Once she was well away from the ancient heart of the peach grove, Bai Qian’s pace slowed from a run to a trot before she stopped at the edge of her meadow. She looked out over the familiar stretch of grass before looking behind at the trail she had just traveled. Conflicted over her decision to return to her den, the tips of her tails flicked with agitation. A part of her wanted to return to Ye Hua’s side; her day with him had been a special one and she already missed him. Her fox agreed with that sentiment and urged Bai Qian to go back.
What will I say to him? She cringed at the thought of trying to speak to Ye Hua again after what had just happened. She wasn’t even sure she could get more words out now even if she tried; her throat still ached. Maybe I wouldn’t have to talk to him? I could stay in fox form. Bai Qian groaned. It would be weird for her to go back now as a fox after having made the effort to shift and speak to him. I don’t know what to do. Her fox urged Bai Qian, once again, to go back to Ye Hua.
With a sigh of disappointment, Bai Qian ignored her fox’s suggestion and turned back to the meadow instead. She stepped her way into the tall grass, cutting a path through the thick vegetation to go to her den. Her embarrassment over what had happened when she’d tried to talk to Ye Hua weighed more heavily on her mind now and the thought of seeing him again made her stomach clench with nervousness. How could she have completely ruined everything like that? And, to make matters even worse, she had tripped on her dress in front of him. Twice.
Shifting back into her human form once she was safe inside her den, Bai Qian sat cross-legged on the granite floor and looked around the small area. It seemed so empty and enclosed after having spent the day with Ye Hua in the forest. Her face burned as she remembered what had happened for what felt like the thousandth time. Covering her red cheeks with her palms, Bai Qian closed her eyes. Had her walk with Ye Hua been a mistake? The question churned in her thoughts for a few tense minutes. Bai Qian could feel her fox waiting for her to answer it.
Opening her eyes, Bai Qian forced her hands away from her face despite still feeling the lingering heat from her blush. Her eyes were drawn to the rolled up scroll bearing the painting Ye Hua had given her. She gazed at the paper, envisioning the portrait of her fox he had taken the time to create and share with her.
No. The time she had spent with Ye Hua today hadn’t been a mistake. Far from it. Not only had he made the forest safer for her, she had also learned more about him. Up until the moment she had tried to explain about the peaches and things had gone wrong, Bai Qian had felt a real sense of friendship with him. And she thought he may have felt the same thing in return. But something between them had changed when she’d revealed her human side to him and whatever that something was confused Bai Qian.
Her eyes finally wandering away from the painting, Bai Qian looked down, grabbing the stained hem of her worn dress and worrying the thin fabric between her fingers. So much in her life had changed recently and it was all happening too quickly. It was overwhelming and intimidating and exciting all at the same time. A faint smile crossed Bai Qian’s lips when her fox tried to soothe her with positive memories of the last few days.
Yes, you’re right. Our forest is a happier place with Ye Hua in it. I don’t want him to leave. Bai Qian’s smile vanished with a heavy sigh. But it’s been too much all at once. I don’t know what happens next or what to do about it.
A sudden memory of her mother appeared in Bai Qian’s mind, an unbidden memory of a time her mother had been trying to talk to her about an argument Bai Qian had gotten into with some of the children living in the village. She couldn’t remember what the argument had been about but she could see her mother clearly, could see the practical blue dress her mother liked to wear when working around the Fox Den and the annoyed frown on her mother’s face whenever she realized Bai Qian wasn’t listening to her. Bai Qian had rarely listened to her mother’s wise advice when she received it, her attention often focused on the next adventure awaiting her beyond the walls of the Fox Den whenever her mother was trying to tell her something.
Regret and sadness welled up inside Bai Qian, tears trickling down her cheeks, as she yearned to have another opportunity to simply sit and listen to her mother again, to talk with her about Ye Hua and the feelings he invoked. She would have known what to do about the current situation with him. And, even if she didn’t, her mother would have soothed Bai Qian’s confused embarrassment away with reassuring words and a comforting embrace while reminding her that there was always a solution to the problem at hand. ‘Sometimes you just have to take the time to look for it, Qian Qian. That’s all. Don’t give up yet.’
