Ch 33: The Ties of Friendship

Feeling adventurous that morning, Bai Qian pressed a playful kiss to Ye Hua’s lips while he slept before settling her cheek back on his shoulder. Every morning brought a growing temptation to remain in bed with him like this until he awoke; Bai Qian was waiting a little longer every day before leaving the cabin.

A soft smile emerged across her lips when she imagined Ye Hua’s reaction to finding her in human form upon waking. Would he stop acting so careful around her? Something bright and beautiful had flared between them when he had kissed her in her den. Bai Qian wanted to explore the feeling more and discover what came next but Ye Hua always pulled away. Was there a way to show him she was curious about the heat he kindled within her without saying the words? Bai Qian blushed. Was it improper of her to dwell on such bold thoughts?

Undecided whether there was a correct answer to that question, Bai Qian kissed Ye Hua’s cheek before shifting. She jumped off the bed and made her way outside, transforming back into a woman when she reached the edge of the lake. She stared out over the peaceful water without sitting in her usual place on the rock though her eyes were drawn to it for a brief moment. She looked away. I’m not going to sit there this morning. I want to do something different for a change.

Her safe routine had been a source of comfort for Bai Qian for thousands of years but Ye Hua’s presence in her forest these last few months had shown her change could be a wonderful thing as well. There was a restlessness within her now; she recognized it from her childhood. It was the same feeling of curiosity that had influenced many of her decisions as a young girl. She had admitted to Ye Hua a few days ago that she wished to see new places but she hadn’t told him her wish had strengthened into a need since then. 

Bai Qian wanted to be free to explore the world again but a part of her still feared the consequences. She sighed. Take it slow just like you did while practicing how to speak out loud. One step at a time. Her chance to take that first small step forward was fast approaching.       

Yesterday Ye Hua had told her about an upcoming celebration in the Heavens. As Crown Prince and a son of Heavenly Father, he was required to attend. He had reassured her he would place a few trusted guards in hidden spots near the forest for her protection while he was away. He had reminded her of the alert signals she could use to reach him. Just because he was at the celebration didn’t mean she shouldn’t use one if she needed him. He promised he would return as soon as he could.

But then Ye Hua had asked if she would like to accompany him to the Heavens instead. She didn’t have to attend the main event if she didn’t want to but could wait for him somewhere quiet if she preferred. Bai Qian had been surprised by his offer and the earnest expression in his eyes when he mentioned it. She hadn’t given him an answer, telling him she needed time to think it over. Bai Qian had a week to decide. 

She wanted to go with Ye Hua; she really did. While she wasn’t sure she was ready yet to face the crowd of people that would likely be at the celebration, Bai Qian was ready to see the Heavens again. She wanted to learn more about Ye Hua’s home and meet the rest of his friends and family. The idea of doing so excited her even if it brought a big jitter of nervousness to her stomach.

Bai Qian glanced down at her worn dress with a rueful smile. She didn’t have anything proper to wear for a visit. I’m not going to let a little thing like a dress stop me, am I? No, she wasn’t…especially since she didn’t plan to attend the celebration itself. Happy with her decision, Bai Qian would tell Ye Hua this morning. He should be awake soon.

What about the dragon from that night?

Uneasy fear settled into a tight, uncomfortable knot in her chest at the unexpected thought. Bai Qian clenched a fist, fighting back the panic she always felt when remembering what she had witnessed on the night of her family’s murder. Is the evil dragon still out there? 

No. He couldn’t be. Ye Hua told me the war was over. That had been another big shock for Bai Qian during her discussion with Ye Hua. He had told her that the war with the demons had ended a long time ago. Did that mean she had nothing to fear from them? No. No matter what, Bai Qian would never trust the demons even if there was now peace between them and the dragons. But if the war had ended, shouldn’t that mean any dragons who may have been helping the demons would have been caught? 

I should ask Ye Hua. It was the smart thing to do but Bai Qian still shied away from the idea of bringing it up with him. If I tell Ye Hua about the dragon that was there that night, he will need to hear the whole story. Was she ready to share that memory out loud? The sick churning in her stomach told her she wasn’t. Not yet. Not today. Maybe tomorrow. I will find a way to ask him before I visit the Heavens. 

