Of Secrets and Secrets (Or some equally awesome title. DragonHarp x IvySeeker)
Rin Xinjing, daughter of the widow who owned the Xin Tea Shop and Inn, perched idly on a stool outside the small establishment. The black haired young woman was nineteen summers old, though her appearance implied otherwise. With her calloused hands, constant cynical demeanour, one would have placed her in her mid twenties. Eyes the colour of teal stared out into the streets, hardened by years of hard work and injustice. She sat next to a small stand promoting the new varieties of tea leaves, its gaudy lettering and enticing prices failing to attract customers. A sigh wrenched itself out of her thin lips, with the oppressive Fire Nation stealing money through doubtable taxes and breathing down their necks, most folks wouldn't have enough to afford a well brewed cup of tea. Those that could simply had better sources.
Times were hard on them all, nobody was spared. Yet, those that could live luxuriously had the chance of relocating to the well protected Ba Sing Se, and were cushioned from the brutal effects of the war. What war? She thought bitterly, The Fire Nation might as well have won. Yet, a small part of her stubbornly refused to believe that the Fire Nation was truly winning. For weeks now, there had been hushed murmurings of the Avatar's return. Rin didn't want to place much stock into rumours, but hope was contagious. It was like a tremor from the Earth, you tried to evade it, but the vibrations would still reach you anyway. Even her sixty four year old mother waited eagerly for the day that the Avatar would finally liberate them. She put up a cynical front to anyone who asked her opinion on the matter, but secretly, she hoped that the rumours were true. There was a sudden hush upon the streets as a woman's lone voice cried out despairingly, the apparent grief yanking on her heartstrings. A death? Rin wondered. Deaths from starvation or illness, though not common yet, were not a rarity either. The stocky girl slid off her perch and made her way towards the source of the cry.
As she neared, it became apparent that death was not the cause of the commotion, but a mother finding her child missing, not seen nor heard from the masses. Something didn't sit well with her about this. It was too soon, too soon after Old Lady Sen went missing. That happened just shy of two weeks ago. Rin held her tongue- why stoke the inferno further with mere speculation? Still, her brows furrowed and her fists clenched, outward signs betraying the turmoil within.
Can you hear something?
Rin's inner turmoil would likely be interrupted by the sudden and loud appearance of the brown eyed Julin.
"Surprise!" She cried as she seemed to appear before Rin from nowhere, arms in the air like a child. Julin was quite a short girl and could easily pass as a child despite her age of 20 winters. She wore her shoulder length brown hair in two rather ridiculous bunches high on either side of her head. Her clothing was, as always a mess as she darted about like an unruly child. It didn't seem possible that Julin had lived through the same troubled times as the rest of the world. It could get rather irritating at times.
"Why the troubled face? Just turn that frown upside down!" Julin said, as she always said. It was something that earned her the occasional smack over the head from Meilin. Meilin was an extremely patient young woman but even she couldn't tolerate her sister's seeming disregard for some of the misery they faced.
Back by the shop, the younger (but more mature) of the two Hualing sisters was sitting patiently, her usual gentle smile on her face as she watched her sister and her dearest friend from the not so far distance, giving a little wave when they noticed her. The green eyed bender Meilin was the same age as Rin but with a significantly less cynical air. She was the only one among them that looked her age. She was a great contrast to her sister; where Julin was loud and childish and always joking, Meilin was quiet and sensible with an unobtrusive sense of humor, where Julin was short and disheveled, Meilin was willowy and neat. Meilin's black-brown hair was long but she kept it always tied in a bun at the back of her head to prevent any accidents at the laundry where she worked.
Meilin would greet Rin happily, "Long time no see. How's business?" She peered at the small commotion, "What's all that about? Nothing serious, I hope."
