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It Takes a Village

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            Far on the outskirts, where the grey trees hiss and rattle dead leaves, a dragonbeetle is disturbed from its log.

            It quickly finds another perch, untouched and pearlescent green.

            Between gusts, sticks snap. There’s a shuddering breath.  

 

****

 

 

 

            The boy is gripping his knife with white knuckles, held low by his side. The blade glints in the afternoon sun, flickering. His other hand is curled loosely in his robes, pressed onto his chest. His chin is ducked, but his shorn head cannot hide the blistering black and red mar over his left eye. It’s almost unbearable. It’s undressed, untreated; the type you see on corpses. Hao’s stomach turns. He makes himself look.

            Hao barely notices the crowd retreating from the square. He just watches as the boy approaches, steps small, barely disturbing the dirt beneath him.

            “E- uh- Excuse me?”

            The boy stops, blinking.

            “I’m right here,” Hao says, voice calm despite really feeling otherwise. “We need to get you to a healer.”

            A golden eye looks through him.

            “Okay– It’s okay. It’s not far.”

            Hao just breathes, waits, as the unseeing gaze drifts up to his own. A bead of sweat tickles his forehead, and he is still. He doesn’t dare budge as the boy resumes his stilted approach.

            He stops few feet away, and Hao’s heart drops, throat tightens. There’s only enough time to think ‘Oma and Shu, he’s young’ before there’s a trembling body kneeling at his feet.

            Heart pounding in his ears, he kneels as well, hand hovering over the boy’s shoulder. His body radiates heat like an open flame. His breaths are ragged, choking around incomprehensible pleas.

            “You’re safe. You’re safe,” Hao murmurs, because that’s all he can do. “You’re safe here.”

 

****

 

 

            Sha-Li is furious. Her hands are steady but something horrible is boiling through her veins. The medicine had pulled him to sleep, but not before he wheezed a desperate, ‘please.’

Spirits.

            The dead skin is gone. The ointment and bandages are in place. The boy is still asleep, flushed and mumbling, and Sha-Li feels fury so deep it burns like grief. Curse her damn heart. Her mother had always told her she was too soft for this line of work. She was right. That bitter old woman was always right.

             She stands from the stool by his cot, closing her eyes on the growing stain on the green fabric. It will barely dry before more tears replace it. She knows.

            “Omma?”

            Kiyi’s big brown eyes appear from behind the partition, looking warily at their new guest.

            “It’s time to eat,” Sha-Li says, voice steady. “Prep the vegetables with me?”

            Kiyi only pauses a moment before meeting her gaze.

 “Okay.”

 

 

            Cooking goes hand-in-hand with healing. It’s rhythmic and sequential, flexible and accommodating– you can never abandon thought, but you know where to go. She never liked it growing up, but what kid does? She wanted to play hopscotch with her friends, not attend to her three brothers.

            Kiyi silently chops the carrots into perfect discs.

 

            “Hao found him wandering through town.”

            “But he looks so…” she trails off, cutting the top off of the next carrot.

            Sha-Li nods, opening a sachet of spices. “I don’t know how he made it. Spirits know how far he walked.”

            “Onion?”

            “Yes.” 

            Kiyi pulls two out of the sack.

            “Three this time.”

            She nods, obliging. Eyes flick toward the cot.

            “He doesn’t look like a soldier.”

            Sha-Li sighs. The grief she’d set aside blooms once again, like a recalcitrant weed.

            “That has never mattered in their eyes.” She says, even though they both already know.

            The water simmers quietly, hissing as Sha-Li’s handfuls are dropped in. Kiyi’s knife hits wood again and again. This peace only lasts a minute.

            “Omma,” she begins carefully, eyebrows furrowed at her work, “I want to help.”

            The onion stings in her nose. She ignores it.

            “Baby…”

            “Please?” Kiyi interrupts, voice jumping in pitch. “I know I can.”

            “I know you can too, but–”

            “Omma…”

            “Kiyi,” she scolds, she begs, “you are twelve. You are not leaving this house until you are at least sixteen.” You are not allowed to leave me.

            The soup bubbles, its gurgling the only sound between them. She stirs, evening her breath. Inhaling– exhaling– in time with her spoon.

            “I’m sorry, baby, but the war isn’t allowed to take you yet. Not while I’m around.”

            Sha-Li looks back into the pot, letting the aromatic steam surround her. She can pretend for a moment, in that cloud, that her brothers are waiting with bowls in hand, that their stomachs can still feel empty, that her Omma is snapping at them to back up, and that the tiny arms wrapped around her waist will never see any more violence, ever again.

 

           

            Patients come and go. Fever and coughs soothed by tea, scrapes wrapped, turned stomachs calmed, again and again. Words of gratitude, meager coin slipped into her pouch, Hao stopping by, deflating as his eyes land on the boy, like his heart breaks every day he refuses to wake.

            “Will he?” He asks.

            “Of course,” she says, like there’s no point in believing otherwise.

            Kiyi has started sitting next to him during meals, telling him stories. Sha-Li assumed this was private, a confidant that isn’t her own mother, but the third time or-so she’d done it, she’d grabbed her hand and pulled.

            “Do you think he can hear me?” Kiyi asks, abruptly, in the middle of the Snowfly and the Peach.

            Sha-Li pets her hair, “I hope so.”

 

           

            Hao hasn’t stopped by in days, and the boy sleeps, none the wiser. The cloth over his brow drips cold water down the bridge of his nose. Sha-Li purses her lips. She’ll have to replace his bandages.

            Gently, she reaches for the compress, floor creaking as she leans over him.

            She flinches, retracting her hand when she sees a wide eye staring back.

            Frozen, she watches as the boy’s gaze flits over his surroundings, moving too fast to really be seeing anything. She jumps into action, however, when she sees him push against the cot, trying to sit up. To get up, or run.

            “No, no, sweet.” She says, pressing softly at his chest. “Lie still.”

            At the contact he shrinks, out of fear or ease, she can’t tell.

            Regardless, she scooches her stool back, giving him space.

            He just watches her with that wide eye, disbelieving, confused, and achingly young.

            “My name is Sha-Li. I’m a healer. I only want to help you.”

            He blinks.

            “I suspect you’re hungry. I will grab you some soup.”

            Slowly, she stands and makes her way to the kitchen, where Kiyi has suddenly appeared from the bedroom. She must have heard.

            Sha-Li relights the fire under the pot as her daughter approaches, tiptoeing.

            “No staring.” She says quietly, not looking up as she stirs.

            Kiyi mumbles a quick ‘sorry.’

            “Three bowls, please.”

            “Yes, Omma.”

            Calmly, she ladles three portions, keeping an eye on the boy in case he rises again. He’s watching, completely still. She snuffs the flame and hands Kiyi two bowls, grabbing the other herself.

