Hey again, everyone! Hopefully you enjoyed the images!
I finished chapter eleven last night shortly after I posted chapter ten, but I tend to wait until I hear a reaction to the previous chapter before posting the next.
So, here's chapter eleven! I hope you guys enjoy it!
Chapter Eleven: Aftermaths
Wen Lan stood horrified, feeling as if her legs had suddenly been taken from her body as she watched the blaze climb higher.
“No!” Seung growled as he stomped his foot against the ground. A column of earth rose up behind Kano, knocking flat against his spine.
The admiral hit the ground, rising slowly to his feet as he chuckled.
“I thought he was supposed to be invincible; that took hardly any effort at all!”
“Monster,” Seung stepped slowly towards the admiral.
“Yes, I just killed one,” Kano grinned. He turned as he felt the presence of something behind him, falling back as a fist slammed into his jaw.
He looked up towards the figure, her eyes filled with rage as she glared down at him.
“Ah, did I upset you, young lady? My apologies…” He brought himself to his feet slowly, grabbing her fist as she motioned to strike him again. “You should be careful, little lady. I’ve been known to kill girls younger than you, and for much less.”
She answered this with hateful gaze, her other hand punching the admiral in the throat.
He grasped at it quickly, not having the time to respond before another rock pillar had launched up into his stomach from below.
Seung stepped forward angrily, fingers tense. He had hoped for no casualties, the admiral’s disregard for life offending him on every level.
“Ah, all you’ve really managed to do is aggravate me,” Kano smiled pleasantly, his expression growing into a perverted grin. He turned towards Wen Lan, extending his arm as a large burst of flame tore forward.
She sidestepped this, turning as she reached her hands out to grab his elbow. She ducked as he spun his leg towards her, another wave of flame ripping through the air. Wen Lan kept on the attack, dodging each of his strikes as he dodged each of hers.
Seung joined in the fray, rapidly launching chunks of earth towards the admiral.
Kano snarled slightly, forced back against a tree. He dodged as Wen Lan kicked towards him, her foot cutting against the tree with such force that it left a slash mark.
Her attacks were ruthless, her assault uninterrupted. She thrust her palm out, grabbing the admiral by his neck.
Seung stepped forward, glaring at the firebender. “Lady Wen Lan, don’t kill him. He will be tried by the Earth Kingdom.”
“Ha ha, like such a pretty little lady could kill the Dragon Tamer,” Kano chuckled.
“You killed him,” she whispered, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Yes,” he grinned, her words fueling his sadistic nature.
“You killed him,” she bit her lower lip, her voice trembling as her grip tightened.
“Lady Wen Lan…”
“And guess what?” Kano’s eyes went wide with glee.
“You…You killed him,” she sobbed as her grip grew tighter, her desire to destroy the man slipping as the truth sunk in.
“I’m going to kill you, too.” Kano lifted his palms as a ball of fire formed quickly before them.
Wen Lan’s eyes went wide.
Seung opened his mouth to yell.
Kano laughed wildly, stopping as he realized nothing had happened.
She looked down slowly, a shield in the shape of an Earth Kingdom crest smoldering just over her stomach.
Her gaze trailed along the shield to Jung, standing beside her with his arm extended to protect, his chest bleeding deeply as his side continued draining, caked in blood.
“You,” the admiral growled. “Is it so hard to just die?”
The Demon answered by lifting his fist and smashing it into Kano’s face, Wen Lan’s grip on his throat releasing as he was launched to the ground.
The three stood before the overwhelmed firebender, Seung glaring angrily as Wen Lan brought her hand to the Demon’s side to support him.
“Well,” he spoke with a slur, the left side of his skull fractured. “I suspect the odds have stacked against me. I believe that’s enough for today,” he grinned.
Seung took his stance, preparing to use the same cage technique he had used on Gang when they fought along the river.
“Until next time, general,” he grinned as he motioned his hands upward, disappearing in a tall spiral of flame.
“Where did he…” Seung lowered his hands from his eyes, gritting his teeth as he realized Kano had escaped.
“Jung…” she whispered, her hands on his chest to support him.
“I’m fine,” he insisted, his breathing having become noticeably heavier. “The cave.”
“No, there’s no way you’ll make it,” Seung studied the wounds quickly, stepping towards the Demon. “There’s an earthbending temple near here, it’s where I studied. They can treat you there.”
The Demon stood silently, Wen Lan propping him up.
“We can trust him, I promise,” she whispered. “He is the one who…”
“I know,” he drew in a breath. “Thank you, general.”
“We should hurry,” he nodded; slipping himself under the Demon’s other arm. Had they the time, Seung would have gladly exchanged pleasantries with the Demon.
“What the…” Gang trailed off as he entered the scene, his eyes going wide. “Lady Wen Lan!”
“Gang!” she called out. “Help us carry him!”
Without hesitation Gang obeyed, approaching quickly. They carried the Demon, the young noble hoping and pleading to the spirits for his safety.
“Admiral Kano!” a soldier called out, two others aiding Kano as he stepped up onto the ship.
“Hello, soldier! A fine day for sailing, yes?” the left side of his face was swollen, his hand upon own chest as he breathed deeply.
“Sir, are you alright?”
“Oh my, absolutely not. Fetch the ship doctor, I need immediate medical attention,” he nodded merrily.
“Yes sir, right away! You there, fetch the ship doctor!” the soldier commanded one of the ship hands before aiding Kano.
“I feel today was quite a success, tell the crew to disembark!” the admiral laughed boisterously.
“We were victorious in our campaign then, sir?” the soldier asked as he motioned towards two crew members to relay the command.
“By no stretch of the imagination; we failed miserably! All of our invading force decimated; I anticipate that I am in fact, the only one who will manage to return.”
“How can today be considered a success then, sir?”
“I was able to survive and gain an understanding of the enemy’s resources! Having done exactly that, I was able to formulate the proper course of action!”
“And what is that, sir?”
“We shall return to the Fire Nation, where I will rest and heal! Once I have done such, I will request permission to lead a second campaign against the Kun valley, with proper resources and manpower.”
“Sir, what if the Fire Lord were to refuse such a request? He was reluctant about allowing the initial campaign, if you remember.”
“Well then, I suppose I’ll have to do it anyway! I have people I’d like to kill, and I can be very persistent when that’s the case,” Kano laughed, tilting his head back. “Ah, soldier, one last important part of the plan. I have to do it before I enact any other phase.” He motioned his finger towards the soldiers, signaling him to draw in close.
“What is that, sir?”
The admiral lurched forward, taking a stern stance as he punched the soldier in the stomach, a spike of fire tearing through his innards and emerging on the other side. Smiling, he took his seat again.
“I have to kill you. If I don’t kill someone every so often, I run the risk of becoming a tad cranky. And we can’t have that, no, that would be unacceptable!” He nodded as he explained to the body.
Kano grinned with satisfaction as he looked to the side of the boat, admiring the features of the forest and valley. He smiled smugly as he imagined what it would look like completely consumed by fire.
“He gonna be alright?” Gang asked, still wearing his charred clothing as he stood at the temple gate.
Seung stood beside the old guard, having finished a discussion with the temple priests. “When he arrived, they said he had a slight chance. Now they are absolutely certain he will live.” He looked out towards the forest, listening to the animals in the distance.
“What changed their minds?”
“Lady Wen Lan,” he looked towards Gang with a smile.
“Oh yeah?” He grinned with pride.
“Yes. She’s been at his side since the moment we set him down, treating his wounds. They have to practically shove her aside in order to check his progress.”
“I won’t stand for people shoving lady Wen Lan,” Gang grunted, folding his arms.
“Ha ha, no, I didn’t think so.” He looked back towards the forest, his expression becoming more serious. “Gang.”
“Today on the battlefield. It wasn’t appropriate of me to throw you into a position of command. I apologize.”
“You needed somethin’ done, you asked the right guy,” he shrugged.
“I thank you for your understanding,” Seung smiled softly.
“So what’s the plan from here?”
“I will return to the Earth Kingdom army to inform them of what occurred during the battle. After that, I’ll return here to check in on the Demon and lady Wen Lan.”
“Right. What do I do, then?”
“I think it would be best if you return to the village to inform lord Chin-Hwa of what’s occurred. I am confident he will inform those who need to know about lady Wen Lan’s current whereabouts.”
“Right. What should I tell Xiu?”
Seung blushed slightly, the image of the beautiful girl being a welcome memory after the trials of the day. “Why do you ask?”
Gang grinned, nudging the general with his elbow. “C’mon, what do you think I am, blind?”
“Please tell her…That her lady Wen Lan is safe. And that I will ensure she remains that way to the best of my ability.”
“Sounds good, sounds good,” the old guard nodded as he commit it to memory.
“Gang, one other thing before you return to the village.”
“Today has been trying, to say the least…Would you grant me one favor?”
“…Please tell me more about Xiu,” he stared towards the forest, still blushing slightly.
“Gladly,” he grinned.
Silently, Wen Lan cleaned out the arm slash before redressing the graze wound in his side.
He lay there quietly, his breathing giving welcome indication that he was still alive.
She kneeled beside him as she stared towards the opposite wall. She had yet to say a word since their arrival at the temple.
“…I was scared,” she started.
The sound of his breathing gave no indication of whether he was awake or not.
“I saw him attack you, and I thought ‘please, please let all those rumors be true. Please make him invincible; please make it so this does him no harm.’ And then, you stood there. You were fine; the flames had not touched you. For a moment, I was so relieved,” she smiled gently.
His body had taken on more than the serious wounds he had received before her eyes. Scrapes and burn marks littered his chest and arms, his legs demonstrating multiple cuts.
“Then, I saw the chains wrap around you, and I hoped you would shake them off, that you would break out of them as if they were nothing. Then…” her eyes began filling with tears, her words becoming harder to form as she recalled the memory. “Then you…They cut you. They hurt you, right in front of me. I just stood and watched them hurt you.” Her crying became more intense as she looked towards the ground. “General Seung was busy fighting admiral Kano, and I was too far away, I was unable to even get to you,” she sobbed.
“I was wrong,” she continued sobbing. “When we were running to the battle, and we were arguing. Making sure you come back, that was not the only reason I wanted to be there. I wanted to protect you,” she closed her eyes. “And I know what you will say; that you need no protecting; but each time I come into the cave, I see your back…I see the scars, I see all the wounds you have taken for the sake of others, and I just...I just wish I could protect you from it. I wish I could hold you and heal all those scars,” she gripped the cloth of her robes, trembling.
He lay still, the mask unmoving.
“But I failed…I was right there, and I was unable to stop it, it still happened. And I…I screamed, and I fought. And for a moment, in my heart, I really believed that you were…” she brought her hands to her face, sobbing quietly into them. After a few moments of drying her tears, she pressed on. “And then, there you were…And my heart, it just…You were alive, and it was as if this great sadness that had been thrust onto me was taken away. And here you are, hurt, because I failed to protect you,” her eyes squinted as she felt the tears returning.
“Please heal, Jung,” she whispered her request, tears stinging her cheeks. “Please get better. I need you to, I need to be able to come to the cave and see you, I need to bring you tea; to hear your voice. I need to share stories with you about turtles with mountains on their back, and giant Phoenixes,” she cried.
Through a film of tears she stared, wiping her eyes with the edge of her sleeve.
“It was tortoises,” he said weakly. “Turtles are of the water. Tortoises come from the earth.”
“Jung,” Wen Lan sobbed softly, looking towards his mask. “Please heal, please get better,” she begged quietly. “I need you to, I need you to be alright, I need you…” she trailed off, a silent pause filling the room.
“To?” his body lay still, his strength focused on speaking.
Her face stained with tears and a faint shade of red, she answered with a whisper. “…I just need you.”
His breathing picked up a little as he raised his hand slowly, holding it in front of her.
Taking it softly in her own she held onto it, bringing her face to it as tears washed away some dirt and blood.
“Please…Stay,” he asked quietly.