Despite the sombre atmosphere in the square, Rin found herself smiling a little as her long time friend, Julin approached her. How the young woman could still be so childlike during such charities, Rin couldn't fathom. Now her sister, Meilin was much more calmer. Most people didn't think that Rin and Julin could be such good friends, being polar opposites, but something had clicked when they met, and the two had been steadfast friends ever since. Rin bore through the recital of Julin's favourite phrase with a patience she didn't have before gesturing towards Meilin. The two sisters looked alike, yet their demeanour was a completely different story. Whilst Julin was as energetic and skittish like a tiny pebble in a horse's path, Meilin was calm and reliable like the boulder in the woods. Rin had always admired Meilin, for keeping her sweet nature intact throughout these hard years. Even though she may not have been the strongest physically, Rin felt that she was a strong person inside.
"Business is the same as usual," She sighed, leaning against the wall of the shop and offering Meilin a small smile. "How's yours?" At the mention of what had just happened, Rin frowned slightly, chewing on her bottom lip. "Sen, the eight year old? She went missing." The girl pondered as to whether let the sisters in on her suspicions. Meilin didn't require much thought- she wasn't the type for gossip, but Julin, with her friendly personality and big mouth, might just let it slip. Why feed the inferno? They were her friends though, and she didn't want to keep secrets from them. "It seems, how do I put it? Well, rather suspicious. Especially just two weeks after the seamstress's mother disappeared."
"Who disappeared what?"
Rin turned around quickly, her eyes landing on a broad shouldered man of about twenty. He was Tien, the miller's son. His common green eyes bore the same tiredness that everyone else (save for Julin) had, yet he somehow kept a sort of weary smile on his face. Tien was also another acquaintance of hers, though not as close as the sisters. Also, Rin knew for a fact that he had something of a crush on Meilin, but was too shy to do anything about it.
"Sen, do you know her?" Why did Rin even bother to ask? It was a small village, almost everyone knew everyone else.
Can you hear something?
Mailin sighed a little, "We lost a lot of business when the town west of here was raided by the Fire Nation. I hope things will pick up again soon."
At the mention of the missing girl, both girls looked shocked, "Missing? How could that have happened? She's not exactly adventurous."
"I hope she comes back soon." Julin murmured, for once looking worried for a few moments before her spirits picked up again, "I'm sure we'll find her! No one messes with our village and gets away with it!" Julin's tough expression was, frankly, rather comical.
Meilin's eyes widened a little and she nodded in agreement when Rin brought up her suspicion, "That's right. I've heard there were a few disappearances in some villages not too far from here as well. I just thought it was pirates or something taking advantage of the hard times." she said, "But we're a bit far inland to be raided."
Julin suddenly went pale, "What if it's an angry spirit dragging people to the spirit world?" The tears of fright building in Julin's eyes quickly disappeared when their quiet conversation was interrupted by Tien. Meilin gave him a friendly smile and a wave, as always but before she could start the usual pleasantries, Julin spoke.
"Maybe we should arrange some sort of search party?" Julin suggested, punching her fist into her open hand with a look of determination.
"It's a good idea but we can hardly spare a minute from work if we want to be able to pay--well, everything."
"We can't just let a little girl go missing! This is our village and no one messes with us!" Julin said with a stomp of her foot before turning sharply on Rin and Tien, "You guys are with me, right?"
Rin tsked in sympathy, shaking her head. The Fire Nation took whatever they wanted, without worrying how their actions would affect the people in the long run. Had they no hearts? She would have loved to classify all the Fire Nation as cruel self absorbed monsters, but her conscience would not allow her that. Surely, they had their own poor that were suffering too? A war like this could not go on for long without putting a strain on resources.
"I don't know." Rin exhaled, tugging on a lock of her hair worriedly. "You're right- of course, but what other options would that leave?" Captured by the Fire Nation? Attacked by wild animals? Neither of the two were appealing, but they were the most plausible. Little Sen was a peaceful girl at heart, and often spent her summer days in fields of wildflowers, in plain sight of her mother's cottage.
"I honestly don't know what to think of it all." Rin sighed, only raising an eyebrow at Julin's antics. "People say all sorts of things." Forget about raising rumour, the other villagers would have had their own theories by now as well. "But you have something there, Meilin. But if it isn't pirates, who's at fault here?"