            “This is my daughter, Kiyi,” she says, before kneeling down by the cot.

            Kiyi smiles tentatively.

            Sha-Li sets the soup down. “I’m going to help you sit up so you can eat, okay?”

            Finally, the boy reacts. A small nod.

            Relief soothes anticipation as she places her hand under his shoulder, sliding to support his back as he lifts upward. He breathes deeply, squeezes his eye shut.

            “Lean against the wall, hon,” she whispers when he squirms to get comfortable.

            Once he’s settled, she pulls her hands away and grabs the bowl by her knees, holding it out.

            He takes it with tremulous hands and promptly bows his head.

            She smiles, “You’re very welcome.”

            Sha-Li turns back to Kiyi, who’s sitting patiently, and joins her.

           

            “What’s your name?” She asks, once they’ve finished.

            He curls his fingers around the bowl, fingernails scratching at the wood, and shakes his head.

            She sighs, “Okay, hon.”

 

 

           

             

           

            Sha-Li has taken to calling him Ryu. His inherited golden eyes reveal the savagery of the Fire Nation*, but the stubborn turn of his mouth is pure Earth. Those soldiers have no shame, no honor, they just take and ruin, but this boy survived. He lived despite it all.

            “Today?” He asks, as he asks every morning.

            He lives, and he lives stubborn.

            “Maybe after breakfast.”

            “I feel better today,” he says, as he says every morning.

            She sighs. “I have to do your bandages. We need to eat breakfast. You need to eat breakfast. Then you can try walking around.”

            He frowns, but still turns his bandaged side toward her.

            It took several days of flinching out of her reach, squeezing his eyes shut with ragged breaths every time the wrappings stuck, to get to this point. He still breathes careful and slow, hands fisted into the blanket, but at least he trusts her this much.

            Conscious of her expression, she notes his milky left-eye and shriveled left-ear. Poor dear will have a time of adjusting. She applies a salve with her fingers, dabbing and smoothing, ignoring the unnatural texture of his skin.

            With every touch, his fingers twitch, but he bears it silently. A brave little dragon.

            “All right,” she sighs, wiping her hands with a rag, “we’re going to let it breathe, but no touching, okay?”

            He looks at her and bows his head.

            “Good boy.”

            He blushes.

She turns away before she can see, but she smiles. He always does.

 

 

            Kiyi collects the empty plates after breakfast, but before she can take Ryu’s, Sha-Li interrupts.

            “Baby, why don’t you show him how to clean the dishes?”

            Both Kiyi and Ryu brighten.

           

 

            Sha-Li glances up from her stitches to watch as Kiyi directs Ryu to the soap, pointing with the hand not holding a pail of water. He nods curtly, as if responding to a superior officer. It’s all she can do not to laugh as he ambles to the cabinet, brow furrowed in concentration.

            After dumping the water in the basin, Kiyi rejoins him to point it out.

            “It’s okay. It was hiding,” she says, smiling, when he turns red. “Grab the rags please? They’re by the stove.”

           

            She turns back to her repairs, listening to the clamor with one ear. Her youngest brother’s old clothes should fit Ryu perfectly. Thank the Spirits she kept them. They might be a little loose in the arms, the kid’s still awfully skinny, but perfection is subjective anyway.

            She’s interrupted in her musings by a sudden splash and peal of laughter.

            Ryu’s entire front is soaking wet, arms held out awkwardly from the mess. Kiyi is nearly doubled over at his wide-eyed expression, bracing herself on the side of the basin and gasping for breath.

            Sha-Li is about to intervene, when Ryu loosens his tense posture, lips quirking into a smile at her daughter’s antics.

            It’s a small thing, unsure and out of practice, but it’s also impossibly wonderful.

            With that aglow in her chest, she crinkles her eyes and turns back to her work.

 

 

 

            The sun is high and warm; it’s a perfect day to attend the market. It didn’t take much to get Ryu outside. He’d closed his eyes at the sky and sighed peacefully, like one does after a long, brutal winter. It did, however, take a moment of coaxing to get him to venture into public, citing the need for extra hands.

            With Ryu just behind her right side, they approach the first stall.

            “Afternoon, Sha-Li!”

            “Hello, Bina! Beautiful weather today.”

            Bina sighs wistfully at the cloudless blue sky. “Indeed. If it was this nice every day I wouldn’t be asking this much for rice.”

            Sha-Li bites her lip at the price, pulling out her pouch.

            “Now, who’s this?”

            She looks from Bina, peering around her side, to Ryu, who’s now completely behind her.

            Sha-Li pulls out two coins with a small smile.

            “This is Ryu,” she says, and to Ryu, “come on, hon, she won’t bite.”

            Like the stubborn boy she knows, he replies, “I know,” and definitely doesn’t pout as he moves into view.

            Bina winces. It’s slight, but she can tell Ryu noticed, head lowered.

            She places a gentle hand on his shoulder and hands her the money.

            “You have a very handsome boy, Sha-Li,” Bina says, eyes soft in apology.

            “Thank you,” she says, accepting the compliment and her bag of rice. “It’s always lovely to see you.”

           

            Ryu doesn’t respond to her for the next couple of stalls. Doesn’t even lift his chin. She doesn’t mind, just rubs his shoulder with her thumb.

           

            “Oh my…”

            Hao puts his hand to his chest, staggering from behind his stand.

            Sha-Li smiles, stepping slightly to the side, “Hello to you, too. This is Ryu.”

            “Hi there, Ryu,” he says, breathlessly, “You probably don’t remember me.”

            Like some miracle, the boy looks up at Hao without hesitation. Recognition in the confused furrow of his brow.

            Hao’s grin turns goofy with joy, “I’m so happy to see you’re feeling better.”

            Ryu’s hesitant expression turns to one of wonder, wide and childlike.

            He bows so eagerly, Sha-Li can’t contain the elation in her heart. She presses her knuckles into the wet corners of her eyes and reaches for her coin purse for something to do. A hand stops her.

            “Nonsense, Sha-Li. What would you like?”

            “I couldn’t–” she protests.

            “Please,” Hao urges, eyes wet as well, “it’s only fair.”

            She heaves a calming breath and looks to her side. Ryu looks back.

            “All right.”

 

 

 

 

            Kiyi chops the carrots into perfect discs to her right, while Ryu peels the potatochokes on her left.

            The flame blooms under the pot with a practiced crack of her spark rocks. Beside her, she hears a pause in the din of cutting vegetables. By the time she looks up, though, all noise has resumed.

            “Onion?”

            “Yes.”

            Kiyi pulls three from the sack.

            Ryu begins chopping the potatochokes.

            “How big?” He asks after a few slices.

