Ye Hua grinned when Bai Qian tugged his hand to guide him around a large log in the middle of their path, happy to follow wherever she led him. She knew the obstacles placed on her trails well and navigated them as effortlessly in her human form as she did when she was a fox… until her dress got in her way. Every time she tripped over her hem, he was there to steady her and she would reward him with a grateful smile. She never voiced a complaint about her clothing but Ye Hua was more determined than ever to give her some dresses that fit.
The atmosphere was saturated with moisture from the earlier rain and, now that the sun was out in earnest, the air had grown muggy and stifling. Ye Hua used his magic to stir up some wind currents, the steady breeze cooling him and Bai Qian as she continued sharing all the things she loved about the forest with him.
He could now appreciate the beauty and rich scents of the leaves and blossoms after they had been washed by rain. He knew which flowers best filled a room with their sweet fragrance and which trees produced the juiciest peaches. He learned how to gauge the mood of a singing bird based on the notes of its song and, much to his amusement, which insects were the most fun for a bored fox to chase and play with. All of these things were important to Bai Qian and Hu Mei so they were important to Ye Hua and his dragon as well.
Ye Hua couldn’t remember a day he had enjoyed more than this one because it had been filled with revelations about the exquisite woman walking next to him. It was as if a dam had crumbled inside Bai Qian and many of the things she had been hiding inside came pouring out. She had shared tales of her adventures exploring the forest as a girl and games she used to play, revealing some of the strategies she must have fallen back on while living alone. He could sense her excitement at the opportunity to talk with him; her laughter while sharing her stories had warmed Ye Hua’s heart.
But in between happy memories from her childhood, Bai Qian also told Ye Hua about a few of her early struggles to survive. Her decision to confide in him was a show of trust Ye Hua had not expected so soon; he treasured that trust but hated the loneliness that would creep into her voice during these times. While Bai Qian’s smiles brightened Ye Hua’s soul, listening to memories of her fear and sadness pained him, triggering all his protective instincts. She would never have to struggle while lost and alone again; he would make sure of it.
But it wasn’t just this walk with Bai Qian that had provided Ye Hua a better understanding of who she was. He had learned a lot about her while reading to her in the cabin.
Bai Qian’s optimistic and unwavering belief the story would have a happy ending had touched Ye Hua, giving him more reason to hope his life with Bai Qian would end happily too. She wouldn’t accept anything else and he would work alongside her to make it happen. She possessed patience and a good sense of humor given her tolerance for his interruptions during the story and her willingness to go along with his irritated insistence the story was not about a dragon.
And her touch… Bai Qian’s caresses had been the most wonderful frustration Ye Hua had ever experienced. The shy and hesitant brush of her fingers against his skin had chased all thoughts from his mind, stirring his desire for her while also speaking volumes about her innocence. The soft smile on her lips had invited him to learn her unique flavor with a kiss. When she pressed the curves of her breasts against his arm in a simple hug, Ye Hua’s desire had ignited. Her peach blossom and female fox scent was more potent when she was in her human form, enticing him to explore and discover all the sensuous secrets of her body.
He needed to take care with Bai Qian. She tempted Ye Hua to a degree he had never experienced before, testing the strength of his will power. But Bai Qian was a sweet and powerful temptation that Ye Hua would wait to give in to because she wasn’t ready for that level of closeness between them yet. If she chose to gift him the heat of her untamed passion, he knew the wait would only serve to enhance the ecstasy and strengthen the emotional bond between them. It was a gift he was happy to wait for even if there was some frustration that came along with it.
Despite his longing to discover the full depths of her passion, the simple act of holding Bai Qian’s hand was more satisfying than anything he had felt when he was with other women in the past. There was an intimacy surrounding him and Bai Qian he hadn’t expected and he better understood the enjoyment his parents found in the simple gesture.
Ye Hua was grateful he had never walked hand in hand with another woman before; this simple and newly discovered pleasure belonged to Bai Qian alone. As did the peace of spending a quiet morning in bed together, another newfound delight he had never been interested in sharing with other women even when they asked him to stay. That reluctance had vanished; Ye Hua wanted to spend all his mornings in bed with Bai Qian and Hu Mei now. There was no better way to start his day.
The black dragon growled a soft agreement and Ye Hua smiled.