“I’ll be right here,” she nodded quickly, promising as she lowered the hand. Her grip on it remained firm, not wanting to let go. “I’ll stay here, I promise.”
With that, Jung resumed his quiet breathing, drifting off to sleep.
Wen Lan remained there through the night, never releasing his hand as her head lowered to his chest, drifting off to sleep to the sound of his heartbeat.
Xiu slid the panel leading to Chin-Hwa’s room open, taking her seat at the entrance as she readied her pipa. She smiled gently as she looked towards the old man, still sleeping softly. Readying the instrument carefully, she brought a finger up to one of the strings, tracing the edge of her nail over it.
She then ran her fingers quickly and forcefully over the strings, the pipa producing a sound comparable to an enflamed chicken pig.
“What the?!” Chin-Hwa jumped up, looking around frantically as the sound flooded the room.
“Oh, good morning lord Chin-Hwa!” she smiled innocently, tilting her head to the side.
“Xiu!? What are you doing in here?!” he squinted, looking out over her shoulder towards the night sky. “It’s before dawn!”
“Y’see lord Chin-Hwa, I was up last night, thinking about general Seung’s visit.”
He blinked, his eyes narrow as he failed to see how this answered his question.
“And I realized something; I would have been way too shy to approach him on my own. Lucky for me I have such a wonderful lord, who was kind enough to not only introduce me, but have me embarrass myself constantly in front of him!” she plucked a few of the pipa strings lightly.
“Xiu, I understa…”
“No no, please let me finish, dear wonderful lord Chin-Hwa!” she showed some teeth as she smiled sweetly. “I decided that it would be most inappropriate of me to not somehow thank you for your kindness, even if it did make me look like an idiot in front of him! So I thought,” she brought her finger to her chin to signify contemplation. “What could I possibly do to show my thanks?”
He blinked, still very tired.
“And then, it came to me!” she snapped her fingers, pointing towards the pipa. “I decided I would serenade you each and every morning with this pipa I bought in the marketplace yesterday!”
“That’s very sweet of you…” Chin-Hwa started.
“Now, I don’t have any formal training in playing the pipa. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever even touched an instrument. I figure I’ll catch on quickly though; I’m a pretty fast learner.”
“I see,” he sighed.
“And so, I will play for you each and every morning as the sun rises! I’ve even selected a piece that will give me the best possible practice.”
“And that is?”
“Requiem of Roku! Oh, and here’s a bit of trivia for you about the piece; it’s the longest song to have ever been written for the pipa, taking a full fourth of the day for even the most skilled player!” she smiled as she brought her hand to the instrument again, savoring each and every moment of her revenge.
His eyes went wide as the words soaked in.
“Now then; please enjoy my morning performance! And keep in mind; this is my personal way of thanking you for embarrassing me while general Seung was here,” she grinned as she began playing, frantically lashing her hand against the strings as it emitted a sound so terrible, its quality would move most musicians to early retirement.
Chin-Hwa groaned, falling back to his futon as he drew both sides of it over his ears.
“What’s that awful noise?” Gang called out from the hallway, stepping behind Xiu as he observed the scene.
“Hey Gang,” she smiled innocently, looking up towards him.
“Gang, thank the Avatar!” Chin-Hwa sat up, releasing his hands from his ears.
“Was that you?” he asked the young servant.
“Yup, my personal way of saying thanks to lord Chin-Hwa.”
“For embarrassing you in front of your boyfriend?” he blinked.
“Sh…Shut up, he’s not my boyfriend!” she blushed furiously as she turned her head away, eyes narrowed.
“What brings you back so early,” Chin-Hwa stood, approaching quickly.
“Battle’s over,” he grinned. “We won.”
“Excellent, excellent,” Chin-Hwa nodded quickly, staring towards the old guard again. “Wen Lan? General Seung? Are they alright?”
Xiu turned towards Gang, watching for his answer.
“They’re both fine,” he nodded, his expression becoming more serious.
Relieved, Xiu smiled softly.
“Excellent,” Chin-Hwa let out a breath of relief, smiling as his nervous tension escaped him. “Where are they now?”
“Seung’s on his way to meet with other Earth Kingdom generals to report the outcome of the battle. Lady Wen Lan is at a temple in the forest to the west of the valley.”
“The temple? What in the world compelled her to journey there?” Chin-Hwa looked inquisitively towards the guard.
He folded his arms. “The Demon was severely injured. Seung and I carried him there. They’re treating him now.”
“And Wen Lan wishes to remain there until he has healed,” Chin-Hwa stroked his beard thoughtfully, nodding slightly as he guessed the rest of the report.
“Right,” Gang nodded.
Xiu set the pipa to her side, standing up as she placed her hands on her hips. “We’d better get to work, then.”
“Hmm?” Chin-Hwa looked towards her, feeling a deep sensation of relief at the observation that she had set the instrument aside.
“Old man, auntie Min knows where the Demon lives, right?” she glanced towards him, tilting her hip slightly as she thought.
Chin-Hwa sighed softly, missing the reverence Xiu showed in the presence of Seung. “Yes, she’s the one who led Wen Lan to him originally.”
“Good. Gang, go grab lady Wen Lan’s stuff, as much as you can carry.”
“Why?” the old guard raised an eyebrow, curious as to her intentions.
“Why else? We can’t serve our lady if she isn’t here.”
Gang nodded, understanding this point.
“So, we’ll just have to go to her.”
“You eat too much,” Li Mei muttered as she rummaged through the pouch containing their food.
“What?” Shui glanced over his shoulder towards the girl.
“I said you eat too much!” she scolded as she raised her tone, Shui having no power of intimidation over her.
“I do not; I eat exactly my share,” he answered as he turned his attention back to the path.
“Oh yeah? If you eat only your share, why are we already out of food?” she asked as she held out the now empty pouch.
“Maybe it’s because you keep giving the ostrich horses snacks every time we make camp!”
“They’re behaving; they deserve a reward!” she protested as she pet Ryo’s neck.
“They have their own food; they shouldn’t be eating people food!”
“So what if they have a little snack? It keeps them energetic!”
“They’re energetic enough without it,” he muttered as he recalled the number of times Kyo had bucked him off already.
“Besides, it’s not like they’re not sharing their food with us,” she placed a small pellet of feed in her mouth, snacking.
“That’s disgusting,” his eyebrow raised as her observed her.
“No it’s not, it’s tasty! The small black ones taste like peaches!” she held out a handful of the feed to him.
“Really?” he picked through the feed carefully, examining a black seed.
“Yeah, why do you think I’ve been snacking on them?”
“Because you’re weird,” he noted quietly.
“Just try it!” she scoffed, looking away.
Shui placed the seed in his mouth, staring forward as he bit into it. A sudden explosion of bitterness overwhelmed his tongue, forcing him to gag and spit wildly to the side.
“You’re gullible,” she laughed as she spit the seed she had placed in her mouth earlier out. “The black ones are called ‘pits,’ they leave a terrible aftertaste if you bite into them. Ostrich horses seem to like them, though.”
“You,” he clenched his teeth, looking at her with narrow eyes.
“Whoops,” she muttered quietly before quickly tapping her heels into Ryo’s side.
The ostrich horse stretched its neck out, squawking as it hurried forward towards the approaching village.
Shui chased after, Kyo cawing wildly as he kicked his heels into his side. Every few moments he spit, the bitterness still strong in his mouth.
She slowed as she entered the village, Ryo trotting along the busy street as Shui caught up behind her.
Knowing full well he couldn’t do anything to avenge his taste buds, especially in public, he slowed the beast to a trot. He reached towards the pouch, taking it as he offered Kyo’s reins to Li Mei.
“You take Kyo and find us somewhere to sleep tonight, I’ll get us some food,” he muttered quietly, aggravated with her.
Taking the reins, she imparted useful advice. “Papaya usually washes the taste out.”
“Shut up,” he growled lowly, walking towards a fruit vendor.
“Just saying,” she smiled as she teased, taking Kyo’s reins as she guided the two ostrich horses down another street.
She was stubborn and usually got the best of him, but even in understanding this, Shui preferred her company to traveling alone. He was never one to enjoy solitude.
He looked over the fruits, reaching out for a papaya as his hand collided with another. Looking for its owner, his eyes took on a look of surprise.
The waterbender stood with a look of apathy, his summer clothing a dark blue. His skin was tan, his dark brown hair tied back in a ponytail, the bangs hanging idly to either side of his face. A red mark trailed from below his eye to just above his mouth in the shape of a fang.
“Water tribe,” Shui observed quietly.
The waterbender’s eyebrow rose as his expression took on a slight hint of arrogance. “Wow, great work. Now can you tell me what this is?” he held up the papaya, smirking slightly.
“Huh? A papaya, why?” Shui’s eyebrow rose slightly, confused.
“Wrong,” he leaned forward, smirking. “The correct answer is; mine.” He dropped a few coins on the counter, walking away as he tossed the papaya up and down in his hand.
“Jerk,” Shui muttered as he turned back towards the vendor’s cart, searching for another papaya.
“Loser,” he called back.
“What?” he turned angrily towards the waterbender.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” laughing, he placed a palm on his forehead to convey thoughtlessness as turned towards him. “I said ‘loser.’ What I really meant was ‘stinkbreath’.”
“I dare you to repeat that,” he narrowed his eyes, stepping forward. Shui was not in the mood to sustain needless insults.
“Which part, the ‘loser’ bit, or the ‘stinkbreath’ part? I like ‘em both, but I’ll let you pick,” he grinned.
Shui answered by glaring, his hand resting on the butt of his axe.
“Right,” the waterbender laughed, taking a bite from the papaya. “Listen, as funny as you thinking you can take me is; I doubt it’d last long enough for me to embarrass you when there’re so many soldiers in this town. Besides,” he shrugged, “I’ve got stuff I need to take care of.”
“Or you’re afraid,” Shui smirked slightly.
“Afraid of what?” he continued munching on the papaya. “Some Earth Kingdom punk with an axe and bad breath? Don’t think so, seeya,” he laughed as he turned, walking away casually.
Gritting his teeth, Shui watched with seething anger as he walked away, his muscles tense.
Li Mei stepped up beside him, watching curiously as the water tribe youth walked away. She looked up towards Shui.
“Did you find that papaya yet?”
“Working on it,” he grunted lowly.
“Jeez,” Yakone sighed as he stepped into the room. “I don’t see why you people stick to the land; we were much better off on the water.”
The figure sat silently against the wall.
“For example; the people! I just bumped into some punk in the market,” he started as he fished a mango out of his sack. He tossed it toward the figure, taking a last bite of his papaya. “He was actually thought he could take me; you believe that? Some people just don’t have common sense, eh?” he pointed his finger towards his own head.
The figure caught the mango silently, biting into it.
“Talkative as ever,” Yakone sighed.
The sound of a mango being quietly eaten answered back.
“Yeah yeah, fine,” he frowned at the lack of response, turning his attention towards his bedroll. “I’m going to sleep; the earlier we get out of this place tomorrow, the better.”
There was no answer as the figure finished eating.
“G’night old man,” Yakone waved his hand towards the figure casually, closing his eyes.
Hey again, everyone! Sorry for the delay, I had some stuff to take care of recently.
Anyway, there's very little for me to say besides thank you to everyone who's read, especially to Isaia and Babbs!
Enjoy the new chapter!
Chapter Twelve: Another Perspective
To claim he paid no notice to her beauty as he stood before her on the river would be a lie; Jung had noticed it upon first glance. Yet such was irrelevant; his business was with the earth kingdom army, specifically Dak-Ho.
Her debate with him upon the riverboat was something new for him. Where most witnesses attempted to flee or perhaps recruit him, she engaged him in discussion. This held no effect on him, for his ideology and beliefs remained unchanged, uncontested.
Yet it did cause him to pay particular notice to her. As he made his way back to the cave, he considered this.
He could tell there was a nervous air about her as she entered the cave the first time. Unsure about her intentions, as well as how she had come to find him, he regarded her with suspicion.
