Chapter 8:

Sunlight Beneath the Oak Tree

Foxglove and Snakeroot


Liwa didn’t think she had to put much effort to avoid Kai since the locations of their classes did not overlap. But for someone she’d never seen around campus before until now, she was running into him an awful lot lately.Bookmark here

“Are you following me?” she asked him incredulously, after bumping into him the second time that day just as she left her class.Bookmark here

Kai’s gaze dropped to the floor. “Not intentionally. Miss Yuna told me your schedule for today and I was hoping for a chance to get an audience with you.”Bookmark here

That explained why Yuna had left macroeconomic theory early even though the two of them always walked to and from class together.Bookmark here

“Your cryptic straightforwardness is probably why you’ve got no friends,” Liwa snapped, and he flinched at that. “But I’ll try to be civil with you. What you said yesterday, that’s not how you go about asking someone out.”Bookmark here

He stared blankly at her, and she had a hard time imagining him as a threat now. The bangs over his forehead were unkempt, nearly falling into his eyes. He had a lab notebook tucked under his arm and the sleeve of a white lab coat stuck out of his bag. Liwa could not bring herself to hate him.Bookmark here

“Hmm, then can we date?” he asked, with that soft, unsettling smile of his.Bookmark here

Liwa could not bring herself to like him either.Bookmark here

She pulled him aside before they could attract any curious stares from passersby. Under the shade of the tall oak tree outside of the economics building, Kai stuck out like a sore thumb with his silvery white hair among the greenery. Liwa flopped down in the patch of tall grass and stretched out her legs, motioning for him to do the same.Bookmark here

“You were saying how you had no friends,” she said, as he sat down beside her. “If you’ve never formed connections with other people you might not understand, but for a romantic relationship to work, both parties have to have feelings for each other.”Bookmark here

“Feelings,” Kai repeated. “What do you feel about me, Miss Liwa?”Bookmark here

“Disdain.”Bookmark here

His vapid smile twisted wryly. “Hmm. I get it. But you see, I think you’re quite pretty. The way your orange hair glows, backlit in the sunlight, it looks soft like a fox’s coat against the forest green backdrop. Your smile makes the world seem so alive. I think if it’s someone like you, I could bring myself to have feelings for you”Bookmark here

“W-what kind of a cheesy confession is this?” Liwa spluttered, feeling her face grow warm at his words as he scrutinized her closely. “You’re oddly eloquent sometimes, and at other times you speak so stiffly. I can hardly read you.”Bookmark here

“And I, you. What do you stand to lose from a courtship with me?”Bookmark here

“I’m just not interested,” Liwa said, turning away. “I have my hands full just trying to pass my classes so I can graduate. And my friend…she told me not to get involved with you.”Bookmark here

“Yuna?” he asked, looking somewhat surprised. “On the contrary, she seemed quite eager to assist me in my endeavours.”Bookmark here

“No, not Yuna. Another friend of mine.”Bookmark here

“Hmm, is that so? Then my reputation precedes me.” Kai did not look upset at all, just genuinely curious. “And on what grounds, might I ask?”Bookmark here

Lan had told her about the silver lake and the white snake in secrecy to protect her, even going so far as to keep it from their other friends. Kai, a near stranger, didn’t need to know about that.Bookmark here

“Sorry, I can’t tell you,” Liwa said. “Nothing against you, but this is strictly my own business.”Bookmark here

To her surprise, Kai did not persist. “I will respect that.”Bookmark here

“And yet you won’t respect that I’ve already rejected you…”Bookmark here

“I see now that a romantic relationship is not the most appropriate in this situation,” he said. “My apologies for making assumptions. I wish to be friends with you. Would that be satisfactory?”Bookmark here

Liwa heaved a sigh. “Friendships don’t really work like that either, but sure. Why not? Let's be friends.”Bookmark here

-Bookmark here

Kai already had Yuna’s approval, and Jin said he was trustworthy because nothing out of his mouth was ever a lie. Quietly and organically, he matched their pace and blended into their motley group like a viper camouflaging in the leaves. Not that he would ever replace Lan, Liwa swore to herself, but it was nice that there were four people again. It made her miss her closest childhood friend even more.Bookmark here

But they were only growing older and time passed no slower, and everyone was bound to go their separate ways in the end—entering the workforce, starting their own families, and living their own lives. It was just…more than a little bittersweet to watch Lan spread her wings and fly farther than any of the others could ever dream to reach.Bookmark here

There was an irony in the way Kai filled the gap in her heart that Lan’s absence had left, and brought back the illusion of ordinary school life.Bookmark here

Like he had mentioned once, outside of regularly scheduled classes he spent most of his time confined in the lab, working on research toward his dissertation. Liwa started inviting him to join them for meals between classes and to hang out or study with them on weekends. He came when he had the time, and it was hard to tell with his blankly detached expression but he seemed quite happy to be included.Bookmark here

Yuna really took a liking to him for some reason.Bookmark here

“He seems to really cherish you!” she pointed out, and Liwa could not dispute that. But she doubted it was anything more than just his crusade against his past life and she just so happened to be the fox he once murdered in cold blood.Bookmark here

“You’re the one who swore off on dating,” Liwa shot back, “so why are you so insistent on getting involved in my dubious love life?”Bookmark here

“Because he clearly likes you, he’s just bad at showing it!”Bookmark here

“He just doesn’t know what he’s doing because he’s never had friends before!”Bookmark here

“Er, guys,” Jin said timidly, interrupting their brief spat by holding out his phone. “Technically girls…but y’know. Figure of speech. Kai’s done with the lab for today, so he’s on his way here.”Bookmark here

Liwa and Yuna went quiet at that, turning away from each other to stare at opposite sides of the cafe. Jin sighed, but let them be. He pulled up a chair for Kai when he arrived, and by then Liwa had stopped sulking to face the table properly.Bookmark here

“Are you studying?” Kai asked, settling down in his seat. There were several textbooks piled in front of Yuna, and Jin’s laptop was propped up against them. Scrap paper littered the table space between coffee mugs.Bookmark here

“We’re trying,” Jin said honestly. “I have a thermodynamics project due next week, so I’m just chugging away at that.”Bookmark here

“Engineering major?” Kai asked.Bookmark here

“Yep. Haven’t really got the brains for it, but at least I can get all the true and false questions right—just kidding, haha. They always implement security measures in exams against our powers.”Bookmark here

Spending a leisurely evening with the other three became just another day at the cafe, grounding Liwa in the comfort of a mundane university life. With Yuna’s academic guidance, Jin’s social presence, and Kai’s moral support, she managed to survive the brutal onslaught of midterms that gave way to final exams and projects. She was so busy with schoolwork and pulling all-nighters regularly that she’d stopped dreaming altogether. Eventually, the premonition of the silver lake and Lan’s warning faded to the back of her mind.Bookmark here

For once, it was like she was merely an ordinary student and she welcomed that feeling. Kai stopped going on about fighting fate and seemed content with being friends. But in the way water could flood into the smallest crack when left ignored, a storm was brewing out of sight. The memories of her past life had never been wrong once, and it was only a matter of time before the silver lake would flood over and become the wide, empty sea.Bookmark here

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