Foxglove and Snakeroot
Lan and Liwa’s first meeting was over a decade ago.
In third grade, Liwa had already made a name for herself as a schoolyard terror, beating up any classmate who dared to mock her for being a mere fox spirit with no powers. She’d show them that she was merely a fox, with her fists. With her teeth.
So naturally, she didn’t have any friends as a kid.
When Lan transferred to her elementary school part of the way through the school year, their teacher introduced her to the class in the most peculiar way.
“It is a great honour to have the esteemed Zhou Lan, the heir of the guardian family of the east in our humble class,” the teacher had said reverently. “She is one of the potential vessels of the Azure Dragon god. Please treat her well.”
With her wide, ocean blue eyes and teal hair tied in neat pigtails, Lan looked like she was a porcelain doll fashioned out of the sky and sea. The way the other kids looked at her in awe instead of disdain, so different from when Liwa had first moved here last year—she hated it. She hated them. Liwa glared from her seat, her fingers wrapped around a blue crayon that she was in the middle of scribbling a drawing of the sky with. She frowned at it, then snapped the crayon clean in half.
A finger pointed accusingly at her from the front of the classroom.
“She’s making fun of me!” Lan cried out, bursting into tears. Everyone turned to look at Liwa.
The crayon was the same colour as the glittering scales of the Azure Dragon in her dream, in which her classmates’ teasing echoed relentlessly in her head. Liwa would wonder later on, how Lan had been able to sense her animosity all the way from over there.
But on that day, the teacher got angry and gave Liwa detention. She spent her recess indoors that morning, miserably trying to glue the two pieces of the crayon back together. When Lan came peeping into the classroom, Liwa had shouted something cruel, throwing a crumpled up ball of paper that smacked Lan harmlessly in the forehead. Liwa’s parents were called in after school.
“Your daughter’s behaviour is getting out of hand,” the teacher told them. “We were willing to look the other way because a bit of a tussle between kids never hurt anyone. But Lan is the granddaughter of the Azure Dragon. Liwa’s antagonism is intolerable.”
At the age of nine, the stern talk didn’t faze her much. No one could dare stand against her, not when she feared no one. If anyone said something nasty to her, she’d beat them up. And if she didn’t like the look in someone’s eye, she’d beat them up.
And she really didn’t like Lan’s bright blue eyes at all.
In hindsight, it was expected for the situation with Lan to blow way out of proportion. One day, Lan had timidly asked her to borrow something small, maybe an eraser, while the classmates behind them sniggered at their desks, and Liwa let her temper get the better of her.
They had to bring in another teacher to separate their fight—although later, all witnesses would claim it was a one-sided attack. Whatever the case, Lan ended up with several scratches on her cheeks and a puncture wound on her arm where Liwa had bitten her. And Liwa had ended up with bruised knees, a fractured wrist, and a notice of expulsion from the school.
“Why did you go so far?” the principal asked her in dismay when he visited their home to bring her parents the news of the school’s decision.
“I just don’t like her face,” Liwa replied, with all the contempt and honesty she could muster at nine years old.
The principal left their house even more disappointed than when he arrived, and her parents reprimanded her until evening for her intolerable behaviour.
Because she couldn’t beat people up with her dominant hand in a cast, some of the braver classmates came by to throw rocks at her windows after school was over. They wrote the nastiest insults a third-grader could think up in chalk on their driveway, and when Liwa hollered at them through the front door they ran away laughing. These were the classmates that had bullied her for her lowly heritage when she first moved into the neighbourhood and started attending their school. They only quit because she fought back.
Her parents told her to keep her head down, because she had already incurred the wrath of the dragon of the east. If the Azure Dragon wanted, her mother told her seriously, they could wipe out their whole family. And so she gritted her teeth and let them be. The bullies threw eggs at their house and poured salt on their plants and Liwa’s parents cleaned them up without complaint. They even joked mildly about where these kids were getting their hands on all of those things, and it made Liwa’s blood boil that there was nothing she could do.
One night, she was roused by the sound of familiar raucous laughter and the thumping of shoes across concrete as several children ran down the street laughing in malicious delight. Liwa raced down the stairs as fast as her legs could carry her, throwing the door open with her uninjured hand to yell at those stupid, immature kids when she caught sight of a small, lone figure in the moonlight.
It was Lan.
Liwa was about to shout at her to get off the lawn and stop bothering her family when she saw that the Azure Dragon girl wasn’t performing an act of vandalism at all. Her eyes were closed, and droplets of water swirled around her seafoam hair, coalescing into rain that sluggishly lowered to the ground. It was as if time itself had slowed down around where she stood.
And it was only then that Liwa noticed the streaks of red paint that stained the grass around Lan’s feet. Lan reached out a hand and rain poured down on her command, washing the paint away in a graceful, upward arc of flowing water. It was like a river in the sky, morbidly beautiful with the water stained red with the colour of blood.
“Ah!” Lan had noticed Liwa staring at her from the doorway. Her concentration slipped for a moment and the flow of water halted. In the next moment, she was doused in runny paint water falling from the sky as all of it splashed back down to the earth.
Liwa started giggling. She couldn’t stop herself, because Lan looked like something out of a horror movie drenched in dripping red paint water. She sneezed delicately, blinking some of it out of her eyes.
After that, Liwa invited her inside the house to warm up, not caring that she was tracking red paint all over the hardwood floors as she brought some towels to clean her up. Then she gave her a dry, clean change of clothes from her own closet and let her sleep on their living room couch.
The next morning, Lan had a mild fever, and Liwa took it upon herself to nurse her new friend back to health. And just like that, they put the incident and all the ones before behind them. The expulsion was retracted and her punishment was lightened to a one-week suspension, and Liwa suspected the Azure Dragon family connections had a hand in that.
And then the two of them became inseparable both at and outside of school. If anyone wanted to bother Lan, they had to go through Liwa first. And no one dared to bother Liwa anymore, because they were intimidated by Lan.
In this world, there were no folktales passed down of the exalted Azure Dragon of the East befriending a lowly woodland fox, but that just meant that their friendship was a legend in the making. And it was surely a friendship that would last and transcend lifetimes.
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