            Sha-Li makes a small circle with her fingers.

            With Ryu-intensity, he studies her gesture and attacks his task again, jaw set.

            It feels like ages since Hao had run to her door, stricken and pleading, with a half-dead body cradled in his arms. The terrified, fever-fogged eye had shaken her to the core. No one had ever looked at her with such pure terror. It’s a blessing from the Spirits above that she was allowed to see this boy to health, to see this bright determination instead of fear.

            She wants him to know, but she doesn’t have the words.

            “Ryu, hon, would you stir for me please?”

           

 

 

           

            She awakens to the shriek of her name.

            Father’s club in hand, she runs out of the room.

            Instead of surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers, she finds Kiyi standing in the middle of an empty room, note in hand, tears trailing down her face.

 

            “Ryu’s gone.”

Chapter Text

            Mun was pouring his morning tea when there was a knock at his door. Annoyed and foggy, he’d ignored it, finished breakfast, rinsed the dishes, and fed Bo-Mi before deigning to even consider greeting the visitor.

            He was surprised, upon opening the door, that the knocker was still there. In retrospect, that was ridiculous. Only the desperate would come begging on his stoop, and this kid looked like he’d seen the worst of it.

            “I need work,” he said.

            “You and me both.”

            At that, Mun had closed the door. Again, it was foolish to think that would be the end of it. Maybe his mind is deteriorating in his old age.

 

            He manages to get through a single scroll before the door rattles once again.

           

            “What.

 

            The kid just looks at him. Mun has stared down the fists of imperial firebenders. This child and his hollowed cheeks have no power over him.

            “Why don’t you go bug someone else, huh? An old man can’t have his peace?”

            If Mun wasn’t so annoyed, he’d have marveled at the way the kid seemed to relax at his snipes. As it is, he just wants him to leave.

            “What could a cornstalk like you haul around, anyway? I’ve got tortoise-chickens heavier than you.”

            “I’ll work for food,” he says, voice dry.

            Mun scowls.

            “Of course, you would. That’s all we do here.”

            One gold and one milky-white eye meet his. Kid probably scares off the delicate-folk with a face like that. Rippling scar pulled tight around an unseeing eye, set in a permanent glare. Just one look at him and you see all the ugliness this war has brought.

            He grumbles at the decision he’s about to make. Damn his soft side.

            “Barn’s a mess. Supplies’re in the back.”

 

           

           

           

            To his relief, the kid doesn’t seem keen on small talk either. After the first couple days of awkward, polite bows, they’ve settled into something of a routine. Mun does his rounds, feeding, milking, brushing, and when he turns his back, the stalls are cleaned without a word.

            Every now and then he directs him to a new project– a broken fence, overgrown weeds– with a grunt or two and he’s met with an equally unemotional nod.

            Mun leaves the payment, a bowl of whatever meal he’d thrown together, on the front step. He doesn’t want the kid getting any ideas.

 

            Unfortunately, this tactic hasn’t been completely effective. Bo-Mi is positively infatuated. She thinks she’s being sneaky, stealing pats behind his back, but Mun didn’t get to be this age by being oblivious. It’s another day, another lament that he can’t speak rabbit-hound. The second this kid leaves, he’s going to have a confused, mopey, forty-eight-pound lug on his hands.

           

 

            The sun bears down on the back of his neck, sweat tracing a line between his shoulder blades. On an inhale, he straightens, back singing a chorus of satisfying pops and snaps. He exhales, rolling his neck to the same effect.

            Over in the barn, the kid is still shoveling. From this distance he can just make out that nest of black hair bent over, scraping at the ground. His posture alone suggests a determination that clearing piles of shit doesn’t usually require.

            Eerily, after a few moments, the kid pauses and looks back at him.

            Mun scowls. Monitoring this street rat will be interesting. Not difficult, interesting.

            His kids were difficult to wrangle. They were tenacious little rascals. If this kid thinks he puts up anything of a challenge, he’s sorely mistaken. There’s no chance. Mun remembers when Shin had hidden all Hana’s toys on the roof because Kyong had framed her for burning Shin’s favorite scroll. After her things were destroyed in the rain, Hana put scorpion-lizards in both of their beds. She never cared who’d done it. Retaliation is retaliation, collateral damage be damned.

            He’d bet all the coin in his pocket they caused real problems for the Fire Nation army. The boy lurking around his farm looks like the army tore him to shreds as easily as one would swat a dragonbeetle.

           

 

 

            Mun doesn’t know if he should be grateful that he’s a light sleeper. Sure, it’s helpful in the case of midnight bandits, raids, and storms, but now?

 

            Plip

 

            Plip

 

            Plip

 

            Now, he just wants to be anywhere but here, awake, moon high in the sky, under a leaking roof.

            “I swear to the Spirits, Bo-Mi,” he says, feet forcing creaks out of warped boards, “one day this accursed building is gonna’ collapse on top of me. And I’ll be damned if I don’t let it.”

            Bo-Mi, of course, only wags her tail at the sound of her name, ears flicking in anticipation.

 

            Plip

 

            Plip

 

            He groans, irritation turning it into more of a low growl.

            “If it’s gotten worse by the time I’m back, I’m blaming you.”

 

 

            He doesn’t bother pulling on an outer layer. The muggy summer night clings to him like fog to morning dew. Buzzing and chirping of crickets and badgerfrogs are the only sounds to accompany his footsteps.

            Under the glow of the moon, he follows the damp path to the barn. The burst of rain had come and gone with the impatience and brutality of an Earth Kingdom general. Rivulets are carved into the dirt underfoot, some still holding water.

            Mun frowns at the squeaky hinges, entering to a din of snuffling and snorts, the very unhappy sounds of animals’ disturbed sleep.

            “I know, I know, settle down. I’m not too thrilled about this either.”

            Carefully, he feels for the shelf to his left, stopping on the conical metal base of the lantern, spark rocks right beside it.

            With a swift crack, the flame catches, casting wavering orange light over the hay-littered floor.

            He lifts it in front of him, leading the way to the haphazard shelving on the back wall. Shadows dance on all sides with the movement of the lantern. Metal pail? No, too small. Hm. There’s a tin wash-bin that should suffice.

            He grabs a handle, and he hears a scuff behind him, a skid of the heel.

            Before he can yell ‘thief,’ he catches a suspiciously familiar boy-shaped shadow against moonlight, slipping out the door.

 

           

            The next morning, Mun finds himself staring at the kid’s portion of breakfast. He’d considered, briefly, that it’d been a trick of the light, bouncing off walls. That was immediately dismissed. Someone had gathered hay in the darkest corner of the barn. That can’t be imagined.

            He shakes his head at the implications and places the serving on the stoop.

