Humming a jaunty drinking song he had heard during his most recent visit to the Mortal Realm, Zhe Yan picked a ripe peach from a tree he chose at random, waving his hand over the fruit to remove the water droplets still clinging to its fuzzy skin from the recent rain shower. He bit into it, enjoying the burst of sweet flavor when the juice coated his tongue. The familiar taste brought back fond memories from his childhood, memories of time spent with Bai Zhen. To his relief, thoughts of his dear friend no longer carried as much of the sadness they used to.
Devouring the peach in minutes, Zhe Yan licked the juice from his fingers before throwing the peach pit into a clear spot on the forest floor where he hoped the sunlight would reach it. How long had it been since he last ate a really good peach? He couldn’t remember; there were no other peaches in all the realms that came anywhere close to the unique flavor of the fruit from this forest and he hadn’t eaten one of them since he had been a boy.
Zhe Yan looked around him, studying the trees for differences. Did all the peaches in the forest taste the same? Or were there multiple kinds of peach trees growing on his land? The idea of creating his own vintage of peach wine had started to appeal to him more, leading to curiosity about the fruit growing here. Maybe he could even develop a few different blends of wine. Excited by the prospect, Zhe Yan started gathering peaches from trees with varying characteristics, eager to see if there was any difference in their taste, an important first step for crafting a new wine.
As busy as he was with his studies, Zhe Yan hadn’t intended to start experimenting with Ye Hua’s idea quite this soon. But then, his father of all people, had joined Zhe Yan for his breakfast today and suggested that taking periodic breaks would help him stay more focused.
Shaking his head with disbelief, Zhe Yan added another peach to the expanding collection in his arms. He still couldn’t get over it. His father’s sudden visit to his private rooms this morning had shocked Zhe Yan, even more so when his father had asked if the two of them could share the morning meal together and talk. It had been years since the last time Zhe Yan and his father had spent any length of time together in private. The last time had been the day King Zhao Hui confronted Zhe Yan about a rumor he had overheard, a rumor that Zhe Yan was seen kissing another man. Zhe Yan had not denied the story because it was true.
Frowning at the reminder, Zhe Yan replayed that long ago argument silently. His father had been so angry with him, angry and disappointed. The anger he had expected and had always been prepared for. But the disappointment had hurt a lot worse than Zhe Yan had anticipated and had convinced Zhe Yan to hold off for many years before telling King Zhao Hui he didn’t want to inherit the throne. Zhe Yan had dreaded that conversation; every time he tried to work up the nerve to announce his decision to study medicine instead, he had pictured that look of displeasure in his father’s eyes. It was the disapproving look that clearly told Zhe Yan he was letting King Zhao Hui down.
Once he had finally gathered up enough courage to say something about his choice, his father had surprised Zhe Yan then too. There had been no anger or argument, no indications King Zhao Hui was displeased or disappointed in him. There had, instead, been easy acceptance of Zhe Yan’s decision with little discussion and then the unusual gift of the peach tree forest before his father calmly walked away.
The simplicity of it all confused Zhe Yan, but it also had him rethinking his interpretation of his father’s response to the rumor. Maybe some of his father’s disappointment had been because he found out about Zhe Yan’s bisexual preference from someone other than Zhe Yan. He also now wondered if his father’s determination to suppress the rumor’s spread had been more about protecting Zhe Yan from the harsh criticism of others and less about being ashamed of his son. All Zhe Yan knew for certain was the impenetrable wall that had stood between him and his father for years seemed to be crumbling.
After Zhe Yan had recovered from the shock of his father’s request to join him for breakfast, he had expected his father to voice his disapproval of Zhe Yan’s choice to become a healer. But his father had wanted to discuss Zhe Yan’s recent studies.
Zhe Yan had been happy to tell his father all he had learned on his recent visit to the Mortal Realm, a place other master healers had encouraged Zhe Yan to explore periodically. There were many medicinal herbs to be found in the Mortal Realm, herbs that not only enhanced those found in the Immortal Realms but also worked well with most immortal healing magic. The mortal healers were discovering new herbs and uses for them frequently so it was beneficial to check on the advancements made in mortal medicine from time to time.