When she poured the first cup of tea, this suspicion was replaced with curiosity. Wen Lan had done something that no other had managed on the battlefield.
She had intimidated him.
He towered over most, soldiers dropping their weapons at the mere sight of him. Wanted posters were scattered about the valley to inspire wariness of him; men told wild stories of the Demon, who could devastate an entire battlefield within moments of setting foot upon it. It was due to this simple fact that no one, besides old pain Min, would seek him out, much less engage him in conversation.
Each day, she returned with another kettle of tea. In time, he found she had come to accomplish something that only a small old woman had managed.
She had impressed him.
Though not talkative, Jung was competent in rhetoric. For every riddle she offered, for every inquiry she gave, he was able to respond with full understanding and confidence.
Initially, she had been the one to begin the discussions. In time, he became more comfortable with her presence and took on the role of initiation. What had started as idle banter grew into discussions of the two nation’s cultures, their legends and holidays.
An unprecedented comfort filled the cave to its walls.
He understood that in drinking the tea, a small section of his face would be revealed. It was for this reason that Jung faced away from her, towards the wall.
It was for this reason that he found himself enjoying a particular aspect of their parting.
He would stand upon the edge of the rock shelf, at first inspecting to make sure no others had followed her up the mountain. He would then focus his attention on her, politely nodding his head slowly. She would follow this up with the feature of her return to the village he enjoyed most.
She smiled and returned the nod, just before disappearing behind a patch of rocks.
After she had spent a few days visiting, he found himself recalling and enjoying her smile, admiring it. Had he removed his mask, a faint blush would be visible on his face upon realizing she had briefly occupied his thoughts.
In time, her daily visits to the cave had changed from anticipated to desired. Beneath his mask, a soft smile formed each time he heard her footsteps along the trail.
It is possible that he was completely blind to this change when it first occurred, just as possible that he had recognized it immediately. Despite either scenario, it was for this reason that he stood with a nervous tension before her as rain clouds loomed above them.
He gave her his name; something he had not shared for many years.
She gave him her hat; something to keep him dry and safe.
Jung watched as her distant figure stood in the valley. Watched as she lifted her hands and rose to face the rain.
Staring silently to the sky, he felt the drops as they reached the edge of his mask, trailing down his neck.
The next day he sat silently, curious as to what was keeping Wen Lan.
At first he felt a nervous tension, a distant disappointment that she had chosen to remain in the village; to avoid him.
This thought was quickly replaced by anger, as his mind introduced the possibility that someone had done her some harm or prevented her from reaching the cave.
Both were trumped entirely by worry as to whether or not she was alright.
He placed the hat over his head, barreling quickly down the mountain path as he kept alert; hoping that he would see her before he reached the village; that she was alright and merely running late.
Something caught his eye as he passed it, bringing him to a sudden halt. Turning, he approached it slowly. Studying it, he felt it gently with the tip of his finger.
Carefully, he picked the orchid before continuing quickly to the village.
As he stood in the tea house, a silence flooded the serving area.
Min told him that she had yet to arrive. This did nothing to ease his worry.
Sitting against the wall, he placed the hat down before him, hiding the orchid behind his ankle as he waited patiently.
To those watching, the Demon simply looked towards Wen Lan as she hurried in. The mask had done well to hide the look of relief that filled him.
It was the first time she had been so close to him while facing forward. Warmth filled his face as he offered her the orchid, feeling her skin touch briefly against his as she accepted it.
The two walked back to the cave as the sun set, Jung scolding himself silently for allowing himself to become worried over her status.
As she walked away into the night, he considered quietly why he had been so motivated to ensure her safety. Why he had felt compelled to be near her.
The truth of the matter brushed lightly against his thoughts, a deep shade of red hidden beneath the mask.
As they rushed towards the battle, his thoughts had turned to how he could ensure her safety while turning away both sides. Resigning to the understanding that she could defend herself, he chose to put off the thoughts until the situation had become an issue.
He caught her quiet whisper, heard her as she explained that she needed him to come back.
He wanted to tell her the same. To tell her he wanted her to be safe. Yet the Demon, who stood confidently in battle and could defeat any opponent who stood in his path, found he was unable to.
Kano had the fortune of dishonor; of being able to rely on the help of his subordinates to delay Jung long enough that his attack would be successful.
Feeling the blade run over his chest, he understood that he had been cut deep. An intense shot of pain ran through him as it stabbed into his side. The knife cutting against his arm was negligible in comparison, yet still caused him to wince.
The flames washed over him, a combination of dodging and skillful use of the shields allowing him to remain on the mortal coil awhile longer.
As he emerged from the flames, he saw her gripping his throat as the admiral began moving his hands.
Rage ran through him as he rushed, thrusting his arm before her stomach, the desire to protect her pushing him forward.
He felt her hands against him as she supported him, feeling them fade away as the blood drained from his body.
Before they had set him down in the temple he had slipped into unconsciousness, succumbing to the pain and blood loss.
His eyes opened slowly, the ceiling revealing that he was indoors. An hour later, he heard her voice beside him.
He heard every word, felt each of them as if they had touched upon his heart directly. Quietly and painfully, he raised his hand up.
Feeling her take it, he allowed something that he had refused long ago.
He gave up.
He abandoned his efforts to deny that which his heart had quietly accepted as truth.
He gave up his stubborn notion that though her smile was endearing, it had not charmed him.
He gave up his resignation to needing no one.
He accepted quietly that he desired her safety, company and smile.
As she held his hand, he slowly felt exhaustion overcome him, embracing sleep.
“Jung? I brought you some water,” she stepped into the room with a pail, smiling as she saw him sitting against the far wall.
“Thank you,” he nodded slowly.
“You were able to move yourself?” Placing the pail down near him, she inspected his bandages to ensure that he hadn’t opened any wounds in doing so.
“I’m a fast healer.” It was not a skill received through strenuous training, nor something bestowed upon him. It was a natural blessing; one he was entirely grateful for.
“I see,” she smiled as she began removing the bandages on his arm, drawing a cloth from the pail to wash it.
The mask turned towards her, watching as she washed the wound carefully.
Wen Lan glanced up, blushing slightly as she smiled and looked back to the wound.
“I do not think the arm wound was deep enough to scar,” she observed quietly.
“That’s good,” he noted as his eyes remained on her. The mask hid the redness in his cheeks as he witnessed her smile.
She folded the old bandages carefully, taking some new ones from beside him before redressing the wound. Leaning over, she grasped the pail of water, setting it down in front of him before offering the ladle.
Taking it gently, he looked down towards the pail as he dipped the ladle in, drawing up a bit of water. He froze, his mask still facing towards it.
“Hmm?” she watched him carefully, fearing something had wrong. She glanced over the wounds quickly to inspect before realizing the problem. “Ah,” she brought her hand to her mouth, embarrassed that she had not caught on earlier. “I apologize, I forgot,” she bowed her head, turning her body away so that he may drink without her watching.
He wanted to tell her it was alright, that she didn’t have to reposition herself. By the time he had realized this, the beautiful noble had already faced away.
“Thank you,” he tilted the mask back with his other hand, drinking from the ladle slowly.
“Is it alright?” Wen Lan looked towards the wall as she asked, listening to him sip.
“Delicious,” he answered as he took another long sip. “Thank you for bringing it,”
“It was my pleasure; I thought you might be thirsty.”
“Yes.” He continued sipping, setting the ladle down when he had had enough. After a pause, he brought his mask back down over his chin. “Is my presence a disturbance to the priests?”
“They assured me it is not,” she answered as she turned back towards him, sitting politely with her hands folded in front of her. “Apparently general Seung trained here when he was younger; they were more than willing to meet his request.”
“I will thank him later.”
“Yes,” she smiled softly, her expression becoming curious as she heard a distant sound. “Jung? Did you hear that?”
“Yes,” the mask looked up towards the wall as he focused, listening for anything else.
The sound had come from the temple courtyard, shouting followed by oncoming footsteps.
Wen Lan stood slowly, her eyes narrowing. “It’s coming closer.” Her hands tensed as she readied them, taking a step in front of Jung. She had committed herself to protecting him as he healed from the battle with Kano.
A priest ran past the doorway frantically, screaming as he disappeared from view.
“Quit runnin’ and tell me where my lady is!” Gang bellowed as he ran past the doorway.
“Gang, Gang! Leave him be; the man’s a priest!” Chin-Hwa scolded as he followed after quickly, passing the door.
“Yeah, well he should’ve told us where she was from the beginning!” Xiu called after the old noble as she stopped at the doorway, her hands on her hips.
“Xiu?” Wen Lan’s eyebrow rose slightly.
“Hmm?” Xiu turned towards her lady, her eyes going wide as a smile came over her. “My lady!” She ran towards her, hugging her tight. She was overcome with gratitude and relief that Wen Lan had come back from the battle unharmed.
“What are you all doing here?” she smiled as she reciprocated the hug, overjoyed with her presence.
“Gang told us you were here; we decided to come and make sure you’re alright,” she grinned slightly, her attention turning towards the Demon.
“Ah,” Wen Lan took a step back, turning to face between Jung and Xiu. “This is my good friend, Xiu. Xiu, you remember…”
“The Demon,” Xiu bowed deeply towards him. “Thank you for saving the others and I on the river.”
He nodded his head slowly, returning the gratitude. “Thank you for the hat.”
Xiu lifted a hand to indicate it was no problem, flattered. “It was my pleasure, really! Thank you for complimenting it!”
“Wen Lan!” a voice yelled from the hallway.
“Hmm?” She looked towards the doorway, turning her attention back towards Xiu. “Auntie Min is here?”
“Yup, insisted on coming along.”
“Wen Lan, where are you?!” the small old woman continued yelling as she came to the door, looking in. “There you are! Wen Lan, this place is terrible!”
“Auntie Min,” Wen Lan’s eyes went wide, bringing a finger to her mouth to suggest quiet. “This is a temple; you should not be so harsh!”
“Yeah, well it’s terrible! They offered me some tea, it tasted like mud water! You! What’re you doin’ all bandaged up, I thought you never get hurt!” she nodded her head quickly towards the Demon.
“Hello, Min.” The mask faced towards her without expression.
“Yeah, well get better soon, otherwise she’s just gonna keep frettin’ over you and not come back to Bai-Jing!” Min motioned her head towards Wen Lan.
“Auntie Min!” the young noble blushed as she looked towards the old woman with a mix of shock and embarrassment.
Xiu placed her hands on her hips, grinning as she noticed her lady’s cheeks.
“C’mon, we’ve got work to do!” Min took Wen Lan’s hand, practically dragging her out of the room.
“What? Where are we going?” Wen Lan looked back and forth between the old woman and Jung.
“We’re gonna show them how tea is made; I’m not gonna have them insultin’ it while I’m here!” Defiantly, the old woman continued towards the door with Wen Lan in tow.
“I will come back soon, I promise!” she assured him as she disappeared into the hallway.
Jung sat silently, watching as the old pain dragged Wen Lan out of the room.
Xiu stared at the door, her hands still on her hips as she looked back to the Demon.
“Does she always get like that over tea?”
“No,” he answered calmly.
“So this is a special case?”
“No,” he corrected. “She gets like that over everything, not just tea.”
“Heh,” Xiu smiled as she took a seat across from the Demon, not intimidated in the slightest.
He had saved her lady twice now; she would gladly trust him, no matter how many soldiers thought otherwise.
Xiu had insisted that they visit the Demon’s cave in order to bring him any possession that could perhaps make him more comfortable. She did this simply because she understood that it would cause Wen Lan to smile, and aid her in her mission to see to the Demon’s recovery.
Understanding Min guided them there willingly, Jung took no offense to their efforts.
He had few possessions to be recovered, a few scrolls and the cup from which he typically drank his tea now stacked beside him as he sat against the wall.
“I have heard many stories about you,” Chin-Hwa sat across from him, his manner reserved and pensive.
“Wen Lan has told me of you,” Jung answered.