 

 

 

            Lunch passes, dinner comes, and Mun leaves the food outside, closing the door more hesitantly than he’d like. He doesn’t have time to be dawdling like this. Indecision is for the young-folk with years ahead of them.

            With a hefty harrumph, he reopens the door, catching the kid in the act of approaching.

            Like a squirrel-mouse caught in the pantry, he shrinks back, knees bent, looking seconds away from running.

            Mun crosses his arms, keeping his gaze steady.

            “My kids’ room has been empty for years.”

            With his eyebrow furrowed, the kid’s shoulders relax a fraction. He’s too wary for his own good. What does he think is about to happen? If he wanted him gone, Mun wouldn’t mince his damn words.

            “If any Spirits cursed vermin get inside ‘cuz you forgot to latch the door, you’re wiping the ostrich-horse’s ass for the next week and half. You understand?”

            He waits until the kid nods before turning around, slamming the door behind him.

 

 

 

            When he lets Bo-Mi outside the next morning, he has to unlock it. He doesn’t quite smile, but he catches himself whistling while making breakfast.

 

 

 

 

            It occurs to Mun, far later than it should, that he’s grown used to the extra hands around the farm. Spirits know it’s been a wonder for his joints. On top of that, though, the kid’s wormed his way into the back and forefront of his mind. Mun notes, every morning, that the door’s locked. He notices that the bowls of spiced veggie rice come back cleaner than anything else. He remembers how the kid flinched when he’d approached from the left.

            He’d eyed the broken latch on a stall and thought, before anything else, ‘the kid can get that done.

            He jiggles the stall door, rattling himself from his thoughts.

            From the corner of his eye, he notices the shoveling slowing down.

            “Fix this. Lunch after,” he says, leaving for the house.

 

           

             Just like their “chat” started, many days ago now, the kid slows to a stop several feet from the steps. His stance isn’t prepped for escape, but Mun has no doubt he can bolt at a moment’s notice.

            He’s seen kids like him before. They’re broken and unbreakable. War has stripped them of their trust and poisoned them with anger, hatred, terror. He looks into this one’s uneven gaze and sees hundreds, thousands, of street rats begging, fighting, and running.

            “Food’s inside. Serve your damn self, for once,” he says, and turns back to the kitchen.

 

            Sat at the table, he feels rather than hears the kid walk past. Eye contact burns the back of his neck, but Mun just shuffles around potatochokes with his chopsticks, gathering sauce into a pool in the center. He dips a cube and plops it in his mouth. He frowns. They’re dry; a bit overcooked.

            When the scraping noise from the kitchen stops, Mun swallows his mouthful hastily.

 

            “Sit,” he says, not looking up.

 

            The kid obeys, like he always does, and Mun enjoys his meal in silence.

 

 

 

 

 

            “Prices in this town are spirits-damned criminal. If Li expects me to fork over what he’s asking I best sell the damned farm.”

            The kid looks up from his noodles.

            “The drought did no good, of course, but these merchants are stealing hay out ‘a ostrich-horse’s beak. Spirits.”

           

 

 

 

            “Damned neighbors.”

            There’s an inquisitive noise across the table.

            “Nosy lumps. Can’t keep their minds on their own shit. Gotta’ mingle their fingers in my business. Oma and Shu, kid, you’d think you were a Fire Nation spy with all their pointing and yammering. I swear–”

 

 

 

 

 

            “That spicy enough, kiddo?”

            He nods, “Thank you.”

            “Quiet, now. Those flakes were cheaper than rocks out the backyard. No one eats them but you.”

            The kid nods again.

            “Besides, I’ve got more to worry about with this damned ‘Soo’ lady pestering me with letters. I have no interest in either of her gardens. No thank you, ma’am.”

            Mun looks up at the cough in front of him. The kid is bright red, tears building on his lower lashes.

            “That too hot?”

            The kid puts his face in his hands while Mun chuckles.

 

 

 

 

           

            “…self-righteous ass. If my temper were any quicker, I would’ve broken than man’s nose. Years, years, I had the chance before my bones got too damned brittle.”

            Mun stirs his stew.

            “We used to be friends. To this day I can’t figure out why. He’s a liar and a thief. I must’ve been blind as a badgermole not to see that.”

            He sips at the broth.

            “My only oxcart. It was my only oxcart.”

            The kid hums, “What’s his name?”

            “Kwang. It should be Bastard-Son-of-a-Jellyworm. If I had just one more chance, kid, and the bastard wasn’t a cursed Earthbender, you best believe I’d crack a damn boulder over his head.”

           

 

 

            Mun slides the big barn doors open, wood groaning. The kid’s already crouched by Ling-Ling, one hand cupped with feed by her snout, the other patting her fuzzy head.

            As endearing as that is, it isn’t what grabs his attention.

            In the back of the barn, past the intense gaze now pointed his way, is an oxcart. His oxcart.

            He stands there a moment, wrangling the idea of this spindly child­– and Kwang, a mountain of a man, decades older, former military– How in the Spirits’ name–

            He shakes his head. There’s really no use in getting wound up.

            “The fence by the road fell over. Get on that,” he says, suppressing a smile at the kid’s sigh of relief.

            The kid stands, smoothing one last pat over Ling-Ling’s head, who snuffles at the sudden lack of attention.

            Mun smiles, mussing the ragged black hair as it passes.

            The kid smiles back over his shoulder, bending his face in such a way that Mun is reminded of Shin.

 

 

 

           

            The days are getting shorter, evenings colder, and Mun can tell the kid has been getting antsy. He dances between chores so fast and so seriously, it feels like an apology, like he’s making up for something.

            The meals have gone back to complete silence. Mun’s efforts turn the kid’s face sour.

           

 

            So it’s not surprising, really, when he lets Bo-Mi outside one morning, and the door is already unlocked.

Chapter Text

            The merchant bows with undue reverence when he spots Seok in his shop. Quick to wave him off, he bows equally deep. He knew he should have taken off his armor before coming to town.

            “Please, please,” he says.

            The old man chuckles, “It’s only fair, young man. What’re you looking for?”

            “I’m just here to admire your craft, sir.”

            Hand to his breastbone, the man nods in thanks, leaving Seok to his perusal.

 

            The walls are lined with some of the most incredible metalwork he’s ever seen, glimmering blades reflecting his awestruck expression. Air in his lungs escapes at the sight of delicately carved ivory handle on a dagger.

            Floral patterns, lilies and ferns, design swirling, set in pearly white.

            He pulls himself away. There’s no way he can afford such artistry on military wages.

           

            Seok turns, and nearly jumps. He could have sworn he was the only customer. But, no. A man, short and skinny, has his back to him, facing the wall of swords. His clothes are dark and thin, threads dangling from hems.

            Shaking his head, he approaches.

