Where is Qian Qian? Where am I?
A dull landscape blanketed in grey mist met Ye Hua’s gaze everywhere he looked. His surroundings were hazy, nondescript. He heard no sounds, detected no scents. He had no idea where he was or how he had gotten here.
I have to find Qian Qian! She needs me.
Ye Hua began to run, fear for her safety surging within. Nothing changed. After a time, his steps slowed. He glanced around frantically. Everything looked the same. Yet he had been running for several minutes. He frowned. Or had it been several hours? He couldn’t be sure.
He took twenty steps forward. It all looked the same.
Am I even moving?
He walked backwards. His surroundings didn’t change. He was walking but he wasn’t moving. Ye Hua knelt and reached out to touch the grass. It looked unhealthy, a faded green color. He brushed his hand over it. It didn’t sway with the motion of his hand. He felt nothing.
It’s like I’m here but I’m not here. How is that possible?
Ye Hua shook his head. That didn’t make sense. None of this made sense.
It doesn’t matter. I need to find Qian Qian.
He started running again, trying to go in different directions. It made no difference. He stopped, frustration building.
“Qian Qian!” he yelled. His voice fell flat, not carrying far beyond his location. “Qian Qian!” he tried again.
There was no response, not even an echo. He hoped to reach her in some way. He just had to keep trying. “Qian Qian!” He began to run, willing himself to move forward this time. It worked for a moment, the landscape changing as he ran.
“Qian Qian!” His voice carried if he focused all his willpower into pushing it beyond himself. He continued running and calling for her, exerting all his energy into his search for her until exhaustion overcame him.
Sinking to his knees in defeat, Ye Hua struggled to catch his breath. He couldn’t feel the grass. Somehow he had broken through before, but only for a little while. He had faded again.
His shoulders drooped, one thing becoming clear to him. Qian Qian isn’t here.
But she had been earlier. Hadn’t she? Searching his memory, he tried to make sense of the disjointed images he could recall. Fear… anger… a desperate search for her. A battle to save her… unbearable pain… fading power… unrelenting weakness. Then there had been nothing until an unfamiliar magic had grabbed him, preventing him from moving away. It had been friendly but it had insisted he stay. And after that…
Ye Hua’s breath caught as he remembered a brilliant, exquisite light. Bai Qian. It could have been no other. Her warmth and love had wrapped around him in a beautiful embrace, her soul a powerful plea as she begged him not to leave her.
“I will never leave you,” Ye Hua murmured. “Never.” But he had left.
Did I leave?
He frowned, confused as his memories grew faint again. He didn’t remember leaving her. But he was here and Bai Qian wasn’t. How had he gotten here? How long had he been here?
A tear trickled down Ye Hua’s cheek. “I’m sorry, Qian Qian. I didn’t want to leave you. And I don’t know how to get back to you.” Despair welled up in his chest, making it ache. He looked down at the dull ground. “I don’t even know where you are.”
Faint music reached Ye Hua’s ears. It was a soothing melody he recognized. He lifted his head, looking around him, clinging to the familiar song.
“Mother,” Ye Hua murmured. “Father.” He could sense his parents nearby. Maybe they would know where he was and how he could return to Bai Qian. He needed to return to her. He had promised.
Then he heard Bai Qian’s voice. It was faint like the music but unmistakable, her soft voice caressing his soul as she murmured something to him. He couldn’t make out the words. “Qian Qian.” He felt the brush of her fingers against him as if she had touched him somehow. He stood, gaining strength from her invisible presence.
“I will find you,” he told her, renewed determination in his voice. “I will come back to you, Qian Qian. I promise.”
He began to run, renewing his search. He ignored his pain. He ignored his weariness. Returning to Bai Qian was all that mattered to him.
Time was an ill-defined entity in the faded place. Sometimes, Ye Hua felt like he had been looking for Bai Qian for countless years. Other times, it felt like his search had only just begun. He didn’t let that deter him. He pushed forward.