“She has told me of you as well,” the old noble took a sip from a cup of tea, setting it down.
There was a silent pause between the two, both parties having nothing to say. Chin-Hwa broke it as he lifted his cup again.
“I owe you thanks,” he admit.
“You fight for peace, yes?” The old noble sipped from the cup.
“Where you fight with your body, I fight with words. Other nobles of Bai-Jing have voiced their desire to involve themselves in the war,” he explained. “Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to discourage them through rhetoric.”
“Good,” he answered lowly.
“Yes. But it is not always the case that rhetoric will succeed. Wen Lan relayed to me a point that you made; one that I agree with strongly. There will always be a minority, no matter how small, that seeks combat over peace.” There was a hint of sadness in his tone as he recited the notion.
“Yes,” Jung nodded slightly in agreement.
“I have no training in weapons; no skills in bending. I am powerless against those who have no desire for words or peace,” he said quietly as he set the cup back down. “You, however…You have made it your purpose, finding them; turning them away from combat.”
“I regret it,” he interrupted.
“Hmm?” Chin-Hwa looked up at the Hannya mask before him, surprised by the words.
“Each battle I fight, I understand that I face that minority. Yet I also understand that each side has within it soldiers who would have chosen peace; who can be reasoned with.”
“Hmm,” Chin-Hwa nodded, smiling softly. “It is my hope, that through the efforts of myself and Wen Lan, that in time we will be able to turn them away from battle long before they approach it.”
“And I shall continue to stand against those that refuse reason.”
“Something that I cannot do. And yet because of you, this dream of peace will prove possible. It is for that reason that I thank you,” he looked towards the Demon with confidence.
“It is for your efforts that I thank you,” Jung nodded.
“To peace,” the old noble lifted his cup before the Demon, smiling warmly.
“To peace,” Jung lifted his cup, nodding slowly yet again.
The old man sipped, Jung setting the cup down as both smiled with silent gratitude for the other.
Gang laughed boisterously, nearly dropping the small saucer.
“What’re you doing, you old drunk?” Xiu said flatly as she watched from the doorway, holding the pipa she had been using to torture Chin-Hwa’s ears a few moments prior.
“I’m facin’ off against the Demon, drinkin’ contest!” he drunkenly waved at Xiu as he waved his hand towards Jung, who sat across from him with a small container of sake between them.
Xiu stepped forward slowly, analyzing the scene as she sighed.
“He’s terrible; I’m destroyin’ ‘im! There’ll be no comin’ back from this!” he waved his hand towards the Demon again, having a hard time keeping his balance.
The servant looked towards the Demon, then towards his saucer. “That’s your first one, isn’t it?”
“I don’t drink,” the mask glanced towards her as he responded.
Sighing, she narrowed her eyes. “Hey, old man. Wen Lan says she lost her favorite hair comb at the bottom of the bathhouse. Go find it for her.”
“My lady is in trouble?” he blinked drunkenly before looking towards the Demon. “My lady is in trouble; I’ve gotta go help my lady,” he bowed his head, dropping the saucer as he stood up and stumbled his way out of the room. “I’m comin’, lady Wen Lan’s hair comb!”
“Are you sure that is wise?” Jung asked as she set the saucers and container of rice wine aside.
“Sobers him up every time, they’ll just find him sleeping in the bath house tomorrow,” she smirked. “Sorry if he was botherin’ you.”
“No, it was interesting to finally meet him.”
“Lady Wen Lan told you about him, eh?”
“Yes,” he nodded slowly.
“He’s got a good heart, he’s just a little dumb sometimes, and likes to drink when the day’s over.” She sat down, taking her pipa again as she played lightly with a few strings.
“Chin-Hwa told me about that,” he nodded his head towards the pipa.
She grinned, flicking a finger against one of the strings. “Old man deserved it.”
“Can you play it?”
“Nah, but I am actually picking a little bit of it up. It’s a lot harder than I figured it’d be in reality,” she examined it as she tried to figure out a chord, looking back up towards him. “Have you ever played one?”
“When I was young, yes.”
“Oh wow, really?” she blinked, the notion of the Demon playing a pipa not something she had ever imagined. “Do you think you still can?”
“I doubt it.”
“Here, try,” she extended it towards him, smiling. She hadn’t anticipated having any common grounds with the Demon, enjoying the opportunity to interact with him.
Jung took it slowly, studying it before positioning it carefully as he tried to recall the basics. Gradually and crudely, he began playing.
She watched his fingers, the sound symphonic in comparison to that which she had been subjecting the old man to.
Within a few minutes, he had smoothed out the basics and had managed to enter the rhythm of the piece, playing it slowly as he tried to recall the notes. He stopped suddenly, offering the pipa back to her.
“I can’t remember the rest.”
“It was still great!” she complimented as she applauded softly. “I don’t think even lady Wen Lan can play the pipa; I’m impressed!”
“Thank you,” he nodded as he accepted the compliment.
“Lady Wen Lan told me all about you,” she changed topics, her face becoming a bit more serious.
The mask stared towards her silently.
“…Thanks,” Xiu smiled softly. “For saving her. Twice. I’m grateful,” she bowed as she kneeled.
“I am glad to have done so,” he answered.
Smiling, she looked back up towards him. “Alright, I should get some sleep, it’s late.”
Xiu stood, taking the pipa as she turned. She stopped, glancing down at it before looking towards the Demon.
“Hey,” she started. “Would you mind holding onto this?”
The mask looked up towards her curiously.
“Well, you know how to play it. And if I have it in front of me, I’m just gonna keep practicing with it. If I do that, it’s not as much fun to play for the old man,” she grinned as she offered it to him.
“…Hmm,” the mask turned towards the pipa, studying it.
“Think of it as a trade for the hat,” she smiled softly.
He looked back up towards her, nodding after a pause. He took it gently, sitting back against the wall as it rest in his lap.
“Thanks,” the bowed again, walking towards the door.
“Sleep well,” he offered again as she stepped into the hallway.
Turning, Xiu bowed towards him once more. “You too.” With that, she made her way down the hallway.
He sat against the wall, studying the pipa before taking it in his hands again. Slowly he began playing, the room filling with a slow and simple song.
The two sat silently across from one another, Min’s arms folded as she looked forward sternly.
“Get better,” she muttered.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Get better sooner, I mean. If I’m out here makin’ sure you’re alright, I’m losin’ business back home.”
“Don’t apologize,” she grunted as she looked to the side. “Just get better. Last thing I need is t’be worried about you.”
He stared towards her, pausing before nodding.
“Good. And keep drinkin’ that tea I made you, you’ll heal faster.”
“Yes,” he nodded. Another pause filled the room.
“Don’t ever do it again,” she muttered.
Jung looked towards her, unsure as to what she was referencing.
“Don’t ever go and get yourself almost killed again, hear me?” she looked towards him, her eyes narrow.
Silently, he stared.
“Idiot,” she practically spit it, her voice almost a whisper. “Worrying me sick.”
“I apologize,” he responded after another pause, understanding her complaint.
“Yeah, well, just don’t do it again.”
“I will try to avoid it.”
“That’s all I can ask for, isn’t it?” She sighed as she looked towards him.
“I packed my old Pai Sho board. Old man Chin said Wen Lan’s pretty good, almost beat him once. How’re you at it?”
“I’ve never played.”
“What?” her eyebrow rose. “Never played Pai Sho?!”
The old woman sighed. “I bring you tea; I send a beautiful girl to your doorstep, I come out to make sure you’re getting proper tea while you’re out here; and now I have to teach you how to play Pai Sho!?”
“I don’t nee…”
“You need to know how to play Pai Sho!” she pointed at him accusingly as she interrupted. “Only savages don’t know how to play Pai Sho!”
Before he could make the argument that most people would regard him as such, Min had made her way to the door.
“Doesn’t know how to play Pai Sho! I can’t believe it!” she continued complaining as she made her way to the hallway, a priest looking at her confusedly as he passed.
He stared after her, leaning his back up against the wall again, finding himself grateful for Min’s concern as well as the old pain herself.
“No, you are actually permitted to make that move. Auntie Min insists it is not legal, yet it is.” Wen Lan pointed towards the piece, the Pai Sho board sitting between them.
“Why does she insist it’s illegal?” the mask looked up towards her.
“It is the move that lord Chin-Hwa always used to defeat her, back when they played,” she smiled softly.
“Ah,” he smiled beneath the mask, now understanding why Min had spent so much time telling him otherwise.
She leaned over, looking towards the empty pail of water. “Ah, please wait for me; I will get us some more water.” Standing, she took it gently before making her way towards the door.
She smiled at the door, nodding towards him before disappearing behind it. She greeted a priest in passing, making her way towards the well at the edge of the courtyard.
“Good morning, lady Wen Lan!” Xiu smiled as she approached from the well, her sleeves rolled up as she carried a full pail.
“Good morning, Xiu! How did you rest last night?”
“Just fine,” she took the pail in both hands as she bowed to her lady. “And you?”
“Very well,” she nodded, smiling as she continued towards the well, Xiu walking alongside her. “I saw your pipa beside him this morning; did you leave it there last night?”
“Yeah,” she set down the pail as she offered to help Wen Lan fill hers. “I spoke with him last night before I turned in. Did you know he can play it?”
“Really?” Wen Lan blinked as she lifted a hand, politely declining Xiu’s offer to assist. “I had no idea.”
“I was surprised too! I asked him to hold onto it for me, I figure it’ll give him something to do when auntie Min’s dragging you around and making you help out with the tea,” she laughed.
Wen Lan laughed lightly, holding the now full pail as she began walking back. “Xiu; thank you so much for bringing the others here. It means very much to me,” she bowed her head.
“You’re too kind, my lady! I thought you’d be upset, since we came in and ruined your alone time with the Demon,” she grinned as she prodded Wen Lan softly with her elbow.
Wen Lan blushed deeply, continuing along with the pail. “I…” her eyebrow rose, interrupted by a distant crashing noise.
Xiu turned towards the sound, curious as to its source. Her eyes went wide as a rhinoceros crashed through the main gate, followed by two others.
The young noble set the pail down, stepping forward as her body tensed, her eyes narrow as she looked upon the invaders.
The first rhinoceros stomped forward, its rider calling out his decree. His hair was short, a cloth covering the bottom of his mouth. His armor appeared to be made up of remnants of Earth Kingdom uniforms.
“I am Monta, of the Gouishi bandits! I claim this temple in the name of our clan; all who stand against me will be executed on the spot!”
Dedicated to Babbs, who just drew an awesome image of Chin-Hwa. (Isaia and I have been admiring it since yesterday)
Wow, I've been looking forward to writing this chapter for a long time. Sorry to leave such little time between my prior chapter and this one, I was feeling inspired today.
I hope you guys enjoy it, and that it isn't too cheesy!
Chapter Thirteen: The Walk
“What are rhinoceroses doing outside of the Fire Nation?” Xiu leaned quietly towards her lady, an eyebrow rising as she observed the Gouishi bandits.
“They are of the Fire Nation army,” Wen Lan observed quietly as she studied Monta’s steed.
It looked as if it had recently sustained severe injuries, the reins binding its mouth not having been changed from the standard issue of the Fire Nation. Blinders and straps had been tied to each beast in effort to tame them faster, each still restless and uncomfortable.
“No,” the young noble answered. “I suspect they are local bandits; they must have stolen the rhinoceroses following the battle.”
“Please, these are holy grounds…I ask that you leave this place,” a priest said quietly, approaching the lead bandit.
Monta’s face showed no sign of remorse as he issued his response. Lifting his club, he lashed it out towards the nervous priest’s head. He nearly slipped off of his steed as he felt the club fly from his hand towards the far side of the temple.
Wen Lan stood with narrowed eyes between the priest and the bandit, her stance revealing that she had disarmed him.
“Fire Nation?” he grunted as he glared at her.
“This is a place of rest and sanctuary,” she explained as she stood politely, bowing. “I humbly request that you leave in peace.”