When the soft creak of the cabin door opening interrupted her thoughts, Bai Qian pushed her uneasiness aside before turning to leave; she wanted to meet Ye Hua in the clearing this morning instead of having him walk to the lake. His warm smile upon seeing her took her breath away. He hurried toward her and took her hand in a gentle grasp. There was an excited glint in his eyes.

“Mother sent you a gift, Qian Qian. Would you like to see?”

“A gift?” Bai Qian asked with surprise as Ye Hua led her to the cabin door with an insistent tug on her hand. His excitement was contagious and she laughed lightly as she followed him inside.

There, placed next to the row of wall pegs where Ye Hua’s robes were located, was a wooden rack with several dresses hanging from it. Bai Qian’s laughter faded at the sight and amazed gratitude filled her. New dresses! She was at a loss for words as she stared at the beautiful colors before her… lavender, sky blue, pale yellow with light orange accents, soft pink embroidered with tiny white flowers, muted grey, and a deep turquoise. They appeared simple yet elegant. Just like Heavenly Mother’s dress.

“Go ahead, Qian Qian. They’re all yours,” Ye Hua encouraged her. A warm hand touched the small of her back to nudge her forward before he added,”There are shoes and hairpins to match.” He pointed out a row of feminine slippers lined up neatly near the dress rack and jeweled silver hairpins laying next to his own on the small table in the corner. A silver brush now sat neatly next to Ye Hua’s wooden one. She smiled shyly. It’s like we’re a couple. 

After another gentle nudge from Ye Hua, Bai Qian walked over to look at the dresses, reaching out to feel the different fabrics. They were all made of soft cotton and muslin except for the grey and turquoise dresses. Those were a smooth, fine silk more appropriate for formal occasions. The dresses were a lovely and generous gift, much more than Bai Qian would have ever asked for. She would need to find a way to thank Ye Hua’s mother. 

“You should wear one today,” Ye Hua told her. Bai Qian looked back at him over her shoulder. He was watching her with an enigmatic expression. “I’ll be outside waiting for you.”   

She nodded and turned back to the dresses after Ye Hua left, closing the door behind him. The decision of which to wear first was a tough one. After a few minutes of deliberation, Bai Qian chose the lavender one. She blushed as she shrugged off her old worn white dress, very aware of the fact she was undressing while Ye Hua stood right outside. 

Only after she removed the dress from the rack did Bai Qian discover the matching lavender underclothes tucked within the dress. A quick peek told her all the dresses had some. She pulled the underclothes and dress on, securing the wraparound dress by tying the sash into a bow. The fabric was soft and comfortable against her skin and the dress fit perfectly. She was no longer encased in a dress two sizes too big and could finally walk without having to worry about tripping over her hem.

Bai Qian looked down, admiring the way the dress looked on her as best she could without the benefit of a mirror, before slipping her feet into the matching slippers. How long had it been since she had last worn a pair of shoes? They felt strange on her feet. 

Picking up her old threadbare dress, Bai Qian considered getting rid of it for a moment before changing her mind. She had worn it for so many years that it felt wrong to just toss it away without a second thought. So she folded it neatly and tucked it away on the clothing rack out of the way. Maybe one day she could let it go.

Uncertain of Ye Hua’s reaction to her new look, Bai Qian took a deep breath to calm her sudden nerves as she reached to open the door. Stepping outside, her eyes found his and she stopped as he reached her side in two steps. She looked down self-consciously. “It’s a lovely dress and it fits well. I wonder how your mother knew my size.”

“You look beautiful, Qian Qian.”

Bai Qian looked up, shyly meeting his gaze once again. “Really?”

“Yes,” he whispered, watching her intently. Bai Qian trembled at that heated intensity in his eyes as he gazed back at her. “Every single thing about you is beautiful. It never ceases to amaze me.” He moved even closer and reached out to run his fingers along one of her cheeks before caressing her hair. “I’m happy you left your hair unbound. I love the way it looks just as it is.” 

Bai Qian’s heart rate picked up when Ye Hua’s eyes dropped to her lips. Her eyes drifted closed when his lips brushed against hers in a sweet kiss. When he repeated the kiss, allowing his mouth to linger on hers a little longer, Bai Qian flicked her tongue tentatively against his lips, shyly asking him for what she wanted. She didn’t want him to hold back this time.