His surroundings remained dull and hazy until, one day, Ye Hua noticed the bright green color of the grass returning. The sky began to take on a blue hue with white clouds in the sky. He smiled. He was finally getting somewhere. He sensed he was getting closer to Bai Qian. His pace picked up.
As he raced ahead, his balance swayed and his surroundings shifted. He was back in the Demon Realm, watching from a distance as he confronted Weisheng. Jinjing, his dragon corrected him. The black dragon’s memories began where his own blanked out. Horror filled him when he saw Bai Qian jump in between his dragon and Jinjing.
“No!” he shouted, forgetting this was something that had happened in the past. “Qian Qian!” Fury filled him when Jinjng lifted his sword to come after Bai Qian.
“Don’t you dare touch her!” he growled, jumping toward the battle to protect her. The scene blinked out.
Ye Hua awoke in the body of his dragon with a startled gasp, his heart racing with anger and fear. I must protect her. I won’t let him hurt her.
His eyelids opened and he saw the world through his dragon’s eyes.
Where is she? Bai Qian had been in peril but now she was gone.
She is safe, his dragon reassured him.
The dragon’s memories of Bai Qian’s battle with Jinjing flashed through Ye Hua’s mind. He watched as she first confronted Jinjing head on, holding his breath when they clashed in combat. His stunned horror at the terrible danger she had placed herself in gave way to proud amazement as she stood her ground and forced Jinjing into defeat with unmatched grace and skill. Her power and strength were a magnificent sight to behold. He loved that his once scared and timid Bai Qian had finally found all of herself again. She had defeated the demons of her past and saved him in the process.
Qian Qian killed Jinjing and saved me. This realization was awe-inspiring and Ye Hua loved her all the more for it.
A warm, gentle breeze washed over him carrying a magic that helped ease him into the present more fully. He breathed deeply and Bai Qian’s unique scent filled his senses, a blend of fragrant peach blossoms with the wild undertones of her fox. Ye Hua relaxed. Bai Qian was here with him.
I’m in the peach tree forest.
The black dragon’s body was small and intertwined with the limbs and tails of Bai Qian’s white fox. They were curled up together, sleeping on a bed of moss in the ancient peach grove.
Ye Hua shifted back into his human form, the transition leaving him feeling weak afterwards. He lifted Hu Mei up onto his chest, trying not to jostle and wake her. It didn’t work.
Her sleepy yip upon seeing him was a joyful sound.
“Hu Mei.” His voice was hoarse from disuse. Ye Hua smiled when she licked his cheek in a sweet greeting. She nuzzled her nose into his neck. When he looked for Bai Qian, he sensed that she was still fast asleep. He tightened his embrace, holding Hu Mei close. He had finally made it back home to Bai Qian and Hu Mei. The realization brought contentment with it.
The tickle of Hu Mei’s soft fur against his neck, her slight weight warming his chest, lulled Ye Hua back to sleep. He shifted back into his small dragon form, intertwining his body with Hu Mei’s once again as he drifted off. His rest this time was filled with nothing but happy dreams and peace.
The next time Ye Hua awoke he was in the cabin. Bai Qian slept next to him, her thigh resting across his as she snuggled into his side. He studied the play of night shadows on the wooden ceiling, listening to the faint sound of Bai Qian breathing. It was familiar and comforting, as was the cabin.
A dull ache throbbed in his side. His whole body felt stiff and sore. And he felt disoriented. What happened? How long had he been asleep?
His dragon stirred, providing the answer to the second question while grumbling at him for staying asleep so long again and worrying Bai Qian and the rest of their family.
Ye Hua frowned. It had been a week since he had awakened in the ancient grove of the peach tree forest? And prior to that… over a month. Why had he slept so long?
The answer came to him with a whirl of his and his dragon’s memories, memories that were even clearer than they had been the last time he had been awake. He turned to look at Bai Qian, gazing at her beautiful face, her expression tranquil as she slept.