            “Beautiful, aren’t they?”

            The mop of black hair twists, squinty glare hefted over his right shoulder, question in his furrowed eyebrow.

            “The dao,” he says, gesturing at them.

            For a long moment, the kid– a kid in a weapons shop?– just looks at him. Careful, he keeps his face open. A small nod, barely lowering his chin, and the gaze turns back.

            Jeez. Are all kids these days this intense? Well, sure, this one’s probably a bit feral. Seok’s run into a few of those over the last few years but– this is a different level.

            “I’m more of a katana fan myself. Lightweight and effective.”

            The kid’s shoulders tense. Then loosen. He doesn’t turn back around.

            Huh. Well. Two can play at this game.

            “Dual dao just seem troublesome. By the time you’re trained, the war’s already done.”

            Kid crosses his arms.

            Seok grins around his next words, “How old are you? Twelve? Do you even know how to use them?”

            He spins around, face contorted.

            “Yes,” he spits.

            Seok can’t help but laugh at the pure indignance on his face.

            Quickly, the kid turns beet red.

            “And I’m fifteen,” he says, much more subdued; his glare returns to normal.

            Seok just smiles, focused on keeping his eyes away from the brutal burn scar. Instead, holding steady on his freakishly gold eye. The guy probably gets his fair share of sympathetic looks. No need to give another.

            “I’m Seok.” He bows.

            Again, kid just stares, completely still. He doesn’t even offer his own name.

            After waiting too long, he slumps.

            “Okay. That’s fine,” he sighs, “What should I call you?”

 

            A pause.

 

            In the silence, the boy’s gaze quickly flits over to the exit.  

            “By the Spirits,” he mumbles, then, louder, “Fine. I’ll call you… Dao.”

            At that, the kid scrunches up his face.

            “Well. You’re stuck with it now. Should’ve said something,” he shrugs, and puts his hands on his hips.

           

            Again, Dao looks over at the exit and starts in that direction.

 

            “Sir?” Seok raises his voice, grabbing the attention of the merchant. Confusing the kid, too, if the way he freezes is any indication.

            Kindly expression built into his crows-feet by his eyes, he approaches.

            “Found something?”

            Turning his whole body toward him, he replies, “Indeed I have. How much are the dao?”

           

           

           

            Dao had stomped back into the street; it should have occurred to Seok that street rats don’t tend to believe the best in people. Maybe, just maybe, don’t flaunt your relative wealth in one’s face. Running after him didn’t look the best, sure, but the kid is slippery. The look in his eye told Seok that he can disappear the second he wants to.

 

 

            “These are for you, damn it.”

            Dao crosses his arms after finally stopping in the middle of a side street. He keeps a good twenty feet between them.

            “Why?”

 

            It looked like you wanted them.

            “Uh… well, I’ve never fought anyone who dual wields.”

 

            Yeah, that was believable.

           

            “What do you want?”

 

            “Nothing. Just a good spar.”

 

            Dao steps closer, squinting his good eye even further. He stops just out of arms-reach and holds out an open hand.

            Without a moment’s hesitation, Seok gives him the sheath.

            This seems to confuse the kid even more. Seok, on the other hand, forces the tension from his shoulders as Dao slings it over his back, who’s scanning his whole person, lingering on the katana at his hip.

            The kid is quiet, shoulders turning toward escape and monitoring Seok, when, suddenly, he shakes his head, scowling.

            “Fine.”

            A breath he hadn’t noticed holding bursts out of him.

            “Okay. There’s a clearing back this way.”

 

 

 

 

 

            Dao is quick.

 

            He should have anticipated this.

 

            Call it mid-twenties arrogance, idiocy, or whatever pleases you, but Seok is really regretting all of it. Keeping track of two swords is hard enough when you’re not actively trying to come up with a new strategy. Attacking from the kid’s blind side was evidently the moronic option.

            Upon knocking Dao to the ground, he wasn’t allowed even the briefest of victories. He was back up and flying at him at a new angle.

            Who’s training these kids? Piandao?

 

           

 

            After calling a draw and collapsing dramatically into the dirt, Seok starts chuckling. His CO is going to chew him out for being sore tomorrow.

            “Damned impressive, kid.”

            “I’m not a kid.”

            Seok lifts his head to look at Dao, who’s frowning, per usual.

            He rolls to a sitting position, smiling up at him, and lifts his hands in surrender.

            “Alright then, Dao.”

            Dao rolls his eyes, “That’s not my name, either.”

            Seok plops his hands into his lap and lifts his shoulders as if to say, ‘too bad.’

 

            “You hungry?”

            Dao raises his eyebrow.

            “‘Cuz frankly, I am,” he says, standing up.

            In his periphery, he notices the kid shift forward.

            Keeping his voice calm, he can’t seem too eager, he says, “They’re probably already prepping dinner back at camp. Do you–”

            The golden eye widens, and Dao is retreating, quickly.

            “Ah shit,” he mutters, then, louder, “Never mind! Never mind. We– We’ll have to spar again sometime soon.”

 

            Dao disappears behind a corner and Seok kicks the ground. Shit.

 

 

 

 

 

            Thankfully, blessed be the Spirits, he doesn’t run away the next time he bumps into him. Or the time after that. He certainly doesn’t relax in his presence, but at least he doesn’t bolt. It’s only for that reason that Seok feels confident enough to elbow Chung-Ho to point across the market.

            “Hey, that’s my buddy, Dao.”

            Chung-Ho turns from the stall, following his finger with a squinted gaze. The square is fairly busy, midday sun drawing folks from their homes. There’s a din of conversation, pockets of laughter, squabbling bartering left and right. It’s a sea of green, yellow, and brown fabric, swishing as the crowd expands and swirls. Dao is only conspicuous thanks to his distinctive cargo.

            “The kid with the swords?”

            “Yeah.”

            Chung-Ho snorts, “He steal from you or something? You trying to ‘teach him better ways?’” His voice goes deep and mocking at the end.

            “No, asshole, we spar sometimes.”

            His friend fully laughs at that.

            He smacks him over the head and starts side-stepping his way through the mass of people.

           

 

 

            “Hey, kid.”

            Dao turns and pinches his lips, not surprised to see him anymore.

            “Not a kid,” he says, like he always does.

            Seok waves it off, “Come on. I think I can beat you this time.”

            He doesn’t, but no one has to know that.

           

 

 

            They reach the clearing, where Chung-Ho is already sat cross-legged, and Seok almost kicks himself.

            “Come on, then. I’m here for a show,” his friend says, persisting in being utterly unhelpful.

            “Seok.”

            He turns, and he sees every modicum of trust falling away from Dao’s stance, turning into one where his knees are bent and angled toward the way out.

            “Easy. This is my friend, Chung-Ho.”

