Foxglove and Snakeroot
Eventually with Yuna’s help, Jin and Kai figured out the parking meter and the four of them set off along the street that was slowly becoming blanketed in white snow. The architecture downtown was reminiscent of the buildings on campus but with more modern, commercial influences. They spent the first half of the day trailing after Yuna as she window shopped at several apparel stores to gather inspiration for her weaving.
“Yuna likes to make her own clothes,” Liwa explained to Kai. ““Not sure if you knew, but she’s from a weaver family—just like Mrs. Huang, actually.”
“A practical power,” he mused. “It’s very useful for the medical field.”
“Is it though?” Yuna muttered as if to herself, rifling through the sweaters hanging on a rack. “These look nice and cozy…but if the hood connects like this, the seam allowance is going to have to be…”
After she was done tearing out her hair over analyzing some garments she liked so she could replicate them at home, Jin said he wanted to take a look at some kitchenware. He cooked for his family and he liked to bake in his spare time and so he spent an hour staring at baking sheets that all looked exactly the same to the rest of them. But he looked ecstatic, so that was all that mattered.
“Anything you guys want to do before we grab dinner?” Yuna asked Liwa, as Jin was checking out his purchases.
Unlike her friends, Liwa had no particular hobbies to speak of. She got into fights a lot before she met Lan, which toned down only somewhat when she became friends with Yuna and Jin in high school. But that wasn’t exactly something she enjoyed enough to call it a hobby. She supposed she was just happy enough to spend time with friends.
“Lame,” Yuna jeered, but she looked almost embarrassed. “What about you, Kai?”
He tilted his head, deep in thought. “Hmm, I’m not quite familiar with the area. Is there a coffee shop nearby? I think Liwa would really like that.”
The white snake didn’t even need to try and he had already stolen her heart.
“Er, so Lan never replied to any of your texts either…right?”
When Jin’s question faltered, the entire table went quiet in a tangibly awkward silence in the bustle of the busy cafe. It was something that must’ve been weighing on everyone else’s minds over the break and even throughout the entire semester. Now that they were sitting down in a familiar setting in which Kai’s seat was once occupied by their Azure Dragon friend, the weight of JIn’s question hung heavily on Liwa’s shoulders.
But Liwa didn’t feel like it was right for her to explain what had happened last week when she could barely make sense of it all. And she couldn’t tell a bold-faced lie either, not with Jin around.
“She’s been busy lately, right?” she managed, hoping the guilt from sidestepping the truth didn’t show on her face. What she said was the truth, and Jin seemed to deflate a little.
“Busy from what? She won’t even talk to her friends…it’s like we don’t even exist.”
At that, Yuna went rigid. But before she could share her thoughts or raise any objections, the server came by with coffee, pastries, and sandwiches from their order. He placed a steaming cup of dark roast coffee in front of Liwa, and she breathed in the rich, nostalgic aroma.
“And the customer who ordered just um, plain milk?” the server asked, looking around nervously.
Kai perked up. “That would be me.”
The atmosphere seemed to lighten somewhat as everyone turned to look at him in disbelief.
“I can’t seem to bring myself to enjoy coffee,” he explained.
“Sir, this is a cafe,” Yuna said, her lips twitching into a half smile. “Just order tea or something.”
Liwa started dropping sugar cubes into her own coffee, stirring it lightly. She gave a wise nod of the head. “That’s because you didn’t add anything to it. If you balance out the bitterness with milk and sugar, the taste is delightful.”
Kai held out his hand for her cup. “May I?”
She passed it to him, thinking nothing of it as he tipped a generous helping of milk into her coffee. Then without any reservation, he brought the cup to his lips.
“Dude,” Liwa said, her mouth falling open. “That’s my coffee.”
He blinked at her, unabashed as he took a sip. “Hmm, even with milk and sugar, I’m afraid it still tastes rather horrible.”
She snatched her coffee back from him, her face burning. He was doing this on purpose, wasn’t he?
“You’re changing the subject on purpose,” Jin said, as if echoing Liwa’s thoughts. She turned her attention back to him, puzzled, not really noticing the change in his tone. And then what he said next made her heart sank. “Neither of you are worried about her at all! You’re not lying to me, but you know something that I don’t. Why is Lan so busy she can’t even bother to text us back that she can’t make it? I…thought we were all friends.”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Liwa said, glancing at Yuna out of the corner of her eye for some help. She had never seen Jin so worked up before. “But I’m sure it’s because her duty to her family is important. It’s not something people like us can ever understand.”
That wasn’t a lie at all, right?
Suddenly, Yuna spoke. “Liwa’s right. That’s…what they teach us in classics class. It’s not uncommon for an heir of the auspicious beasts, especially if you inherit young. She’s in a different world now.”
“Still,” Jin said, his voice breaking, “she didn’t even say goodbye.”
Yuna closed her eyes. “When we went to visit her spontaneously in the middle of semester, Jin—that was our goodbye.”
“I don’t—I don’t believe you.” Jin stood up abruptly. “Tell me you were lying just now, Yuna. Please.”
“What do you want me to say? Do you think I can fool your xiezhi intuition?”
“What do you mean that was a goodbye?” Jin’s voice was quavering, and he sank back into his seat like his legs could no longer support his weight. He stared unseeingly ahead of him, his blue eyes dull and clouded. “You’re talking like we’ll never see each other again. That can’t be right. That can’t be right at all.”
“I’m sorry,” Yuna said reluctantly, and her teeth were gritted as if it pained her to get each word out. “That’s why children of legends at the top of the hierarchy generally don’t associate with people like you. Everything only ends in heartbreak and pain.”
“That can’t be…” Jin repeated blankly. Liwa wanted to say something, anything, but there were no words that could comfort him without hurting him. He was lucky to have never experienced a past life with grudges and emotions that sustained to this lifetime. A heart that wouldn’t stop hurting, fangs that craved the blood of a fox, the subliminal duties of the guardian of the east…
But that meant he could never truly understand.
Jin had reached into his pocket with trembling fingers for his phone. “Fine, I’ll have to ask her myself.”
“Wait!” Yuna cried, and strands of celestial thread shot out as she lifted her hand to stop him. But it was too late. The call had already gone through, and Liwa could hear the telltale click on the other end as someone picked up.
“Lan!” Jin said into the phone, his face breaking into a relieved grin. “You picked up! I’ve been so worried, haha!”
There was a brief pause on the other end. And then a cold voice, unmistakably Lan’s. “Who…are you?”