Qian Qian is safe, Ye Hua reassured himself. I’m alive and Qian Qian is safe. She saved me. How could he have forgotten that for even a second?
His eyes lingered over every detail of her delicate features, relief flooding through him in waves as he realized the enormity of all that had happened. He had almost lost her, the most important person in his life.
As if sensing his gaze on her, Bai Qian’s eyes opened and met his. She gave him a sleepy smile as he caressed her cheek with his fingers. When he moved to run them lightly along her lips, she kissed his fingertips, a playful glint warming her eyes. Then they widened and she sat up with a gasp.
He nodded, his gaze refusing to look away from her.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, concern apparent in her soft tone.
He turned over on his side to better face her, groaning as he moved. Everything seemed to hurt which hadn’t been the case when he had awakened the first time. Had that been because of the magic of the forest?
“Sore,” he responded, answering her truthfully. “My whole body aches. And I’m weaker than I’ve been in a long time.”
“Zhe Yan’s soup will help,” Bai Qian told him, moving to get off the bed. “He’s added herbs to it to help with pain. And it will help you regain your strength. I can heat some up for you.”
“Wait, Qian Qian.”
She was so focused on taking care of him that she didn’t seem to hear him. “You need to take some more of the antidote. And I need to check your wound and clean it. It will have to be rebandaged today.”
Ye Hua grabbed her hand, intertwining his fingers with hers before gently tugging her back down next to him. Ignoring the pain caused by his movements, he wrapped an arm around her and pulled her close to his side, breathing more heavily just from that little bit of exertion. He really was still weak.
“Careful, Ye Hua. You could reopen your wound. I need to check it for you.”
“Later,” he told her, grinning at her huff of frustration with his refusal to let go of her. “You can fuss over me later. I promise.” Then, his face grew serious. “You didn’t let me finish answering your question. Most of all, Qian Qian, I’m happy to be here with you. I’m relieved you’re safe and I’m so grateful I’m alive to share this moment with you. Thank you for saving my life, Qian Qian.” He paused to let that sink in before continuing. “All I need right now is you in my arms. Stay in bed with me for a little while. The rest can wait.”
“Ye Hua,” she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes. She finally relaxed against him. “I was so worried about you. I was starting to think you would never wake up.”
“And leave you here alone? Never.”
“I missed you.”
“I missed you, too,” Ye Hua responded. He kissed her, savoring the gentle caress of her breath on his skin as his lips lingered on hers. Then he deepened the kiss. Her tongue tasted just as sweet and sensual as he remembered, an arousing mix that had him wishing he had the energy for lovemaking. But, already, he could feel exhaustion settling over him like a heavy blanket. He broke off the kiss and tucked Bai Qian’s head on his chest, running his fingers through her long hair with gentle strokes.
“I think we should get married as soon as you’re feeling better, Ye Hua.”
He smiled, liking the idea. When he had been certain he was going to die during his battle with Jinjing, the realization he was going to lose the opportunity to share a life with Bai Qian had been the most difficult truth he had ever faced. The pain of regret had been sharp and staggering. Every second he spent with Bai Qian was precious and he intended to cherish their life together. His surviving against the odds felt like a second chance. He could think of no better way to start this new chapter of their lives than with a wedding that would declare their love and commitment to each other.
“Only if you want to, of course,” Bai Qian added when Ye Hua didn’t immediately respond. “It’s just that when you were injured, I realized how much I…”
“I think getting married right away is a perfect idea,” Ye Hua told her when she trailed off, sensing her growing uncertainty. “I don’t want to risk missing out on more special moments with you, Qian Qian.”
She lifted her head from his chest so she could meet his eyes with her own. “That’s what I was thinking,” she told him, a bright smile on her expression. “I love you, Ye Hua.”
“I love you, too.” They sealed their decision with another sensual kiss before Bai Qian settled her head back on Ye Hua’s chest.