Julin chimed in with another theory just at that moment, something wild about spirits, and quite a Julin like thing to say. Rin bit her tongue, holding back a rather snappy retort. The thing was, if the spirits allowed the Fire Nation to throw the world into such imbalance, why would they be random targeting innocent victims of the war now?
"Meilin's right, my mother can't run the inn by herself. We can't go chasing something that may not be real, and putting our own welfare- and our families, at risk." That sounded selfish, she knew, but it was the truth. An image of her mother flashed to her mind, emaciated and begging on the streets. The girl shook her head, closing her eyes for a moment to rid the imaginary visions. She couldn't- wouldn't ever let that happen to her mother.
"If the mill could run itself, I would be." Tien echoed her sentiments, running a hand through his hair in frustration. "The scary thing is, any of us could be the next person to disappear, and we have no choice but to sit here and accept that." Oh dear spirits, Tien was right. Whoever it was behind these disappearances showed that he, or she, was not picky in whom they took. These mysterious vanishings happened to the most random of persons. It could even be any one of them standing here right now. The ever energetic Julin, or the stoic Meilin, or even herself. But what could they do? They couldn't just uproot themselves and leave their families behind!
"I heard of a farmer who sold everything to bring his cabbages to Ba Sing Se." Tien chimed in, quite unhelpfully in Rin's opinion. "We could move our businesses there. We might be safer in a large protected city."
"And what if we aren't? All our money wasted for nothing. Besides, too many people are flocking to Ba Sing Se now, it'll be too competitive for our shops to survive." Rin interjected.
Can you hear something?
Meilin's brow furrowed worriedly at Rin's questions. Pirates were the only ones she could think of that would profit from stealing people. Though Fire Nation soldiers did raid villages for workers, they usually only took strong young men for laborers and benders as prisoners. The disappearances recently weren't anything like that. And, now that she thought about it, Pirates and Fire Nationers weren't shy about their raids. The swept in, destroying whatever they pleased, and then--spirits willing--left. These people just... disappeared. No signs, no army, no strangers in town. They were just there one moment and gone the next. The more she thought about it, the colder she felt.
Julin's nose went into the hair and her expression quickly turned to one of haughty anger when Meilin, Tien, and Rin all turned her suggestion down. Meilin's countenance was, for once, displaying exactly the amount of guilt she felt at not being able to help. But both their faces turned worried when Tien pointed out the chillingly obvious. Meilin's frightened eyes darted from Julin to Rin as she tried to imagine what it would be like without either of them. She couldn't even fathom it. Her entire life had been with these two. All of her best and worst memories were with them. For a moment, her eyes flicked up to Tien. Even he was becoming an important part of her life these days. Her heart lurched at the thought of his disappearance.
"Tien might have a point." Meilin chimed hesitantly, "The Fire Nation raiders are getting bolder and bolder these days. This village is lucky. We don't have enough earthbenders or supplies to be noticed yet but the Fire Nation wants to take the Earth Kingdom for itself. Eventually it won't matter that we're small. The only place I could think of that would be safer than Ba Sing Se would be Omashu or--spirits help me--the Northern Water Tribe." She said disdainfully, unable to fathom how a people could tolerate living in place that was winter year around, "I'm not saying it won't be difficult but it might be the best option we have."
"Plus! We've got each other! A lot of people move to Ba Sing Se on their own but together, we might have a fighting chance." She gasped suddenly and dramatically as if she had suddenly been hit though there was a childish awestruck light in her eyes, "Maybe we could even start our very own business together!" she squealed, "If some cabbage farmer can do it, why can't we?"
Meilin stared at her sister for a moment as if the girl had grown a second head, "How are we related!" She turned back to Tien and Rin, "But seriously, even if we can't make our businesses work, we would at least be safe behind the wall. It's not like we don't have skills and Julin's right. If we go together, it gives us a fighting chance."