A low growl rumbled from Ye Hua’s chest; the predatory sound sent a pleasant shiver running along Bai Qian’s spine. His hands slid over her shoulders and back, leaving arousing tingles in their wake as he pulled her body flush with his. She gasped against his mouth, opening for him, and Ye Hua’s tongue swept in between her parted lips, their sweet and gentle kiss becoming so much more. 

When Bai Qian’s tongue met Ye Hua’s searching one, he growled again, the sound even lower this time. A whirlwind of heady emotions swirled through her. Her fingers dug into his robes where she clung to his back, trying to rub her body up against his as he deepened the kiss even further. Bai Qian didn’t have time to even question why moving her body along Ye Hua’s hard muscular frame felt so incredibly wonderful. All she knew was she didn’t want to stop. 

Ye Hua’s arms tightened his hold as her tongue continued to play with his; she was growing more comfortable with the new sensations and wanted to explore them further, pushing her tongue harder against his. Something firm she had never noticed before started to stir against her stomach where her body pressed up to Ye Hua’s. Bai Qian rubbed against it and Ye Hua groaned deeply into her mouth, one of his hands sliding down to caress her bottom before moving to grip her hip; the fingers of his other hand buried themselves in her hair as he palmed the back of her head. A pleasurable tingle started at the juncture of Bai Qian’s thighs, making her breathless with the need for something more.   

All the intoxicating sensations rushing through her came to a crashing halt when Ye Hua abruptly wrenched his mouth away from hers and put some distance between their bodies. He moved his hands to her shoulders instead of letting go completely, seeming to understand she didn’t want to lose his touch. Or maybe he needed their physical connection to continue as much as she did? 

Bai Qian’s eyes remained closed and she concentrated on the ragged sound of Ye Hua’s unsteady breaths accompanied by her own. He breathed deeply to steady not only himself but also to lessen the heated tension of the moment. 

Something bright and beautiful… just like the kiss in my den. Only she had gotten to feel more of it this time.

Finally, when she had regained her own composure, Bai Qian opened her eyes to find Ye Hua looking at her with what could only be described as hungry longing. She watched, fascinated, as his expression calmed to warm affection as they stood there quietly gazing at each other. The wisps of black that had been bleeding into his brown irises faded away and she realized his dragon had been present during their passionate kiss.  

“You make me forget myself sometimes, Qian Qian,” Ye Hua murmured.

“I don’t mind,” she whispered, giving him a small smile. He returned it before pressing an affectionate kiss to her forehead. When his eyes met hers again, she saw the black of his dragon’s gaze in his own once more but only for a second. Ye Hua tensed but then relaxed.

“Zhe Yan is approaching,” Ye Hua told her.

Bai Qian jumped away from him with a squeak, looking down at her hopelessly wrinkled dress. She blushed, reaching up to assess the amount of tangles in her hair. Would Zhe Yan know what they had just been doing? She started to try and smooth out the wrinkles with her palms, wondering if she had time to run into the cabin and brush her hair out. She was so worried about her rumpled appearance, Bai Qian had no time for any of her earlier worries about meeting a friend from the past to creep up on her. 

“Allow me,” Ye Hua told her with a laugh before a wave of his dragon magic washed over her, bringing warmth and comfort with it. 

She didn’t have a chance to check how well Ye Hua had straightened her appearance before Zhe Yan stepped into the clearing. He stopped when he spotted her. His face was pale at first as if he were seeing an apparition. He remained still and silent, studying her, before a broad smile broke across his face, the color returning to it. 

“Xiao Wu.”

A sharp pang struck Bai Qian’s chest when she heard the nickname her family had given her but she ignored it as best she could, refusing to allow the past to ruin what should be a happy reunion. 

“Qian Qian,” Zhe Yan corrected himself quickly as if realizing her distress. “I can’t believe it’s really you.”

“Zhe Yan,” Bai Qian said with a tremulous smile. She closed the distance between them and gave him a big hug, one he returned without any hesitation. A tear trickled down her cheek followed by another when she pulled away. She wiped them away with a laugh, finding that Zhe Yan’s eyes seemed to be tearing up as well.

