Fic: Terracotta Dawn (Chapter Five)|
The twins made good time away from the capital and by dawn they had reached the end of Capital Island. Kouji furnished a shelter for them where solid earth merged with sand, and they settled in to rest.
Kouji fell asleep almost immediately — though he'd been practising his earthbending more, he had done quite a bit already this night, and he'd had to do it as stealthily as possible.
Yui, however, remained awake, considering the information the Phoenix King had bestowed upon her. She was still wondering how she would get enough blood without killing herself when she, too, fell asleep.
It was early afternoon when she rose to nature's call. She moved with care to the mouth of their shelter so as not to disturb her brother, shielding her eyes as she peered outside to see if her exit would be noticed. There were no people around, so she emerged fully from the dug-in shelter and waited for her eyes to adjust.
Once she had taken care of her bodily needs, she took off her shoes and moved towards the water, keeping one eye out for mussel burrows. They could do with some variation in their diet, especially since it looked like most of their money was going to go to getting the materials needed to counteract Mi Ren's plan.
Taking care to remain in sight of the shelter, Yui began walking along the beach, letting the waves lap at her feet. The beach was shallow and the tide was high, so there was little damage of a rip current dragging her from the shore. She moved further into the water, rolling up her pants legs to keep them from getting too wet.
She sighed in pleasure at the feel of the water gently moving around her calves, silken-soft and cool. It was simply too much for the young woman to bear.
In an instant she stripped off her clothes and tossed them onto the sand. Her undergarments followed, and she strode further out into the sea until it came to her waist. With a shiver of delight, she leaned forward and began to swim, letting the water clean away yesterday's sweat and grime.
Closing her eyes, she ducked completely beneath the water and rolled with sheer joy — she almost never got a chance to swim like this. Even the last time, when she had accidentally triggered the temple-trap, she hadn't really been able to enjoy the water.
She came up and laughed, throwing her arms in the air to send water droplets flying everywhere. Let Kouji remain landlocked for the rest of his life. When all this was done and they'd bought Ichiro out of prison, she was going to move to the seaside and swim every day.
Unless, of course, she managed to get into opera. That would be even better.
Yui opened her mouth to sing, but quickly stopped herself — sound carried on water, and while there was nobody in sight—
There was a man on the beach.
Where had he come from?
There was something naggingly familiar about him, too, but Yui couldn't tell why from this distance. With a sigh, she made her way back to where she had left her clothes, and realised that the man was sitting right beside them.
Yui paused, considering. She was to her shoulders in the water, so modesty was preserved — while normally she wouldn't have cared, she disliked men who played tricks to see a naked woman. Sitting by her clothes was certainly a trick.
But she couldn't very well stay out here and wait for Kouji to wake up.
Very well, then. She would retrieve her clothing and play the cold, haughty empress. This usually worked much better for her than fire-anger.
She held her head high and began to wade in, prepared to pointedly ignore the—
Her eyes went wide, and she automatically began to bow, but hesitated when she remembered she was still waist-deep in the water.
"Bowing is not necessary," said Ozai.
Oh, good. "I thank you, my King," Yui said. She bowed at the waist anyway; politeness was always key when dealing with that man. Ruthlessly she shoved aside her surprise and fright at his sudden appearance — why was he even there?
Ozai smiled. "I will meet you over there," he said, indicating the hill Kouji had dug their shelter into. That said, he turned and strode off.
Yui waited until he was out of sight, then hurried to the shore. She shook the sand out of her clothing, then dressed quickly, mind racing. What was he doing there? How had he gotten out of prison? Why had he found her? How had he found her? Should she wake Kouji before going to him.
She lifted her braid and wrapped it around her head to buy some more time, pinning it into place with some of her lockpicks. No, she shouldn't wake her brother. If Ozai were to construe it as a trap of some kind…
She shuddered, and made her way to the Phoenix King. Some fifteen feet from him, she bowed a second time, this time the proper bow before royalty. It was absolutely imperative that she treat him with all due deference, especially now that there were no bars between them.
"You may approach me, Yui-chan," he said.
Heart pounding in her chest — (he was so much more terrible in the open) — Yui rose to her feet and came to him, stopping five feet from him this time. She did not want to get within arm's reach of him.
