“Is everything okay, Qian Qian?”
Wondering if Bai Qian had sensed the same intrusion into the forest his dragon had, Ye Hua broke eye contact with her to gaze into the peach trees, searching the dark once again for anything that might pose a threat to her. Had she sought him out because she feared the trespasser?
While he was grateful to have the chance to see for himself that Bai Qian was still safe, the thought of her wandering around at night by herself when an unknown person had been in the forest concerned Ye Hua a great deal. What if he was wrong like his dragon insisted and it had not been one of the boys gathered around the campfire? What if Bai Qian had stumbled across the stranger in her attempt to reach the cabin? Ye Hua’s heart clenched with pain at the thought.
If anything ever happened to her… the idea was almost unthinkable to Ye Hua. He and his dragon needed to ensure nobody had the chance to harm her.
Her sudden appearance told Ye Hua his dragon was correct; they needed to find out where Bai Qian slept so they could better protect her. That would be the best solution but maybe there was a different way to make the forest safer for her until she felt comfortable sharing that information with him. She knew the layout of the peach trees better than anyone and had used it to evade him in the past. That gave her an advantage. How long would it last though?
Ye Hua wasn’t convinced her familiarity with the forest would save her from an enemy who was bound and determined to harm her but he thought it might buy her some time. If he could figure out a way to set up a warning system, a way for Bai Qian to alert him to her location if she needed to, she could use that extra time to reach out to him. He envisioned something similar to his snares, only placed in strategic, well-hidden places throughout the forest, places only he and Bai Qian knew about. Would that help keep her safe?
Turning his attention back to her, Ye Hua found the lovely white fox watching him as if patiently waiting for him to check whether or not there was still a threat in the forest.
“I don’t sense anybody out there now,” he told Bai Qian, offering her a small smile of reassurance. His smile faded. “Are you alright?”
Expecting to receive a nod or shake of the head from her in response to his question, Ye Hua was astonished when Bai Qian bounded over to his side instead, a look of relief in her eyes when she came near him. He saw none of the shy hesitancy in her motions like he had earlier and she no longer worried about maintaining that careful distance between them. What had changed in the ensuing hours since he had last seen her? Was the difference merely due to her fear of the trespasser?
The black dragon helped answer those questions, surprising Ye Hua in the process.
Even though Bai Qian had spent most of the day with them, Ye Hua’s dragon had been silent, watching over her without ever making his presence known for fear he may scare her away. Now, the soft rumble of a friendly growl sounded in the night as the black dragon greeted his fox. The change in his dragon’s behavior struck Ye Hua as important, especially when the white fox yipped happily in response, pleasing the black dragon who rumbled at her again.
Studying the small fox before him, Ye Hua could see her body posture was very different now than it had been earlier in the day. Her tails were carried higher and her movements were no longer cautious and measured.
The contrast reminded Ye Hua of the day he had first seen Bai Qian in the forest, when he had turned to find her sitting behind him. Her expression had been curious and hopeful with just a little wariness before outright shock and fear had taken over. It had been an abrupt change as if she had just noticed he was standing there. He hadn’t understood the reason for it at the time but now he was beginning to suspect that while Bai Qian’s fox had known he could see her the whole time, Bai Qian herself had not. That would also explain why she had appeared all set to decline his request to sit outside and eat with her earlier in the evening but had suddenly agreed.
“Hu Mei?” Ye Hua questioned, remembering the title he had given his painting of the beautiful white fox. Now that he was realizing Bai Qian may not be awake, it seemed appropriate to Ye Hua that he give Bai Qian’s fox her own name. He smiled when the fox lifted a paw toward him and placed it on his bent knee as if confirming his suspicions. It seemed he wasn’t the only one sharing his life with a headstrong, independent animal spirit. “Qian Qian has no idea you’re here right now, does she?”
Ye Hua’s smile widened into a grin when Hu Mei answered him with a quiet bark. His expression became serious when he slowly reached out a hand toward her, keeping his palm up in a non-threatening way and making no sudden moves. Her whiskers tickled against his skin as she sniffed his fingers and palm curiously before he felt the warm rasp of her tongue as she licked his fingers once.
The black dragon pressed forward in response to her affectionate gesture and Ye Hua tensed, wondering if the color change in his eyes would scare her. Instead, Hu Mei moved closer to him, leaning her slight weight more fully on his knee. Amazement filled Ye Hua and his dragon as she gazed up at them with trust in her brown eyes. Given the close connection between a person’s animal spirit and their soul, this extraordinary moment with Bai Qian’s fox gave him hope for his future with Bai Qian.