King Zhao Hui had listened with rapt attention to all Zhe Yan had to share and then had expressed a willingness to reach out to King Weisheng, a man Zhe Yan knew his father despised above all others, to gain permission for Zhe Yan to explore the caves of the Demon Realm. Opening the caves to outsiders for exploration was a term of the peace treaty between the demons and the dragons that was rarely taken advantage of. There were rare mosses and fungi growing in those icy caves that possessed potent magical properties, both beneficial and harmful. Zhe Yan wanted to study them to find out more about the crafting of some of the deadly poisons the demons used in order to develop effective antidotes as well as collect some samples to have on hand for healing wounds caused by dark magic.
It was during a lull in the conversation that Zhe Yan had raised the idea of peach wine with his father to break the awkward silence. King Zhao Hui had been crafting fine wines for millenia and the topic of developing new wine varieties was one his father loved to discuss. The peach wine had been no different. Zhe Yan remembered how pleased his father had looked to hear his son express an interest in his favorite hobby and had encouraged Zhe Yan to take whatever he needed from the royal winery, even offering the use of some of his magical oak barrels to age the wine.
That had been when his father had shared his reason for giving the peach trees to Zhe Yan; he hoped the forest would provide Zhe Yan a place to relax and study quietly when he was feeling overwhelmed. And he hoped it would help Zhe Yan remember the happy memories he had of spending time with the Bai family.
Amazing, Zhe Yan now mused as he strolled among the peach trees, that Ye Hua had understood the purpose behind the gift when Zhe Yan had been unsure. But then, Ye Hua and Mo Yuan had always shared a close bond with their parents, a bond Zhe Yan envied at times.
Zhe Yan felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off his shoulders after his breakfast with his father this morning. It seemed his father was willing to overlook his alternative lifestyle and accept Zhe Yan for who he was. And with his slip when talking to Ye Hua a few months ago, both twins now knew of his bisexuality as well, for Mo Yuan had stumbled across the knowledge by accident a few years ago. But, true to his word, Mo Yuan had kept Zhe Yan’s secret, not even telling Ye Hua, acknowledging that it was Zhe Yan’s truth to tell. Zhe Yan trusted both of them to keep quiet about it. Neither twin had seemed surprised when they found out, telling Zhe Yan the brothers must have suspected it for a long time. Still, it was a relief to have the truth out there and to no longer feel like he had to hide that part of himself from his two closest friends. Or from his father.
Having lost track of what he was doing, Zhe Yan grinned when he noticed his arms were filled with peaches. He sent them to his father’s workroom in the winery to make small batches of wine with later. But first, he wanted to collect peaches from trees growing in various places in the forest. With his arms now empty, he summoned a basket and jumped to a different location to gather more peaches. Feeling optimistic about his life and where it was headed, Zhe Yan started whistling an off key version of the cheerful drinking song stuck in his head.
Cursing his bad luck, Ye Hua recognized the familiar figure approaching him in an instant. Even without his keen eyesight showing him the features of the person’s face, Ye Hua would have known it was Zhe Yan just by the flowing style of his robe and its turquoise color. He noted the peaches filling his friend’s arms with a heaping basket floating by his side and found himself wishing he had never brought up the whole peach wine idea.
Why, of all days, did Zhe Yan have to pick this one to finally start gathering peaches? Ye Hua hadn’t expected to see his friend visiting the forest again any time soon. What should he do? Zhe Yan would spot him sitting here at any moment. He could mask his presence from the phoenix. Or leave the forest altogether. But what if Bai Qian were watching him? What if she was hiding close by, worried about him but scared to show herself, trying to figure out the best way to approach him to help? He would reveal this whole thing had been a setup if he used his power now; he couldn’t let that happen. But did he want Zhe Yan to see him like this? He really, really didn’t…
The sound of Zhe Yan shouting his name took the decision out of his hands. Ye Hua groaned in dismay as he watched the floating basket crash to the ground, followed by the staccato thuds of scattered peaches hitting the forest floor after Zhe Yan threw the armful of fruit he had been carrying up into the air. Then, Zhe Yan started running, tripping over the hem of his robe once or twice in his haste to reach Ye Hua’s side. The whole thing would have been rather comical if it weren’t for Ye Hua’s current circumstances.