He smiled at her, and she shivered. "You will need a trained priest on your endeavour, Yui-chan," he almost purred. "The rite to seal the statues is a dangerous one for a layperson."
"Oh," she said after a moment. Did he intend to join them? "I— y-you're coming with us, my King?"
"I am," he agreed genially.
Oh gods, they were going to go to prison forever.
Yui swallowed. "Thank you, my King."
"Yui?" she heard her brother calling. Oh, Agni, she was going to have to explain this to him, wasn't she?
She bowed again to Ozai. "Please excuse me, my King," she said. "I must reassure my brother." And warn him. Oh gods, this was going to get ugly.
"Do as you must," replied the Phoenix King, dismissing her.
Another bow, this one of departure, and Yui darted off to intercept Kouji before he spotted Ozai.
Kouji blinked when he saw her, grey eyes darting to her pinned-up, wet hair and the spots where her clothes still clung to her. "Yui? Is something wrong?"
"Not… really, no," Yui said.
He canted his head to one side. "Not really?"
She coughed. "We have a… companion on our quest now."
Kouji arched an eyebrow at his twin. "A companion?"
"Yeah." Yui shifted her weight. How was she going to explain this one?
"The Phoenix King."
"Are you insane?" Kouji hissed. "We can't take him with us! Do you know how many laws—"
Yui covered his mouth with her hand. "I really don't think we have a choice, Kouji."
He paused, then pulled her hand down. "What do you mean by that?"
She shifted again. "He's kind of already here."
His eyes went wide as her words sank in. "Already… Yui, did you—?"
"No!" she snapped at him. "Do I look like I'm crazy? He got out on his own!"
Kouji let go of her hand and rubbed his temples. "Great. And he wants to come with us?"
"I think he's pretty much going to," Yui answered. "Unless you can think of a way to stop him?"
Her twin went pale at the thought. "So… how are we getting to Ba Sing Se with him?"
"I'm working on it." Yui sighed. "And I'm going to need to introduce you to him."
"…do you have to?"
Yui gave him a Look. "Kouji, we have to be polite. We should be okay as long as he's amused with us."
Kouji sighed. "That's really not reassuring, Yui."
"He's the Phoenix King," Yui said softly. "That's the best I can offer."
"Yeah…" Kouji shook his head. "We're going to go to jail forever."
"I know." Yui sighed. "Let's just get out of the Fire Nation first. Then we can worry about Ba Sing Se."
"Yeah," Kouji said. "Let me drop the shelter—"
Yui shook her head rapidly, her eyes wide. "Kouji, no! You know what would happen if you were found out…"
He looked at her in sudden fear. "Yui… how are we going to hide this?"
"Please tell me you brought shoes."
Kouji's silence was telling.
Yui put her face in her hands. "Okay. Okay. We'll just have to take this one step at a time. And the first step is introductions. Come on." She grabbed her brother's hand and towed him after her, back to where Ozai waited. As they rounded the dune, Kouji tugged free and matched his stride to hers. When they were fifteen feet from him, they both kowtowed — in unison, Yui noted. How did they keep doing that?
She could hear amusement — no, that wasn't amusement; that sounded like pleasure in his voice as he bade them rise. As she and Kouji both got up, she noticed that Ozai was smiling, and not in a scary way.
For some reason, that scared her more.
Yui took a deep breath. "Phoenix King Ozai, this is my brother. Kouji."
Fortunately, Kouji had very pretty manners, even if he did tend to take after Ichi-ni more these days and not use them like he should. He bowed deeply and murmured, "My King."
"Kouji," Ozai acknowledged, granting him leave to straighten up. He regarded the twins a moment, still smiling that not-scary-but-still-scary smile, then said, "Tell me your plan."
Yui exchanged a look with her brother, then turned once more to the former Firelord. Keeping her eyes downcast, she said, "We mean to return to Ba Sing Se as quickly as we can, purchasing the components for the spe— for the ritual that you spoke of, my King." Calling it a spell sounded far too fantastic for Yui's taste.
"Some of the components are expensive," Ozai pointed out. "What will you do if you run out of money?"