Rin fell silent whilst Meilin spoke, contemplating on the choices they had. The girl turned herself away slightly from the group and stared unseeingly at the forest beyond. They were right- moving to the bigger cities could be safer. Still, what skills did they have that would work well in a business together? All Rin could do was to make tea and beds. She couldn't even cook a decent meal- her mother did the cooking. And Tien, strong as he was, knew little about anything save for the grains that people tried so hard to put on their plates. As for the sisters, they had their laundry business. Rin folded her arms, then unfolded them. She wanted to believe they were safe, but everywhere they turned there were challenges and dangers in their paths. Julin, Meilin and Tien may not be related to her, but she still treated them as if they did, and loved them accordingly.
"What about our families?" Rin asked, her voice distant. "They grew up here, would they really want to leave?" For a moment, the harsh lines of her face softened into an expression alien to her features- helplessness. Try as hard as she did to dissuade herself, she knew deep down that she had already decided. They would have to move. "And who knows how many bandits are out there? A big group travelling could attract a lot of unwanted attention." Rin herself wasn't a bender, and she was in no way proficient with a weapon. Her only defences were the ones that guarded her heart and mind against hope and optimism.
"I can bend, can't I?" Tien asked indignantly, "I can protect us. Meilin can bend too, right?" He glanced over at the seated young woman, green eyes imploring for her to help with his case. As kind as Rin could be, he knew from personal experience how stubborn she could be. "We can do this, Rin. Don't you trust us?"
"I'll go talk to my mother then, if we're decided?" Rin sighed in defeat, shoving her hands into her apron pockets, kicking at a rock on the ground. "Anyway, I should get back to the inn, my mother will be wanting some help with dinner." She took a step away from the group and looked back, a distracted smile on her face, "See you later."
Tien watched as Rin walked away, her figure blending into the crowds of people heading home as well. "She's stubborn, that one. I don't know how we managed to convince her in such a short time." He chuckled softly, worry lacing his words. The man turned back to the sisters, spreading his arms in a questioning gesture. "Do you really want to move? Because I think I can make my dad see sense." There was still something nagging him at the back of his mind though- the disappearances. The people who went missing deserved to be found, deserved to have people searching for them. He glanced over at the nearby houses to see a couple of the village women ushering Sen's mother back into her home, promising that her child would turn up.
Can you hear something?
“Well, our mom probably wouldn't enjoy being in the big city. But our family's really big. It's not like she'll really be on her own if we go.” Meilin offered.
Julin quickly nodded happily, “Yeah, our family's huge. We've got cousins in practically every village south of here. I mean, I even write letters to our cousin down in Kyoshi Island sometimes!” This seemed to surprise even Meilin.
“Kyoshi Island? Are you serious?” She asked incredulously, “We really do grow everywhere.” she said in surprise, referencing the unofficial family slogan; If there is dirt, the Hualing will grow.
“And... you're family, too.”Meilin said softly, putting a gentle hand on Rin's shoulder, not used to seeing her dearest friend look so helpless, “The Hualing's will look after your mother if she chooses to stay and we'll look after her if she chooses to come with us.”
“Yeah!” Julin agreed heartily, “Times are hard, so we have to be extra careful to look out for one another! And if there are bandits, they'll learn quickly enough not to touch us! With Meilin doing all that bending kick stuff she does, they'll be dust in no time!” She said, making a mock high kick in the air, “I mean, Meilin doesn't really bed around people but she can be super ruthless when she wants to be!” She said with a strange serious enthusiasm, “And Tien's right! You can trust us! We've got your back.”
Meilin smiled and waved at Rin as she left them, calling out when she looked back, “Don't look so hopeless, Rin. This isn't the end, it's the beginning of a new life. It's going to be scary but we're making our way in the world; together.”
“I know.” Meilin agreed with Tien when Rin was gone, “I don't think I've ever convinced her of anything in such a short time. And we once fought over whether it was raining or not.”
“I'd love to see the big city!”Julin gushed, “People and fashion and food and all sorts of new things. I've heard it's so big that you can stand in the same spot all day and not seem the same face go by twice!”