“Zhe Yan,” Ye Hua hissed quietly, trying to get his friend’s attention surreptitiously as the phoenix dropped to his knees next to Ye Hua. “I’m fine. Zhe Yan…”
“Ye Hua! What happened?!” Zhe Yan paled when he got a closer look at Ye Hua’s torn, blood-soaked robe. “You look terrible! What attacked you?!”
“Is the creature living here in the forest?” He tried to offer Ye Hua a comforting smile but it faded into a worried frown. “It looks like you’ve lost a lot of blood, Ye Hua, but you’ll be okay. I can mix up a potion to help you regain your strength. I just need to get a better look at your wounds first.”
“I’m fine, Zhe Yan,” Ye Hua muttered with irritation, still trying to keep his voice down in case Bai Qian were close enough to hear. His annoyance grew when Zhe Yan didn’t listen to him. “Zhe Yan…”
Searing pain scorched across Ye Hua’s chest and stomach when Zhe Yan pulled the fabric of his robe away from his skin without warning, opening the lacerations all over again.
“Ouch!!” he growled. “Zhe Yan, that really hurt! Be careful!”
“I’m sorry, Ye Hua,” Zhe Yan responded calmly, assessing the deep ragged tears in Ye Hua’s skin. “But I need to see how bad your wounds are and your robe was stuck to them because of all the dried blood. It isn’t good to leave it stuck like that. In the end, it hurts less to just rip the cloth away all at once. Trust me.”
“Don’t worry, Ye Hua. I can take care of these.” A leather satchel appeared next to Zhe Yan. Ye Hua recognized it as the bag his friend used to keep his basic medical supplies. “I need to clean out the lacerations and apply an herbal salve before I seal the skin closed. They’re too deep to close without cleaning them thoroughly beforehand. I don’t want them to fester and get infected. You know how bad wounds caused by the claws of a wild beast can be.”
“Don’t argue with me, Ye Hua. I’ll give you something for the pain first. I promise it won’t be that bad.”
“Wait, Zhe Yan!” Ye Hua whispered harshly, still trying to keep his voice low.
Zhe Yan glanced up at Ye Hua with surprise. “What is it?”
“I’m not really…”
“You’re right, Ye Hua, I can’t clean your wounds properly here,” Zhe Yan interrupted, as if suddenly realizing Ye Hua was propped up against a tree in the middle of the forest. “I need to get you out of the mud and leaves before I do anything else.”
“Hang on, Ye Hua,” Zhe Yan told him with an encouraging smile. “I’ll get us out of here. Don’t worry.” He placed his hand on Ye Hua’s shoulder and the heat of phoenix magic surrounded them as they faded out of sight.
For several minutes after both men had disappeared from sight, Bai Qian remained motionless in her hiding spot, sitting in stunned silence.
Zhe Yan… Si Ge’s friend, someone she knew from her old life. Could that really have been him?
Bai Qian remembered the fire and spice scent of King Zhao Hui and his family from her childhood. All phoenixes carried a variation of the smoky scent of burning fire with them and the man she had just seen with the vexing dragon had definitely carried the scent of a phoenix. So she had no doubt he was her brother’s friend. Bai Qian felt sad after seeing someone from her past but his presence had been an unexpected source of solace for her while he had been near. It was a strange mix of emotions that left her feeling conflicted about how to react.
If Zhe Yan had been alone, Bai Qian thought she might have come out of hiding and approached him. She had many fond memories of tagging along with her brother and Zhe Yan when they would play in the forest of Qing Qiu or swim in the lake. Or come here to pick peaches. The Phoenix Prince had always been kind to her and tolerant of her hanging around even during those times when her brother had gotten annoyed with her.
Uncertainty continued to grip Bai Qian as she crept out from under the bush where she had been hiding and trotted over to sit near the blood-covered soil the vexing dragon had left behind. She stared at the stained ground, her tails motionless as they fanned out behind her. Her muzzle twitched when the breeze picked up and she inhaled the lingering scent of fire mixed with that of blood, rain, and lightning.