Still keeping his motions slow, Ye Hua turned his hand over, smiling when Hu Mei butted her head against the tips of his fingers. He didn’t need a second invitation. Ye Hua buried his fingers in silky white fur as he rubbed her head gently, marvelling at the downy softness of her coat. A second small paw joined the one already propped on his knee as Hu Mei pushed her head into his touch, moving her position so his fingers were rubbing against one of her pricked ears.
Smiling at her hint, Ye Hua scratched the back of one ear thoroughly before moving to the other, taking the time to study her when she closed her eyes in enjoyment, his eyes lingering on her exquisite features. She looked and felt so delicate to him now that he could see her up close. But he knew she had to be stronger than she looked if she and Bai Qian had survived for so long on their own without anyone else. They both had to be stronger than they appeared.
It was difficult for Ye Hua to think about an orphaned Bai Qian and this small, fragile fox living all alone with no one to help protect them. He couldn’t imagine how much they must have struggled to survive in the beginning. The very idea made him furious. Never again. He would make sure of it.
A determined growl from the black dragon reverberated throughout the clearing as he echoed Ye Hua’s protective sentiment. Hu Mei opened her eyes and looked up at them, startled by the loud sound, but Ye Hua was relieved to see there was only curiosity in her gaze and no fear. Her eyes locked with his and Ye Hua could feel his dragon looking back at her. Ye Hua expected his dragon to urge him to shift so he could meet his fox properly but the black dragon hesitated at the idea, not wanting to risk scaring her by revealing his full form too soon. The memory of her running from them was still too fresh in his mind.
“It’s very nice to meet you, Hu Mei.” Ye Hua spoke softly, giving her ear one last firm scratch. She finally moved her paws away from his leg, looking around the clearing before turning her gaze back to him with a questioning expression. Ye Hua suspected she was about to disappear back into the forest now that he had reassured her everything was okay and his dragon grumbled unhappily at the thought.
Instead, Hu Mei surprised them both by trotting over to the cabin. His eyes following her, Ye Hua stood as she sat right in front of the door, her tails wrapped neatly around her, and stared up at him expectantly as he approached. Taken aback, Ye Hua stopped and looked back at her, unsure what to do.
“You want to sleep here tonight?” he asked, guessing that was what she wanted but looking for clarification. She yipped in agreement and glanced back at the door before turning to stare at him again, that same expectant look in her eyes.
Unsure how to respond to her request, Ye Hua hesitated. This was a situation and dilemma he had not anticipated. His dragon demanded that their fox be allowed to sleep in the cabin and Ye Hua couldn’t argue with him. Ye Hua did not want her walking alone through the forest at night; he and his dragon would be awake all night worrying over whether or not she had made it to wherever she lived in the forest safely. But it wasn’t at all proper for him to sleep in the same room with Bai Qian, a young and unmarried woman. He wasn’t sure how much that rule applied to her animal spirit though.
The scratching sound of Hu Mei scraping her nails against the wooden door, urging him to open it, brought Ye Hua’s attention back to her. He could never deny her and Bai Qian the safety and warmth of the cabin. Once he helped her get settled inside, he would sleep outside.
Resigned to sleeping outdoors, Ye Hua opened the door of the cabin and lit the few candles in the room with a wave of his cultivation as Hu Mei entered after him.
Without hesitation, Hu Mei walked across the room and jumped up onto the bed. Ye Hua watched with silent amusement as she found the soft quilt he had folded and placed at the foot of the mattress to her liking, circling in place a few turns before settling down in the small depression she had created for herself in the thick layers of padded fabric. She propped her head against the edge of the quilt and wrapped her tails around her body for added warmth, watching him with adoration in her eyes as she sank further down into her comfortable spot.
“Goodnight,” Ye Hua murmured softly, smiling at the way she had settled in just fine without his help. He tried to leave the room only to be stopped by the sound of a sad whine behind him. Turning back to her, Ye Hua found Hu Mei sitting up now, watching him with a pleading look in her eyes.
“I’ll be sleeping right outside,” he explained, gesturing toward the door, her beseeching expression making him feel a little guilty for leaving her. “I won’t go far… I promise.” She stood as if to follow him and Ye Hua strode over to her, reaching her side before she jumped off the bed. “You can still sleep in here on the bed.”