“And I request that you die, Fire Nation lover girl,” he spit at her feet, intending to distract her as a knife slipped out from beneath the sleeve of his armor. He stabbed it towards her, yelling loudly.
She turned gracefully, the knife stabbing out behind her as it missed. She turned again, lifting her leg before cutting it down upon the center of his arm, the knife fumbling from his hands.
Startled, he nearly fell from the rhinoceros as he looked towards her. He felt a hand strike between his eyes, knocking him off of his steed.
“I ask again that you take this opportunity to leave,” she stood politely, her attention towards the rhinoceros as it stomped around slightly, feeling the loss of its rider.
“Boss, maybe we should get out of here,” one of his subordinates suggested from behind the now vacant rhinoceros as the other slowly made its way behind Wen Lan.
“Shut up,” he growled as he stood, drawing another knife out from his other sleeve. “You’ve got a lot of nerve, lover girl.” He dropped the knife as a pail of water smashed over his head, drenching him.
“Stop insulting my lady!” Xiu growled as dusted her hands off, glaring towards the now unconscious bandit.
“For the Gouishi!” the second rider exclaimed, his rhinoceros thundering towards Wen Lan.
She dove out of the way, rolling to a crouching position as she called out. “Xiu, bring the priests to safety!”
Nodding obediently, Xiu hurried as she guided each of the priests to the inner temple, watching from the doorway as her lady continued dodging each of the bandit’s advances.
The rhinoceros stood on its hind legs, its large feet pedaling as it towered over her. It brought both to the ground with tremendous force as she dove under its hind legs.
She jumped from the ground, flipping backwards as she landed just behind the rider. Spinning, she kicked her leg out into his neck, launching him to the ground. She balanced carefully on the saddle, grasping the reins in attempt to calm the furious beast. The third bandit rushed towards her, his spear cutting through the air as he stabbed it towards her. Falling to her back, she kicked out both legs as the spear passed between them, a scissor kick shattering the pole.
He fumbled slightly as he dropped the spear, catching a glimpse of her as she reached out to grasp a section of it, lashing her arm out as it splintered against his jaw.
From the temple doorway, Xiu cheered and punched her fists to the sky.
Wen Lan crouched as she landed, facing opposite the two bandits as they readied themselves. Standing calmly, she offered once again. “Please, leave this place now.”
“Can we?” the third bandit asked, stray bits of wood littering his jaw.
“Such would insult the honor of the Gouishi name!” the second insisted.
The third groaned, returning to his stance.
“Right, like there’s any honor in being a bandit!” Xiu scolded from a distance.
“Ours is an honorable creed!” he yelled at the obnoxious servant.
“If it’s so honorable, don’t call yourself ‘bandits!’ Call yourself ‘riders,’ or ‘warriors,’ at something!”
“She makes a good point,” the third nodded as he imagined the sound of “Gouishi Riders.”
“Quiet, it would be dishonorable to abandon the name we have already chosen for ourselves!”
Wen Lan stared, sighing inwardly as she questioned whether this would lead to their retreat or not.
“How can you call yourself honorable when you stole those rhinoceroses from the Fire Nation!?” Xiu placed her hands on her hips, irritated by the second bandit’s constant reference to honor.
“That’s another good point,” the third blinked, now looking towards Xiu.
“Pay attention,” the second grumbled.
“Right,” the third looked back towards Wen Lan, taking a fighting stance.
“Will you consider leaving, then?” she asked calmly, hoping they would go without any further struggle.
“Never!” The second exclaimed as he drew out his short sword, slashing towards her.
She jumped back, barely escaping the tip of the blade before stepping towards him. She slid her foot just behind his leg, her hand connecting with his jaw as she tripped him, slamming him into the ground.
“Please,” she stood with graceful poise, looking towards the third with hope that he could be reasoned with. “Take your partners and leave.”
The third stared, ready to accept the offer and gather his associates. Monta’s voice rang out from the temple doorway, interrupting.
“Never,” he growled as he pulled a priest by the shirt towards the temple courtyard, Xiu lying unconscious against a nearby column, her face bleeding from his strike.
Wen Lan’s eyes went wide as she stared towards her friend, clenching her teeth as she began rushing towards the bandit furiously.
“Now now,” he glared as he set the trembling priest to his knees, holding a knife to his throat. “You’re gonna behave, or I’ll kill him.”
Glaring, she came to a stop. Her eyes kept glancing towards Xiu, hoping she was alright.
“Good,” he grinned as he glanced around, inspecting the status of his forces.
The second bandit struggled to rise to his feet, the rhinoceroses having calmed, now trotting idly within the courtyard as they sniffed around.
“Kill her,” he grinned beneath the cloth concealing his mouth.
“Boss...” the third protested quietly.
“Sir,” the second bandit narrowed his eyes slightly.
“Do it!” he screamed, throttling the priest as he issued the command.
“…I’m sorry,” the third whispered as he approached Wen Lan.
The second remained silent, standing to the opposite side of her as he lifted his sword.
She glared towards him, her eyes going wide as she noticed the girl behind him rushing away.
“Xiu!” she called out.
“Demon!” Xiu screamed as she hurried down the hallway.
“Wait, did she say…?” the third’s eyes went wide as he silently hoped his assumption was incorrect.
“Demon…?” the second stood there, an eyebrow raised as his sword remained behind his head, ready to strike.
“They’re going to kill her!” Xiu’s distant voice pleaded.
“Dumb lover girl,” Monta turned as he gripped the priest’s clothes, his knife steadied just in front of his throat. He motioned his head towards the third bandit “Go in and kill he…”
He was interrupted by something large tearing through the wall before him, an object hurling through the air faster than his eyes could register.
The second bandit fell to the ground as the Pai Sho board slammed into his face with tremendous force, the third staring in horror as he backed away.
Monta turned quickly, watching as blood poured from his subordinates face. His eyes wide, he turned back towards the figure.
Wen Lan stared, the tension and rage filling his body visible from any distance. She stood with the silent understanding that his actions must have opened up at least one of his wounds.
The lead bandit stood with a sudden and intense fear, the scene burning into his memory. Before him stood the Demon, his body now littered with bits of wood that once formed the temple wall, the servant he had struck standing behind him glaring. His body was taught with anger, each muscle looking as if it could move a mountain. Most terrifying of all was his face, a Hannya mask with the Earth Kingdom crest in the center, red lines trailing from it.
“Which one?” he growled lowly, the veins in his muscles becoming more apparent as his anger built.
“The one holding the priest,” Xiu explained as she stepped to the Demon’s side, nodding towards Monta.
“Ah, perfect!” Gang grinned as he set himself down in the large hot spring, the temperature just right. “Do all Earth Kingdom temples have hot springs?”
“No, it was merely our good fortune that the local priests have made an effort to maintain this one,” Chin-Hwa answered as he rested on the opposite side of the spring, breathing in the steam.
“This is exactly what I needed after a tough battle,” he splashed some water against his face, enjoying the heat.
“I am just grateful for the rest; I was quite worried about the general and Wen Lan,” he noted quietly.
“You think they’re alright?” Gang rested against the stones behind him, watching the surface of the water.
“Lady Wen Lan, Xiu, the Demon.”
“I am sure they are fine, Gang. Each of them has shown that they can handle themselves.”
“Yeah,” he smirked as he looked towards the sky.
“Keep it down over there!” Min barked from behind the bamboo wall.
“You keep it down, you’re the one yellin’!” Gang turned his head, yelling right back at her.
“You two talk more than the girls in the village!”
“Shut up, old pain!” Gang grunted as he turned his attention back towards the water, reassured that there was no danger within the temple walls.
Chin-Hwa smiled at the scene as he continued soaking.
“What a noisy bunch,” Min complained quietly as she sat in a spring on the opposite side of the wall, glancing towards a nearby wood frog.
Its cheeks swelled as it croaked, jumping and resting on her head.
“Hmm,” she closed her eyes, sinking down into the water until her nose hovered above the surface, enjoying the heat as it washed over her wrinkled skin, the wood frog croaking again.
Terrified, Monta stepped back, almost tripping.
The Demon stepped forward silently, each footstep inspiring a stronger fear in the lead bandit’s heart.
“Jung, no!” Wen Lan pleaded, her eyes filled with worry. “You could reopen your wounds!”
“K…Kill him,” Monta whispered the command.
“Are you insane!?” the subordinate looked up from attempting to treat his associate, having no desire to square off against a man who was rumored to kill without hesitation.
“Fine, not like I’m low on hostages!” In desperation, he thrust his hand out towards the young noble, colliding with the ground as he felt a sudden pressure on top of him, the Demon’s hand gripping his face.
The Demon crouched over Monta, his hand keeping him firmly pinned to the ground as his other hand wrapped around his arm.
“What are…” Monta’s eyes went wide as he stared towards his shoulder, seeing the mighty hand grip his arm near the socket.
“Disarming you,” the Demon stood slowly, gripping Monta by the face as he began squeezing and pulling slightly.
“Jung!” Wen Lan rushed towards him, stopping just behind him as she pleaded. “Please, no!”
“He was going to kill you,” fury soaked each word as the mask remained fixed on the bandit, his grip over his face tightening as he screamed.
“You must not; please!”
“He deserves it,” he growl became lower as his body trembled with anger.
“Jung!” tears came to her eyes as she wrapped her arms around him, pressing her face against his back.
The pause would have been quiet, had it not been for Monta’s screaming. The tension within his body melted away, his hand releasing the bandit’s face and arm, dropping him to the ground. Jung had calmed, his arms resting idly as he stood.
Monta whimpered as the pain faded slowly, his left hand gripping his right shoulder as he cried thankfully for the fact that it was still there. He felt something push him to the ground from behind, the priests and Xiu quickly binding his hands and feet.
“…I apologize,” Jung offered quietly as he faced away from her.
Her arms remained around his waist, her face lifting away from his back. “Thank you,” she smiled gently as her eyes remained affixed to his back.
“For?” the mask glanced back towards her.
“For not harming him.”
“…Hmm,” the eyes beneath the mask glared angrily towards Monta.
“Ah,” she gasped slightly as she remembered his wounds, moving quickly to inspect them. Her hands traced along the bandages as she restored each, worry filling her eyes as she noticed his chest scar had reopened. “Does it hurt?”
“I did not think you would be able to do such things after such a short period of rest,” she smiled softly as she continued adjusting the bandages.
“It is because you have helped me to heal faster,” he offered the compliment as he looked towards her, the face beneath the mask blushing gently.
Wen Lan’s cheeks took on a slight shade of red as she finished, extending her hand towards the temple interior. “We should return to the room; you must rest until there is no longer any risk of your wounds opening.”
He stepped towards the Pai Sho board, lifting it over his shoulder before making his way towards the temple doorway, Wen Lan walking alongside him.
It was safe to say that Gang was not pleased, upon returning. Fortunately, Xiu was able to calm him and deter him from beating each of the bandits within an inch of their life as Chin-Hwa offered to pay for the reconstruction of the wall Jung had torn through on his way to protect Wen Lan.
“Fine, fine! I won’t hurt ‘em!” Gang muttered as he folded his arms.
“And why is that?” Xiu kept her hands on her hips, her eyes narrowed suspiciously as she questioned him.
“Because it would upset lady Wen Lan,” he growled as he recited that which she had told him, making every effort to maintain patience.
“Heh heh, I knew the tea’d help,” Min chuckled as she admired the wall he had demolished.
“Still, I think it would have been more convenient to use the door,” Chin-Hwa stepped beside her, the status of the wall serving to impress him in regards to the Demon’s strength.
“Are you kidding?!” she looked up at him, her eyes going wide. “There’s nothing romantic about going through the door! His heated passion and desire to save her from the clutches of evil drove him through a solid wall without hesitation, despite still being wounded!” She clasped her hands together, her tone becoming more excited as she described the scene.
“Some habits die hard, hmm?” he teased as he glanced towards her, her matchmaker spirit overcoming her.