She had been wrong. The vexing dragon did have friends. And one of them was a person her beloved brother had once called a friend. Si Ge had trusted Zhe Yan completely; Bai Qian remembered he had even described Zhe Yan as the one person outside of family he felt a real connection to. And, out of all her brothers, Bai Qian had always been closest to her Si Ge. She had followed his lead in all things. So if she had to pick one person to trust now, it would likely be Zhe Yan.
And Zhe Yan was friends with the vexing dragon, close friends if what she had just seen was any indication. Did that mean the vexing dragon could be trusted?
Bai Qian stood with a sigh, not liking the confusing turn of her thoughts, and headed down one of her forest paths leading in the direction of her den. She carried her tails low and kept her eyes on the leaf debris and soil under her paws as she walked, trying to make sense of her jumbled and conflicting emotions.
Surprising herself, Bai Qian gave into the temptation to approach one of the dragon’s traps when she passed near it, veering off the path she had been following. She had gone out of her way to give them a wide berth ever since she had inspected the one a few nights ago, but she couldn’t deny her growing curiosity about who the dragon trespassing in her forest was. Would the cultivation he had left behind at a different trap cause that same pleasant tingle against her skin as the other one had? There was only one way to find out.
Her fox yipped with excitement, sharing her eager agreement to Bai Qian’s plan and urging Bai Qian to hurry. Bai Qian ignored her fox, refusing to pick up her pace. She still reached the closest trap before she was ready.
Slowing down as she drew near it, Bai Qian moved closer with cautious steps, looking all around to make sure she was still alone. Once she found the tell tale area of cleared ground, the soil mostly mud now due to the recent rain, she shifted from nine-tailed fox to woman, kneeling on the earth right next to it. The palm of her right hand tickled with remembered warmth as she assessed the spot with a wary expression, wanting to feel the alluring sensation again but scared to reach out and touch the vexing dragon’s cultivation now that she was actually here. Her hand closed into a fist as she wondered if she should. Could he feel it when she brushed her hand against his cultivation?
Her thoughts turning back to the vexing dragon’s most recent ploy, an amused smile crossed Bai Qian’s lips as she remembered just how ridiculous he had looked covered in blood while sitting awkwardly against a peach tree. She shook her head as she pictured the state of his shredded clothing; it was a shame he had ruined what must have been a perfectly useable robe. What a waste! Did he have any idea how difficult it was for some people to find clothing in decent condition?
And the expression on the vexing man’s face when Zhe Yan had come running over to him? Now that had been priceless. A giggle escaped Bai Qian as she remembered the odd mixture of dismay, embarrassment, and irritation on his features. She clapped a hand over her mouth, eyes widening in surprise when she heard the sound of her laughter ring out in the forest, joining the song of birds chirping off in the distance.
Clearing her throat, Bai Qian removed her hand. Her laughter had stopped but her smile had not faded; she couldn’t quite manage to convince it to go away. She turned her attention back to her present task, asking her earlier questions again. Why was the vexing man looking for her? Who was he?
Ye Hua… the name formed in her mind suddenly. She remembered the name now that both her shock of seeing Zhe Yan again and her amusement at the dragon’s predicament had worn off. Zhe Yan had called the vexing dragon Ye Hua.
“Ye Hua,” Bai Qian murmured thoughtfully. Had she heard the name before? It sounded vaguely familiar to her but she didn’t know why. She felt sure she must have heard it spoken in the past. But where? To her frustration, no answer presented itself. She still appreciated having a name to call the vexing dragon in her mind.
No longer feeling as nervous as she had before, Bai Qian reached out with her palm down and lowered her hand close to the ground near the trap. Disappointment filled her when she didn’t feel anything at first. But then, she slid her hand over, moving it even nearer to the bare patch of earth. Soothing warmth tickled her skin as she brushed her hand against the powerful cultivation resting along the ground, bringing a new smile to Bai Qian’s face, this one softer than the one before.
“Ye Hua.” Her voice was barely more than a whisper as she again spoke his name out loud.
Bai Qian’s fox surged forward after a minute, eager to feel the dragon’s cultivation better, startling Bai Qian back to awareness. How long had she been kneeling here, lost in the feel of warmth caressing her skin? What was wrong with her? She pulled her hand back but she did not try to rub the feeling away on her dress this time. Instead, the urge to touch Ye Hua’s trap and his cultivation one more time filled her. She stood, eyeing the spot with a confused frown.