Whining again, Hu Mei shook her head at him, disagreeing with his plan. It was becoming clear to Ye Hua that if he tried to sleep outside, the fox was going to follow him. The black dragon grumbled at Ye Hua, scolding him for upsetting their fox. Sighing at the way the dragon and fox had just joined forces against him, Ye Hua acquiesced with a small smile. Bai Qian would not be happy if she ever found out but Ye Hua thought that as long as Hu Mei stayed at the foot of the bed, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal.
“Alright, I’ll sleep in here,” he reassured her, relieved to see the small fox settle back into her spot. He could feel her watching him as he prepared for bed, releasing his hair from its knot on top of his head. Shrugging off his outer robe, Ye Hua paused when he went to untie his undershirt out of habit, realizing what he was doing. He usually slept in the nude but that would definitely not be appropriate under these circumstances.
Changing into a pair of black silk pajamas with a simple gesture of his hand, Ye Hua then climbed into bed and settled his head on the pillow before extinguishing the candles in the room.
“Goodnight, Hu Mei,” Ye Hua whispered to her, staring up at the ceiling, wondering how well he would be able to sleep with Bai Qian’s fox so close to him. But, in the end, he found her presence to have a calming effect on both him and his dragon for now they both knew she and Bai Qian were warm and safe.
“Goodnight, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua added with a soft murmur. He listened to the hushed sound of Hu Mei’s breathing and drifted to sleep with the scent of peach blossoms and fox all around them.
Feeling the need to be as close as she could to the safety and comfort Ye Hua and his dragon provided her, Hu Mei waited until she heard Ye Hua’s breathing settle into a deep, steady rhythm before walking silently over the mattress to his sleeping form. His presence relieved the loneliness and something about him and the black dragon constantly tugged her in their direction. She didn’t fight it the way Bai Qian sometimes did.
Curling up on the blanket next to Ye Hua’s side, Hu Mei snuggled as close to his body as she could, burying her nose and muzzle against him, breathing in his scent and enjoying the heat he shared with her as she finally allowed herself to fall into a deep sleep.
Bai Qian was having a wonderful dream, one she never wanted to wake up from.
Lying on her back on the ground, Bai Qian’s body sunk further into a comfortable cushion of soft, thick grass as she gazed up at the cerulean sky. The weather was sunny and warm; a gentle summer breeze caressed her skin and hair while lightly ruffling the fabric of her lavender dress. It was one of those perfect, lazy days, a beautiful day where all felt right with the world for a brief moment in time. She cherished this respite from terrible things she knew were there but, right now, those things remained vague and hazy in the back of her mind.
She could hear birds chittering and chirping with each other off in the distance as they discussed the day’s events in excited voices; the sound brought a small smile to Bai Qian’s face. She searched for shapes in the white fluffy clouds as they floated by above her, a game she had played often as a young girl. The challenge of the game included creating a brief story to accompany the things she discovered hiding in the sky. It was a game she could always beat her brothers at.
The intermingling scents of lightning and rain teased her senses and Bai Qian searched for dark clouds above her, not surprised when there were none to be found. For she somehow knew there wasn’t a storm rolling in with the wind to darken the wonderful day. No, the scents in the air instead signified the approach of a significant person, a special person who could soothe her hurts away and who always protected her. Bai Qian knew she cared about this person though she couldn’t identify him by name.
Happiness filled her when she could finally hear him walking up to her as he drew closer.
A gust of wind and powerful cultivation brushed passed her and she laughed with delight when she saw the clouds begin moving more quickly, gathering and swirling around each other before coalescing together. They then spread out into the shape of a long serpentine figure with four legs and talon-tipped feet. Long misty whiskers trailed from a head adorned with two regal horns. A puff of clouds mimicked the shape of a feather-soft fur tuft at the tip of the tail. A dragon!
Without knowing how, Bai Qian understood he had changed the clouds to tell her who was there so he wouldn’t scare her when he came up behind her. While she appreciated the gesture, she hadn’t needed it for the sound of his footsteps and their familiar rhythm had told her it was him all along. She wouldn’t tell him that though because she loved the image of the giant cloud dragon now filling the sky above her, an image he had created for her. The story she could tell to accompany the image of the dragon was one that stayed near her soul always. It was a tale very dear to her heart.
Sitting up at the sound of his voice speaking her name, a welcoming smile graced her features as Bai Qian turned to greet him. Only before she could look up at him, before she could see his face, the ground rolled underneath her, jostling her. Startled, she braced herself on her hands as she looked around. Was there something terrible out there?