“I should get up. Zhe Yan will be here soon to check on you,” Bai Qian said, breaking the peaceful quiet that had surrounded them for the last hour. Ye Hua tightened his hold on her, not wanting to release her. “And probably your family, too. They visit you almost every day.”
Ye Hua sighed regretfully, feeling Bai Qian’s shoulders shake as she laughed softly at his reaction.
“They’ve been worried about you,” she told him, climbing over his legs to get out of bed without hurting him. He reached for her hand to pull her back but she evaded him with a grin. “They’ll be happy to see you’re awake.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to see them,” Ye Hua explained. “It’s just that we were so comfortable here together in bed.” He gave her a pleading look when she came back over to kiss his cheek and arrange his pillows so he could sit up. She ignored it and walked over to heat up some soup. He watched her every move, savoring the sight of her.
There was a new confidence about her that hadn’t been there before. Ye Hua loved that he was discovering a new aspect of Bai Qian that hadn’t been revealed before now. How much more would he discover about this wonderful woman in the coming years?
The next fourteen days really tested Ye Hua’s patience. They would have been great if he hadn’t been stuck in bed.
Bai Qian made a wonderful nurse. She was always careful when cleaning and bandaging his wound, ensuring she didn’t hurt him anymore than necessary. She had found creative ways to disguise the terrible, bitter flavor of the antidote he still needed to take daily. She entertained him with fun stories when he became bored. And their nights together were special, filled with affectionate embraces and whispered conversations about their future together.
But Bai Qian was also a formidable caretaker when she needed to be, ensuring he followed all of Zhe Yan’s instructions. He was discovering she could be just as stubborn as he was. She ignored his flirtatious attempts to persuade her to allow him to get out of bed. When he became frustrated with his confinement, she brushed off his blunt, grumpy comments, taking his irritable moods in stride while defusing his ill temper. On the nights when he tried to turn their soft kisses and gentle embraces into something more passionate, she would cut him off expertly, convinced he might hurt himself in the process.
Ye Hua was sure he was making headway on that last one though. She wanted him as much as he wanted her. He could see the building desire in her gaze the longer she denied him. Soon he would have her convinced he was well enough to make love to her.
Finally, after two weeks, Ye Hua had reached the limit of his patience. While he appreciated everybody’s care and concern, it was time to show them he was better and could get out of bed. Waiting until Bai Qian was preoccupied with tidying up the room, Ye Hua slid his legs out from under the covers, trying to keep himself as quiet as possible. There was a slight tugging sensation on his wound but it didn’t hurt nearly as bad as it had when he first regained consciousness.
As Bai Qian turned in his direction, Ye Hua stood hastily, wanting to be standing before she could stop him. The room spun and his legs threatened to give out on him.
“Ye Hua!” Bai Qian rushed to his side and steadied him before he lost his balance. “What are you doing? You’re going to hurt yourself! Zhe Yan thinks you need more time to rest.”
“I’m not spending another second in that bed,” Ye Hua said firmly. “I’m going to lose my mind soon if I don’t get out of this cabin.” He took an unsteady step forward before Bai Qian could coax him back onto the mattress. “Either you can help me or I’ll do it myself.”
He swayed and Bai Qian, grunting, staggered under his weight to keep him from falling. “Oof, Ye Hua. You’re heavy.”
She frowned at him as he regained his footing, crossing his arms.
“I’m not getting back in bed.”
“Fine,” Bai Qian said with an aggrieved sigh and a frustrated shake of her head. Ye Hua suspected she would have thrown her hands up for emphasis if they hadn’t been occupied with holding him up. “I’ll help you. But, you will have to be the one to explain to Zhe Yan why you’re no longer following his advice.”
Her magic wrapped around him, the welcome warmth holding his weight as she walked him towards the door. They made slow progress but Ye Hua wanted to jump with joy. Finally, he was getting out of this room.
After she had helped him sit on a cushion outside, Bai Qian knelt in front of him, searching his expression for signs of pain. “You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?” she asked him quietly.