Did this mean they could talk to the dragon and spend some time with him? Bai Qian’s fox wondered with excitement. Then they wouldn’t have to be so lonely all the time.
Shaking her head in disagreement, Bai Qian again reminded her fox that they were safer if Ye Hua… no, if the vexing dragon were not around. He had no business in her forest and she would find a way to make him leave for good. Why did that argument sound less convincing now?
“No.” She spoke the word out loud to shore up her faltering resolve, finding strength in the sound of her firm tone. “I don’t want him in my forest. He is my…” Her voice trailed off. After everything she had witnessed today, she couldn’t bring herself to call him her enemy now. But she still didn’t want him prowling around her forest anymore.
Refusing to give into the urge to touch the vexing dragon’s cultivation again and fighting to ignore the lingering sensation of its warmth caressing her skin, Bai Qian forced herself to turn from the trap and walk away without a backward glance.
The response had finally arrived.
Mo Yuan had been waiting for days for an answer to his letter; waiting with a distracting mix of anticipation and worry. Was the response to his interest a favorable one? He would need to think of a different approach if it were not because he was nowhere near ready to give up just yet.
Declaring an early end to classes that afternoon, Mo Yuan hurried to his study with the message securely tucked into an inside pocket of his cerulean robe where he had kept it since its sudden arrival a few hours ago. Why had it taken so long for him to receive a response? He tried to reason out whether the wait worked in his favor or not but was unable to come up with a conclusive answer; there were still too many unknowns. His long strides picked up in pace even more. He would find out as soon as he reached the privacy of his study.
Securing the door behind him, Mo Yuan took a seat at his desk, the paper scroll appearing in his hand. He set it down on the wooden surface before him and took a deep breath to calm his nervous anticipation. It was time. He reached for the paper but stopped with a heavy sigh when the familiar heat of phoenix magic pulsed outside the room. Zhe Yan.
Eyes narrowing with irritation, Mo Yuan glared at the door when his dragon stirred inside him, pleased to sense his brother near him after the black dragon had been absent last time. Zhe Yan and Ye Hua. Hadn’t he just seen his brother yesterday?
“What is it this time?” he muttered with frustration, realizing he had been wrong yesterday. The distance between Kunlun Mountain and the Heavens wasn’t nearly far enough.
If Mo Yuan didn’t know better, he would think Ye Hua was choosing the most inopportune moments to drop by unannounced on purpose. But then, his twin had always had a knack for catching him unaware.
Casting a longing glance at the roll of paper still waiting for him, Mo Yuan picked it up. He had been waiting for hours to read the contents of this letter. What were the chances Ye Hua would leave him alone long enough to let him read it? Slim to none. He stowed it in a hidden drawer in his desk for safekeeping just as the sound of familiar arguing voices outside his study reached him. He closed the drawer with more force than he had intended as he stood from his seat.
“That’s it,” Mo Yuan growled, marching across the room as the voices became increasingly louder, his hold on his temper snapping. He was going to demand Ye Hua promise to wait at least a week, preferably two or three, before showing his face on Kunlun Mountain again. Enough was enough.
“No, Zhe Yan,” Ye Hua groaned when he found himself propped up against a dark stone wall right outside his brother’s study door. “Why’d you have to bring me here?!” There was no longer any reason for him to keep his voice down. Mo Yuan would already know they were there.
Zhe Yan responded to Ye Hua’s irritation with a confused look. “What’s wrong with bringing you here? This is the safest place to go. The sight of you injured might cause a panic if I took you home. And nothing gets by Mo Yuan’s defenses.”
“I’m fine, Zhe Yan!”
“No, you’re not!” Zhe Yan snapped back. “Look at you.”
Ye Hua sighed, lowering his voice a little and releasing the barrier suppressing his cultivation. “I’m fine, Zhe Yan.”
“I don’t understand,” Zhe Yan responded, his look of confusion growing as he felt Ye Hua’s strength return. “You…”
“I tried to tell you I didn’t need help,” Ye Hua growled out with impatience, his voice raised again. “You wouldn’t stop and listen to me!”