“Bah, you just don’t know romance!” she accused as she walked away stubbornly. “So, what will we do about these?” she motioned her head towards the now docile rhinoceroses.
“Leftovers from the battle,” Gang observed as he stepped up beside her, Xiu standing to his side. “I say we eat ‘em.”
Xiu smacked the back of his head, her eyes narrow. “Idiot.”
“I suppose we will see to it that they are returned to the Fire Nation,” Chin-Hwa stroked his beard as he studied the rhinoceroses. “They look like they have endured enough pain.”
“Still, do you really think they’re going to be treated better in the Fire Nation?” Xiu tilted her head as she considered it.
“Hey, old man.” Gang folded his arms.
Chin-Hwa sighed, yearning for the reverence he had been shown so long ago, back when it was customary to refer to him by name, and not just as “old man.”
“What is it, Gang?”
“Lemme keep one,” he smirked.
“What? What for?” Xiu’s eyebrow perked up as she turned towards him.
“Always liked ‘em,” he explained. “They’re big and stupid…”
“Like you?” Xiu blinked.
“Shut up, lemme finish. They’re big and stupid, but loyal. It’d be good to have around the mansion.”
“You aren’t intending for this to become part of some disturbed training regime for the guards, are you?” Chin-Hwa stroked his beard as he looked towards the old guard with suspicion.
“Nah,” Gang grinned, the thought not having occurred to him until Chin-Hwa had mentioned it.
“…Hmm. Alright.” Chin-Hwa examined the beasts from a distance, smiling.
“What?!” Xiu’s eyes went wide in absolute shock.
“Lemme have one too, I’ll use it for deliveries.” Min crossed her arms.
“No,” the three said in unison.
“Jerks,” the old pain muttered.
“Hmm…” Wen Lan examined the board carefully, bringing her finger down to one of the tiles. Jung had caught on to the concept of the game rather quickly, now presenting a genuine challenge to her. She slid it to an open square, before bringing her hands back to her lap.
“…Wen Lan,” the mask stared at the board.
She looked up, slightly startled. It was not often that he addressed her by name. “Yes?”
There was a silent pause as he collected himself. “…Would you like to take a walk with me?”
“Of course,” she smiled as she stood, glad that he was feeling well enough to suggest it.
He stood quietly, his pace calm as he made his way to the hallway, feeling the sleeve of her robe touch against his arm every so often.
“Good evening, lady Wen Lan! Good evening, Demon!” Xiu smiled as the two passed.
“Where are you off to?” Chin-Hwa smiled as he looked towards them, happy that the Demon was well enough to move without any indication of exhaustion or pain.
“We are going on a walk,” Wen Lan smiled as she bowed towards them.
“Do you need an esc…” Gang was interrupted by Xiu’s hand covering his mouth.
“Have fun!” she smiled innocently as she struggled to keep the old guard quiet.
“Wen Lan, help me make tea when you get back!” Min called to her.
“Of course, auntie Min.” She bowed before returning to the Demon’s side. “Shall we?” she asked as she smiled softly towards him.
“Yes,” he answered quietly as he began walking towards the gate.
“What was that for?” Gang whispered with agitation.
“You old oaf; you really think she wants anyone tagging along with her?!”
“Why wouldn’t she?”
Min sighed, feeling that she and Xiu were alone in understanding the vast complexity of romance.
“It’s her chance to be alone with him!” the young servant explained with sharp whisper.
Gang stood there, raising an eyebrow in perplexity. His other eyebrow lifted as the puzzle pieced together, followed by him folding his arms as he blushed slightly. “Fine, I’ll allow this,” he grunted.
“You allow whatever lady Wen Lan allows you to allow,” Xiu countered, folding her arms mockingly.
“Yeah yeah,” he muttered as he stepped up to one of the rhinoceroses, patting its neck.
“Which one are you gonna take?” she asked curiously as she placed her hand on its horn, petting it.
“Whichever one needs me to protect it,” he answered as he studied the beast.
Xiu blinked as she looked towards him, a gentle smile coming over her as she admired the old fool.
“Min, join me in a game of Pai Sho?” Chin-Hwa offered.
“Fine, but no cheating this time,” she grunted.
“I never cheat, you simply deny the move is legal,” he explained as they walked towards the temple interior.
“It isn’t legal!” she insisted.
Though Chin-Hwa was a master in the art of debate, he found discovered long ago that words had no effect on Min once she had decided upon something.
They walked quietly along the trail, exchanging observations of their surroundings.
“What is that on that branch, there?” she looked towards a tree, noticing a yellow eye facing in no particular direction.
“A tree chameleon,” he answered as he continued forward, his mask turning slightly to face it. “They’re common in this forest.”
“Ah,” she continued watching it as she passed, looking towards him. “Have any ever come by the cave?”
“One entered and hid there, until I returned him to the forest.”
“How kind,” she smiled as she looked back towards the trail, blushing slightly in admiration of his compassion.
“Did you have any animals, growing up?” He was grateful that such questions had become comfortable between them.
“We had turtle ducks,” she smiled as she remembered. “My father and I would feed them in the garden. We also had a messenger hawk.”
“I see,” he nodded.
“My father insisted it was strictly for business, but would still allow me to pet it and give it a treat each time it returned with a message.” She would have countered with the same inquiry, but she had made a point of not prying into Jung’s past.
“Hmm? No, why?”
“Gang seemed to be inspecting them carefully; it led me to believe he had experience with them.”
“He led a very interesting life before he came to be employed by my family; it’s entirely possible that he’s tamed them in the past.”
“Hmm,” Jung came to a stop as they arrived at an estuary, a wide bridge built over it. The moon reflected gently off of the surface, illuminating the clearing as fireflies danced around it calmly. The pale tint of each flower could be made out under the soft moonlight as a small waterfall sounded in the distance.
“Fireflies,” her eyes lit up as she observed the insects celebrating the night, stepping ahead of him onto the bridge. She placed her hand upon its rails as she watched them joyfully, turning towards Jung with a smile.
Admiring her beauty, he stepped towards her. He stopped on the bridge beside her, placing a hand on the rail as he looked out towards the forest.
“It is beautiful,” Wen Lan whispered as she took in her surroundings, closing her eyes as she breathed deep.
“…Wen Lan,” the mask turned towards her slightly.
“Yes?” she looked up towards him, still smiling softly.
Upon seeing her face, he turned away to face the opposite side of the bridge, approaching the rail slowly.
The Demon, who would stand against the mightiest bender without fear, found himself unable to look upon her smile as he tried to deliver the words.
He looked out towards the distant waterfall, his heart pounding as he searched for the courage he had summoned so often before.
Her body turned towards him, worried as she stood nervously, hoping he was alright.
A silent distance fell between them, the flow of the estuary sounding lightly as it passed. The fireflies continued their dance, the quiet having no effect on them.
The pause stood for a long time, both sides feeling as if it dragged by forever as Wen Lan watched with worry.
“Jung…” she voiced his name softly, hoping nothing was wrong.
“I…” the word was strong, as if forced from him painfully. He trailed off upon realizing he had interrupted her.
Her eyes widened slightly as she felt her heart inexplicably beating faster, blushing as she watched his muscular frame become tense.
“…Love you,” he practically whispered the words, his body rigid. He had hoped to say more to her, to articulate it better. Yet he could find the proper words, much less part with them.
Wen Lan brought her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide as she stared. .
Another silence occupied the night, causing a slight hurt within him as he suspected quietly that she felt nothing for him, that his affection was unreciprocated.
“Jung,” she whispered as she stepped forward.
“It’s fine,” his frame relaxed slightly as he accepted his suspicion, berating himself for thinking that one such as herself could feel for a demon.
Quietly, she placed her hands on his back, bringing her face gently to rest upon it.
A silent gasp escaped his mouth from beneath the mask, feeling her touch. The mask lifted slightly, facing towards the distant waterfall.
“…I love you, too,” she blushed as she whispered the words, a quiet joy enflaming her heart as it pounded harder beneath her flesh.
The two stood there silently, the fireflies passing in what seemed celebration of their confessions.
Slowly, he turned his body to face her, his hand lifting slowly, nervously as he brought it to her cheek.
She rested her cheek in his palm, blushing as she stared up towards the mask.
“Jung…” she said quietly as she lifted her hands slowly, carefully towards the mask, resting her fingers on its edges. She could feel his body tense nervously as she made contact with it.
Lifting her fingers slightly, she apologized. “I’m sorry…”
“No,” he brought his hand slowly to the mask, his other hand lifting to its border. His hands shivered nervously as he considered that which he was doing. Looking to her eyes he found quiet confidence, slowly removing the mask.
His right hand held it, placing it on the rail of the bridge. He stood nervously before her, as if he had been stripped of everything.
She felt compelled to cry as she looked upon his bare face, tears coming to her as she witnessed him.
He was completely bald, a scar running along the center of his head, another trailing over his right eye and meeting with it before slipping between his eyes. A third scar ran horizontally from the right side of his face and over the bridge of his nose, connecting with these. A deeper scar ran from the bottom right of his jaw across his mouth, moving under his left ear as the others met with it. Separated from the others, another ran horizontally, lightly on his left cheek. A few stitches remained along the scars with no particular pattern to them.
His eyes were green, a look of slight shame and nervousness occupying them as he glanced away from her.
Softly, she touched her fingers along his cheeks, feeling the warmth of his skin as she gazed towards his eyes, seeing no hatred nor disdain in them, only humanity.
Jung looked towards her, his eyes locking with hers as he felt her fingers upon him. He lifted his hands to hers, touching them softly.
“You’re beautiful,” she whispered softly, smiling as tears lined her cheeks.
He brought his finger to her cheek, wiping away a tear as he looked towards her with the same love he had been concealing for so long.
Slowly, she drew her mouth closer to his, closing her eyes. Her lips quivered softly as she felt the warmth of his face near hers.
His fingers sifted through her hair, taking her cheek in his palm as he closed his eyes, bringing his lips to hers slowly.
The two embraced one another on the bridge, their hearts taking solace in one another as the fireflies danced around them.
Dedicated to Isaia, who just sent me five amazing, AMAZING images. Isaia; you are my inspiration. I could spend each moment of the day expressing gratitude to you and still fall short.
Hey everybody! I was glad to get this chapter out just before I left, I didn't want to head out on chapter thirteen. Bad luck, y'know?
Anyway, on t'business: Tomorrow I head out to work in the middle of nowhere at a boy scout camp. (Ranachqua) I'll be there for most of the summer, so Roses is going to be changing over to an every other day basis to a weekly one.
I'll most likely do and upload new chapters on saturdays.
Anyway, enjoy! To everyone who's reading; thank you. So, so much. I'm very grateful.
Chapter Fourteen: Soothing Smile
“I hear he can bend blood,” the first soldier noted as he followed behind the general.
“I heard he can bend lightning, a friend of mine says he saw him do it,” the other stared nervously ahead.
“The release of lightning is an advanced technique of firebending,” Seung corrected as he continued forward, glancing up from under the hat Xiu had made him. He had been listening to the two exchange rumors of the Demon since they had left the encampment.
“Maybe he’s a firebender then,” he shrugged in retort.
“No, the Demon isn’t a bender of any sort,” it was not the first time he had mentioned this to the two.
His report to the other generals had been successful, his victory in the valley increasing his reputation among them. Seung had little interest in this, taking deeper satisfaction in most of his men returning alive.
It had been agreed unanimously that Kano would most likely return to the valley to complete his raid of Bai-Jing, the admiral renowned for never resigning from a task until he personally felt it had been fulfilled. For that reason, Seung was assigned to remain in Bai-Jing. Small units from other Earth Kingdom units would be dispatched to replace those who had fallen.
He had visited the Earth Kingdom encampment to inform the men of his return, meeting with belated celebration of their victory over the Fire Nation. The general announced his intention to return to the temple, his men demanding that he select a small group to escort him. He assured them he would be fine, but they would permit no argument. They would not have their hero traveling alone to face the Demon, no matter the circumstances.
