Fic: Terracotta Dawn (Chapter Six)|
Yui returned to the shelter as the sun was setting with three new sets of clothing. She also looked rather nervous.
Kouji frowned. "Yui?" He hadn't gone out to meet her like he usually would have. The Phoenix King was far too observant for Kouji's liking; the less he knew about them, the better.
"I got the clothing," she said. "At a discount, too."
"Let me see," said Kouji, stepping closer. As he took the top set from her, he lowered his voice and added, "He knows about the earthbending. I said Mom was the earthbender. He also knows about the archaeology."
"Right," she said, barely moving her lips.
Kouji turned his gaze to the clothing in his hands. "…I guess this is for you?" he asked, eyeing the light red fabric and the veil sitting atop it.
"Not… really, no," Yui answered.
The earthbender froze. "No."
"It isn't like we have a choice!" his sister hissed. "He's too distinctive, especially here!"
"He is going to murder us and they will never find our bodies."
"No, just me," she retorted.
"I'd be a witness. Seriously, how do you expect to get him into that?" Kouji demanded.
"I'm going to ask him."
"…ask him," repeated Kouji.
"Politely," Yui clarified.
Kouji groaned. They were dead, both of them.
"You can clear the blast zone if you like," Yui snapped at him. "But he's coming with us whether we like it or not, and I would prefer to get to Ba Sing Se and stop those bastards before we get arrested."
The offer was a tempting one, he had to admit. But either of them being alone with the Phoenix King was manifestly a bad idea. He saw too much. And if he saw Kouji's little side-project…
"No, I'll go with you," he said. He might be able to earthbend fast enough to save them.
He turned back to the shelter and saw Ozai standing outside it, watching them. Probably making sure they weren't going to cross him, Kouji thought. He put the garment back in his sister's arms, and together the two of them made their way to the Phoenix King.
They stopped five feet from him and bowed as one; when they straightened, Kouji noticed that Ozai was doing that creepy smile thing again.
Yui swallowed. "My King," she began, voice stronger than she likely felt. "I selected our disguises with care, as there is a search for you."
Ozai raised an eyebrow. "Oh?" he drawled.
"I took the time to watch the docks," she explained. "They searched the men far more carefully than they did the women, and single travellers more so than groups."
"Lax of them," the Phoenix King commented.
"Using that knowledge," Yui continued, not really wanting to comment on how thoroughly they were searching for Ozai, "I thought up a cover story that would encourage them not to look too closely at us."
He gestured for her to continue, a faint expression of amusement on his face.
"There's any number of merchant families establishing branches in the Earth Kingdom," Yui went on. "When I went to buy the clothing, I insinuated I was one of a pair of guards for the wife of a merchant who had already gone to the Earth Kingdom, and was now ready for his lady to join him."
Ozai blinked twice.
Apparently he hadn't been expecting that particular cover story.
The silence stretched on, broken only by a sea breeze gusting along.
Finally, Kouji said, "Or we could find something else."
Ozai stepped forward and took the top layer of clothing from Yui's arms. "I am not shaving for this," he informed her.
The twins froze for a moment, then Yui rallied. "Of course not, my King — there's a veil included."
Ozai smiled. "Good."
It was an unusual trio of people that made their way to the docks. In the lead was a tall woman with her dark brown hair done up in a simple marriage-topknot. She wore an opaque veil to hide her face, as was the current fashion among the more pretentious merchants. Her robes, while not quite daring to be Imperial red, came fairly close; fine linen masquerading as silk. Both clothing and veil were trimmed in pale gold thread, lending her an air of authority.
In contrast, the young man and young woman to either side of her were dressed quite severely, in clothing of so dark a red they bordered on black. The only trace of true colour to their matching outfits — one might, in fact, call them uniforms — was an embroidered sigil, a magpie-crow cutting through a flame.
The observant would notice the same sigil worked subtly into the pattern of the lady's dress.
The two handsome young people were almost identical in appearance, with the same coal-black hair pulled back into the same waist-length braid. The only real differences between them were those that indicated gender, and the colour of their eyes.
Identical twins were in vogue now, though hard to find properly trained; presumably the gender difference meant these two had been something of a cheaper buy. Easy to believe of a penny-pinching merchant.
