Chuckling softly, Zhao sipped the wine slowly, appreciating the burn down his throat and the warmth that emitted from his abdomen. Unlike Yue, Zhao could make out the sweet earthly taste from the wine as he swished it about his tongue a few times before swallowing. Fuelled by the alcohol, Yue felt braver; braver than she ever felt next to Lang. Therefore nothing could stop her from pouncing on Lang, her arm snaking around his neck, trying to squeeze the life out of him. Nothing could stop her except for Lang’s military training. Lang did not even need to get up from his seat to lock Yue’s arms at her side; Yue was still the little girl he remembered from ages before, when they had still been young kids, playing in the paddy fields. He pulled the drunken girl securely into his arms; like how he used to when they were younger, Yue sitting on his legs within his arms as he rocked her to sleep.
Yue didn’t think her alcohol tolerance was that low, but her head was already in the clouds. She laid the back of her head against Lang’s chest with a silly smile on her lips.
“What will you guys do when you get out from the army?” Yue asked airily as her eyes started to glaze over.
“I doubt Lang will ever leave the army. The army is his life.” Zhao laughed at the sight of Yue as he took another swing at his own bottle. “Me? If I can go back, I’ll definitely go back home to my Yu’er. And to my son or daughter that’s growing in her.”
“Whaz their names gonna be?” Yue slurred.
“I wonder.” Zhao replied, a small sad smile followed by an exchange of silent agreement with Lang.
“Nammess!” Yue cried out, her eyelids threatening to close on them.
“If it’s a boy, I’ll call him Zhao Liang – to become a ray of hope for my family. If it’s a girl, I’ll call her Zhao Hua – to blossom into a flower just like her mother.”
“They are good names.” Lang said after a period of silence after Yue had dozed off. “I am sure Yu’er will love them too.”
Finishing the rest of his drink, Zhao looked up to the skies once again. They had known this was coming for some time now, he had readied himself for it, but it seems, no matter how much preparation you do, it is never enough.
“I think you might have spiked her drink a little too much.” Zhao laughed as he tried to stop the hot tears from leaking from his eyes.
“Dengyu thought I was the one who was going to use it, so the dosage was a little stronger.” Lang explained as he rocked the small figure on his lap.
“Tell her goodbye for me?” Zhao asked, his voice cracking a little. “And that I am sorry, that I love her very much…”
“I will.” Lang replied, his brows furrowed with helplessness.
“Zhao, you will always be my brother. I wish- I wished I was the one in your position.”
Even though Lang had his eyes averted, Zhao knew of the suffering within those obsidian orbs. Ever since they found out, Lang had berated himself over and over again for allowing this to happen – no matter what he did to try and reverse it, nothing more could be done except for it to run its course. The dark sky, the moon and the stars merged into a single blur as Zhao gathered his feelings. He steadied his breathing and steeled his heart – there was no other alternatives anymore.
“The troops will be leaving before the sunrise, we’ll take the cliffs and will wait for your troops to arrive after noon. If it all goes well, I’ll be able to tell Yue in person.” Zhao said. “I hope she’s not going to be too pissed!”
Zhao place his hand over Lang’s shoulder and gave it a tight squeeze. Lang did not reply; his features once again a stoic mask. Kneeling before Yue, Zhao gently kissed her on the forehead, his hand reaching forward to lay on the top of her head.
Getting to his feet, Zhao was about to leave when a sleep-laden voice broke the silence.
“Whe’re you going?” Yue yawned as she snuggled deeper into the crook of Lang’s shoulder joint.
“Goodnight Yue, I’ll see you later.”
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