“Look at you. You’re all grown up.”

Bai Qian laughed again. “So are you, Zhe Yan.”

Zhe Yan grinned. “That’s true. I guess it happens to the best of us.” His smile faded. “It’s so good to see you, Qian Qian. I’m relieved you’re okay. I’ve been worried about you… my whole family has been worried. We feared the worst had happened. Why didn’t you come to us for help?”

More tears welled up and trailed down Bai Qian’s face as painful memories from the past collided with the present despite her efforts to hold them back. Ye Hua’s familiar warmth soothed her when he stepped closer to her to offer silent support. Bai Qian didn’t want to talk about those horrific weeks following the deaths of her family, not right now, but she could at least answer Zhe Yan’s question. She imagined Ye Hua had been wondering the same thing even if he never asked.

“I was scared and I panicked,” she explained in a quiet voice, drying her cheeks again with the tips of her fingers. “I didn’t know what to do. All I knew for sure was that I would be safe if nobody knew where I was. After years had passed by, hiding became a familiar habit that I was afraid to break. I didn’t intend…”

“It’s okay, Qian Qian,” Zhe Yan interrupted, stopping her from explaining further. “Your reasons make sense… they do. I’m just glad to see you alive and well after all this time.”

“I’m happy to see you, too.” She offered him a small smile and Zhe Yan returned it.

“I would’ve visited sooner but I overlooked Ye Hua’s message somehow,” Zhe Yan said, changing the subject, something Bai Qian was grateful for. She remembered Zhe Yan as a person who was very considerate of other people’s feelings and that seemed to still be true.

Ye Hua scoffed. “You didn’t overlook my message. You were caught up in your new project and chose to ignore it.” Ye Hua narrowed his eyes but there was amusement in his gaze. “Admit it.”

Bai Qian hid a smile when she saw the exasperation on Zhe Yan’s face.

“Okay. Fine. I ignored it.” Zhe Yan threw up his arms in irritation. “How was I supposed to know the message was about something important?! You should have written that it was urgent on the outside of the scroll.”        

Ye Hua folded his arms. “All of my messages are important, Zhe Yan.”

It was Zhe Yan’s turn to scoff, turning to Bai Qian. “Don’t listen to him, Qian Qian. Don’t let our illustrious dragon friend here fool you. Despite what Ye Hua says, less than half of his letters are ever about anything important.” As he continued, Zhe Yan led Bai Qian over to the table that Ye Hua had placed in the clearing. “He once sent me six letters in one week grumbling about his studies, complaining about his mother making him clean his room if he wanted dessert, and whining about how unfairly his brother was treating him.” 

Giggling, Bai Qian glanced back at Ye Hua, who was following with a look of feigned indignation. She laughed harder when she saw his expression. 

“That was a long time ago,” Ye Hua protested, giving her a wink before she turned to sit across from Zhe Yan. Ye Hua joined them at the table, sitting close to her side. He glared at Zhe Yan. “That was when we were kids, Zhe Yan.”

“Do you have any of these letters saved?” Bai Qian asked, ignoring Ye Hua’s grunt of objection. “I’d love to see one.”

Zhe Yan gave her a delighted grin. “I might. If I find any, I’ll bring them for you to read.” 

Bai Qian nodded eagerly before remembering the gift he had given her. “Thank you for the book. I enjoyed listening to it.”

“I thought you would. It was a strange but interesting tale, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Bai Qian agreed.

“I especially liked the part where the knight killed the giant evil bird,” Ye Hua added smugly. 

“Bird?!” Zhe Yan sputtered before frowning. “It’s not about a bird! It’s about a dragon!”

The book appeared in Ye Hua’s hand, something that didn’t surprise Bai Qian. She smiled. Watching the two of them together reminded her so much of her brothers. Zhe Yan had brought up Ye Hua’s old letters so Ye Hua would now find a way to get back at his friend. It was just the way things were done. That was the way her brother, Si Ge, had once explained it to her. 

When Bai Qian’s attention returned to them, it was to find Zhe Yan looking at the open book. He must be reading all the places she and Ye Hua had changed the word ‘dragon’ to ‘bird’ if his expression was any indication. 