As he walked along with Bai Qian and learned more about her, Ye Hua’s life was changing in immeasurable and momentous ways, all of them for the better. Her presence filled an empty void inside him he had never even known existed until she had stepped into it. His heart and soul, his very being, felt complete now. He didn’t know how else to explain what he was feeling.
Nearly stumbling over his own foot when Bai Qian abruptly changed their direction with another guiding tug on his hand, Ye Hua followed her to a large tree off their current path. Her expression was one of amusement, telling Ye Hua this tree was associated with something good in her life.
She pulled her hand free of his and placed both palms on the rough bark of the trunk as if greeting an old friend. “I almost forgot about this tree,” she told him softly, her expression more serious now. Ye Hua looked up at the outstretched branches where they created a dense canopy of leaves and blossoms. It was the largest peach tree he had seen outside of those growing in the ancient grove in the heart of the forest.
Ye Hua waited, his eyes never leaving her beautiful face, as Bai Qian assessed the health of the tree as she had been doing periodically throughout their walk. She gathered her cultivation and used it to trim away the unhealthy or dead branches before giving the tree a pulse of healing magic. She had obviously learned a great deal from his mother and Ye Hua was relieved they had gotten along so well. He hoped Bai Qian knew she could turn to his mother any time she needed guidance or a mother’s tender care.
“This tree was a big part of my life before…” Bai Qian started when she was done pruning it. Her voice trailed off before she could finish. She didn’t need to; Ye Hua knew what she was leaving unsaid. While she had shared many memories both good and bad with him today, she had staunchly avoided speaking about her family or about the night they were massacred in the Fox Den.
He moved closer to her, wrapping an arm around her slender shoulders with a gentle squeeze to offer silent support and comfort. Ye Hua then placed his palm next to hers, greeting the tree as she had done. This tree was obviously an important one to Bai Qian so Ye Hua wanted it to recognize him as her companion and protector. She remained still and quiet for several minutes and he patiently waited for her to share whatever was on her mind.
“This was the first tree I ever climbed,” Bai Qian said, her hushed voice finally breaking the silence. She smiled then and Ye Hua’s heart skipped a beat at the lovely sight as he became lost in it. Her soft, shy smiles were the ones that really got to him; he yearned to press his lips against hers, to taste them and discover what types of kisses aroused her desire. Then her smile widened and she laughed, disrupting Ye Hua’s wayward thoughts before they could go any further.
“It was an accident,” she added, looking up at the uppermost branches. “My fox and I chased a squirrel all the way to the top before I even realized what we were doing. The squirrel had no problem getting back down again but I, on the other hand, was hopelessly stuck. That’s when I realized how tall the tree actually was.”
“You were stuck in this tree?” Ye Hua repeated, disbelief in his voice as he imagined a small white fox kit up in the highest branches.
“Yes,” Bai Qian answered before laughing at his expression. “I had never climbed a tree so I had no idea how to get back down. I was up there for several hours wondering if anybody would be able to find me. Eventually they did and they helped me find my way down.”
A fond yet sad expression crossed Bai Qian’s face. Ye Hua wasn’t certain if “they” was referring to her parents or her brothers but she was obviously thinking of her family even if she only mentioned them in a roundabout way. This was the closest she had come to talking about them and Ye Hua gave her shoulder another gentle squeeze to let her know he understood who she meant without her having to elaborate further. She gave him a grateful smile before turning back to the tree.
“I was determined to master the art of tree climbing without magic after that.” All traces of sadness had vanished as she continued the story. “I always came back to this tree to practice until I could go up and down easy enough in both fox and human forms. In hindsight, I probably should have chosen a shorter, less challenging tree to practice on but I could be a little stubborn about things sometimes. This was the tree I had gotten stuck in so this was the tree I learned how to climb. It eventually became one of my favorite private spots in the forest. I spent a lot of time in the branches, napping and eating, plotting ways to get back at…”
Bai Qian’s words cut off abruptly and a shadow of pain appeared in her eyes again before she attempted to give Ye Hua a tremulous smile. She seemed to be having a more difficult time keeping her composure than she had just a minute ago but before Ye Hua could find a way to help she spoke again, seeming to recover on her own.
“Now that I’ve found this tree again, I should try to climb it one day,” she said, forcing a brighter smile on to her face. It was almost convincing. “I wonder if I’ve forgotten how. I may have to start practicing all over again.”