            This doesn’t seem to appease the kid, seeing as he’s inching backwards.

            “Fuck. Damn it. Dao, I swear to Oma and Shu he won’t come near you, okay?” He says, then, to Chung-Ho, “Go over there, or something,” pointing in the opposite direction, away from Dao.

            His friend groans, drawing out a long, “fine.”

           

 

           

           

            Seok hits the ground with an ‘oof.’ Breath has thoroughly abandoned his lungs, so he stays, huffing in dust while Chung-Ho cackles in the background.

            If he could speak, he’d be tossing some choice words right now. As it is, his friend is taking every gasp of his silence as an opportunity to be an asshole.

 

            “By the Spirits, that was amazing,” he wheezes, “Incredible. Mind-blowing. I can’t believe–”

 

            As Chung-Ho lists more synonyms, Dao’s uneven face interrupts his view of the cloudy-blue sky. He’s sheathed his swords and, the damned rascal, barely broken a sweat.

            Seok takes the hand he’s offered and grunts into a nearly-upright position.

 

            “Oma and Shu, I thank you for this blessing–”

 

            He wipes his hands off on his front and bows, like the kid insists to every time. Dao does the same. When they make eye contact again, Seok smiles. Dao’s mouth twitches.

            What he wouldn’t give for this kid to look smug. Or even the littlest bit pleased at winning. Does he even know how to feel proud?

            He watches as he suppresses any expression of enjoyment and thinks ‘yeah, probably not.’

           

            “You got beat up by a fucking child. This is the best day ever.”

 

            Reminiscent to their first meeting, Dao furiously whirls to face Chung-Ho, finger already jabbing in his direction.

            “I’m not a child!

           

            Forgetting all inner musings, Seok bursts into laughter.

 

 

 

 

            They end up back at the market, with Seok and Chung-Ho coughing up the payment for three sweet buns from a kindly street vendor. Dao only protests a couple times, assuaged by the fact that they give him no choice to refuse.

            The scowl on his face is delightfully forced as he swipes the treat from Seok’s outstretched hand.  

           

            Now sat on a wooden crate, Seok watches Dao eat, seeing eye turned toward the bustling street. This would be no big deal if it didn’t mean he and Chung-Ho were cozied up in his blind spot. It takes all his self-control not to grin like a madman.

           

            “You sure you don’t want to join us for dinner?”

            Dao tilts his head toward them, pausing in his chewing.

            He swallows, “Yeah.”

 

            “All right. Maybe next time, then.”

 

 

 

 

 

            He doesn’t accept next time.

 

 

 

            Or the next time.

 

 

 

            Or even the time after that.

 

 

 

            But Seok is nothing if not persistent.

 

 

 

 

           

            Slowly, Seok starts to get the hang of combatting two swords and one wily street rat, and their duels get longer. Longer and longer. Dao starts getting tricky– well, trickier. Kicking sand, twisting underfoot, and all sorts of underhand tactics.

            He starts to question if this kid was actually trained or just some sort of freak-sword-prodigy. His dao seem to be extensions of his arms and fists, rather than simple weapons.

            When he hits the ground this time, Dao is winded. He can hear the kid breathing. Now this feels like a victory.

           

            He drops his katana and thrusts a fist in the air.

 

            “Yes.” His hand flops to the dirt.

           

            “In celebration, you are required to attend dinner at my camp. I mean, you can say no, of course, and I’ll respect that, but I’m saying you’re required.

 

            A pause.

 

            “Fine.”

 

 

 

 

            He sees the very second Chung-Ho spots Dao. Like a child on the solstice, he lights up and lets out a loud ‘whoop.’

            The rest sitting around the fire turn to look, confusion clear on their faces as they examine the kid behind him.

            “Dao! It’s about time!”

            After a small period of silence, synapses firing at top speed, the ring of furrowed eyebrows lifts and erupts into exclamations of varying intensity.

           

            “By the Spirits, I thought you were making this up–”

 

            “–those really dual dao? Is that why his name is–”

 

            “–sure he’s not twelve, I mean…”

 

            “–want curried rice? It’s almost done–”

 

            “Sit! Sit, kid. Come on.”

 

             Seok takes his usual spot by Chung-Ho, and the kid follows closely, clearly unnerved by the attention.

            “I told you I wasn’t making him up. Yes, those are dual dao, and don’t, whatever you do, don’t try to tell him he’s twelve. He’ll bite your hand clean off.”

           

 

 

 

 

 

            “How’d you manage to tame him?” Min-Jun asks out of the side of his mouth, as Dao wipes the floor with Chung-Ho.

            Seok laughs, “I really didn’t.”

 

 

             

 

           

 

            The spar ends quickly. Seok is distracted, the kid notices and takes advantage. This time, when he’s knocked down, he immediately sits up, but doesn’t move further.

            The smirk that was beginning to appear when Dao wins, vanishes. For a moment too long, he stays in a defensive position, before putting away his blades and bowing.

            Seok nods his head.

            “We’re moving camp today.”

            The kid blinks, drooping face revealing more than he’d like.

            “We’re being called to guard a village further north.”

            Dao looks at the ground. Looks to his left. Finally, he sits, dimmed gold meeting his.

           

            Maybe it was foolish to get attached to a damned street rat. These things are always going to happen. He sighs, picking his next words carefully.

 

            “If you want– If you want, you can travel with us. Spirits know we’re all going to miss you.”

            Dao’s face pinches, as if in pain.

 

            “I can’t,” he says, gravelly. “I– I want to, but I can’t.”

 

            It hits like a blow to the gut, like he knew it would. There’s a spark in the kid’s eye, a determination he’s seen behind the flashing of metal again and again. He wishes, desperately, stupidly, that Dao didn’t have that drive in him. He has a purpose, a destiny. If anyone were to rid him of that, he wouldn’t be Dao at all.

           

            “Stay out of this war, okay?” He pleads, feeling suddenly weary.

            “Seok, I–”

            “Please,” he interrupts, “as best you can. No one wants to see you hurt–” again.

            There’s a flush high on Dao’s cheeks, lips pressed thin.

 

            He knows what he’s asking is impossible. Dao seems to know it too, so they sit there in silence, waiting for the war to end so they can stand.

 

            The sun beats the threat of summer heat, burning into the back of their necks, and they breathe. They breathe.

 

            “Do you want to want to stop by for dinner? Say goodbye?”

 

            “Yeah.”

Chapter Text

 

 

 

            Another couple is hastily herded to their seats, already sniping about the wait time, and Hyun is cursing the Spirits of chance that brought abundant customers and a sudden employee shortage.

            Li vanished off the map, and all his friends could say is some nonsense about “traveling.” They’d just had a newborn. Hyun would cut off his two thumbs if they’d had enough spare wealth for a vacation.