Bai Qian heard her mother’s gentle voice speaking as if she were sitting right next to her. The Fox Queen had always been full of love, kind optimism, and helpful advice. Bai Qian could really use some of those things right now.
But those talks with her mother were gone from Bai Qian’s life forever.
The finality of it hit Bai Qian all at once and she started crying in earnest, tears streaming down her face. I’m sorry, Mother. I’m sorry I never listened to you when I had the chance. I always thought there would be time for me to listen when I was older, that you would always be there. I never expected you to be taken away from me. If I had known, I would have… I miss you so much, Mother. You and Father and…
A strangled sob escaped Bai Qian as she buried her face in her hands, her shoulders shaking as she cried. A soft mournful howl filled the den as Bai Qian’s fox shared in her grief over the loss of their mother and the rest of their family, the sad sound making Bai Qian cry even harder.
Feeling wrung out and tired when her sobs finally settled into quivering sniffles, Bai Qian looked up and wiped her red swollen eyes and wet cheeks with the backs of her hands, taking a shuddering breath to try and calm herself further. The aching pain she felt over the loss of her family could creep up on her so suddenly sometimes and catch her at vulnerable moments when she could do nothing but give in to the emotions. But she didn’t want to allow her grief to consume her.
She breathed in deeply several more times, surprised to find she started to feel a little better as she did so. While her sadness was still there, Bai Qian no longer felt as overwhelmed by it or by everything happening to her as she had before. She could think a little more clearly now. Her mother may no longer be with her but her mother’s memory and past words had served to remind Bai Qian that she would be able to figure everything out with time.
Mother would encourage me to take it one step at a time so that’s what I’ll do.
While the explanation for her confused emotions regarding Ye Hua may not be as easily found, there was a simple solution to her immediate problem of how to talk to him. I once knew how to talk to other people. I used to do it all the time. Too much sometimes, according to Si Ge. I’m sure I can do so again if I just practice speaking. It wouldn’t be that difficult, would it?
“No,” Bai Qian whispered hoarsely, forcing herself to answer the question out loud even though her throat felt swollen and raw from earlier, something her recent bout of weeping had only made worse. “I just need to practice. I will keep practicing until I can talk again. I want to talk to Ye Hua.”
She grabbed one of several bamboo scrolls she had scavenged from the phoenix village in the past to practice her reading and attempted to read the inventory list written there out loud. But her voice failed her and disappeared as it had earlier in the peach grove. She set the scroll aside. Bai Qian knew she would have to rest her throat for a bit before her voice would return; she had pushed it too far today. Take it one step at a time. She would return to the village to see if she could find more discarded scrolls to practice reading aloud.
Her mother’s image surfaced once more, but this time, it did not bring tears. Instead, it brought a sad but grateful smile. Thank you, Mother.
Reaching for the chipped brown clay jug she kept in the far corner of her den, Bai Qian removed the ill-fitting stopper from its neck to take two long swallows of water. The cool liquid eased the pain of her sore throat. She knew she should probably eat something since she had not had anything today other than the peach for breakfast. But Bai Qian wasn’t hungry.
Her fox asked if they could go back out into the forest to explore, Bai Qian knowing full well her fox would return to Ye Hua’s side. Bai Qian wasn’t quite ready to do that; the excitement of the day had caught up with her and her fit of crying had sapped away what was left of her energy.
It was still early in the evening but Bai Qian felt weariness creeping around her. She spread out her thin quilt and folded it to create a makeshift pallet. Yet, once she was lying down, her head pillowed on her forearm, Bai Qian had trouble finding sleep. She considered visiting one of Ye Hua’s traps because of the soothing effect his cultivation had but quickly discarded the idea. It’s not the same now, not after spending two days right next to him. Those places where he had left his magic were a weak substitute when compared to actually being by his side.
