Foxglove and Snakeroot
His words were so unexpected, and yet so on-brand.
Peals of laughter pierced the wintry air, grounding them back to their reality. Yuna and Jin laughed uncontrollably and almost hysterically, like letting out all of the distress and vulnerability from earlier into the darkness of the night. Yuna managed to compose herself to let the others know that she had already booked two hotel rooms before coming here, one for herself and Liwa and the other for Jin and Kai.
They set off in the direction Yuna pointed out toward the heart of the city to check in to the hotel and get some much needed rest.
“All of this is still hard to take in,” Jin said quietly, voicing what they were all undoubtedly thinking. “It’s also hard to believe you two managed to keep secrets from me, haha.”
“Most of the incidents occurred during exams or over the break,” Liwa tried to explain. “We only just saw each other again for the first time since then this morning. Would you have been able to bring yourself to spill everything when this was supposed to be a fun trip?”
Jin had no retort against that. His shoulders sagged, and Yuna looked troubled.
“I’m so sorry, Jin,” she said, her voice cracking. “I made a promise to Lan.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to forgive you,” Jin said, and tears welled up in Yuna’s eyes again at that. “I think I can understand where you are coming from. But I’m still…really hurt. And these kinds of wounds take time to heal.”
They had arrived at the lobby of the hotel, and Liwa was grateful for the warmth seeping back into her bones upon stepping into the building. When Yuna trudged ahead to check in at reception, Liwa nudged Jin in the side.
“I’m certain the person she was most afraid to hurt was always you,” she said in a low voice. “I know it’s a lot to ask, but don’t hold it against her for too long, will you?”
“I won’t,” Jin replied, gazing at Yuna’s back. “I just wish…this was just a bad dream. But when I wake up tomorrow morning and reality sets in, I’m going to have to accept all of this. Ironic, huh? That I was always the one who was furthest from the truth.”
Yuna only started crying again when she thought Liwa was asleep in the darkened hotel room, and Liwa stayed very still to pretend that she was. Now that Liwa had a chance to sort out everything in her head to get a clearer picture, she wondered how long Lan and Yuna had known about the true nature of the world. From childhood, likely, with the prestige of their families.
Had Lan always known she was going to be replaced by the Azure Dragon?
That thought plagued Liwa’s mind as she tossed and turned restlessly in her blankets, listening to Yuna’s muffled sniffling as she slowly drifted to sleep.
That night, she was greeted by an empty grey world in her dream. She waited for the sound of her own disembodied voice, but nothing came.
“Hello?” she said. There was only a brief pause.
“Again, you barge into your own subconsciousness,” came a snide voice. “Are you expecting a warm welcome?”
“You were wrong about Kai,” Liwa said simply.
There was a long silence that stretched into the formless, empty grey. She didn’t know if the fox spirit of her subconsciousness was still there as she waited for a response.
“You came here just to tell me that?” the voice finally answered. “You think you’ve won, haven’t you? But soon you’ll realize…you will get far more than you ever bargained for.”
“Stop speaking in riddles!” Liwa snapped. “You always do this. You show me pieces of your memories in a dream and then something bad happens. You never make it clear what it is that you want from me!”
“Have you ever stopped to think about what you want? When you do, perhaps then you will understand that just as your will is tied to mine, my will is tied to yours.”
“Is Lan really gone?”
The fox spirit let out a sigh as gentle as the spring breeze. “The entity you know as Zhou Lan is merely a cog in a wheel, a scale and the eye of the dragon god in this lifetime.”
That was what Lan kept repeating, that she was the eye and the scales, while her twin brother was the storm and the claws. It still didn’t make sense at all. So many things didn’t make sense at all.
A past life did not define who you were. That was what Liwa kept repeating to herself and to Kai all this time. But that was just wishful thinking for guardians of the cardinal directions like Lan, whose fates were tied to their previous incarnation in every lifetime. She dealt with her departure from their lives so messily, and what did she leave behind? Only heartache, one worse than the physical manifestation of having one’s heart torn out of one’s chest.
Liwa’s revelations were only met with silence, even though she knew the fox spirit could surely hear those troubled thoughts. The lack of response could only mean that she could not disagree.
“Just what is with all of you trying to deal with your unfinished business through us?” she whispered. “Slowly taking over even before Lan even had a chance to experience her life!”
“You stubborn red fox,” the fox spirit said, sharp and hostile. “You’ve already accepted her fate, but now that your friends are upset, you blame me once again. If you wish to live your life as your own, then stop bothering me for answers from the memories you chose to seal away yourself.”
Liwa was rudely awoken with a start in the middle of the night, and she did not fall asleep again even when the sky lightened and made way for daybreak. When the first rays of sunlight shone through the window, she heard a soft but unmistakable knock on their hotel room door. She pushed the blanket aside and pulled herself to her feet. Yuna was fast asleep in the other bed, so she tiptoed to the door and turned the knob as quietly as she could.
Kai’s golden yellow eyes blinked at her from the darkened hallway. His hair was not tied in the usual short ponytail at the back of his neck, and instead hung loosely and messily by his ears. Liwa felt her heart flutter involuntarily as she fought the urge to ruffle his hair and she reached automatically for the allergy pills she kept in her pocket. She slipped out the door and closed it softly behind her.
“Do you have a moment?” Kai asked.
“That’s why I’m here,” she said with a strained smile. “Yuna is still asleep. What’s up?”
“Hmm, how is she?”
Liwa’s smile faltered. “She cried all night. How about Jin? Is he holding up okay?”
“He’s still in shock,” Kai said truthfully. “But he will come around eventually. How are you feeling?”
“I started suspecting something was up with Lan for a while now,” Liwa admitted. “I’m upset, but probably not as much as Jin must be. I’m more worried about him. And Yuna.”
“Take time for yourself too,” he murmured, and he reached out to place a comforting hand on her head. “You only worry about others and their pain. I’d like to see you put yourself and your feelings first.”
“And same to you,” she objected, and she didn’t shrug him off as he stroked her hair. “Your stitches are still healing, it hasn’t even been that long since you’d been stabbed. Your foolish dream of trying to make amends to those that the white snake hurt only makes me worry about you more.”
“Oh,” he said. “From now on, I will consider your feelings before I act on my own.”
“You’re doing the same thing as me then,” she pointed out, frowning. “You’re worrying about what others think instead of putting yourself first.”
Kai stared back at her blankly. “Putting you first is putting myself first.”
“Wha—? How can you say something like that with a straight face?! You’re not even embarrassed?”
“I care about you a lot, Liwa,” he said, his voice soft and sincere. “What is there to be embarrassed about?”