            Placating smile already growing stiff, he apologizes once more to the noble couple, and rushes to the kitchen.

           

            “Ahnjong!”

            She looks up from the four hissing pots, perspiration dotting above her eyebrows.

            “Has no one come in?”

            Her dark eyes turn over the empty room, making a show of checking.

            “Ha. Ha,” he huffs, eyeing the intimidatingly high pile of dirty dishes, “Please just get someone? Grab ‘em out the alley if you have to.”

            “Aye,” she says, rag-covered hand already pouring a line of cups.

 

           

            The rest of the day passes by in a perfumed, ginseng, jasmine-scented blur. Stale smiles, embellished, gaudy friendliness coloring his voice in a way that stings in his throat, hot porcelain sharp on his fingertips, gasps of joy, surprise, disgust, and flashes of an unfamiliar head of hair scrubbing over a basin of dishes.

 

 

            The bell above the door twinkles dully as he shoves at the sticky doorjamb. He twists the lock. He sighs.

            Knees and heels aching, he shuffles back to Ahnjong.

           

            He leans on the doorframe, watching as she clatters through the cupboards, tidying the counterspace. She hums in acknowledgment, puffing at a lock escaped from its bun.

            “Tomorrow should be calmer,” Hyun says, ignorant of its truth.

            She rolls her eyes knowingly and flips the damp rag from her shoulder.

            He waves his hand, “Yeah, yeah.”

            Ahnjong knows him far too well to fall for any of his acts.

 

            “If tomorrow isn’t calmer, you’re bartering for the oolong.”

 

            He winces.

            She passes him, untying her apron, and climbs the stairwell, not even bothering to cast a smirk over her shoulder.

 

 

 

 

            He ends up bartering for the oolong.

 

 

 

 

            A week later, he swings around doorframe, quip already on his tongue, and is so rudely interrupted by a conversation between Ahnjong and a complete stranger. Standing at Ahnjong’s height, the young man is pale, scarred, and carrying a frankly concerning number of blades for a teashop.

            “I’m sorry,” he says, anything but, “am I intruding on something?”

            The other man startles, turning with one wide eye.

            Ahnjong rests a hand on the guy’s forearm. It was bent towards his hip; he was probably reaching for a knife. How does he get himself in these situations?

            “Easy, Hyun–”

            He glares at her, “I can’t fathom how you thought this’d be a good idea. We just got this place running again,” then at the intruder, “you, out.”

            Before anyone can budge, Ahnjong snatches the young man’s bicep, returning his glare with something that can only be described as murderous. Behind the roiling in his chest, he feels a pang of anxiety.  

            Her deep grey eyes are solid as stone.

            “This is Lee,” she says, cold, “our new dish-boy.”

            He scoffs, “I doubt that very much. I’ve never seen this man in my life.”

            The man in question is frozen still, chest barely moving with his breaths. His– Spirits– singular gold eye is narrowed and pierced on Hyun’s face. He suppresses a shiver.

            Ahnjong doesn’t let go; simply cocks her head, goading further response.

            He stares back.

           

            She doesn’t blink.

 

            Shifting his feet, he crosses his arms. “Fine. He can stay,” he notes Ahnjong’s smirk, “but I don’t want any weapons drawn in my teashop.”

            His last-ditch effort at authority is met with two rolling eyes and one blank eye, blinking in lack of comprehension.

            No one thought to teach this kid that life can be traversed without violence? A truly depraved upbringing.

 

 

 

 

            This certainly isn’t to say he trusts him. No, he is not a fool. But Ahnjong seems attached, and he knows better than to work against her wills.

            There’s something dangerous in the way he holds himself, watches every slight movement, pauses at sudden noises. And the way he scrubs the teacups; he looks almost mournful. It’s unsettling.

            Thus, Hyun avoids Lee as much as he can. There’s only so much he can shake off at the end of a day.

 

 

           

            “He just seems–” he grapples with the right word, “haunting.”

            Ahnjong scoops her hair back, “Haunted, more like.”

           

 

 

 

            “He likes the smell,” she offers, one morning, upon a long silence during breakfast.

            Hyun looks up, “Lee?”

            She hums, “Jasmine. Reminds him of home.”

 

 

 

 

            Lee does well keeping to himself, doing the dishes. It was pure duress that forced Hyun to push him out front, apron and notebook in hand. The abject terror on the kid’s face would have been hilarious if he’d had a moment to enjoy it.

            Now, he’s regretting every single one of his actions that led to this point. 

 

            Ahnjong is snickering, and Hyun, hands in his hair, watches as his beloved business falls to ashes.

 

 

            “Um– If you want– I mean– There is– uh–”

 

           

            He could cry. He could, Oma and Shu as his witness, weep a damned river.

            “Why, why, why…” he mumbles.

            Ahnjong starts cackling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

            The kid persists in being frightfully awkward. If Hyun had his way, Lee would stay in the back, doing dishes the whole day long. However, Ahnjong disagrees. Spirits forbid.

            She throws the guy on unsuspecting customers, challenging loyalty of regulars and newcomers alike. No man should have to bear the full force of Lee’s stammering, short tempered services, but she only smiles at the complaints.

            All his pleas are met with an innocent look.

            “Needs socialization,” is all she says, and no more.

 

           

 

 

 

            Hyun feels more than sees trouble arising in the sudden sharpness of the air around him.

Smile waning, he thanks the departing guests one last time before turning back to Lee, who’s standing before a noble couple.

 

            “My dear, I sure hope it wasn’t hot tea that did all that damage, or we’d best find another shop!” The lady laughs like a twinkling bell.

            Her husband huffs a breathy amusement.

            “Certainly. Yes. But I don’t assume one needs both eyes for brewing tea.”

            They erupt into a cacophony of high-pitched warbling and wheezing chuckles, and Lee looks stiff as a wooden plank.

            If he were able, he’s sure steam would be pouring out of his ears. Red-faced and stock still, Lee is trying not to explode, and, if the fist by his side is any indication, his efforts aren’t going to win.

 

            As quick as he is able, Hyun skids across the busy floor, coming to a stop at the noble’s table.

            He places a hand on Lee’s shoulder, ignoring the full-body flinch, and squeezes.

            “Pardon me,” he bows, “I’m dreadfully sorry, but I must borrow your server for a moment.”

 

           

           

            Once in the kitchen, he drops the shaking kid into Ahnjong’s hands, who looks appropriately concerned by the turn of events, and steals the notebook from his grip.

            “Another rule in customer service: The customer is allowed to insult you, but you don’t have to take it alone.”

            He catches Ahnjong’s knowing smile as he leaves, and wonders, with a sinking in his gut, what in Spirit’s name he’s just done.  