Her den felt more lonely than before. Bai Qian changed position on the quilt a few times. The granite floor felt more uncomfortable than normal, colder and more unforgiving. It didn’t help that her fox continued to think about how plush and cozy the quilt and mattress on Ye Hua’s bed was. And the comforting warmth his body had provided them… Bai Qian sighed. Despite feeling exhausted, she was never going to find sleep this way.
She sat up and grabbed the quilt, folding it a few more times to try and create a small square cushion. She then shifted into her fox form, curling up on the faded fabric, tucking her paws underneath her and wrapping her tails around herself to conserve body heat. That was a little better.
It’s still not the same. That traitorous thought popped into Bai Qian’s mind before she could stop it. And it was accompanied by a continued barrage of memories from her fox, memories of sleeping on the warm, soft bed in the cabin. The white fox stopped just short of asking if they could sleep in the cabin with Ye Hua again though Bai Qian knew that’s what her fox wanted.
Bai Qian sighed again, a heavier sound than before, knowing this was the time to tell her fox not to go back to the cabin without her knowledge especially at night. Bai Qian knew she should; they were both waiting for her to say it. But no matter how much she told herself to think the words, Bai Qian couldn’t seem to form them clearly to share with her fox. Partly because she couldn’t forget the undeniable truth her fox had shared with her earlier in the day– the safest place in the forest was near Ye Hua and the black dragon.
But there was another reason Bai Qian couldn’t bring herself to set the rule in place, a reason she almost didn’t want to admit to herself. A part of her wanted to experience the relaxing sensation of falling asleep next to Ye Hua’s warmth for herself and wanted to wake up by his side again. She shied away from the thought before she could dwell on it too much but it remained ever present in the back of her mind, making it impossible for her to tell her fox never to sleep in the cabin again.
In the end, Bai Qian remained silent on the matter and began to drift off into sleep, the memory of Ye Hua’s handsome face relaxed in slumber visible in her thoughts as she did.
Bai Qian’s sleep was fitful again this evening; Hu Mei could feel it for herself as she remained awake in the den. The nightmares had not returned but Bai Qian’s peaceful rest of the last two nights was no longer present. Was it because of Bai Qian’s sadness after thinking of their mother? Or did it have more to do with what had happened with Ye Hua earlier? Hu Mei wasn’t sure which it was but she knew the solution for it.
The white fox stood and silently crept out of the den, waiting to see if Bai Qian would awaken as she moved around. Bai Qian had not forbade her from returning to the cabin at night like she had expected her to. Hu Mei had waited for her to do so, prepared herself to hear the disappointing words. She had been surprised when Bai Qian chose not to make the new rule.
Choosing to believe Bai Qian’s earlier silence on the matter was permission to leave, Hu Mei crossed the meadow and trotted through the forest on swift paws to seek the company of the black dragon. She always longed to be near him now and Ye Hua was the one person who could settle Bai Qian’s turmoil and help her find a restful sleep. Had the black dragon and Ye Hua returned to the cabin? Her pace quickened as she hastened to find out, instinct driving her back to their side, knowing that was where she and Bai Qian belonged.
“Thank you, Jia Yun.”
Returning Jia Yun’s bow with a nod of his head, Ye Hua watched as his most trusted assistant left the clearing to return to the Heavens. The scrolls he had brought Ye Hua to look over and sign and a letter for Heavenly Father and Mother in his hands.
Other than Ye Hua’s family and Zhe Yan, Jia Yun was the one other person who knew the Crown Prince was living in the cabin in the peach tree forest; he just didn’t know the reason behind it. Ye Hua knew there was a risk Jia Yun might catch sight of Bai Qian during one of his visits but he trusted his assistant to keep the secret of Bai Qian’s presence here just as he trusted him to safely deliver the letter for his parents directly into his mother’s hands.