“But,” Zhe Yan sputtered, looking at Ye Hua’s wounds again. “What are you…?” His eyes abruptly narrowed into a furious scowl. “I was worried about you! Look at your robe! You’re covered in blood! I thought you were seriously injured!”
“I…” Ye Hua started to explain, feeling a little guilty now, only to close his mouth when Mo Yuan’s door swung open and slammed against the doorway.
“What is wrong with you two?!” Mo Yuan’s eyes glinted gold as he let his anger get the better of him. “I’m trying to take care of something important and I can’t even get a moment’s peace and quiet because the two of you are out here arguing like two ill-tempered…”
Mo Yuan’s fury evaporated, his train of thought disrupted, when his eyes landed on Ye Hua and fully processed what they were seeing, leaving him stunned and speechless. His brother’s hair, usually so tidy, was a disheveled mess, half of it hanging free and in tangles, the other half bound in a lopsided knot on top of his head. His robe was in tatters, one sleeve barely holding on by a thread. He could just make out the long inflamed gashes marring the skin of his brother’s chest and stomach. And there was blood everywhere. There were smears of it on his cheeks and chin and what was left of his robe was soaked through with it.
The sound of Ye Hua’s questioning tone broke through the shock holding Mo Yuan still; Mo Yuan started laughing and he couldn’t stop, laughing so hard his stomach began to hurt and he struggled to catch his breath. Leaning up against the wall next to him for support, Mo Yuan clutched his middle, trying to regain some control over himself. But every time he felt himself calming down, one glance at his twin would send him right back into convulsions of laughter. After several minutes, Mo Yuan finally took a few deep breaths and managed to control his laughter enough that only a few chuckles were escaping him.
Plastering what he hoped was a serious expression on his face, he turned to face Ye Hua again.
“It’s not that funny, Mo Yuan,” Ye Hua bit out, his tone sullen and his expression disgruntled. “You can stop now.”
His brother’s annoyance with him sent Mo Yuan into another fit of laughter. “Oh, but it is, Ye Hua,” he managed to gasp out breathlessly. “It really is. You have no idea.”
“We get it, Mo Yuan,” Zhe Yan finally declared after several more minutes, managing to jump in when Mo Yuan’s laugh faded back into light chuckles again. “I want to know what is going on.” He glanced between the two of them, gesturing toward Ye Hua. “I show up with your brother looking… well, looking like this.” He ignored Ye Hua’s growl. “And instead of being worried and demanding to know what happened so you can hunt the culprit down, you’re standing over here, cracking up.”
Mo Yuan cleared his throat, grinning widely but managing to keep control of himself. “I don’t need to ask Ye Hua what happened. I know why the idiot’s wearing tattered clothes and covered in blood.”
“Obviously,” Zhe Yan muttered, feeling annoyed with both twins now. “Care to enlighten me?”
Missing Zhe Yan’s question, Mo Yuan’s attention turned back to Ye Hua. “I have to hand it to you, Ye Hua. You really went all out. I’m impressed by how realistic it looks. Did it work?”
“…” Ye Hua narrowed his eyes as he stared his brother down, remaining stubbornly silent.
Mo Yuan lifted one brow in question, grinning at his brother’s silence. “Well. Did it?”
“No, Da Ge,” Ye Hua answered with an aggrieved sigh. “No, it didn’t.” He waved a hand over his chest and stomach, healing the wounds there.
“Of course it didn’t work,” Mo Yuan said with renewed laughter. “I told you it was a dumb idea.” He reached his hand down to Ye Hua, offering his assistance. Ye Hua grasped the offered hand reluctantly after some hesitation and Mo Yuan helped lift him into a standing position. “I’m relieved Zhe Yan found you. Otherwise, you’d still be sitting out there in the forest, all alone, waiting for someone to come to your rescue.”
“That’s not funny,” Ye Hua ground out through bared teeth, hissing in pain as his stiff muscles protested the sudden movement. His brother’s sarcasm was adding insult to injury but he knew his own reaction would be the same if their positions were reversed. It would be awhile before Mo Yuan let this one go. He took a few halting steps down the corridor to get his blood circulating properly again.
“Will one of you please tell me what is going on?!” Zhe Yan demanded in frustration.