It was the young woman who split away, moving to the ticket booth. "Three tickets to Taku," she instructed, her face bodyguard-blank.
Port Taku had been conquered and abandoned during the early years of Sozin's War, but a number of Earth Kingdom merchants and some former soldiers had, in recent years, returned to the port-city to restore it, if not to its former glory, then at least to a source of income and trade that would help two badly-battered nations recover from the post-war economic slump.
The ticketmaster raised a brow at her. "Taku? That's quite a ways."
The young woman, it seemed, was not inclined to banter. "It is our destination."
The ticketmaster sighed. What a waste, to train such an attractive young girl to bodyguardhood rather than a more… fitting profession. "Very well," he said. "That will be ten gold pieces."
She put the requested amount on his desk, and waited until he had the tickets in hand. When he turned them over, she nodded in response to his, "Good Day," and returned to her group.
"And now for the difficult part," murmured the young man.
"We'll be fine," replied his sister.
The lady said nothing.
Now they headed toward the ship they would take to the Earth Kingdom, with their lady once more leading the way. However, when they were halted by one of the Homeland Defence Force, it was the young man who stepped forward. "Three to Port Taku," he said, utterly calm as he presented his tickets to the guardswoman.
She glanced them over, then said, "That seems to be in order. Your passports?"
The young man didn't even blink. "That's a new requirement."
The woman shrugged. "New regulation just came into effect."
"That could be a problem," mused the young man. "We weren't warned of such a regulation when we left Crescent Island."
"And you wouldn't have been," she replied, with some annoyance now. "It just happened as of this morning."
The young man's eyebrows lifted. "That must be inconveniencing quite a few passers-through."
"It's only for international travel, though," said the guardswoman. "It might be easier for your lady to route through Three Volcanoes Bay." She returned the tickets to him, adding, "You can go back to the ticket-master and exchanges these to suit your new travel plans. Tell him that Li Akiko sent you and reminds him of what happened in the Year of the Horse."
Now the young man smiled slightly. "Thank you for your help, guardswoman," he said, and bowed. She bowed in return, palming the silver pieces he had slipped her during the second exchange.
"It was my pleasure, young sir," she said.
He returned to his sister and his lady. "Back we go," was his soft comment.
"That's not inconvenient at all, is it?" the young woman asked, looking mildly vexed.
"Regs are regs," her brother answered with a dispassionate shrug. "Let's go reroute."
Evening saw them aboard the Bright Sun, settled into a comfortable cabin. Only there, with the door locked and Yui leaning casually against it, did Ozai remove his veil. Kouji had unpacked the materials necessary for tea-making and was doing so, quickly enough that it was clear he wanted his tea before the ship set sail.
Ozai watched the almost-frantic movements Kouji made with mild amusement. "It won't run away," he murmured.
"It's peppermint tea," said Yui, ignoring the glare her twin shot at her.
"Ah," said the Phoenix King. "I suppose it makes sense."
To be fair, Yui hadn't heard of many earthbenders who got quite so seasick as her brother did, though perhaps it was a combination of the Fire in his blood and the Earth to his bending? Or maybe Kouji was just weird. Either way, taking the tea meant that he wouldn't be useless for three days straight, and that she wouldn't have to deal with the side effects of it.
She stretched as high as she could, smiling slightly when her fingers brushed the ceiling. "It should be about two days before we reach Three Volcanoes Bay," she said, dropping her arms. "From there, we'll try Taku again."
"What will you do if they require passports as well?" Ozai inquired.
"Well, at that point we're pretty much screwed," Kouji said. "Probably steal some."
Both of Ozai's eyebrows went up at that.
"Buying them would be less noticeable, Kouji," Yui censured him.
He eyed her. "We will run out of money."
Her eyes narrowed in turn. "I am aware of the risk."
"Do you remember what that money is for?" Kouji demanded.
Yui froze, then her hands clenched into fists. "You," she said, "had better not be implying what I think you're implying."
"What is he implying?" Ozai asked mildly.
The twins paused, then glanced over at him as if only just remembering he was there. Silence stretched, and then Kouji finally said, "Nothing."
"Liar," said the Phoenix King.
"Nothing important, sir," Yui clarified. The look she shot at her brother was venomous, however. "I need some fresh air," she added. "With your permission…?"