Turning his attention to the exterior of the cabin, Ye Hua wandered around the building, using waves of his magic to repair the spots of rotting wood he located. Bai Qian and what had happened with her earlier was ever present in his mind while he strengthened the weak places hidden by the eaves of the simple dwelling. He couldn’t help but wish he could go back in time and do things a little differently as he patched small holes his cultivation discovered in the thatched roof. Would Bai Qian start avoiding him again? What would he do if she did?
If her den were only closer to the cabin, he and his dragon might be able to sense her mood. Would she become upset if she discovered he could pick up hints of her emotions when she was close to him?
Frowning at the thought, Ye Hua turned from the cabin when he was done. Looking around the clearing, he tried to turn his thoughts away from his mistake, a difficult task when Bai Qian herself was always on his mind. And his dragon still continued to periodically grumble with irritation over the whole thing. Ye Hua still made the effort to push it aside for a few minutes.
This place was a cozy retreat. The cabin was comfortable and it had been built in an ideal place in the forest. Was Bai Zhi the one to build it? How had the ancient peach trees reacted when a dwelling was built in the middle of their land? Ye Hua suspected they must have accepted it. Otherwise, the forest would have encroached on the clearing and reclaimed this place when it was abandoned long ago. Or had they chosen to let the clearing and cabin remain for Bai Qian’s sake?
And just like that, Bai Qian and what had happened was back in his thoughts.
Walking over to the desk and black silk cushion he had summoned from his palace and placed outside the cabin when Jia Yun had brought the scrolls to him, Ye Hua took a seat. He reached into the hidden pocket of his robe to retrieve the three peaches Bai Qian had given him, studying the texture and appearance of the largest one.
Just the fact Bai Qian had picked them for him made the peaches special but Ye Hua could tell by the deep reddish-orange hues of the skin with its light covering of fuzz and the aromatic scent now filling his senses that the fruit produced by the original peach trees would be the most prized in the forest. He took a bite. Peach juice washed over his tongue. The fruit was sweet with the perfect amount of acidic tang mixed in to complement the sweetness.
It was the most flavorful peach Ye Hua had ever tasted. He made quick work of the one peach and then a second one, choosing to save the third for breakfast the next morning.
After finishing off his supper with some strips of smoked venison, Ye Hua summoned some sheets of paper to the table along with a brush and pot of black paint. Then, two candles appeared at each corner of the wooden surface which he lit with a wave of his magic to help illuminate the area now that the sun was setting. He had several design ideas for the layout of the raised flowerbeds he wanted to add to the area around the cabin for Bai Qian. But he wasn’t sure which idea he preferred so he focused on outlining the different shapes onto the paper to help him decide.
Lost in his task, Ye Hua did not immediately notice the white fox’s approach but the black dragon did. The dragon’s happy growl of welcome alerted Ye Hua to her presence and he looked up to find the small white fox moving toward him at a quick lope, nine fluffy tails streaming behind her. He knew by her gait and mannerisms that it was Hu Mei coming to visit him and not Bai Qian. He was pleased to see her nonetheless, pleased and relieved; he hadn’t been sure Bai Qian’s fox spirit would seek him out this evening after what had happened.
“Hu Mei.” Ye Hua stood to greet her with a smile. He crouched down to her level when she reached his side and rubbed the soft fur on her head as well as scratched behind her ears with his fingers when she propped her front paws on his knee without hesitation. She leaned into his touch and gave his hand two licks in gratitude, moving even closer to him when Ye Hua ran his palm down her back. She arched into the caress, closing her eyes in contentment.
“It’s good to see you. I wasn’t sure you would come by tonight,” Ye Hua murmured after several minutes, pulling his hand away with one last scratch of her ear as he spoke. She opened her eyes, her gaze meeting his. Ye Hua’s smile faded as he remembered why he had worried she would stay away. “Is Qian Qian okay? I didn’t mean to make her feel uncomfortable. She surprised me this afternoon and I didn’t know how to react. Or what to say.”