“Sure,” Mo Yuan answered cheerfully before Ye Hua had a chance to say anything. “I will be more than happy to share the story with you. Let’s go into my study.” He glanced at Ye Hua with a grin. “Are you going to join us?”
“I’ll be there in a second,” he growled out, waving his brother’s gleeful expression away. He paced the full length of the corridor on aching legs, rubbing the tight kinks out of his neck and shoulders, before fading out of sight only to reappear in his brother’s study.
Noting that Mo Yuan was near the beginning of his explanation, Ye Hua quietly found a spot near his brother’s book case to stand and listen, knowing there was no point in him trying to jump into the conversation and add his side of the story. Mo Yuan was simply having way too much fun with this whole thing to allow it. His brother’s voice faded into the background as Ye Hua started to ponder what his next step should be.
His thoughts focused inward, Ye Hua jumped when he felt the sudden warmth of invisible feminine fingers trailing lightly across his chest. He sucked in a sharp breath as the caress lingered this time, turning away from his brother and friend to face the wall as the soothing sensation tickled along his skin again. Bai Qian.
Ye Hua’s dragon jumped to attention, moving forward inside Ye Hua, when he felt the presence of his fox near his cultivation. Before he fully realized how his dragon was going to react, a deep possessive growl rumbled up from Ye Hua’s chest and throat. He tried to suppress the second rumble when the black dragon growled again but the dragon would not be denied, not when they could both still feel the touch of his beautiful nine-tailed fox.
Noticing that silence had descended over the room only after Bai Qian’s touch had faded away, Ye Hua schooled his expression before turning around. Both Zhe Yan and Mo Yuan were watching him; Zhe Yan’s face looked startled while Mo Yuan’s looked thoughtfully curious, a glint of swirling gold in his eyes again. Ye Hua realized as his brother lifted his brow in serious question that Mo Yuan recognized the black dragon’s possessive growl for what it was even if he didn’t understand the underlying reason for it.
“Sorry,” Ye Hua muttered, feeling a little embarrassed.
“What…?” Zhe Yan started to ask.
Ye Hua tensed, still having no idea how to explain what was going on with the black dragon since he didn’t fully understand it himself. He debated how to answer but never had to for Mo Yuan jumped in and interrupted Zhe Yan by waving off Ye Hua’s growl and directing his attention back to their earlier conversation. Ye Hua flashed his brother a grateful look for his intervention while also understanding at some point he was going to have to give his twin an explanation; he could only keep it from his family for so long. And he owed Zhe Yan an answer as well. The three of them had known each other so long he suspected his friend had caught on to Mo Yuan’s effort to distract him.
Fighting the urge to rub his hand over his chest where he had felt Bai Qian, Ye Hua instead focused his attention on the end of Mo Yuan’s explanation, realizing as he did so that he should have told Zhe Yan about Bai Qian as soon as he had spotted her in the forest that day. He scolded himself for the oversight considering he had known how close Zhe Yan had been to the Bai family after their visit to Qing Qiu. He didn’t miss the serious turn the conversation had taken now that Mo Yuan was sharing the reason behind Ye Hua’s crazy scheme with Zhe Yan, finally revealing Bai Qian was still alive.
Bracing himself for Zhe Yan’s anger, Ye Hua walked over to Mo Yuan’s desk, taking a seat near his friend. But it was not anger Ye Hua saw in Zhe Yan’s eyes; it was sadness.
“She’s been alive all this time,” Zhe Yan whispered. “I can’t believe it.” He looked down at the desk. “I hate to think of her living all by herself this whole time. Nobody to help her, fending for herself after everything she lost. The pain must have been unbearable.” He took a deep breath to gain his composure before looking back up. “We have to help her.”
“I will help Bai Qian, Zhe Yan,” Ye Hua promised, voice firm and determined. “I know I can. I just have to find a way to do so without scaring her. I can’t help her if she won’t let me near her. But I won’t stop trying until I succeed.” He paused. “I will help her.”
“By covering yourself in blood and then sitting in the middle of the peach trees?” Zhe Yan questioned, eyes narrowing as he finally allowed some of his irritation to show. He looked at Mo Yuan briefly before turning his attention back to Ye Hua. “Is that really the best plan the two of you could come up with?”
