Chapter 26:

Winter Wonderland

Foxglove and Snakeroot

Later, Jin was looking a lot better after washing up and having breakfast, while Yuna looked like she had one foot in the grave. After their conversation, Liwa excused herself to return to the hotel room to tend to Yuna, and Kai had gone back to check on Jin.Bookmark here

“Your eyes are so puffy, it’s like you pulled an all-nighter,” Liwa chided, helping her smooth out the bird’s nest of hair that was usually perfectly braided. “Careful now, or you’ll end up with eyebags like mine.”Bookmark here

Yuna was perched at the edge of the bed. Liwa knelt beside her and was trying to make do without a comb, running her fingers through the tangles. To think her friend that was usually well-groomed was prepared to go into public like this. She cried all night yesterday, and didn’t have much strength left for anything else.Bookmark here

“Do you even know how to braid hair?” Yuna asked, sounding dubious.Bookmark here

“There’s the Yuna I know,” Liwa said proudly, glad she was well enough to make a jab at her. “I can’t do it as well as a weaver girl, but at least you won’t look like you rolled out of a washing machine. Can you quickly make a hair elastic for me?”Bookmark here

At least, she hoped to achieve the bare minimum by helping her tie her hair. But the amateurish way Liwa plaited it only made Yuna look marginally more well-rested, joining the two boys in which messy hair was integral to their character design.Bookmark here

“You look awful.” Jin was the first to point that out, because in addition to his own perpetually untidy hair he also had no tact ever.Bookmark here

Liwa glared at him warningly from behind Yuna as they approached the hotel lobby where he and Kai were waiting. By some sort of unspoken agreement, they had all packed up their baggage as if preparing to head back home already. With last night’s revelations, no one thought it would be right to continue their trip as if nothing happened.Bookmark here

But then Kai piped up, “We came all this way. I’d like to see those exploding lights you call ‘fireworks’. It seems quite intriguing.”Bookmark here

“They hold a firework show downtown every year for new years,” Yuna said monotonously. “We can always come back next year if we can get tickets again.”Bookmark here

“Next year?” he echoed, sounding disappointed.Bookmark here

“I’ll stick around,” Liwa said at once. “Jin, if you don’t mind taking our stuff when you drive Yuna back, Kai and I can just take the bus when the show is done. We both practically live on campus so…”Bookmark here

“I’ll stay,” Yuna said in a small voice, glancing at Jin in alarm like she didn’t want to be alone in the car with him quite yet. “If you don’t mind me…crashing your date.”Bookmark here

“I’m not going anywhere either,” Jin said. “I don’t think there are any buses that run that late. And I have a responsibility to make sure all of you get home safely. We’ll watch the fireworks together like we promised. I don’t want to ruin that.”Bookmark here

That was what they agreed on, but now they had to spend the whole day together waiting for nighttime again. All the activities each of them would typically want to do on a leisurely day downtown had already been expended yesterday. And so they just walked aimlessly for a while. The unnatural awkwardness between the four of them strolling through the snowy winterscape in the city only seemed to grow with each footstep crunching in the snow.Bookmark here

Yesterday’s rollercoaster of emotions had left all of them drained, and it was probably a mistake to push their company on each other. Surely it would just continue to remind Jin that Lan was gone and Yuna of her mistakes.Bookmark here

Liwa turned to Kai for help, then realized she shouldn’t have done that. With snowflakes clinging to his hair and long eyelashes, his side profile was hauntingly beautiful. She looked away quickly, glad that her cheeks were already flushed from the cold weather.Bookmark here

But thankfully, she didn’t have to think up a distraction for herself and for the others. The area around the venue for the new year celebration attracted quite the crowd, and the streets were lined with parked cars. As they neared, Liwa could hear the quiet thumping of what she thought was her own heart—it was the beat of live music faintly playing in the distance. The noise grew louder as they approached, with the smell of street food wafting through the icy air.Bookmark here

“You guys hungry?” Liwa asked, eyeing the food trucks up ahead that were surrounded by throngs of visitors. “Let’s go line up before it gets too busy!”Bookmark here

-Bookmark here

After they’d eaten their fill of deep-fried and overpriced food, Jin was the first to talk.Bookmark here

“So, er…I was thinking about all the stuff you talked about yesterday,” he said awkwardly, scratching the back of his neck as he glanced at Yuna out of the corner of his eye. “I said some pretty mean things, I think. So I just wanted to say sorry. It’s sunk in now that it’s not really your fault, and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”Bookmark here

“I should’ve said something sooner,” Yuna said, looking down at the floor. “I was too scared. Lan and I were both too scared.”Bookmark here

“If it was inevitable, then I don’t think there was anything else you could’ve done,” Jin said. “I…probably would’ve done the same as you.”Bookmark here

Yuna’s lips twitched. “You wouldn’t have been able to lie to me.”Bookmark here

“Hey! I can lie, it just gives me a lot of discomfort!”Bookmark here

“So you basically can’t.”Bookmark here

Kai took Liwa by the hand and pulled her aside while they were distracted so they could reconcile peacefully. He led her to a secluded area out of earshot of Jin and Yuna where the snowfall on the asphalt had been untouched. Liwa tensed as he let go of her hand, a part of her nervous for Kai to spring some sort of unromantic confession and another part of her was ready to square up to fight.Bookmark here

“Liwa, please don’t be alarmed,” he said, and all of her fantasies were thrown out of the window. “I just saw someone in the crowd. From behind, it looked a lot like Lan.”Bookmark here

“Lan?” she said skeptically. “It can’t be. If it’s the same hair colour, it might’ve been someone from the Azure Dragon family.”Bookmark here

Kai shook his head. “Hmm, there was no mistaking the silhouette. It was either Lan…or it was Qin.”Bookmark here

Qin was bad news. Liwa still could not understand what his motivations were, right up until he’d set Kai up to attack her that day. Perhaps that was the will of the Azure Dragon that he and Lan shared. But while Lan spoke like she carried a thousand-year-old entity in her soul, Qin had mocked her resentfully as if he had a personal vendetta against her.Bookmark here

“If Qin’s here, then there’s trouble,” she said, glancing back at the festival in full swing and the sea of people. “I don’t know what his goals are, and I don’t want to wait around to find out.”Bookmark here

“I’ll come with you,” Kai said abruptly.Bookmark here

“It’s safer for you to stay with Jin and Yuna,” Liwa said. “I don’t know what Qin wants, but with what he did to you last time I refuse to let him lay a hand on you.”Bookmark here

He still looked unconvinced.Bookmark here

“I promise I won’t do anything stupid,” she told him. “I can’t promise I won’t beat him up if he says the wrong thing though. But I’ll stay safe. I’ll meet you back where Jin and Yuna are, so stay there, okay?”Bookmark here

After a moment’s deliberation, she leaned toward him and brushed her lips very lightly against his cold cheek, then turned on her heel and sprinted away before she could even catch a glimpse of his reaction.Bookmark here

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