Tilting her head as she gazed back at him, Hu Mei whined softly for a second but then barked before whining a little again. Ye Hua didn’t know what to make of that answer. No and yes? Bai Qian hadn’t been okay but now she was…but only a little? Or was it the opposite?
He must have misunderstood because either answer didn’t make much sense. Ye Hua decided to try and ask the question in a different way. But before he could get the words out, the black dragon growled. The deep sound rumbled through the clearing and the fox jumped before yipping a joyful response. The cadence of it was a little different from the other noises Ye Hua had heard the fox make and he felt his dragon stir when she repeated the yip. Was the fox calling the black dragon?
Hu Mei must have been calling for him. When she repeated the sound a third time, the black dragon pushed forward eagerly, his power surging as he initiated Ye Hua’s shift into dragon form, something the great beast rarely did despite his independent nature. Ye Hua did nothing to stop the transformation from happening, knowing how much the dragon wanted to greet his fox properly.
The fox scampered back a few steps when Ye Hua felt his body disappear and a long, pitch black serpentine form filled the clearing instead. His vision sharpened even further, the tiniest details of the cabin and clearing gaining new clarity, as the dragon assessed the area with his enhanced senses to make sure all was safe around him before turning to find his fox waiting nearby; the beast never stopped guarding the forest in order to protect his fox and Bai Qian.
Ye Hua retreated further back, giving his dragon control, as a soft crooning growl filled the night air.
The black dragon repeated the growl, the gentle rumble intended to reassure and provide comfort, when his black eyes landed on the small white fox he knew he loved. He couldn’t look away from her, admiring the pure whiteness of her thick fur and long tails while learning the features of her face he could not see when looking through Ye Hua’s eyes. She may not be a dragon but she was just as beautiful and precious to him… Even more so.
The fox’s ears perked in his direction and she yipped again, a repeat of the distinctive calling sound his instincts were telling him meant she wanted him near her. He cherished that sound and what it meant; it was a call he would never be able to ignore now that he had heard it. He crooned a soft reverberation to her when she ran over to him, the unique vibrating sound an imitation of an affectionate purr and one he would only ever share with his fox because she held an extra special place in his life. He had heard his parents share the sound with each other but had never attempted it himself; he found it came easily to him now that his fox was next to him.
Realizing she was barely the same size as his head when she was close to him, the black dragon lowered himself to the ground, a prone position he rarely took, so his fox could reach him better. His long body stretched out upon the soft earth resembled a spill of dark ink running through the glade. He rumbled the soft growl again when the tip of her muzzle met the tip of his snout for the first time, closing his eyes and crooning affectionately as she rubbed her muzzle all along his snout and face, brushing her body against his sensitive trailing whiskers as she explored his scent and the contours of his scales, standing on her hind legs for a brief moment to inspect the sharp horns on top of his head.
The dragon heard his fox whine very softly before he felt the moist warmth of her tongue licking along the underside of his jaw. He responded with another growl, the sound deeper now, before burying his snout in the fur of her neck. He inhaled deeply, filling his senses with her unique scent mixed with the fragrance of peach blossoms. She yipped happily as he caressed her with the side of his face, his enthusiasm knocking her small body back a little. The fox stepped closer to him again, licking his cheek before rubbing her muzzle against him when he rumbled an apology to her. He returned the gesture, taking more care with her this time.
The white fox and black dragon stayed in that position for a long time, silent now as the dragon got to know his fox with gentle care and soft caresses.
The spell around them was finally broken when the fox yawned, revealing her sharp teeth, and the dragon rumbled soft encouragement for her to sleep next to him, reassuring her he would always watch over her and keep her safe. Her soft fur and fluffy tails tickled along the black dragon’s scales as the fox moved into a spot by the crook of his neck when he laid his head on the ground. She snuggled close against him, curling up at his side with a sigh of happy contentment. He crooned softly to soothe her into sleep, growing quiet when he felt her relax fully against him.