“The creature needs wings to fly,” Ye Hua was explaining to his friend. “That sounds like a bird to me.”

“And it lays eggs,” Bai Qian added, joining in on the fun.

“We had no choice but to correct it,” Ye Hua declared.

“But it has four legs and a tail,” Zhe Yan shot back. “Did you see the drawing? Birds don’t have four legs and a tail!”

“That’s true,” Bai Qian agreed before Ye Hua could argue the point. She looked at Ye Hua. “We’ll have to change it again, won’t we?”

“It’s not a dragon,” Ye Hua said stubbornly. 

Shaking her head in amusement, Bai Qian rubbed Ye Hua’s shoulder affectionately. “I think it’s a giant evil lizard. We should change it to a lizard.”

She waited for both men to protest but they remained silent. Neither had a problem with the change. She smiled, happy she had found a compromise they couldn’t argue with. 

“That’s a good idea,” Ye Hua told her, lifting her hand to press a quick kiss to the back of it.

Bai Qian blushed at the show of affection in front of Zhe Yan even though she had started it. When she glanced at Zhe Yan to gauge his reaction, she thought he looked pleased to see her and Ye Hua together. Her blush deepened when he caught her eye with a smile. He didn’t seem surprised and must have sensed there was something between her and Ye Hua from the beginning. 

“It appears that Qian Qian’s a natural mediator,” Zhe Yan said to Ye Hua. “Your father will appreciate that.” Zhe Yan turned back to her. “Have you had a chance to meet Heavenly Father yet?”

She shook her head. “No, not yet. Well… at least, not since I was a little girl. I did meet him once a long time ago.”

Zhe Yan nodded thoughtfully. “He’s a shrewd mediator himself. You should observe him sometime when he’s settling disputes. It’s amazing to watch.”

“I’d like to meet him soon.” Bai Qian looked at Ye Hua. “I’d like to meet both your father and your brother.” Was now the time to tell Ye Hua she had decided to accompany him to the Heavens?

“I know they both really want to meet you, too,” Ye Hua responded. “Dragging Mo Yuan off his mountain shouldn’t be too tricky. He’ll pretend to grumble about it but will be happy to meet you. But it’s a little difficult for Father to leave the Heavens since he’s so busy. I will talk to him so he can set aside some time for a visit soon.”

Bai Qian breathed in a deep breath for courage. Now was definitely the time to tell Ye Hua of her decision. “Heavenly Father won’t need to visit the forest,” she said.

“You mean…?” Ye Hua asked, disbelief in his voice. It was clear he had not expected her to accept his recent invitation. 

Nodding, Bai Qian gave him a small smile. “Yes, I’ve decided to go to the Heavens with you when it’s time for the celebration.” Her earlier unease about the dragon she had seen in the Fox Den tried to squirm its way back into her but she pushed it away. She wasn’t going to let fear ruin this moment. She would talk to Ye Hua about it later.

He smiled warmly at her, excitement glinting in his eyes. “That’s wonderful, Qian Qian!”

“I don’t want to attend the celebration itself,” she hastily added, wanting to avoid a misunderstanding. “I don’t think… I’m not yet ready to be around so many people all at once. But I want to see the Heavens again and meet the rest of your family.”

“Don’t worry about avoiding the celebration,” Ye Hua reassured her with another smile. “That’s not a problem. There are plenty of quiet places away from the crowd for you to stay while it’s going on. I’m pleased you decided to go.”

“You won’t be missing much,” Zhe Yan added. “There will be many self-important people standing around trading wild rumors with each other and discussing realm politics. The food is usually good though. Ye Hua can bring you some when it’s over.”

“Will you be there as well, Zhe Yan?” Bai Qian asked.

“I will,” he responded. “Ye Hua and Mo Yuan made me promise a long time ago, before I knew any better, that I would attend any social function they were required to attend. To help them avoid getting bored, I think.” He sighed. “So now I have no choice. Since the twins have to be there, I will be there.”    

“It’s not that bad, Zhe Yan,” Ye Hua told him. “You know you like making fun of the silly fashions everyone wears at these formal functions. And it’s always fun to hear some of the latest rumors.”