"Of course," said Ozai graciously.
Yui bowed low, then slipped out of their cabin. She made her way through the ship until she emerged on the deck, then moved as far astern as she could. Only there, with her face turned away from everyone else on deck, did she allow the tears to fall.
How dare he.
How dare he!
Did Kouji really think she didn't remember what they were trying to do? She missed Ichiro and wanted their older brother free as much as he did, but stopping another war unfortunately had to take priority over buying him out of prison. It wasn't fair!
Tears burned in her eyes.
It wasn't fair.
She remembered more of their desperate flight than Kouji, largely because Kouji had been delirious with fever at the time. She remembered that horrifying moment when she'd realised Ichiro wouldn't be joining them, and more than one moment when she'd thought her twin wouldn't live through the night.
But Kouji had not only survived, he'd recovered as well. Almost too well, she sometimes thought, but at the time she hadn't cared, so relieved had she been that he was alive. But she wondered, sometimes, how much he remembered.
Even now, six years later, she still woke up screaming from memories of that horrible night. If Kouji ever had nightmares about it, he'd hidden them well.
They had been so close.
And then that bastard Mi-Ren had had to come up with that stupid plan to rekindle the war, or at least start a new one. And then that stupid plan had had the gall to actually work. A plan so fantastic that nobody would believe anyone who reported it, and it had been a pair of displaced Fire Nation teenagers to discover it.
And now they had Ozai to deal with.
Yui rubbed her temples, trying to dispel the gathering headache.
If the Phoenix King would make the end result easier to deal with, he was still making the road there much more expensive and difficult than they had anticipated. And, she had to admit, his presence was making tensions between her and Kouji run high. No wonder they'd come so close to fighting — though that didn't excuse Kouji's accusation at all.
They would get through this.
They had to.
And then they would get Ichiro out of prison.
Hell, maybe they should just go get him when this was all over. Gods knew if she could break into the prison that held the Phoenix King, she could break into wherever Ichiro was being held and get him out.
She took a deep breath, then let it all go in one short burst.
Yui remained at the stern of the ship until all evidence of her crying had vanished, then returned to the cabin.
Kouji's tea was by now gone, and he was studying a scroll again. His back was to the wall, presumably so Ozai could not read over his shoulder. The Phoenix King himself was seated on the sole bed in the room, a slim novel in his hands. Judging by the cover, it was Omashu Li and the Legend of the Hidden Temple. She didn't think they owned any other books with silver serpents and blue piranhacudas on the cover, anyway.
Of course, why Ozai was reading it was anybody's guess. Maybe he was bored.
"You're back," he said, looking up from the book. Kouji hadn't looked up at all, but she hadn't expected him to.
"I wanted to watch the departure," she replied. She peered at the book again. "I didn't know you liked Omashu Li, sir."
A small smile crossed his face. "My father considered the series inappropriate for young princes to read. My brother used to sneak them to me when I was a child."
Kouji looked up from his scroll, an incredulous expression on his face. "Inappropriate?"
No mention to be made of the argument or her departure, then. Good.
"I was twelve when the first book came out," Ozai informed them. His face twisted. "The Last Airbender."
Yui drew back a step, wide-eyed. Did the Phoenix King realise how frightening he was?
His expression smoothed out into a sardonic smile. "Al Vachir being presented in a sympathetic light, even if he was not an Air Nomad, was not something my father felt I should be reading."
"…oh," said Kouji after a moment.
Silence fell, then Yui moved over to her pack and dug out Omashu Li and the Gems of Taku. She bowed once more to Ozai, then settled in to read.
Ozai's eyes snapped open.
The gasp had been small, barely noticeable, but it had awakened him all the same. Now he could hear one of his twins, taking in deep, shuddering breaths and then releasing them quickly. He lay still, trying to ascertain which twin it was, then heard a muffled sob.
He debated speaking to her, but decided to hold his peace — his twins were proud, and Yui-chan was doing the best she could to hide her obvious distress. Her earlier aborted fight with Kouji-kun had obviously struck her hard.
He'd respect her desire for privacy for now. Eventually, however, he would discover just what it was his twins were hiding.
← Chapter Five
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Tags: character: kouji, character: ozai, fandom: avatar, fic: terracotta dawn