There was genuine amusement in her eyes with her last statement and Ye Hua relaxed some of his concern. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder if talking about her family with somebody might be a cathartic experience for Bai Qian and help heal some of the more painful wounds left by her past. While he had never gone through the level of loss and trauma she had, previous experience had taught him that keeping emotions bottled up inside tended to increase the pain instead of making it better.
Now wasn’t the time to push her on the subject though, not when they were still getting to know one another better. But one day Ye Hua hoped to be there for Bai Qian when she finally decided to face her past.
“I’ll have to join you up in the tree then,” he said to lessen the seriousness of the moment even further. “Maybe we could have lunch up there?”
She laughed, nodding her agreement. The joyful sound surrounded Ye Hua and he savored it until Bai Qian asked, “Do you even know how to climb a tree? Are there trees in the Heavens?”
“I know how to climb a tree even if there aren’t forests in the Heavens,” he answered, feigning offense before grinning. “Or I used to. We might have to relearn how together.”
Ye Hua reached for Bai Qian’s hand, intertwining his fingers with hers once again. He stroked his thumb against her skin, something he couldn’t seem to stop doing. Her hand seemed small and delicate when held in his, her skin smooth and soft. He loved the way her face would flush a faint pink and her breath would catch slightly every time he caressed her; she was not unaffected by his touch.
“Where are we going next, Qian Qian?”
“We’re close to my den,” she murmured with some hesitation. “It’s small and kind of bare but… well, would you like to see it?”
Surprised by her offer, Ye Hua didn’t immediately answer. Bai Qian wanted to show him her den? That was her most private and personal place in the forest, the spot she had chosen as her safe space, and he was honored she wanted to share it with him.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” Bai Qian said quickly when he didn’t respond right away. She looked down. “I understand. There’s nothing exciting to see anyway. I could show you…”
“I would love to see your den,” Ye Hua interrupted, giving her hand an affectionate squeeze.
Bai Qian’s eyes crept back up to his, a shy, pleased smile on her face. “You would?”
“Yes, very much so. Please lead the way.”
Her smile widened and she nodded. Though Ye Hua knew where her meadow was, he let Bai Qian be the one to guide him. It was her home, after all. Or it had been until he had moved into the cabin and Hu Mei had decided to join him. He couldn’t imagine living in the cabin without Bai Qian and Hu Mei now and he hoped Bai Qian considered it her home as well. That didn’t take away from the importance of her den however.
Bai Qian led Ye Hua to the meadow but stopped when she reached the edge of the tree line. He glanced at her when she hesitated. Her expression was wary and a little scared for the first time all day. It alarmed Ye Hua. He moved closer to her, scanning their surroundings for any threats. Did she sense something he didn’t? The black dragon pushed forward, much more alert than he had been just minutes before. Neither of them liked seeing Bai Qian this way. But neither of them sensed anything other than the trees and the inhabitants of the forest.
“What’s wrong, Qian Qian?”
She released a pent up breath. “Nothing. I just… I’ve always dreaded crossing this meadow and I rarely do so in human form. It’s so open and I feel exposed and very vulnerable with nothing more than grass to hide in.” She laughed but it sounded forced and it pained Ye Hua to hear the change from her genuine laughter earlier. “I know it’s silly to worry about it right now. You’re here and it’s safe. But it feels wrong for me to cross here in human form without being cautious.”
“It’s okay, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua told her, hating the thought that she had spent so much of her life wary of walking the path to her den. “There’s nothing wrong with being cautious.”
Her explanation provided him an answer to something he had been wondering about; Bai Qian had no idea the ancient trees of the forest had been protecting her and this meadow. Ye Hua rubbed his thumb against her hand for comfort, the caress completely different from what it had been before. She seemed to relax at his gesture.
“Take as much time as you need,” he added. Ye Hua sensed less wariness in Bai Qian now but the black dragon was still restless and on edge, urging Ye Hua to shift. Her fear had aroused something powerful inside the dragon and he wanted out to be with her when she walked across the meadow; he wanted to let her know both he and Ye Hua were there to protect her. All the black dragon’s concerns about scaring Bai Qian had vanished.
“My dragon would like to accompany you when you cross the meadow.” The black dragon pushed forward but Ye Hua made him wait until Bai Qian agreed to the idea. “Would that be okay?”
Bai Qian’s eyes lit up with interest and excitement crossed her face when she nodded. That was all the permission the dragon needed; he jumped forward and Ye Hua’s human form disappeared.