“It was not my plan,” Mo Yuan protested. “Did you not hear what I just said? I thought the whole thing was a terrible idea from the start.”
“But you let him go through with it,” Zhe Yan explained, raising a hand to stop Mo Yuan’s next protest mid sentence, something very few could get away with these days. He sighed, softening his tone. “Did it never occur to either of you how upsetting it might be for Bai Qian to stumble across someone seriously wounded and covered in blood after what happened to her family? They were slaughtered in her home.”
Tense silence surrounded them as neither brother immediately answered.
Finally, Ye Hua spoke up, feeling very guilty he had not considered the situation from her perspective more carefully and that Zhe Yan seemed upset with Mo Yuan too; it had all been his idea after all. “No. I never thought about it like that. It was never my intention to cause her further distress, Zhe Yan. I would never want to hurt her. I was simply trying to make myself look harmless.”
“As if either of you idiots could ever really seem harmless, injured or not,” Zhe Yan muttered. “You forget how oppressive and intimidating dragon essence can be, especially to those who don’t know you very well. Anybody who knows you’re a dragon knows you’re not harmless. Forget that approach.”
He turned his full attention back to Ye Hua. “I know you didn’t mean any harm,Ye Hua. But schemes like that aren’t going to work. Offer Bai Qian something that will make her happy, something she likes. She’s been alone a long time with only terrible memories to keep her company. Remind her there are good things in life, too. Don’t try to trick her out into the open. Make her come out of hiding because she wants to.”
Ye Hua grew thoughtful; he was very grateful now that Bai Qian had not seen him. The realization he could have traumatized her further with his careless plan made his heart ache in a way it never had before. He promised himself he would spend more time imagining how something he did might look to her eyes and he would take extra care with his actions in the future.
Not wanting to dwell too long on his mistake, Ye Hua considered Zhe Yan’s advice. He really liked the idea of giving Bai Qian something to make her happy, of giving her something to remind her there was good to be found in the world; it wasn’t all bad. But what? She loved flowers but she was surrounded by peach blossoms. And she loved to listen to stories but he couldn’t get close enough to her to tell her a story. There had to be something else. His eyes turned to Mo Yuan who also seemed lost in thought. Seeing his brother gave Ye Hua an idea.
“Did Bai Qian like music, Zhe Yan?”
Zhe Yan took a moment to think before answering. “She did, I think. Music often accompanied the plays she enjoyed watching during the festivals in Baihu village. I remember her joining in with the villagers when they danced.”
Ye Hua grinned, his eyes flaring with excitement as he waited until Mo Yuan’s gaze met his. “Da Ge?”
Mo Yuan narrowed his eyes with a frown. “No. Absolutely not. Finding Bai Qian is your task. Remember? I’m willing to help you brainstorm ideas but, otherwise, I’m not getting involved.”
Ye Hua scowled at his brother. “But I can’t play an instrument.”
“You can’t even stay on key or carry a proper tune when you hum,” Mo Yuan grumbled but there was an amused smile on his face, which told Ye Hua he would eventually give in. “Forget playing an instrument.”
“Which is why I need your help.”
“Zhe Yan and I haven’t heard you play in a long time.”
“I’ll owe you one,” Ye Hua offered to persuade his brother. Out of the corner of his eye, Ye Hua could see Zhe Yan trying to keep a straight face as he watched the familiar exchange. Ye Hua and Mo Yuan had spent a lot of their time when they were young trying to convince each other to go along with whatever crazy or daring plan one of them had cooked up. And Zhe Yan had been a witness to most of it, almost always willing to go along with the scheme no matter whose idea it had been.
“You already owe me one, Ye Hua,” Mo Yuan reminded him drily. “You seem to keep forgetting that.”
“Fine. You’re right. So I’ll owe you double. What do you think, Da Ge?”
Mo Yuan sighed.
Hearing the aggravated sound and knowing Mo Yuan had just given in, Ye Hua flashed his brother a pleased smile, receiving a glare in return.
“Thanks, Da Ge.”
⇛ Next part: Ch 15: A Promise Made
⇚ Previous part: Ch 13: Ye Hua’s Perfect Plan