“It’s okay, Qian Qian.”
His voice alone calmed her fears and Bai Qian’s eyes lifted to meet warm mahogany ones. There was a second of recognition within her before the summer day disappeared and his face faded away into darkness. She reached out for him. “No, please don’t go! Stay with me…”
Disappointed to be wrenched away from the person in her dream so abruptly, Bai Qian desperately tried to grasp and hang onto any lingering fragments of the vision she could but they eluded her, growing hazy before vanishing altogether.
Burying her muzzle into her paws, Bai Qian mourned the loss of the beautiful dream though she could still feel the effects of it. The unforgiving granite underneath her usually felt cold and hard no matter how many times she folded her ragged blanket before laying upon it. Now, the stone floor of her den felt soft and cushiony as if she were sleeping upon a thick mattress.
The feeling of warm safety surrounded Bai Qian, filling her with quiet contentment and reminding her of the night she had spent several hours wrapped up in Ye Hua’s cultivation. She clung to the comforting sensation, imagining she could feel it just as strongly now as she had that night. She hoped to return to the simple happiness of her dream as she began to drift back into sleep.
Before she could fall back into peaceful slumber, the floor of her den moved, startling Bai Qian awake again. Granite should not move like that nor should it feel so soft. Confused and still groggy, she froze in place, remaining perfectly still. I’m not in my den. Where am I?
Ye Hua’s scent filled the air and she wondered if he was somehow the source of the warmth and safety. No, that’s impossible. It doesn’t make any sense. Opening her eyes, Bai Qian took a quick peek around her and saw wooden walls and the dark silhouette of furniture in the dim light of early dawn.
I’m in the cabin. What am I doing here? Bai Qian was sure she had gone to sleep in her den last night.
A drowsy masculine murmur broke the silence and Bai Qian gasped when she felt the mattress beneath her shift again. It is Ye Hua! How…? The tickle of Ye Hua’s breath caressed her fur, interrupting her question, as he breathed deeply next to her. What is going on? She looked around the room again, realizing the movement she had been feeling must have been him changing positions as he slept. She could feel it because she was in bed with Ye Hua.
I’m sleeping in bed with Ye Hua!! How did this happen?! Bai Qian cringed when an answer started to form in her mind. My fox must have…
Eyes widening with shock, the full situation slammed into Bai Qian and she groaned inwardly, wondering if Ye Hua knew her mischievous fox had climbed into bed with him last night. Please tell me he doesn’t know.
Her fox was sleeping so Bai Qian had no way of knowing what exactly had happened the night before. She would need to wait until her fox woke to get some answers about this confusing situation.
Unless Ye Hua was awake right now.
With this new worry creeping up on her, Bai Qian held her breath and slowly turned her head to look at him, ears perked forward to listen for any sounds he may no longer be asleep. His face was turned toward her on the pillow but his eyes were closed and his strong, handsome features remained peaceful as he slept. Thank goodness he’s not awake yet. Maybe I can get out of here without him ever finding out.
Bai Qian relaxed a little with this thought as she took the chance to study him, her gaze slowly tracing the lines of his face, lingering on the black eyelashes resting against his smooth tan skin. Warm mahogany. That was the color now hidden from her behind his eyelids. He possessed an intent gaze of warm mahogany, a gaze that conveyed so much with so little. There were many things she didn’t understand about the expression in his eyes when Ye Hua looked at her. She remembered the way his gaze had made her insides flutter with warm nervousness though. She wanted to learn more.
But now was not the time, Bai Qian reminded herself, thinking of how awkward it would be if he caught her watching him like this while he slept. She couldn’t be here when he awoke. And yet, a large part of her didn’t want to leave his side which was a big reason she needed to get out of the cabin right now.
Ensuring she kept her movements slow, Bai Qian inched herself away from Ye Hua and then crept softly to the edge of the bed. Using her magic to muffle the sound of her paws and claws hitting the wooden floor, she jumped down and hurried towards the closed door, stopping when she reached it. Before pushing it open, Bai Qian turned to look back at Ye Hua, watching him sleep for another minute. There was something about him; even with some distance between them now she still found it difficult to leave him.
Strengthening her resolve to be careful around him, Bai Qian made herself look away from Ye Hua and nudged the door open with her muzzle after unlatching it with her cultivation. She stepped out of the cabin on silent paws, closing the door behind her after moving her tails out of the way. She needed to get out of here.
