Chapter 24:

Buried in Ice and Snow

Foxglove and Snakeroot

Yuna had buried her face in her hands behind her glasses, and bits of celestial threads floated down from the sky like glowing spider silk all around her. It felt as if time had slowed. Jin’s horizontal pupils shrank in very real fear and disbelief and his phone slipped out of his slack grip and clattered to the table.

“Hello?” Lan’s voice said from the phone. Yuna’s hand shot out to seize it before JIn could say anything else and she held it to her ear with trembling fingers.

“Lord Dragon,” she said, sounding very close to tears. “It’s nothing important. As long as you are taking care of your health, that is all that matters.”

Liwa could not pick up the low murmur of Lan’s words through the phone. She was focused on Jin, who had gone very still. From putting the pieces together of Lan’s strange behaviour since their first visit, Mengjiao’s explanation on the true nature of past lives, and the fox spirit appearing in her dreams, she had suspected this already and was prepared for the worst. It still hurt to hear it in person, and she couldn’t imagine just how betrayed Jin must be feeling in that terrible moment.

“As long as you are doing well,” Yuna was saying in a choked voice, and tears rolled down her cheeks as she hung up and placed the phone gently on the table.

“What is going on?” Jin said hoarsely, finally coming out of his daze. “What happened to Lan?”

Yuna was crying. Tears streamed from her eyes even as she covered her mouth to stifle her sobs, and Liwa reached over to wrap her arms around her trembling frame. All this time Yuna had kept this to herself. She must’ve thought Lan’s farewell was something she had to manage alone because the others were blissfully unaware of what a powerful lineage represented. She must’ve been weighing the weight of her friends’ happy and oblivious bubble against her own powerlessness against the world.

Liwa squeezed Yuna tightly, feeling her heart shatter.

Eventually when the tears dried, Yuna turned to Jin and spoke in a ragged voice, “Lan wanted to disappear quietly from our lives. That’s why she cut contact because she was aware of the consequences—once the Azure Dragon’s soul fully takes over, there’d be nothing left of the Lan we knew. But what would be the easiest way to break the news? We thought about it hundreds and thousands of times. Even now I still don’t know if I’m doing the right thing by telling you all.”

There was no right way of going about something like this, Liwa thought dully. Her heart plummeted with each word Yuna spoke, as each sentence proved that her intuition was right. And Jin, across from Yuna, seemed to deflate into a hollow shell of his former self. Even though he was by far the tallest out of all of them, he seemed so small and fragile.

The entire time, Kai sat on the other side of Liwa without saying a word. His impression of Lan must not be the best with how the twins treated him at the Azure Mountains, but he knew that the three of them really cared about her. His silence was strangely comforting.

And then Jin said he had to step out to cool his head.

It was a lot to take in for sure, but once he had left with a cheery jingle of the cafe doorbell, Yuna burst into tears again. She stumbled over barely coherent words as she wept, telling Liwa that she didn’t know what to do anymore and that she didn’t want Jin to hate her. Liwa reassured her that she wouldn’t let that happen if it was the last thing she did.

Sometime between Yuna’s tears and Liwa’s gentle reassurance, Kai had placed a cold, comforting hand over top of Liwa’s own. And sometime between that and Jin’s return, Liwa had also started crying. The other customers seemed to slowly disperse around them in obvious discomfort, but nothing outside the three of them mattered.

In this messy world built from past lives that would not allow themselves to be forgotten, they were destined to be tugged around on marionette strings to dance to the tune of age-old memories. It wasn’t fair, Liwa thought, furiously blinking away hot tears from the corners of her eyes. These celestial spirits had no right to dictate their lives. They had no right to take Lan away from them.

But anger couldn’t bring her back. And crying couldn’t solve the cracks in their friendship. Jin and Yuna needed her now more than ever. Liwa wasn’t the person that could fight to change a world that had remained the same for thousands of years, but at least she could be the person to hold on to the people she cared about.

When the cafe doorbell jingled, she glanced up anxiously to see the tall and lanky form of Jin in the doorway. He was lightly dusted in snow, and it concealed some of the brown patches of his hair to blend in with the white. His face was still conflicted, like he wasn’t sure what to do from now on. But he had returned. That was what it meant to believe in your friends.

Liwa marched up and grabbed him by one arm to drag him back to the table before he changed his mind and seized an unresisting Kai by the other, ignoring the stabbing pain in the bandages under her left forearm. Then she shoved them at Yuna with more strength than was necessary, flinging her own arms out to envelope the three of them in a crushing group hug.

And then after a long moment once Liwa was sure Jin and Yuna would not run out on her, she began to speak. She told them of everything that had happened, from her first dream of the sea earlier that semester to what Lan had said when she pulled her aside during their visit to the manor. She told them of the time she saved Kai from three assailants that had attacked him on campus during finals week and the time he’d come to the lab with a serious stab wound.

Kai then spoke of the white snake’s sins in the book passed down by his ancestors and how he had been trying to seek out those he had hurt in the past to make amends. He spoke of the jade curse, of taking the fox’s heart in almost every life for his own greed.

Then they explained that they had gone to the Azure Mountains to see Lan, but the twins tricked Liwa into thinking Kai had betrayed her. While Liwa recovered from a fever at the manor, Qin had taken Kai captive elsewhere on the mountain.

“Qin!” Yuna blurted out. “I knew that guy was fishy the moment I laid eyes on him. He looks like Lan but he’s a snake in disguise!”

“Hey…” said Kai, sounding slightly affronted.

Then Liwa told them about the reincarnation cycles and sealed memories she had learned from Mengjiao, and then Kai reluctantly told them how he had gravely injured Liwa while being controlled by his primal instincts.

“I already told you!” Liwa said impatiently, waving her left arm around to show the horrified Jin and Yuna that she was fine. “This is nothing. It’s just a scratch!”

And then finally, Liwa recounted the dream in which she had spoken with the voice of her past self for the first time. With every word, it felt like a weight had lifted off her chest. Several hours had passed by the time she and Kai had finished their patchwork tale. It was already pitch black outside and the cafe was preparing to close up for the night.

Jin tried to pay the server, but he informed them that Kai had already settled the bill a long time ago. The four of them gathered their belongings and headed outside into the snow-covered city without a word. The icy air froze the lingering tears sticking to Liwa’s eyelashes, gluing her eyelids together. Yuna started giggling tearfully beside her, because the same thing happened to her.

They huddled together as they walked down the winter street, not speaking much after the heightened emotions of that day left them drained. Perhaps their brittle sense of normalcy had shattered now that everything was out in the open, but Liwa had never felt so grateful and close to her friends until this moment. And when Kai quietly intertwined his icy fingers with hers, she held his hand all the way until they got back to where Jin’s car was parked and already blanketed in snow.

The four of them stood there beside the parking meter in poignant silence for a long while, and no one dared to speak. There must’ve been so many thoughts running through everyone’s minds after learning of the truth. Liwa wouldn’t blame them if they wanted some space and time to digest everything.

“By the way, er…Yuna,” Jin said croakily, finally shattering the icy silence. “We’re not sleeping in the car, are we?”