Foxglove and Snakeroot
Finals week, Liwa thought miserably. The bags under her eyes seemed to be permanent now, dark bruises that would forever remind her of the sacrifices of her university days once she managed to find a job in the field. Sometimes she questioned why she chose economics of all things, but it was because she was following in Yuna’s footsteps. She should’ve known better.
After dragging herself out of a hellish microeconomics exam, she briefly considered changing her major in a fit of despair outside the door to the classroom. But then she composed herself. Yuna would be done soon too, so she headed off to go meet with her to whine about how hard the final was.
Evening had fallen by the time she’d gotten outside. She glanced up into the night sky and Vega, the first star of the weaving girl, sparkled brightly down at her.
Liwa hadn’t thought about stars and constellations for a while, preoccupied with her possible demise at the hands of her economics degree. A little distracted, she stumbled on a loose pebble along the sidewalk, but caught herself against a wall before she could fall.
That was when she heard a commotion further down the street, coming from a bend just past the next block. It was on the way, so she approached without really thinking much of it until she heard yelling and the sound of a scuffle. Liwa turned the corner to find three burly-looking figures standing over a young man lying motionless on the ground. It was too dark to make out anything else, but she didn’t need any more context clues to figure out the situation.
She closed the distance and shrugged off her backpack, ramming her foot as hard as she could into the back of the knees of the closest assailant. As he stumbled forward with a grunt of pain, she twisted his arm behind his back and slammed him into the ground in one fluid motion. The other two spun around, immediately on the defensive. Their faces were covered, but it could not hide the dim amber glow of their eyes.
“Assaulting a student on campus during final exams?” Liwa said loudly, twisting the wrist of the man she’d pinned to the ground when he tried to struggle free. “You’ve got some nerve.”
The other two attackers looked at each other and seemed to decide that she’d only taken their companion down with the element of surprise. In reality, Liwa was just ensuring that she was not making a mistake before bashing an innocent person’s skull in due to a misunderstanding. As the masked men lunged at her, she swung her backpack—containing three textbooks and a scientific calculator—and struck the first one square in the face.
“You stupid fox,” he wheezed, swearing at her under his breath as he staggered back. “Stay out of this if you know what’s good for you.”
The other man tried to seize her and she sidestepped out of reach behind him, landing a sharp blow to his kidney as she passed. He was stocky and tougher than she’d expected, and he swiveled around to make a grab for her again.
“He will not have you interfering in this life,” he growled.
“I’d suggest you run while you still can,” Liwa said coldly, feeling a chill trickle down the back of her neck at those words. “I’ve already alerted the campus police.”
At that, the other two staggered to their feet and backed away into the main street in a fumbling panic. The last attacker hesitated, glaring at her with unbridled hatred before following suit. Liwa watched them disappear down the street and out of sight before moving back to check on the prone form of the person behind her.
It was Kai. He was sitting up, rubbing at a bruise on his cheek and wincing but otherwise he seemed fine.
“It’s you!” Liwa exclaimed.
He smiled his usual half-smile, but it looked somewhat pained. “Hmm, you sure know how to fight.”
She bent down and retrieved her fallen backpack, praying she didn’t break her expensive calculator by smashing it on the attacker’s skull. She still needed that for two more exams.
“So uh, care to explain why you were getting jumped by three dangerous-looking men?” she asked. She reached out her hand to help him up. “It seemed like a targeted assault.”
Kai took her hand—his was ice cold and very dry, like a snake’s—and she pulled him to his feet.
“Will the campus police go after them?” he asked, and he sounded strangely worried at the thought.
Liwa shook her head. “That was a bluff. In hindsight I should’ve tortured them for information, but that is also very, very illegal.”
“You’re scary, Miss Liwa.”
She had to be, to defend herself in a world in which a person without powers was at the very bottom of the food chain. She’d hazard a guess that the three assailants were zodiac, with only enhanced animal-like strength. Possibly even less powerful. One of them mentioned that there was someone that didn’t want Liwa interfering, so it was likely they were grunts doing the dirty work for someone at the top. Somebody had probably hired them to attack Kai.
“What did they want?” Liwa asked. “Were they trying to beat you up? Abduct you? Extort you for money?”
“They said something about taking me away to the safe house, or something like that,” Kai said, tilting his head as if deep in thought. “I told them I was meeting a friend later, so I could not go with them.”
So if he wasn’t meeting a friend, then he would’ve gone with them?!
Liwa put a hand against her face in exasperation. “A safe house, huh? Sounds weirdly like they’re trying to protect you or something. Or maybe that’s code for something else. Either way, let’s get out of here and go find Yuna. She’s probably done with her exam by now.”
Instead of complaining about the difficulty of the microeconomics exam that felt like a week ago now, Liwa carefully explained what had just happened to Yuna. Kai walked beside them in silence, nodding gravely as she spoke.
“There you go, picking a fight with dangerous people again!” Yuna said finally. “And if you had been unable to neutralize their powers? You’re not in high school anymore, don’t be reckless!”
“Like you said, I pick my battles, I don’t just randomly attack people whenever I feel like it,” Liwa interjected. “It was three against one, and Kai looked like he was dying.”
“I was not dying,” he said primly. “I was resting.”
“Then you should’ve hit back, hard, like this,” Liwa said, miming a straight punch to the gut. “And you must have fangs, right? Use them!”
Yuna smacked her hand away. “Tsk, don’t teach him weird things! My goodness, did you bite someone, Liwa? Did you know you could get in trouble for that? You idiot! You stupid fox!”
“Why are you calling me names?! I didn’t do anything like that!”
As they bickered down the quiet street, it wasn’t until Liwa had nearly reached her dormitory building before she realized that she should probably send Kai home safely. Yuna lived close to campus so she could take the bus one stop back to her house if she crossed the street here, but Liwa didn’t know where Kai lived.
“Is your place close?” she asked him. “I’ll walk you home.”
He blinked. “Oh. No need to trouble yourself.”
“You literally just got attacked,” she said, exasperated at his stubbornness. “Who knows if they’re still out there waiting for you with more reinforcements. I’ll report this incident to the campus police tomorrow, but I won’t be able to rest easily without knowing that you got to your house in one piece.”
“I can message you when I get back home—”
“Liwa is right, you’ll be safer in her presence,” Yuna chimed in. “I know I joke about her beating people up for sport, but she’s been training since she was little so she could defend herself in this harsh, cold world…”
“Oh shush, you.” Liwa turned back to Kai, who was starting to look a bit unsure. “Come on, lead the way.”