Yui shrugged and sighed quite deliberately. "There are ways of making more."
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Kouji flush dark red.
The Phoenix King looked briefly taken aback, and Yui added smoothly, "Helping out in a restaurant, for example."
Kouji made a sort of strangled squeaking sound, but Ozai had already recovered. "And will those… other ways make enough money to purchase the amount of blood you'll need?"
Yui blanched. She really didn't want to think about that part of the ritual.
"We'll get to that," Kouji said, his voice pitched slightly higher than usual. He slipped his hand into hers and squeezed. She squeezed back, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath to compose herself. Ozai's question had rattled her.
Yui opened her eyes again. "The first step is returning to Ba Sing Se. Which… forgive me, my King, but it has become difficult."
Ozai acknowledged his part in this with a nod, but offered no solution. Yui half-lidded her eyes as she mentally sorted through the resources she and Kouji had. Money, a few scrolls, their nice clothes—
Her eyes opened, and she smiled. "I have an idea."
Ozai wasn't certain he'd ever met anyone quite like Yui-chan, though Ty Lee came close.
Yui hadn't really explained her idea beyond, "We'll need new clothes." He supposed that she didn't trust him enough to share more than that. Her brother certainly didn't trust him, though he at least attempted to hide his suspicious glances.
He couldn't help but wonder what had brought two such unusual, intelligent young Fire children to Ba Sing Se. The boy was obviously a scholar of some kind, though his physique suggested he was more than that; Yui-chan had some very unusual skills for a young peasant girl.
The twins were an enigma, a delightful mystery to unravel. Ozai was going to enjoy this trip.
"Okay," he heard Yui-chan say; a split-second later, Kouji groaned.
Ozai turned, and his gold eyes widened fractionally.
The girl had changed from rough travel gear to a lighter, more festive dress. This dress, Ozai decided, had to have been specially tailored for Yui-chan. It was Fire Nation red, with golden coloured piping that matched the golden jewellery she wore . The cut of it drew the eye not to her bosom, but to the flash of gold around her right ankle. From there, his eyes were drawn up the line where crimson slipped away from Fire-pale skin, up her shapely calf and thigh to the bottom of her hip.
Gold glittered around her wrists, demanding their own share of attention, which led his eyes up her arms and finally to her torso. Her dress did not encourage one's gaze to linger, but rather to continue the journey up, first by the flash of throat exposed by the Mandarin collar, and then by the curve of her neck. Ozai realised that she had taken her hair from the childish braid and pulled it up into a topknot.
Yui-chan, it seemed, was not a girl after all.
"No," said Kouji abruptly.
Yui-chan blinked, and Ozai's eyes flicked over to him. "No?"
"No," the boy repeated. "You are not sleeping with—"
She rolled her eyes. "Of course I'm not. I'd be going out in the evening if I was."
"Then why are you wearing that?"
The young woman smiled. "First, it makes me look older. Second, it is an excellent dress and shows that I'm not liable to be taken in. Third, it implies wealth — or at least wealthy patrons — which might be the edge I need for a discount on an order."
Kouji sputtered, and Yui-chan hugged him. "Relax, Kouji. I know exactly what I'm doing." The boy was not mollified until she murmured something in his ear that Ozai couldn't catch.
Ozai didn't like his twins keeping secrets. He would be sure to stick close to the boy while Yui-chan was away. They had demonstrated enough intelligence that he knew they would not cross him, but there was no point in taking risks.
"I'll be back," said Yui-chan, stepping away from her brother.
"When?" Kouji asked.
She considered for a moment. "Give me a few hours before you start to worry." She tapped the band around her right wrist and smiled again. "I'll be fine." She turned to Ozai and offered a bow of respectful departure. Once he had acknowledged her, she set off.
The boy sighed and glanced at the Phoenix King. "My King," he said, "may I show you to our shelter?"
Ozai nodded assent. The sun was no longer rising, but it was fairly humid. Shade would be nice.
With a bow, Kouji led his King around the hill to a somewhat concealed entrance to a hollow within the hill. On entering, Ozai discovered that it was fairly wide — too wide to be natural. It was almost too low inside as well; the top of his head was an inch from the ceiling. The shelter was also entirely too smooth and too rounded to be a natural formation.