Fascinated wonder and then admiration filled Bai Qian as she got her first close up look at a real dragon. After all these years, her curiosity was finally being satisfied and she was glad that it was Ye Hua’s black dragon she was meeting first. She was not disappointed with the special moment. The black dragon was a magnificent sight! She couldn’t take her eyes off of him and her fox yipped with love at his presence. Her fox wanted to shift to be with him but understood that it was Bai Qian’s turn to meet him.
The black dragon was long and powerful. Bai Qian watched the mesmerizing play of lean muscles moving under pitch black scales that appeared to absorb all light as he moved closer to her. He crooned a soft growl in greeting and Bai Qian smiled softly; she did not fear the razor sharp teeth visible in his mouth nor the serrated black horns adorning the top of his head. He walked on feet tipped with dagger-like black talons and the ground vibrated with his steps. Two long whiskers grew from his snout and one tickled her skin as she brushed against it while reaching up to touch the side of his face. His eyes were midnight black; none of Ye Hua’s familiar brown was present in them. The black dragon was in control right now.
The dragon crooned again when her fingers made contact with his scales. They were smooth like leather and warm under her hand, much different than the hard chill she had imagined they would carry. She loved how they felt and she didn’t want to stop touching him, wondering how they were strong enough to withstand even the sharpest steel blades. Yet, Bai Qian had no doubts the stories were true. Everything about the dragon declared him to be a formidable predator.
Leaning into her intrigued caresses, the black dragon breathed a content sigh before butting his head against her in affection. Bai Qian was knocked off balance by the gesture but before she could stumble back and fall, a large powerful tail gently wrapped around her and steadied her. The dragon rumbled an apology but Bai Qian was distracted from answering when fluffy feathers brushed her arm. She looked down. He had feathery soft, black down on the tip of his tail. Bai Qian laughed, delighted by the sight. It was an unexpected feature to discover on a dragon.
“I’m okay,” Bai Qian murmured when he rumbled a second apology. The dragon butted his head against her again, taking more care this time. She was surprised by how careful he was with her. It reminded Bai Qian a lot of the gentle way Ye Hua had held her hand today. Even after just a few minutes with the black dragon, Bai Qian could tell Ye Hua and his dragon were very much alike in many ways.
When the dragon unwrapped his tail from around her, Bai Qian turned her attention to the meadow before her. She took a step and he stayed right with her, hovering just inches off the ground, flying next to her as she walked over the cool grass. Bai Qian kept her palm firmly planted against his side, feeling comforted by his warmth and presence. Nobody would dare come close to her with him at her side. And, as he had done in various places throughout the peach tree forest, he was leaving traces of his magic behind to claim this meadow as a part of his territory and to warn others away. It was the dragon’s way of protecting her.
Bai Qian slowed when she reached the outcropping of rocks housing her den. “Thank you,” she whispered to him softly. He crooned a soft growl one more time before his eyes lightened from black into warm mahogany brown. Ye Hua was back with her.
“I’m afraid you’ll never fit through the door of my den as a dragon,” she teased Ye Hua. “I’m not sure you’ll fit as a man either though. It’s a tight squeeze even for me in this form.” She expected him to shift back into his human form and offer a magical solution to the problem. Instead, he surprised her by shrinking down into a very small size, hovering by her shoulder. She grinned. If it weren’t for his legs and whiskers, he would look like a floating black snake. Maybe one day she would tell him that just to see how he reacted.
“I never knew dragons could do that,” she said. Bai Qian led him to the entrance of her den, leaning down to walk through it. The doorway was sized more for a fox than a person and it was still a tight squeeze.
Ye Hua followed her inside and she gestured around the small room, pointing out her few possessions, a little self-conscious as she did. Bai Qian had wanted to show him her den. But, now that he was in her personal space, the stark contrast between their lives was evident. Her living quarters must look plain and pitiful to somebody who had lived in the Heavens his whole life. She didn’t even have a place for him to sit if he shifted out of his dragon form.
A pulse of dragon magic behind her told her he had done just that. She turned to find Ye Hua back in human form, studying her collection of reading material. Would he see the painting he had given her next to the other scrolls? She had placed the bright yellow ribbon right next to it so he couldn’t miss it.
“I know it’s small and there’s not much here,” Bai Qian started to explain, feeling the sudden need to defend her sparsely decorated den.