Bai Qian settled back to listen as Ye Hua and Zhe Yan shared some of their favorite humorous stories from gatherings in the past, laughing along with them both as they traded insults along with the amusing tales. She was both excited and nervous about her decision to go to the Heavens. 

Ye Hua must have sensed some of her nervousness because he would soothe her with a wave of magic every time she felt a jitter of anxiety. Aware now of how easily he sensed her changes in mood, she worked extra diligently to keep any trepidation about the unknown dragon from creeping into her thoughts. Today was about meeting an old friend and spending time with him. There was no place for such a grim topic. Not today but soon, she reassured herself. I will ask Ye Hua about the other dragon soon. 

=======================

Soon she would be in his possession. 

Every time the thought crossed his mind, Weisheng wanted to proclaim his victory with a triumphant shout. His moment of conquest was drawing closer. His opportunity to complete his father’s revenge was almost upon him. The fox princess would soon be his for the taking. And take he would… first her ability to utilize her father’s heart magic and then her life when she lost her usefulness.

The idea hastened his steps as he hurried to assess the special accommodations he had prepared for her while she lived in the Demon Realm. 

Weisheng had originally planned to keep Bai Qian in the dungeon far beneath his palace. But Ye Hua would find her there easily. Weisheng had no doubt the various dungeons of the Demon Realm would be among the first places the Crown Prince would look for Bai Qian when he discovered she was missing. 

Ye Hua would likely suspect Weisheng had taken her but there would be nothing he could do about it if he couldn’t prove the demons had her. Not unless Ye Hua wanted to restart the war without just cause… and incur all the penalties that came along with being the first to break the peace treaty in such a reckless fashion. That damn treaty had been a cumbersome burden Weisheng had had to carry throughout his reign as king but now it would finally work in his favor. Though he wouldn’t hesitate to use his new sword if Ye Hua decided to forget caution and attack without waiting for proof of Weisheng’s guilt, he would prefer to avoid such a scenario if he could.

If Weisheng could buy some time, it would be too late when Ye Hua found the evidence he needed. Bai Qian would be dead and Weisheng would have the power he needed to convince the other dark magic tribes to join him against the Heavens. If war broke out, Weisheng would have the advantage his father had failed to acquire– the dragon talon sword. There would be a second war with a much different outcome. He knew he could make it happen if given the chance.

The air around Weisheng grew more frigid and unwelcoming as he followed the passage further into the cave. The only source of light was the lit torch he held out in front of him; it cast flickering shadows on the cavern walls. The ice coating the granite became thicker the farther he walked. 

This particular cave was located far from the Demon Palace, in the northernmost reaches of the mountains that towered over Weisheng’s realm. The entrance was hidden from sight by natural rock formations and difficult to find unless the person searching knew where it was located already. 

Weisheng smirked. It was unlikely Ye Hua would be able to find Bai Qian here in time to save her if he ever found her at all.

Taking the tunnel to the far left when the main one branched off into many various directions, Weisheng stepped into a small cavern that appeared after the winding passage took one last sharp turn. He had no idea just how far into the mountain this cavern extended. It was so difficult to gauge accurate distance in these vast ice caves.

He stopped when he reached the iron bars making up Bai Qian’s special prison cell. It had wards to weaken her magic placed upon it and also the restraints Weisheng had drilled deep into the ice and rock wall. This would make it more of a challenge for Ye Hua to sense her presence when he searched the Demon Realm. Jinjing had agreed this was the best place to hold Bai Qian prisoner once they had captured her.

Before leaving the cavern, Weisheng assessed the strength of the prison cell and the restraints one last time to make sure he wasn’t overlooking anything. Everything here was ready. Jinjing had assured Weisheng the parts of his plan to distract Ye Hua and Mo Yuan were falling into place. 

The search for Bai Qian would be left up to Weisheng. He had searched all the resources he could get his hands on to find accurate maps of the peach tree forest he could utilize. There were none to be found. So Weisheng had a full contingent of demon soldiers ready to enter the forest as soon as he gave them the signal. Weisheng knew his time would be limited once the plan was set in motion; he intended to scour every last inch of the forest to find Bai Qian. He was determined to get his hands on her as soon as possible.

⇛ Next part: Ch 34: A Visit to the Heavens

⇚ Previous part: Ch 32: Choices

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