The result was Seung dismissing rumor after rumor concerning the Demon’s capabilities.
“Maybe he can bend your mind, you know, make you think he’s not a bender,” the first soldier gasped slightly at the theory, a fear gripping him.
“What if he’s bending our minds to make us think he helped against Kano?”
“Come on now, mindbending? It’s impossible; you’re getting overexcited.”
“Sorry sir; just nervous.”
“Yeah, I just hope the priests are alright,” the second said as the temple came within view.
“I’m sure they’re fine,” Seung smiled as he glanced back towards him. “I’ve exchanged words with the Demon; I doubt he would cause them any trouble while recuperating.”
The two soldiers came to a halt, their eyes going wide.
The second lifted a finger, pointing towards the temple courtyard. “Uh…Sir?”
“Hmm?” Seung turned to face the courtyard, observing what lay before him. The priests were working diligently to sweep what debris remained of what was once part of the temple interior’s wall. A small patch of blood had soaked into the courtyard ground, three Fire Nation rhinoceroses drinking from pails.
“Told you he could bend blood,” the first soldier leaned towards the second as he whispered, observing the small bit of it that stained the ground.
The general sighed.
“I know a shortcut,” she mocked as she repeated the words, glaring as she stood knee deep in mud.
“Shut up,” Shui muttered as he continued trudging through the swamp.
“It’ll cut the travel time in half at least,” she stressed the word “least” as she continued.
“I get it,” he growled as he drew out his axe, hacking through some thick brush.
“Do you even know where we are?” she tugged at Kyo and Ryo’s reins, trying to hush them as they squawked in protest at the terrain.
“At least I have us going in the right direction!” he snapped as he pressed forward.
“You don’t even know that,” she said quietly, her pride still sensitive from the earlier mishap.
“Look,” he sighed as he turned towards her, a distance of muck separating them. “I’ll admit it; we’re a little lost. But we’re only going to get more lost if we keep arguing with each other.” His voice had a tone of aggravation to it.
“…I agree,” she admit stubbornly, calming Kyo and Ryo as they squawked again.
“Fine, good, now let’s go.” Grumbling, he continued hacking forward with the axe, hoping the discussion would save him from her reminding him of his mistake.
“So,” she trailed off, realizing she had little to speak about with Shui outside of arguing. “…You’re in the Fire Nation army?” It was all she could think of to make conversation with.
“Maybe,” he answered quietly. It was something that had been on his mind frequently as of late.
“What do you mean?”
“I was a messenger for the army, until I got caught near Bai-Jing. One of the soldiers there released me and told me to go straight back to the Fire Nation.”
“That was kind of him,” she observed as she sank a little deeper into the mud, frowning as she drew her leg out of the sinkhole.
“On the way back to the Fire Nation, I kept wondering whether I would go back to being a soldier or not,” he stared forward, absentmindedly cutting through plants as he carried on. “An Earth Kingdom soldier had my life in his hands, and he let me live.”
She listened as she stepped up onto a large tree root in attempt to avoid further sinkholes.
“Is it honorable to take that gift and come back at them as an enemy?” The question had been sounding within him since his release.
“Nope,” she answered simply, as if the question required no consideration.
He glanced back towards her, his eyes curious as to how she came to the conclusion so fast.
“If you fall down and someone offers you their hand, it’s okay to refuse them. If you want to get up on your own, I mean.” She stepped down onto some moss, trying to stay atop it to avoid further mud. “But if someone offers you their hand and you try to hurt them for it; then you don’t deserve to get back up.”
“…Hmm,” he considered the words carefully as he continued forward, tossing aside a dead branch.
“That’s why I won’t forgive the Fire Nation,” she declared defiantly. “Lord Chao, lord Bo and big sister Wen tried to help. So they killed and exiled them!”
“Is that why you’re trying to find her?”
“Kind of. When I was little, big sister Wen would come and play with me, and check on me when I was sick. So I want to check on her.”
“I see,” he smiled slightly, for the first time suspecting that Li Mei was not a pushy brat.
“Hey, light! There’s a way out after all!” She smiled cheerily as she pointed towards the edge of the swamp, now in sight.
Shui narrowed his eyes, grumbling as he denied his brief suspicion about her. He continued hacking forward, stepping out of the mud and into the sunlight.
Kyo and Ryo cawed excitedly, becoming restless at the feel of solid ground beneath them.
Li Mei laughed, petting their necks before mounting Ryo.
“Well?” she looked towards him.
He turned his attention from the river to the girl, curiously.
“Are you ready to go?”
Shui paused for a moment, nodding as he prepared to hoist himself up onto the ostrich horse. He looked out towards the river, his eyes going wide as something caught his attention.
“What’s that?” Li Mei squinted, raising her hand above her eyes to shield from the sun.
He glared as the familiar waterbender’s raft traveled calmly down the river.
The three bandits kneeled before them, their wrists and ankles bound.
“Where did you come across the rhinoceroses?” Seung asked calmly.
“Like we’d ever tell you, scu…” Monta started, glaring up towards the general.
“We found them dazed following a nearby battle. We attached extra straps to them so they would be easier to ride without having to tame them,” the second interrupted.
“Yeah, then we put blinders on them so they wouldn’t freak out on us. Or, y’know. Freak out less on us,” the third continued.
“Shut up,” Monta commanded loudly.
“No; we were defeated and apprehended. Honor dictates that we cooperate.”
“Yeah, the Gouishi name’s already suffered enough, let’s just cooperate.”
“Traitors,” their leader grumbled.
“I find it interesting that someone who steals from the Fire Nation and takes a priest hostage feels they have the right to call someone else ‘traitor’,” Seung narrowed his eyes slightly.
“Good point,” the third observed.
“Mind your own business,” Monta spit at Seung’s feet, glaring defiantly. He fell back to the ground, squirming slightly as a ball of fire washed against the ground before him.
“Getting’ tired of your tongue,” Gang grunted as he stepped up, not having much patience for the one who had ordered his lady’s death.
The bandit brought himself back to his knees, still gazing towards the Earth Kingdom soldiers and firebender with hatred.
“Invading this temple, attacking a noble and friend of mine, taking a priest hostage…Is there anything else I should know about?” Seung glanced down at the two who had cooperated earlier.
“Well…Wait,” the third started, glancing towards the second. “Does stealing the rhinoceroses count?”
“Yes, it was stealing.”
“But they belonged to the Fire Nation. Is it still stealing if we take from them?”
“It’s a violation of honor,” the second winced slightly as he turned, the tear in his face still fresh.
“I know that, but I’m asking if it’s any different since it didn’t belong to the Earth Kingdom.”
“Good question,” one of the soldiers mentioned to the other.
“Okay, yeah. We also stole the rhinoceroses. That counts, right?” the third looked towards Seung.
“I suspect it does, since your intention was to use them against other citizens of the Earth Kingdom,” the general wagered a guess.
“I told you,” the second glanced towards his associate.
“Both of you shut up,” Monta hissed.
“Were there any other crimes?” Seung interrupted the discussion, hoping to bring it back to point.
“There was one,” Gang said quietly as he stepped beside Seung.
“Hmm?” he turned quietly as Gang nodded his head towards the temple interior. Turning, he caught a glimpse of Xiu as she peeked out from behind the wall, blushing as he recognized her.
Her face went red as she pulled away, disappearing behind the wall. As she did, Seung caught a glimpse of the side of her face, where a cut and bruise had been imprinted.
He continued staring in her direction, his tone becoming stern yet quiet. “Who struck her?”
“The one with the foul mouth,” Gang glared at Monta.
“What? The servant girl? Yeah, I hit her, so wha…” He was unable to finish the sentence, a pillar of earth rising up from the ground and slamming him in the stomach before sinking back into the courtyard.
Seung turned slowly, his eyes having a wide ferocity to them as he stared down at the bandit.
“What was…That…Fo…” Monta was launched into the air as another pillar of earth shot up into his jaw, knocking him onto his back.
The general lowered his hand as the pillar descended back into the earth.
Gang grinned, enjoying the sight of the bandit getting that which he had earned.
Monta growled lowly, looking up as four walls of earth shot up around him, locking him within a pyramid.
The two bandits stared nervously as Seung turned towards them.
“Stand them up.”
The soldiers hoisted the two to their feet, the general facing towards them as his face still showed signs of anger.
“Cut them loose,” he ordered calmly.
“Huh?” the third asked as he felt the rope behind him fall to the ground. He rubbed his wrists, staring at Seung with confusion.
“I do not understand,” the second stood calmly.
“You kept mentioning honor,” Seung looked towards the pyramid encasing Monta. “But you were in a position where your commander didn’t value such.”
“Yes,” he nodded, wondering how the general was able to so accurately describe the situation after such a short period of observation.
“I understand the difficulty of that particular situation,” he smiled softly as he considered the changes in ethics and morale the unit had seen since Dak-Ho’s replacement.
“…So, wait…Where do we go from here?” the third looked towards his partner.
“To restore honor to the Gouishi name.” His response was automatic, needing no time to consider.
“The next time we meet,” the young general started, “I hope that it will be under better circumstances.”
“I assure you it will be,” he bowed deeply towards him, understanding the debt owed.
The third followed suit, bowing towards the general thankfully.
“Now, I ask that you go hide.”
“Yes, sir.” The second bowed again before making his way to the temple interior, hiding behind a wall as his associate followed after.
“Good call,” Gang nodded in approval as he folded his arms.
“Thank you,” he nodded as he took a stance, motioning his hands quickly as the walls of the pyramid disappeared into the ground. His expression was still serious and focused, an underlying anger filling his face.
“What’s going on?” Monta glared up at the general, looking around for his associates.
“The village of Bai-Jing rests near here, in the Kun valley,” he began explaining as he glared with disdain towards the bandit. “The woman you attacked yesterday lives within its walls, as well as this firebender,” he glanced towards Gang.
Gang grinned sadistically towards Monta, attempting to intimidate as he launched a shot of fire into the air.
“It is due only to the unnatural kindness of the woman you attacked that he has not made every effort to destroy you. And from what I am told,” the general continued as he lowered himself to be eye level with the bandit, “the Demon lives near there. There is a small prison in Bai-Jing. I trust you will cooperate upon being delivered?”
Monta whimpered as he recalled the towering monster, tears of fear forming in his eyes as he tried to squirm away from the general.
“Our fearless leader,” the third bandit muttered from behind the wall, able to hear Monta whimper from his hiding place.
“Ssh,” the second hushed.
“On a more personal note,” Seung brought his hand to Monta’s collar, gripping it as he pulled him close. “Should you ever lay a hand on another woman, I will find you. And any wretched fate you can imagine, I will surpass.” He released Monta as he turned away, passing the two soldiers. “Please take him to Bai-Jing.”
The soldier nodded, glaring towards the bandit as they lifted him, carrying him out the main temple gate.
“That was pretty impressive,” Gang complimented, grinning.
“I feel I was too harsh,” Seung watched as the two soldiers disappeared into the forest, Monta in tow.
“Nah, I’m surprised you didn’t go farther, seeing as how he hurt your girlfriend.”
Seung’s eyes went wide as he almost tripped, his face taking on a sudden and intense warmth. “She’s…I…”
Gang laughed boisterously as he smacked Seung’s back, making his way to the temple interior.
“Why’s his face so red?” the third asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Why do you insist on asking me questions I have little chance of answering?”
“Force of habit,” he shrugged. “So…What do we do now? I mean, what’s the first honorable thing we should do?”
“Hmm,” the second glanced towards the broken wall, smiling slightly. “We should repair that which we have broken.”
The third blinked, then looked towards the wall. A smile crept over his face. “Yeah.”
“You again!” Shui yelled out towards the raft, Li Mei chasing after Kyo as he began splashing about in the water.
“Hmm?” Yakone opened an eye, looking up towards the cloud. He glanced towards the riverbank with apathy.
Shui stood with a look of anger, the incident in the market still fresh in his mind.
The old man sat on the opposite side of the raft, admiring the other side of the river as he ignored the calling.