“I doubt that. What about the merchants and the people going and coming from work?” Meilin said, putting a firm big of logic in the magical gears of Julin's mind, “I think moving's for the best. We'll have to talk to mother tonight to make arrangements. I don't think...” her brow creased with worry, “With all these disappearances, it doesn't feel right leaving. This is our home and these are our people, it's not right that we can't do anything about it. But if we stay, what good are we? It's not like we have enough people for a proper search party and we can't even take enough time off from work to do any searching even with just the four of us. At least this way, we can give our families a fighting chance.” She hated herself for saying it as soon as the words left her mouth but it was what she believed.
Julin, for once, had gone rather somber, “I don't like this.” she murmured.
"Maybe once we leave, we can earn some money and come back, help with the searches and all." Tien said, pausing at some moments to find the accurate words that could clearly articulate the meaning he had in mind. "Maybe even on our way to the city, we can stop by other towns and see if we can find anything related to these disappearances." Tien fidgeted as he spoke, as he often did when deep in thought. His mind was whirring furiously as he spike, each section crying out solutions or problems that melded in one loud symphony. Rice, being an essential, the mill would do fine without him- his father was still strong, and had his other brothers to help too. He heard of some disappearances from the next towns over, seemingly random as well. If they found some common factors, they could piece together an idea of what might be happening. Yet the towns may not look favourably on any traveling strangers at this time. They also needed to work on their bending skills, and practice some more. So on and so forth his thoughts went, unorganized, half completed and wispy. Yet somehow, it all made sense to him.
"We should practice!" He blurted out nervously, turning his eyes upon Meilin. "Our earthbending, I mean." He coughed lightly at the end of his sentence to hide his embarrassment. This was as close as possible to asking her out, for a courtship and all. Yet now was not the time to be courting. With the war over their heads, and the disappearances... It just wasn't appropriate. "I think my father has some old earthbending scrolls- his mother was one." Of course, with the scrolls being old, the information might be outdated, but a scroll was a scroll- they were hard enough to come by as it is. "I'm free around evening time, if you want to drop by to take a look." As his words went on, he fumbled more and eventually just stared at the ground, not daring to see the expression on her face. Oh spirits, he made such a fool of himself!
Rin grabbed her apron off a hook and wrapped it around herself, deftly tying the strings at the back. She set about wiping the empty tables, pondering on the words her friends had said to her. She was touched, honestly, but her mother was a proud woman, perhaps even more so than the girl herself! How could she ever persuade her mother into getting the aid of a Hualing? She paused in her actions and leaned against the table, one hand rubbing her temple in perturbation. Also, the trio would be dangerous, no doubt that. Yes, she and Julin would have Tien and Meilin to rely on for protection, but she felt so useless. She wanted to know how to defend herself. Yet, who could she ask? No one in this village, for sure. Rin knew that she didn't have a pretty figure like many of the slender or lithe women in the village, but with her wide shoulders and thicker bones, perhaps she could hold her own in a fight. Perhaps.
"The tables are clean, leave them." Rin's mother snapped as she entered the room, struggling with a bucket of water. Clearly someone had said something to her to make her this mad. Rin silently set down the cloth and aided her mother with the bucket, bringing it over to the hearth so she could boil it for tea. "Sorry," the old lady breathed, shutting her eyes for a moment- a habit Rin had acquired to calm herself down. "It's just that some people are so inconsiderate!"
"Mother, I need to talk to you about something." Rin rushed out, not wanting to withdraw at the last moment from lack of courage.
"What?' Her mother raised an eyebrow, setting down the sprig of leaves she was inspecting.
"I'm going to Ba Sing Se with Meilin, Julin and Tien to earn money. The inn isn't enough to keep us alive." She stated, having found no delicate way to break the news. She watched her mother's steel green eyes widened with disbelief, then anger, sadness and acceptance.
"Alright," she choked out, "come back safe to me, you hear?"
Rin nodded, what else could she do?
Can you hear something?