Chapter 31:

The Fox and the Dragon

Foxglove and Snakeroot

When her eyes fluttered open, a familiar sense of dread gripped at her heart and she knew she had to get out of here, she had to go, go now, anywhere but here—

She struggled to sit up on an uncomfortably springy mattress and a thin blanket, and realized she was lying on a hospital bed as she looked around her surroundings. On a low stool beside her was the human form of the white snake, deeply asleep and sporting exhausted dark circles under his eyes. The door was slightly ajar, and a faint beam of light from the hallway streamed into the darkened room.

Her head throbbed.

While she was unconscious, she dreamt of her sealed memories in painfully vivid detail like reliving her first life over again. Now she understood why she’d willingly or unwittingly locked them inside of her mind in each life. It felt like her brain was splitting open with the knowledge of each of the subsequent lives after the first in their entirety and as her heart throbbed she realized that her heartbeat had returned just like all of her memories.

The heart given to her out of guilt from the Azure Dragon.

The lasting sensation of her heart being torn out of her chest by a snake following a written record of his past sins over and over again in each life—it was the dragon’s mistake. And now, she held the completed memories of each lifetime and the wishes in Hu Liwa’s fragile, borrowed heart.

This mortal life now was a culmination of all of their age-old mistakes. The wishes cultivated in her heart from the thousands of years she’d been living as a celestial spirit had given them all an opportunity to start anew. Were the exaggerated sins in the white snake’s records passed down to each new reincarnation the reason things turned out this way? Or was it the red fox’s stubbornness to trust in an incarnation that was an empty shell of someone that once loved her dearly?

In this life, they’d nearly found the answer.

The crack in the door to the hospital room widened, and clear azure eyes peered inside to see that she was up. The Azure Dragon in the teal-haired form of Zhou Lan stepped inside, with a brief and inquisitive glance at the sleeping white snake.

“He found you again, in this life,” he said quietly, in Zhou Lan’s voice.

“You found me first,” the red fox replied through Hu Liwa. “As fate willed it.”

“Fate, huh?” the dragon mused. He strode over to the wall, his gaze flitting in idle curiosity over the medical posters hanging on the wall. “I still do believe we have our own influences on the way we wish for this world to turn.”

“You are a god,” the fox said, “and I am just a fox. We are not the same.”

“That is correct. But your power is what gave me the opportunity to be relieved of my responsibilities, even if just for a bit. Twenty years is a blink of an eye for an immortal, but for Zhou Lan, it was surely an experience to be treasured.”

“For Hu Liwa as well,” she replied. “I wonder what the next life holds? I hope we can meet again.”

The Azure Dragon turned back to look at her, and the eternal gaze of the auspicious beast was piercingly blue. “In this life, I must bid you farewell. Your memories were not supposed to return like this. With the powers of myself, the other auspicious beasts, and the last of the Jade Rabbit’s elixir, I will seal them away myself. In fact, the others too—Zhi Yuna and Yang Jin—forgetting about the vessel of the blue dragon is best.”

“What will that resolve?”

“It will bring you peace,” he said simply.

The red fox smiled faintly. “Then let’s try again together. Like you said, a mortal life is a blink of an eye for an immortal, but for humans, it’s a lifetime of experiences. I spoke to Hu Liwa in a dream. She blamed me for using her as a vessel to deal with our unfinished business. I wonder, does Zhou Lan blame you for losing out on the experience of growing old with her friends?”

“She has known from childhood of her duties to the family,” the Azure Dragon said. “It was only a matter of time that my consciousness would piece itself back together.”

“Hu Liwa misses Lan dearly,” the fox replied. “Although we are one and the same, perhaps it will do us all some good to stop meddling in their fate. Let the ones that live in this current lifetime decide what they wish to do.”

The dragon’s expression darkened on Zhou Lan’s gentle face. “Because of my mistakes, the white snake has gone after your heart rashly in many lives, believing it to be his duty despite not truly understanding what it means to tear out the heart of the one he had loved for so long. And to what end?”

“And with only pieces of my memories, I did not understand anything either,” the fox chided. “But now with everything, I have come to the conclusion that being born anew is to move on.”

“I must fix my mistakes,” the Azure Dragon stated stubbornly.

“Did you enjoy the company of the xiezhi and the weaver girl?” she asked suddenly.

“I cannot immediately recall such a fleeting moment in a mortal life.”

“Even a fleeting moment can be beautiful, like fireworks in the sky,” the fox said, her voice growing playful. “I didn’t even get a chance to watch them, once the connection to the Azure Dragon’s heart in the stars was severed. Lord Dragon, you can repent your mistakes by letting go. Let’s enjoy mortal life together. That is the wish in my heart that I have cultivated for the past twenty years.”

“Twenty years is nothing…”

“Like you wanted, perhaps Hu Liwa and Zhou Lan will never meet again,” she added. “Even without your presence, your vessel will still be busy with the duties to the Azure Dragon family as the head of the household.”

He met her gaze, the wide and honest Lan-like expression that Hu Liwa must’ve dearly missed. “I don’t trust in our reincarnations, but I will trust in your decision. May they find what they seek in this unbreakable cycle of fate.”