“Oh, hey! It’s stinkbreath! How’s it goin’?” the young waterbender yawned as he looked back to the sky, ignoring the disturbance.
“Don’t ignore me! What are you even doing here!?”
“I don’t know,” Yakone smirked, shrugging as he lifted a hand, pointing to the river. “Saw a river, figured I’d stick to it. Helps me avoid swamps,” he grinned.
Shui glared, spotting the verbal jab immediately. “If you’re going to say something, say it to my face!”
Li Mei groaned as she pulled Kyo’s reins, lifting her hands to shield herself as he shook wildly to dry. She sighed, now up to her knees in drying mud and soaked with river water.
“Why would I? You’re ugly and have bad breath, I’m safer here,” Yakone grinned, sensing he had the better of him.
He clenched his teeth as he walked along the river, keeping up with the raft as he placed a hand on the butt of his axe.
“I mean, not like that’d help you against me. I’d still take you without breaking a swe…” his sentence was cut off as he heard a sudden thwacking noise. He glanced up, an axe lodged into the edge of the raft near his feet. Raising an eyebrow, he looked towards the upstart. “See, now that was just stupid. Now you’ve got nothin’ to fight me with.”
“Come here and find out,” he glared.
Yakone propped himself up on his elbows, studying the Earth Kingdom dork walking along the riverbank. Smirking, he stood up as he took the axe out of the edge of the raft.
“Alright, but you’re gonna want this,” he tossed it to the ground near him, glancing back towards the other passenger. “Hey old man, I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Hmm,” Bo muttered as he dipped his hand into the river, sipping from it.
Li Mei tried shaking off some of the mud, grumbling as she found the strategy completely ineffective. Taking an empty sack of feed, she began wiping off some of the dirt and river water, grabbing the ostrich horses’ reins before looking around for Shui.
Shui grasped the handle of the axe, tossing it behind him as the jerk waterbender stood up from the river, shaking his hair dry.
“What, no axe? Oh c’mon!” Yakone protested, folding his arms. “It’s gonna be like fighting a koalter!”
“Shut up and fight me, unless you’re afraid,” Shui took a stance, his body tense.
“Fine, your loss. You’d better be good at bending,” Yakone smirked as he shrugged, stepping back into a stance.
The two stood opposite each other for awhile, the raft passing calmly as Li Mei approached from the edge of the swamp. A fish leapt to the sky, diving back into the water with a heavy splash.
Yakone twisted his body around, his hands moving gracefully as a long whip of water shot up from the river, arching around his body as it stabbed towards the upstart.
Shui stepped in, dodging the whip before lashing his arm out. He cut it in half, the section closest to him falling to the ground as he jumped forward, kicking his leg out.
The waterbender bent backwards, taken off guard by his speed. Waving his hands in a fluid motion, the water twisted around Shui, spinning him towards the ground.
Slamming a hand into the ground, he felt his wrist strain as he spun out, sweeping his leg behind the jerk’s ankle, taking his feet out from under him.
He laughed as he hit the ground, bringing a hand up over his eyes.
“What’s so funny?” Shui stood, stepping back as he took another stance.
“You! You’re so serious,” he wiped away a tear as he continued laughing. “You’re all into it when you don’t have a chance!”
“From where I’m standing, you’re the one losing,” he narrowed his eyes.
“That’s because you’re an idiot,” Yakone shrugged.
Shui clenched his teeth again, his body tensing.
“You don’t fight a waterbender next to a large body of water,” he grinned as he lifted his hands, pulling them forward.
The firebender felt a sudden shadow fall over him, turning as he witnessed a wave emerge from the river, knocking him to the ground as it washed over him.
“Idiot,” Yakone continued laughing as he stood, tilting his head as he inserted a pinky into his ear, expelling some water from it.
He spit some water as he sat up, glaring hatefully towards the waterbender.
“But seriously, what made you think you could possib…Wait, what?” an eyebrow rose as he studied his opponent curiously. “Why’re you steaming?”
Shui began screaming, his pitch rising as he stood, his muscles tensing as a ball of fire erupted from his fist, followed by a wave of flame from a kick.
Yakone dove back, his hands frantically throwing a splash of water up into the flames, throwing another up as he brought his arm to his eyes, the blaze missing barely.
“Now who doesn’t have a chance?” Shui stood glaring over the waterbender, the remaining water becoming steam, rising quickly to the air.
“You just caught me off guard,” he sneered, standing quickly. “I didn’t know you were a firebender.”
He answered by stepping back into a stance, his glare still strong as the steam continued rising from his skin.
The waterbender stepped back, already manipulating a nearby puddle as another whip rose up, curling around him slowly.
There was an ominous silence between them, the air still.
“Y’know,” Yakone smirked. “Now that I know you’re a firebender, I’m not gonna hold back.”
“I won’t have to hold back against you,” he answered coldly.
Li Mei sighed as she came over the hill, seeing the two facing off against one another. She tugged again at Kyo and Ryo’s reins, moving towards the two to break up whatever squabble Shui had caused.
Shui began moving his foot forward.
Yakone adjusted his hands, the water whip twisting.
Both were launched away from one another as lightning tore between them, an explosion rising up from the ground. Smoke billowed from the impact, bother benders hitting the ground.
“Ugh,” Yakone opened an eye, the attack having knocked the wind out of him.
Shui grunted slightly, opening his eyes as he shook his head, trying to get his bearings.
Li Mei watched the smoke rise from the ground, her grip on the reins tightening as she shushed each beast, attempting to calm them. Her eyes went wide as the smoke cleared, dropping them as she took an unconscious step forward.
Within an instant she recognized his frame, her heart tightening with sadness as she noticed the bandages and burn marks littering his body.
Her mouth opened slightly as warm tears lined her cheeks, seeing within him the same kindness that had comforted her when she cried in his arms.
Bo stood on the riverbank, his old eyes growing wider as he recognized her.
She stepped forward, hurrying towards him.
He stepped between the two, stopping as she came within a few feet of him.
She trembled, crying as she looked up towards him, smiling with relieved joy.
He smiled for the first time in weeks, each scar and burn he had sustained becoming nothing in the light of the smile he had fought for.
Li Mei hugged the old soldier, her tears the opposite of what they had once been.
Bo held her as he closed his eyes.
“…Do you have any idea what that’s about?” Yakone watched the two as he lay on the ground.
“None,” Shui stared, an eyebrow raised, laying on the other side of the scorch mark.
“Doesn’t surprise me, bad idea askin’ you anything.”
“What’d you say?”
“Man, you’re ugly and deaf?” there was an emphasis on “and.”
“You want to fight again?”
“Why, need to be reminded of why I’m better than you?”
“You are getting much better at this,” Wen Lan complimented as she studied the board.
“You are an excellent teacher.” He had much less trouble sharing compliments now.
Upon returning, there were few differences to the routine the two shared. Jung healed and exercised, both physically and mentally. Wen Lan saw to his treatment, making sure he never went so far as to open a wound, helped Min with the tea, and played Pai Sho each day with him before facing off against Chin-Hwa. They still carried on conversations and shared stories, and still blushed at one another frequently, even when the other was not in the room.
There were differences, some more noticeable than others. Each spent the day with a content smile, as if they had been privy to some wonderful secret. Their walks became more frequent as well as more comfortable. They would embrace atop the bridge, their lips meeting as their hearts fluttered.
Jung now sat facing her as he drank his tea, having no qualms with lifting his mask before her. When the two were alone, he would remove it, not wanting anything to separate him from his love’s face.
Each time he lifted the mask, she admired his beauty. Within his eyes she found solace and confidence, treasuring each instant shared.
“Have you tried playing auntie Min?” she moved a piece as she asked.
“She refuses to play,” he answered as he studied the board. He wore his mask for this, for possibility of someone entering the room unannounced.
“She says I cheat.”
“You tried that move with her?” Wen Lan smiled, admiring the old woman’s stubbornness.
“No, she says my mask gives me unfair advantage.”
“She says that she can anticipate what you and Chin-Hwa will do by watching your faces.”
“Ah, I see…” she smiled as she glanced at the board.
“Min claims that you touch your finger to your lip when you’re preparing to move one of the more crucial pieces.”
Wen Lan glanced up, blushing faintly as she took her pinky finger away from her lip. “I had no idea I did that.”
He admired this as he moved a piece, looking back up towards her. “I studied my wounds, earlier today.”
“Yes?” she looked over the board, making sure not to bring her pinky to her lip.
“I think I am well enough to return to the valley.”
She smiled, grateful that he had healed without complication. “We shall return tomorrow, then.”
“Yes,” he nodded slowly.
Min stepped into the room, smiling tenderly towards the couple, completely satisfied with her handiwork.
“Wen Lan, dear? Come help me with the tea?”
“Of course, auntie Min.” The young noble smiled as she stood, looking towards Jung with a sweet smile as she gave a nod, her silent reassurance that she would return soon.
He nodded in return, smiling affectionately beneath the mask.
Min winked at Jung before leaving the room, Wen Lan in tow.
Jung stood, stepping towards the pipa Xiu had left. Taking it, he sat near the wall, practicing slowly.
“Xiu tells me you used to play,” Chin-Hwa smiled as he walked in.
“Lord Chin-Hwa,” Jung nodded in greeting. He continued playing slowly and softly, his skill with the instrument increasing gradually.
“Ha ha, no need for formalities. Please, call me ‘Chin-Hwa’,” he sat near the Demon, admiring the pipa.
“…Call me ‘Jung’,” he offered calmly after consideration, the mask looking towards Chin-Hwa.
The old noble stared silently, his beard revealing a gradual smile as he nodded.
“Jung, do you know the song ‘Autumn Smile?’ It used to be very popular.”
He glanced down at the pipa, his fingers tracing along the strings as he began playing the song in response, slowly.
The old noble smiled, nodding his head slowly as he admired the noise. Softly, he began singing the words.
Though both were far from flawless in their performances, the sound filled the room with a gentle comfort.
“You seem to be very content lately, my lady,” Xiu smiled as she glanced over her shoulder.
Wen Lan smiled softly as she scrubbed her friend’s back, her left hand on her shoulder. “I am very grateful for Jung’s good health,” she nodded.
“Oh? Are you sure it isn’t because you’re in love?” She stretched out the last word as she said it teasingly, wiggling her eyebrows up and down.
“Xiu!” Wen Lan blushed a deep shade of red, lifting the nearby pail of water and dumping it over her, having finished her back.
She laughed as she stood, approaching the spring. “I’m sorry my lady, it’s just that it’s all over your face!”
“Perhaps it is,” she trailed off, lifting a hand to her mouth as she considered the obviousness of her affection.
“It’s a good thing, though.” Xiu smiled.
“Yes, I agree,” she smiled as she stepped up to the spring, carefully setting herself down in it as she felt the water wash over her skin. “Like what you feel, for general Seung,” she smiled as she teased.
“What?!” Xiu blushed as she sat down quickly in the spring, embarrassed.
The young noble laughed, bringing some water to her face.
She sat back against the edge of the spring, smiling softly. “You know…It wasn’t easy to tell at first, but…He loves you too,” she closed her eyes.
Wen Lan blushed deeply, looking towards her.
“The way he stands around you. It’s different from how he usually stands. Like he’s nervous, but he wants to protect you no matter what,” she looked towards her lady.
She smiled slowly, closing her eyes as she nodded.
“You love him too, my lady?” she tilted her head.
Softly, Wen Lan smiled as she remembered the feel of his embrace. “Yes,” she answered with quiet confidence. “Very much.”
“Good. When’s the wedding?” She grinned as she wiggled her eyebrows again teasingly.
“The day after you and general Seung’s!” she countered with another tease.
Xiu blushed, splashing some water idly as she looked up to the stars. She grinned as she admired the night sky.
Wen Lan closed her eyes, smiling and thinking of Jung as the warm water relaxed her.
Dedicated to Isaia, who just sent me an awesome lineup of what would make for an amazing Roses fanmade soundtrack!