Not yet ready to sleep himself, the black dragon remained in his place, treasuring the feel of his little fox curled up next to him. Having her near him was all he had wanted for months. He would be content to lay right here with her forever, simply basking in the sense of peaceful fulfillment her presence gave him. It was the most wonderful feeling he had ever experienced.
Despite the tranquility he felt, the black dragon did not relax his guard completely. There was nothing more important than protecting his fox and Bai Qian from any threat that may be out there. And he had not forgotten the intruder he had detected just the previous night. Every protective instinct he possessed told him whoever he had sensed in the forest had not had innocent intentions. It was not simply some curious boy exploring the trees on a whim. He repeated this warning to Ye Hua again, determined to make him understand the potential threat he had felt. The black dragon would continue to do so until he and Ye Hua knew who the intruder had been. He was pleased when Ye Hua did not immediately counter the warning with a thought of the boys camping this time.
Turning his attention back to his fox, the black dragon curled his neck around her in a partial embrace and allowed himself to settle into a light doze.
Not wanting to cut the black dragon’s time with Hu Mei short, Ye Hua waited until late in the night before finally coaxing his dragon into allowing him to shift back into his human form. He looked down at the sleeping fox next to him, snuggled closely against his thigh. The black dragon had experienced some very heady and wondrous emotions when Hu Mei was near him. Ye Hua had never known his dragon to act in such a gentle, loving way before. He knew there was no way to reverse the new bond his dragon had forged with Hu Mei tonight, a bond that was stronger than the one before it. Would Bai Qian feel any difference in her fox’s emotions tomorrow?
A breeze stirred the night air and Ye Hua heard the whisper soft sound of leaves moving in the wind. He listened closely for a minute, remembering the warning his dragon continued to give him, but he heard nothing other than the usual sounds of the forest. There was nobody out there right now. Would the ancient trees in the grove try to warn him if they detected somebody trespassing again? He suspected they would but there was no way for him to know for sure.
Sighing, Ye Hua moved his earlier drawings into a safe place with a wave of magic before he carefully scooped Hu Mei into his arms, cradling her slight weight tightly against his chest while he stood up. She stirred slightly but did not wake as he carried her into the cabin with him. He didn’t bother to light any of the candles since he could see just as well without them once his eyes adjusted to the deeper shadows of the interior.
Remembering her choosing the folded quilt as her original bed, Ye Hua placed Hu Mei on it, her body settling into the small indentation that still remained from her circling motions the night before. He studied her sleeping form as he changed out of his robes and unbound his hair. He wondered how things would go with Bai Qian tomorrow. Would she spend the day with him again after what had happened? Would she reveal her human side to him and give him the chance to correct his misstep from this afternoon?
Hoping she would and promising himself he would do things differently if she did, Ye Hua turned down the thin blanket and climbed into bed, resting his head against the pillow. He didn’t immediately close his eyes, choosing to stare at the faint rays of moonlight he could barely make out on the wooden beams of the ceiling as he waited to see if Hu Mei would remain on the quilt. He didn’t have to wait long.
Smiling when he heard her stir, Ye Hua felt her silently walk across the mattress until she reached his side. Her soft fur brushed against his bare arm, tickling his skin, as she curled up next to him. She licked his arm softly before burying her nose into his side, breathing a deep sigh of contentment. Keeping the arm she rested against still, Ye Hua reached with his other hand to stroke along her back a few times in a gentle caress.
“Goodnight, Hu Mei,” he whispered to her, grateful she had chosen to sleep in the cabin with him again. Both he and his dragon could rest better knowing Hu Mei and Bai Qian were near. The fox’s response was to snuggle even closer to him.
“Goodnight, Qian Qian.” A low dragon growl echoed his words as Ye Hua closed his eyes and joined Bai Qian and Hu Mei in sleep.
⇛ Next part: Ch 26: One Step at a Time
⇚ Previous part: Ch 24: The Breath of the Forest