Moving his hand to the spot she had occupied next to him most of the night, Ye Hua could still feel the warmth Hu Mei had left behind, remembering waking for a second during the night to the feel of her soft fur brushing against him when she curled up at his side. Or had it been Bai Qian sneaking away from him just now? A gentle smile crossed his lips as he opened his eyes to stare up at the ceiling thoughtfully. He had slept more soundly with Bai Qian and Hu Mei next to him.
As much as he wished it had been Bai Qian quietly watching him while he pretended to still be asleep, he suspected Bai Qian was not yet awake and aware of what her fox had done. Otherwise, he thought the white nine-tailed fox would have scampered away with a lot more haste. He hadn’t wanted her to go but had known it would be a big mistake to try and stop her, a decision his dragon had not been happy with considering it was still dark outside. But given where things still stood between him and Bai Qian right now, Hu Mei was smart to leave before Bai Qian found out where her fox had slept.
The black dragon grumbled about Ye Hua’s decision again, voicing his displeasure with an audible growl this time. Ye Hua was thankful his dragon had remained quiet while Hu Mei left so as not to startle her or wake Bai Qian. He understood his dragon’s concerns but he also knew how careful they needed to be when around Bai Qian. The black dragon growled again but did not complain any further, reluctantly agreeing with Ye Hua.
Hoping both Bai Qian and Hu Mei would return to his side soon, Ye Hua rolled over in bed once his dragon calmed down. His gaze remained focused on the spot that the small white fox had occupied in the night before his eyes closed and he drifted back to sleep.
Early dawn was the quietest time in the peach trees. All the night creatures had finally settled down for their rest while the other inhabitants of the forest were not yet awake for the new day. Daybreak was a peaceful time that Bai Qian enjoyed though she didn’t always wake up in time to experience it but she found that today was a little different. Every step that took her further away from the cabin brought a little more loneliness with it and increased her longing to turn around and return to Ye Hua.
Bai Qian didn’t give in to the yearning though for much had changed for her in the last couple of days. It was a lot to take in and she wanted a chance to settle her confused thoughts and emotions. She could only do that by spending some time alone. Ye Hua would still be asleep right now anyway.
She had originally planned to go back home but the idea of her empty den was not as appealing as it usually was. Changing her direction midstride, Bai Qian crept through the underbrush, stopping only for a moment to tug one of her tails free when it became snagged on a branch while moving through a thicket of dense bushes. Her claws using the soft soil to gain traction, Bai Qian’s pace picked up when she reached a different trail and she bounded along the path, her tails streaming freely behind her. This trail would take her to her favorite grove of peach trees and she was eager to reach her new destination.
The shadows of the night were fading with the increasing morning light when Bai Qian reached the end of her path. The joyful sound of birds greeting the day welcomed her as she entered the grove; those first songs of the morning told Bai Qian all was well within the forest.
Walking through the grove, the white nine-tailed fox disappeared and the form of a graceful woman replaced it as Bai Qian shifted, gathering the skirts of her white dress in her hands so she didn’t trip over the hem. A smile fell across her lips as she gazed up at the giant trees towering over her. This particular group of trees were some of the oldest in the forest and Bai Qian thought the peaches they produced tasted much better than any of the others.
She chose a tree at random, striding over to it on bare feet. She reached up and plucked a ripe peach from one of its lower branches and tasted it, finding the juice as sweet as she had hoped when it splashed upon her tongue. Eating the peach thoughtfully, Bai Qian started searching for more that were ready to be picked.
Bai Qian knew spending an hour or two with her favorite trees would help calm the confused uncertainty left behind by her surprise this morning and would help her gather her thoughts before her fox awoke. And she could take that time to find some peaches to give Ye Hua in return for the kindness he had shown her the day before. It seemed a meager gift when compared to the wonderful things he had given her but it was all she had to offer him right now.
One day she would find a way to give Ye Hua more. She would find a way to show him the depth of the gratitude she felt for the way he had brought some good things back into her life. But, for now, sharing the best peaches in the forest with him would have to suffice.
Determined to do this small thing for him, Bai Qian lost herself in the tranquility of the ancient forest, comforted by the knowledge there might finally be someone out there again who was waiting to see her, someone who might care whether or not she returned. She didn’t realize how much she missed that feeling until now and she intended to cherish it for as long as it lasted, knowing just how quickly life could change.
⇛ Next part: Ch 23: Gentle Understanding
⇚ Previous part: Ch 21: Night Watch