Ozai's eyes narrowed. This had likely been formed by an earthbender.
His twins had been lucky to stumble upon it.
Kouji was rifling through a bag, turned so that his profile was to Ozai. As he removed a scroll from his bag, Ozai realised that it was brighter in the cave than it should have been. The light was fairly steady, with a green cast to it; a fire would have tinted the cave red and moved the shadows more.
The source of the light was a rock by Kouji's knee. Despite apparently having a flattened bottom and being approximately the size of two fists, the formation of it appeared to be natural. Intrigued, Ozai examined it. He had heard of the light-crystals of Ba Sing Se, but had never seen a specimen of that size.
"This must have cost a fortune," he commented.
"Mm?" Kouji looked up from his scroll, and Ozai stole a glance at it. Like the scroll Yui-chan had presented to him, it was written in Old Earth. "Oh, the crystal? It was a gift from one of my professors."
"A pricey gift," Ozai observed.
Kouji shrugged and did not elaborate, apparently more fascinated by his scroll than by his King.
His twins were definitely hiding things.
"You and your sister are very unusual," he commented.
Kouji glanced up again. "It's been mentioned before." He shifted position, and Ozai noticed that his feet were bare.
Bare feet, a shelter that just fit the boy's height, from New Sozin but living in Ba Sing Se, an expensive bit of light-crystal that he was far too blasé about…
"I'm curious, Kouji — was it your father or your mother that was the earthbender?"
Kouji jerked, his head snapping up to stare at him with wide grey eyes. Ozai smiled, and the boy looked somewhat irritated. "How did you figure it out?"
Ozai gestured to his bare feet. "Even if you were as poor as you appear, your sister wears shoes. And this shelter is a little too unnatural, and too tailored to your height."
"Slag," the boy muttered, and Ozai raised an eyebrow. How long had his twins been in Ba Sing Se? "It was our mother," Kouji then answered the original question.
"Mm. How is it you two were able to afford such thoughtful gifts for me?"
Kouji hesitated, then said, "We're amateur archaeologists."
"Ah." Ozai smiled. "Treasure hunters."
Inexplicably, the boy put his head in his hands and groaned.
Though now that Ozai thought about it, it made sense — and it certainly explained how Yui-chan had managed to get in to see him, and gave some hints as to how they had stumbled upon the plot in the first place.
But why hide that?
Ozai considered how rough the twins appeared to dress with the money they were likely making as treasure hunters. The gifts they had presented him with indicated that they were fairly successful, so what were they doing with the money?
He supposed they might be war-orphans as well as war-children, but he doubted young people as attractive as his twins would have lasted very long on the streets in that case. No, not orphans… but, perhaps, one of their parents had been arrested? They did live in Ba Sing Se.
And desperate enough, with the emergence of this new plot, to seek help from him.
One could almost pity them.
Ozai, however, had difficulty with pity, and his twins seemed to be doing quite well as it was. They were survivors; if there was a problem, they went out and took care of it. He liked that kind of person; they were less likely to demand favours.
(He suspected they would be happier if he wasn't along at all, but he wasn't interested in making them happy.)
"Why?" Kouji asked suddenly.
The Phoenix King blinked. "Why what?"
"Why are you helping us? Sir," he added, almost an afterthought.
Ozai smiled slowly. "How are you planning on getting the blood, Kouji-kun?"
The question didn't faze the boy nearly as much as it had his sister. "I doubt Mi-Ren is working alone," he said calmly. "I'm also sure they'll be prepared to fight."
Ozai arched an eyebrow. "Have you ever killed a man?"
"No," Kouji replied quietly, "but if it comes down to my life against his…"
"There is a difference between killing someone and thinking you can kill someone," he pointed out.
"I know," was the quiet reply. For just the briefest instant, the boy looked younger, more vulnerable, almost wounded. Then he shook his head and returned his attention to his scroll. "I suppose we'll find out."
And he wondered why Ozai was along.
← Chapter Four | Chapter Six →
Current Location: the tv room couch
Current Mood: sore
Tags: character: kouji, character: ozai, character: yui, fic: terracotta dawn