Foxglove and Snakeroot
Liwa couldn’t even sleep peacefully after that, because there was a blinding light pulsing from behind her eyelids. She twitched restlessly, blinking back into consciousness and shielding her eyes from the glaring fluorescent light fixtures on the ceiling. The hard floor against the curve of her spine was uncomfortable, and she sat up groggily.
Her vision swam as blood rushed to her head, and the brightly-lit space of the pharmacy lab back at the university campus came into view. Her left arm throbbed tightly, and she peered down to see that it was wrapped neatly in bandages from her elbow to her wrist.
At the counter sat the familiar figures of Dr. Mengjiao and Mrs. Huang deeply immersed in a muted conversation. When they heard Liwa stir, Mengjiao rose from his seat and drew closer. The worried lines around his eyes creased, but his face broke into a tired smile.
“Hmm, you’re finally awake,” he said.
“Kai!” Liwa blurted out hoarsely before she could stop herself. “He’s—”
“I’m here,” Kai’s voice called out from behind the lab equipment on the other side. In the aftermath of the recent situation he was still running experiments for his schoolwork, clad in a white lab coat and a pair of safety goggles. Liwa watched as he pulled the goggles off his face and took a step closer toward the rest of them, and then he seemed to change his mind.
From that distance, he gave a nod of acknowledgement to Liwa.
“I am glad you are well,” he murmured, almost too soft for her to hear. “I’m terribly sorry for putting you through all that. It will not happen again.”
Although Liwa still felt lightheaded, she pushed herself to her feet and strode toward where he was hovering nervously beside the lab equipment. He started backing up when she moved closer, his expression growing alarmed.
“Miss Liwa! You’re still recovering. If you want to punch me, I must ask you to please wait for—”
She threw herself at him, wrapping her uninjured arm around his waist and pulling him close. She could feel Kai tense up at the sudden embrace, but after a while he patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. She winced, and they both realized in that moment that he had just touched one of the places he’d bitten her. Liwa could feel only a dull sting because there was gauze pad covering the wound under her clothes, but Kai had already shrugged free of her hold and slithered away into the farthest corner of the lab.
“Don’t come near me!”
He looked stricken, curling up in the corner as if he could disappear between the walls if he made himself seem smaller. His white lab coat and hair blended into the walls, a snake camouflaging in its natural habitat. Liwa stifled a giggle, because it wasn’t the time to be laughing.
Even now he was being so considerate, and it made her feel ashamed for having ever doubted him. A part of her heart would always fear the snake in him, she knew that much from the conversation with her own past life in that night’s dream. But that was irrelevant, ancient history. As long as she stocked up on a year’s worth of allergy meds, she was good to go.
Mengjiao and Mrs. Huang seemed to have decided that their work here was done now that Liwa was awake, and they had quietly disappeared through the grey double doors to the hallway to give them some privacy. Left alone with Kai cowering on the other side of the lab, Liwa knew that Kai’s father was trying to give him the opportunity to explain himself to her.
The silence stretched on in the space between them, slowly growing more and more awkward.
Liwa, unable to stand it any longer, blurted out, “Just so we’re clear, I’m not upset or anything. You weren’t in your right mind.”
“Flesh wounds heal with time,” Kai agreed in a tiny voice, “but the pain in your heart will never go away.”
It did, with antihistamines. She was about to protest but he held up a hand to stop her and continued.
“Thank you for coming to find me, even though that meant you had to suspect your own friend. I assure you Miss Lan never intended to hurt me. Just as I too…will never intend to hurt you.”
“I know that,” Liwa said impatiently. She was the one who agreed to take him to Lan to make amends in the first place because she trusted his intentions. She’d already demonstrated that she was prepared to hear him out now by going back to look for him in the Azure Mountains. But he was still going in circles, scared of what she would think of him.
“You see,” Kai continued. “The Azure Dragon and I have been at odds for thousands of years, and for good reason. In nearly every life, I have selfishly tried to take the fox’s heart for my own gain. It is only natural that Miss Lan wants to keep us apart to prevent the cycle from repeating itself.”
Liwa heaved a sigh. “You sound like you were there.”
“Unlike the Four Auspicious Beasts, I have not inherited the memories of each past life,” he said with a shake of the head. “But from way back, the first white snake regretted everything he did, recording his sins scrawled in his own blood upon the pages of a book that has been passed down in my family. That is why in this life, I wish to rewrite my fate at all costs. I want to make amends to each of the lives I have ruined that are detailed in this book, and it will only be then that I can bring myself to forgive those sins.”
“Just rip it up, then,” Liwa said, deadpan.
“I’m not quite sure what you mean.”
“What I meant,” she said, “is to rip up your thousand-year-old family heirloom filled with the blood of guilt or whatever. Live your life on your own terms like how you told me once! There’s no reason to be hung up on a past that’s not even truly a part of you.”
Kai looked so stunned that he stopped trying to become one with the wall to look at her properly like she’d lost her mind. “Miss Liwa—”
“Just Liwa is fine,” she interrupted. “We’re friends, right? You always keep trying to put that layer of distance between us so I could never figure you out until now. But setting aside all that talk about fate and past lives and making amends—it’s all utter nonsense. We don’t even have cool powers! Can’t you just live your life like normal?”
“Normal? I hurt you.”
Liwa regarded him critically. “Dude, I slammed your head into the ground. If you didn’t get a concussion from that, I can do it again. Get over it.”
A choked noise escaped Kai’s throat that sounded like a cross between a chuckle and a cough.
“Anyway, my point is—I’m having trouble remembering now but it’s something cheesy like how the past does not define who you are or whatever,” she said. “If you care about our friendship, then there is no need to push me away. Do you care about me, Kai?”
“I do,” he said without an ounce of hesitation. “Very much.”
“Then there you go,” Liwa replied, and now she was starting to feel self-conscious even though she was the one that asked. “And I, uh…also do. About you.”
Vocalizing those words was unexpectedly and incredibly embarrassing. Her cheeks were feeling warm, like she was coming down with a fever again. There was no way she could be blushing over something so mundane, that would be absolutely preposterous. She turned away, examining the other wall with uncanny interest where the high glass cabinets held vials of colourful and colourless liquids. Her heartbeat stuttered uncomfortably in her chest, and something told her it had nothing to do with the usual heart pain.