Foxglove and Snakeroot
“Finals are over, how do you guys want to celebrate?”
Jin flopped against the table in exhaustion. “By praying to every shrine in the country that I passed all my classes.”
Liwa nodded in agreement.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Yuna snapped, turning to Kai for help. “I’m sure you did fine, at least.”
“I sure hope so,” he replied hesitantly, and Yuna shook her head in mock amazement as she was probably wondering why everyone around her was so stupid.
The cafe attracted an unusually large crowd today, since it was the last day of exams and a lot of students were celebrating their newfound freedom by grabbing a drink and unwinding with friends. Because Liwa usually studied here with the others, she couldn’t feel as relaxed as she wanted to. The flavour profile of the cafe’s signature coffee blend she once enjoyed very much just tasted like an all-nighter and mock exam papers.
“Oh well, what’s done is done,” she sighed, making a face at the recent memories. “We can’t redo the finals even if we failed. Chin up, Jin! You look terrible.”
“I feel terrible,” he said creakily. His patchy white and brown hair had grown long and scruffy over his eyes, reminiscent of a certain someone. “I thought finishing the semester would be a weight off my shoulders but now I’m just dreading next year.”
“We’re on break now, I don’t even want to hear a peep about next semester from you,” Yuna said, glaring at him. “And good heavens, you dearly need a haircut.”
“Anything you want to do for winter vacation?” Liwa asked. Even if she didn’t have powers like Jin, it was already obvious what Yuna was after. She was the only one who could afford to think about vacation, after all, with her flawless GPA.
“I’m so glad you asked,” she said sweetly, as Jin groaned a little under his breath.
In the end, Liwa realized, Lan never came back to school at all. Maybe it was for the better that she was so busy with her family duties that she couldn’t visit like she’d promised. Liwa felt somewhat guilty for going against Lan’s advice and befriending the white snake anyway. But there was no flood, and no destruction. The guilt easily slipped to the back of her mind.
Maybe the timing of her dreams was merely a coincidence.
Her thoughts had wandered off. By the time she was paying attention to the conversation again, Yuna was saying she wanted to go downtown to see the fireworks. She had gotten four tickets to the new year firework show from the Moon Rabbit Student Association, which were notoriously hard to come by because of the strict pyrotechnic regulations.
“If it snows,” she said excitedly, “it’ll be so pretty, don’t you think?”
“Fireworks?” Kai asked, raising an eyebrow. His face wore a blank, polite smile, but Liwa was beginning to learn how to read his indecipherable expressions. He seemed curious.
“They’re kind of like sparkling, colourful lights that explode and light up the sky,” she tried to explain. “They’re pretty, and much brighter than the stars. But because they're so bright, they also tend to block the connection to the stars—the source of most peoples’ powers, just temporarily. So guess what? Under a firework show, you and I outrank these two just for a day.”
“You’ll never outrank me in anything,” Yuna declared. “But you know, it’ll be kind of nice to feel completely ordinary for a day.”
“Oh geez, I wonder how that feels,” Liwa said sarcastically, and she thought she heard Kai chuckle softly under his breath for the first time. The sound set her heart aflutter, and she instinctively reached for where she kept the bottle of allergy meds.
But she’d already taken one that morning.
Although Kai didn’t say anything while they celebrated their temporary freedom at the cafe, he messaged Liwa later to let her know that he would still be working at the lab for the duration of winter break. Jin went home to stay with his family while Yuna was easily reachable because she lived so close. And Liwa remained at the dormitory, catching up on some much needed sleep. She also finally managed to tick off the last thing on her to-do list—finally transcribing a written copy of the legend of the fox and the snake for Dr. Mengjiao.
The four of them went their separate ways for winter break, agreeing to take a trip downtown on the last three days before classes started again to ring in the new year together. They invited Lan as well, if she could make it. She had yet to respond to their messages.
Without the stress of school hanging over her head, Liwa started thinking about how hectic the first semester had been. She was surprised she had made it out in one piece. All that worrying had been for nothing.
The thing that was bugging her the most now was the very real threat of the three masked men that had attacked Kai last week. He’d made it out unscathed, but there was no telling when they’d be back. Liwa had insisted on walking him to and from his exams if her schedule allowed it, much to his chagrin, so he’d remained safe. He told her not to be concerned about it now, since his house was less than a minute away from the lab, but she still couldn't shake off the feeling of worry. He couldn’t even defend himself! And outside of herself and the other two, he had no other friends to keep an eye on him.
Getting a little anxious that he was also not responding to her messages, Liwa decided to drop by the lab to check on him one day, making sure to take an allergy pill right before she stepped out the door. The crisp, winter air was chilly through her thick coat, and it was on days like these that she briefly wished she were a soft, fluffy fox. She hugged her coat against herself even tighter, walking quickly to the pharmacy building.
Upon her arrival, the lab was deserted. There was only one white-clad pharmacy student she did not recognize working at the lab equipment, and the receptionist, Mrs. Huang, was at the counter.
“Oh it’s you, Lihua,” she said, without looking up.
Liwa didn’t bother correcting her name and just smiled tightly. “I’m looking for Kai. Is he in?”
“Not yet,” Mrs. Huang said. “He usually comes in around this time, so he should be here soon. How about you wait here for him? Feel free to take a look around, but if you want to go into the lab area you’ll need to borrow a pair of safety goggles and a lab coat. Just let me know.”
Liwa stuffed her cold hands into her pockets and went over to wait against the wall. Looking around the nearly-deserted lab, she wondered what Kai was working on for his dissertation while he spent the majority of his free time here. She’d never gotten around to asking him. When it was with the four of them, the flow of the conversation had always been carried by Yuna and he had never talked much. When it was just the two of them…well, it was usually due to unexpected events. Such as getting attacked in a dark alley.
Thinking about the time before that, she suddenly recalled the moment when Kai had asked her out in the most unromantic way in the world in the grass under the dappling oak tree. It made her heart skip a beat, even though she'd literally taken allergy meds that morning.
After an initial misunderstanding and Yuna's gleeful encouragement that lasted about a week, Kai no longer thought about her that way. Surely they were just friends. Friends that would not hesitate to kill each other without antihistamines running through their veins, but friends all the same.
One of the grey doors creaked open, conveniently interrupting her swirl of thoughts. Kai’s familiar snakelike eyes blinked and zeroed in on her standing awkwardly by the wall as he poked his head inside the lab.
“Miss Liwa!” he said, and her heart fluttered uncomfortably like she was about to be ill. “I was hoping you’d be in. Could I trouble you to come here for a moment?”
“How did you know I was here?” she managed, and she peeled herself off the wall and started heading toward him.
“Hmm, wait.” Kai put up a hand, and then he disappeared behind the grey door as it closed. His voice was muffled when he spoke again. “Please do not be alarmed.”
Liwa’s lips twitched. Was he playing some kind of a prank on her or something?
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
The door swung open again, and she saw Kai’s face, twisted infinitesimally in what looked like pain. He stumbled into her, slumping forward and leaned his head heavily against her shoulder. Just as she was about to shove him in annoyance, she detected the strong, iron tang permeating the air that was unmistakably the smell of blood. It was then that she looked down and noticed he’d been clutching at his stomach, taking in shallow, laboured breaths as his head rested limply on her shoulder.
Alarmed, Liwa steered his body carefully to the side and propped him up against the wall without jostling him, preparing to ask him what was wrong. Her heart leapt into her throat at the frightening sight of blood pouring from a wound in his abdomen behind his hands that tried to staunch the flow, a deep crimson rapidly spreading through the fabric of his shirt.