“I like it,” Ye Hua responded before she could go on. “It may be small but it’s very cozy. And it feels safe.” He turned away from her belongings and took a step toward her. He was very close to her and the size difference between them seemed more apparent to Bai Qian now that they were in such tight quarters. She suddenly found it a little hard to breathe properly with him watching her so intently.
“I’m happy I got to meet your dragon,” Bai Qian blurted out nervously. She wasn’t sure what else to say. “I’ve always wanted to see a dragon up close.”
“I wish I had known that sooner,” Ye Hua murmured, his eyes never leaving her face. “Until today, he was reluctant to show himself because of what happened that day we first saw you and Hu Mei. He didn’t want to scare you and risk having you injure yourself again.”
He reached out and ran the back of his fingers against her cheek in a sweet caress that Bai Qian felt everywhere. She trembled at his touch. “I’m sorry we chased you that day, Qian Qian. It was never our intention to frighten you.”
“It’s okay, Ye Hua,” Bai Qian whispered. She moved toward him, wrapping her arms around his middle before she could talk herself out of it. She hugged him tightly, leaning her head against his chest and breathing in his thunderstorm scent. “Thank you for never giving up on me and not walking away. I’m grateful you’re here.”
Ye Hua seemed stunned for a minute before he hugged her back, holding her close to his body. Bai Qian’s stomach clenched with anticipation for something powerful yet unknown when he pressed his lips against her hair. It was a definite kiss this time and she looked up at him, her heart racing when his warm lips brushed her forehead. She offered him a shy smile which faded with nervousness when his gaze moved to her lips.
Bai Qian’s body trembled again when his eyes swept back up to hers. His gaze was heated and more intense than ever; the tension between her and Ye Hua had grown taut with anticipation once again.
“Close your eyes, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua murmured hoarsely, the deep sound sending a pleasant shiver running down her spine.
Unable to do anything other than obey, Bai Qian’s eyes slid closed. Ye Hua’s warm breath caressed her face right before his lips pressed against hers lightly. Heat shot through her and her stomach rioted with that now familiar nervous excitement. She savored this new and wonderful experience as his lips brushed hers more firmly a second time. She responded, moving her lips awkwardly against his as best she could. Bai Qian had never felt anything like this before and she wanted more of it.
Ye Hua sucked in a sharp breath when she kissed him back, his fingers tangling in her hair to hold her head in place even though she had no wish to stop whatever was happening. He swept his tongue against her lips and Bai Qian gasped at the unexpected sensation. When her lips parted, his tongue slipped between them and brushed against hers, surprising Bai Qian once again. She had no idea men kissed women in this way and while she should have thought it weird or disgusting, Bai Qian found it exhilarating instead.
Wanting to learn more, Bai Qian’s tongue met Ye Hua’s shyly when it moved along hers again; he groaned and pulled away, ending their kiss abruptly. Her eyes stayed closed as she listened to his unsteady breathing. Had she done something wrong?
“Are you okay, Qian Qian?” Ye Hua asked softly after a minute of silence. “I didn’t mean to get carried away like that. I don’t want to rush things.”
Her eyes popped open and found his. There was worry in his gaze as he studied her and Bai Qian relaxed. She hadn’t kissed him wrong; he ended it because he thought it was too much for her.
“I’m fine,” she told him with a small smile to reassure him. She stood up on her toes and pressed an affectionate kiss to his cheek and he smiled back at her, looking relieved. Reacting to the emotions of the moment, her fox yipped loudly and Ye Hua grinned.
“My fox is missing her dragon and suddenly wants to play.” Bai Qian spoke without thinking and she cringed with a blush when she realized what she had just said. Would her words upset Ye Hua? She glanced his way. He didn’t look upset.
Warmth entered his eyes, a look that was different from the heat she had seen in them earlier but no less powerful. A soft rumble escaped Ye Hua’s chest. “You’re not wrong. Hu Mei and my dragon belong to each other and we should give them time together.”
Bai Qian couldn’t have stopped her fox at that moment if she had wanted to. She vanished with a pulse of fox magic and a white nine-tailed fox appeared in her place. Ye Hua shifted right after her, the black dragon staying small only until he had cleared the entrance to the den. Then, he grew to his full size, following close behind his fox as she ran across the meadow and bolted into the trees with a playful bark.
⇛ Next part: Ch 32: Choices
⇚ Previous part: Ch 30: The Heart of the Story