“No,” he answered, smiling at her concern. “I feel better now that I’m outside.”
“All right.” She kissed his forehead and smoothed his hair back with a gentle touch. “I’ll bring you some breakfast. Wait here.”
Both Ye Hua and Bai Qian turned to see Zhe Yan hurrying over to them. “What are you doing out of bed?!”
“Don’t look at me,” Bai Qian responded when Zhe Yan threw her a questioning look. “I tried but he insisted. You know how stubborn he can be.”
“Let me make sure you didn’t rip anything back open,” Zhe Yan grumbled as he knelt to check Ye Hua’s injury. “It was almost healed. You’ve always been the worst patient.”
Bai Qian sent Ye Hua an amused grin from behind Zhe Yan that warmed Ye Hua’s heart.
After Zhe Yan was done scolding him and tending Ye Hua’s wound, he joined Bai Qian and Ye Hua for breakfast. Ye Hua’s parents, accompanied by Mo Yuan and Meixiu, joined them soon after.
“Ye Hua! What are you doing outside?!” Heavenly Mother said when she spotted him.
Ye Hua sighed. How many times was he going to have to go through this? Bai Qian laughed as his mother fussed over him like he was still a child. Neither his father or brother said anything to him and Ye Hua appreciated that at least they understood his restless need to get out of the cabin.
“It’s good to see you up and about,” Mo Yuan said to Ye Hua once their mother had assured herself Ye Hua was all right. “You had me and everybody really worried.”
“I feel a lot better now that I’m finally out of bed,” he reassured everybody before asking Zhe Yan and his family to stay the day with him.
The visit with his family and Zhe Yan was the happiest it had been in days and Ye Hua enjoyed their company. But he was also glad when they left and it was just him and Bai Qian again.
He savored the intimate quiet of their afternoon together, even walking a short distance through the peach trees. The trees seemed to welcome him home and lifted his spirits further, leaving him feeling refreshed and revitalized.
That night, Ye Hua was both surprised and pleased when Bai Qian was the one to turn their gentle embrace into something more passionate. Her kisses and touch were sensual, filled with hungry desire, as she removed their nightclothes, straddled his hips, and slid her body on to his. She rocked against him, building their pleasure with slow steady motions that grew more hurried as they approached their peak. He moaned, responding to the wonderful feeling of her warm body clenching his arousal in an ever tightening grip. Bai Qian panted, crying out his name when they reached climax together. Afterwards, she collapsed onto his chest, taking care not to knock against his wound.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” The love and affection he heard in her concerned voice warmed Ye Hua even more than their beautiful lovemaking had.
“No, you didn’t hurt me,” he reassured her, not allowing her to move off of him when she tried to move back to the mattress.
“Good,” she said with a loud yawn. “I didn’t mean to be so rough.”
Ye Hua smiled. “You were perfect,” he told her, holding her close, savoring the weight of her body on top of his. He could stay like this with her forever.
“Goodnight, Qian Qian.”
“Goodnight,” she whispered, kissing his chest. He felt her relax as she drifted off.
He listened to her breathing as she slept, staring up at the ceiling thoughtfully. Once again, it struck him that he had come so close to dying and leaving her forever. He tensed at the thought of what could have been. He never would’ve seen her stubborn insistence on caring for him over the last two weeks. He never would’ve experienced this wonderful night with her. And the many nights to come… both the passionate ones and the sweet, companionable ones. It made him want to shudder with fear to even think about it.
“I’ll never leave you.” The whispered vow helped him relax. “I’ll stay with you forever. I love you, Qian Qian.”
He sealed the vow with a light kiss to the palm of her hand. She stirred but she did not wake. He caressed her shoulder, closing his eyes to imagine all the wonderful experiences with Bai Qian still in store for him until he finally joined her in sleep.
⇚ Previous part: Ch 56: A Haven of Peach Blossoms
⇛ Next part: Ch 58: Epilogue