 

 

 

 

           

            He knows before it happens, that Ahnjong will force Lee to talk to the gaggle of young teenagers. ‘He needs friends his age’ she’d say. Sure. But these people? They’re loud, colorful, and everything Lee is not.

            Halfway to the table, the kid freezes, shakes his head, and continues, albeit slower.

            The shop is mostly empty, so Hyun can just watch, queasily, as they batter the guy with questions. Like the shy person he is, Lee keeps his head bent at a painfully low angle as he writes in the notebook.

            This stilted, mostly one-sided, conversation lasts a few minutes. ‘Few’ meaning ‘more than several.’ Even Hyun’s patience is starting to falter.

            Finally, they’ve ordered, and the kid lifts his chin and turns to face him, relief palpable.

            “It’s you!”

            Startled by the volume, Hyun stumbles from his position by the kitchen door. The kid who’d screamed it is smiling as wide as the Si Wong desert and pointing right at Lee.

           

            The kid in question goes pale, looking uneasily between him and the accusing finger.

 

            “No, it is. He saved me!”

 

            Squabbling from their corner grows louder and the three kids are yelling and gesticulating before anyone could parse meaning from anything that’s been said.

           

            Seeing the opportunity, Lee slips past Hyun into the kitchen, all wide-eyed.

 

            “No, wait!”

 

            The kid leaps from his seat, hops over chairs, and nearly runs straight through Hyun, who doesn’t remember deciding to move.

            “Excuse me? I need to talk to him.”

            His eyes are big and bright and young, and he bounces on his toes as he gestures to where Lee disappeared.

            “Um.”

            “Please? It’s important.”

            Somehow his eyes get bigger and more glistening. Pout firmly on his lower lip, he clasps his hands under his chin.

            Hyun swallows before steeling himself.

            “Sorry, young man,” he says, affecting his customer service persona, “but this door is for employees only.”

            “But–!”

            “I sincerely apologize for all this trouble. Can I interest you in some complimentary tea cakes? We have lemon, cherry-nut…”

           

 

            With cakes in tow, the other two pull a sulky-looking kid out of the shop. Hyun waves peaceably at the older boy, who seems genuinely contrite.

 

 

 

            “No idea. Wouldn’t say,” Ahnjong says over evening tea.

            “He wouldn’t say anything?” He finds that hard to believe. As close-lipped as he is around Hyun, he is nothing of the same to Ahnjong.

            She holds his skeptical gaze with expertise. He changes tactics.

            “They damn-near scared the bones out of him. Thought I’d have to chase him out of the rafters with a broom.”

            She just rolls her eyes.

 

            “You admit it, then?” she asks.

            “Admit,” he narrows his eyes, “…what.”

            “You care for Lee.”

            He sputters.

            “Ridiculous.”

            Ahnjong smiles.

 

 

 

           

           

            Hyun surveys the baskets, noting the low stores of Lapsang Souchong. His interest is piqued, but he knows Da Hong Pao is a better seller. Sure, it’s a little more expensive than usual, but that must mean it’s in demand, right?

            He shakes his head; he has to stick to the list Ahnjong made. The last time he came home with too much Pu’er and not enough Pouchong he was set straight.

            Leaning down, he sniffs the Lapsang, shuddering at the bitter smokiness. Yeah, Ahnjong was right.

            He holds up a finger, calling the attention of the vendor, and hands him the list. After bowing in thanks, he turns to survey the calm atmosphere of the shop.

            In a moment of chance, he catches the eye of an older man hovering over the chamomile.

            “Happy morning, sir,” he bows.

            “Oh, thank you. A happy morning to you as well.”

            “Are you new to the area? I haven’t seen you here before.”

            The man chuckles, eyes crinkling. “No, no. The other vendor closed down. I was told to come here.”

            Hyun smiles, “Very well. You can’t get better tea in all of the Earth Kingdom, than here.”

            “Glad to hear.”

            “Do you work nearby?”

            The older man hums pleasantly, examining the price of the ginseng.

            “I do indeed. Right over at Pao’s Tea Shop.”

            Hyan scoffs, “Oh, that old lout? He scalds the greens!”

            At that, the man laughs, hand to his chest.

            “That he does, but it’s a living.”

            With such a kindly expression, it’s hard to believe Pao relented against his advice. Well, no. It’s not, really. Pao is as confident as he is incompetent.

            “Well, if you’d prefer proper tea, my tea shop is always hiring. Or even if you’d just like a spot of good tea for once–”

            He’s interrupted by the return of the vendor, large sack in hand with packets of his order inside, presented from behind a partition.

            “Why thank you. And thank you,” he turns to the older man, “for the lovely conversation. I hope to see you soon­– uh…”

            “Mushi.”

            “Yes, yes. I hope to see you soon, Mushi.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

            It’s near the end of the day, and customers have slowed to a slow trickle. There’s only a couple more hours before Hyun can gleefully slam the door shut on, what he’s considering now, one of the most strenuous days in the tea shop’s history.

            He pauses behind the kitchen door, wiping sweat off his upper lip, when he hears the bell atop the door jingle.

            Reaffixing his garish grin, he steps through the entrance, only to drop into something more genuine at the sight of his new good friend.

 

            “Ah, Mushi!”

            The man grins heartedly, “Lovely place you have, young man.”

            Hyun feels the blush color his cheeks. “I am no more a young man than you are the Fire Lord,” he laughs.

            Mushi chuckles.

            “Please, I would be honored to give you the full tour,” he says, bowing exaggeratedly.

            “And I would be honored to accept.”

           

 

            He leads the older man around the modest dining area, where only one table is currently occupied, designing lavish stories for each spoon, plate, and piece of artwork on the walls.

            Mushi laughs at the appropriate intervals, throwing embellished praise in front of the only two present customers.

            This is a man fully acquainted with customer service. Hyun can respect that.

 

           

            “And this is where I hide my delightful other-half, Ahnjong.”

            He turns back, expecting the usual, jovial expression on Mushi’s face. Instead, he sees a man stricken with grief, staring, unmoored, at Lee.

           

            Noticing the silence, the boy looks up from his task. He jolts, as if experiencing a physical blow.

           

            For a moment, the two stare at each other, pale and wide-eyed, and Mushi brings a hand to his mouth, where, to Hyun’s shock and confusion, tears have already started to collect.

 

            Recognizing the flighty look in Lee’s eye, he situates himself in front of the exit into the alley.

            “How– How do you know each other?” he asks, softly and delicately.

           

            As if connected by a great force, blocked off from the world, neither respond. Even Ahnjong, stilled by the rack of cups, looks uncomfortable.

 

 

            Mushi falters first, taking a deep, steadying breath.

 

 

            “Oh my– my nephew. I’ve missed you.”