Characters: Liu/Ichiro, Yui, Kouji (OCs)
Word Count: 2600+
Summary: Ichiro's boyfriend isn't who he implies he is. That's all right, Ichiro isn't either.
Author's Notes: Ichiro, Kouji, and Yui belong to dark_puck and are used with her permission and encouragement.
"Interesting eyes you've got," the noodle-seller drawled. There was something in the set of the man's shoulders that told Ichiro the man had seen firebenders too close.
This was the Lower Ring of Ba Sing Se. Most people here had seen firebenders too close, even if too close was a week's march away. Refugees came to the Impenetrable City, and Ba Sing Se stood in defiance of the fire and war sweeping across the rest of the continent. Ba Sing Se would never fall, everyone knew that.
Ichiro was almost certain they were wrong, but he had just enough familiarity with both Fire and Earth to wonder.
He grinned and paid for the noodles, gold eyes bright. "I get that a lot. War-child."
The noodle-seller relaxed, and their talk turned to gossip as Ichiro stood and ate the steaming bowl of noodles. There was a tea shop that was supposed to have grand tea thanks to a new pair of refugees who had arrived, there was the usual thefts and robberies, there was speaking around the Dai Li and their actions.
Ichiro liked the idea of the war-child. The soldier's bastard, really, the child whose mother had to accept a touch of Fire one way or another. Here in Ba Sing Se, there weren't a lot of people who could look at his face and see how very pure Fire his features were. After all, the Earth Kingdom was very large, and people looked different the farther one got from the Impenetrable City.
Being a war-child meant no one asked a second question about his Fire-eyes.
He left after he finished eating, wandering back towards the tiny apartment he rented. He looked up at the roofs of the buildings, thinking longingly of the trees back home. He and his siblings had scaled them as easily as stairs and running through the massive branches had been more than just a way to escape chores on the farm for an afternoon.
Ba Sing Se had pitiful little trees.
Its walls didn't really make up for that, even if they were incredibly impressive.
He climbed three flights of stairs to the apartment, knocked on the door, and smiled as his little sister opened it. "Hey, Yui."
"Hi, Ichi-ni." She smiled up at him, already too pretty and too womanly for a ten-year-old. She'd blossomed early, but she had Fire-eyes like his. Their neighbors tutted and said sympathetic things about what their father's blood must have done to her. "Kouji's back from school."
Ichiro frowned. Kouji should have been with one of the local earthbending trainers for another hour or so yet. "Why?"
Yui set her mouth in a line and didn't answer him. "Ning showed me how to bake cheese-bread today, and we've got a couple of loaves from her bakery. She likes me, and I think she'll hire me if you talk to her."
Earth Kingdom morals - a young unmarried girl shouldn't be working with as many boys as Ning employed without permission from a guardian. Ichiro tried not to roll his eyes, tried to stay focused on Kouji. "I'll talk to her. Where's Kouji?"
Yui's eyes flicked to the far corner of the room, behind the ratty futons Ichiro had scrounged up ages ago.
Ichiro wandered over and wasn't surprised to find his little brother scribbling in chalk on piece of broken pottery. Kouji looked much like Yui, the two of them obviously twins, even if he had grey eyes instead of amber. Like his sister, he wore his black hair in a braid, though his only came to the bottom of his shoulder blades.
He glanced up at Ichiro and squared his shoulders. "I don't want to go back. I don't... I just can't earthbend the way they do. It's a waste of your money."
Ichiro frowned. "You earthbend like a firebender," he pointed out. Firebending moves, even done with sand instead of flame, were distinctive to the wrong sorts of people. "You need to learn how to earthbend like an earthbender."
Kouji nodded, but Ichiro had the feeling his little brother would just go find something else to do during the time he was supposed to be learning how to bend the way Earthfolk did.
"Have you two eaten?" He asked instead, wandering over to the small oven and checking their supplies of foodstuff. It looked like he needed to send the twins to the market tomorrow.
Yui nodded. "We went out and got dumplings from Nianzu. He gave us extra because I sang the firefly song."
"All right." Ichiro looked around the tiny apartment, then ran a hand through his hair. Geh. He wished this wasn't a city, and he could just dunk himself in a river. "Let's take a trip to the baths before it gets too much darker."
Yui grinned. "Going to see your boyfriend tonight, Ichi-ni?"
Kouji frowned and said nothing, just stood and gathered things together. He didn't like Liu.
Ichiro was once again reminded that his brother was a lot smarter than he was. "Maybe."
Liu finished writing the last notations on Bae's report, rolled it up, and sealed it. He left it for one of the trainees to collect in their nightly rounds, then returned to his quarters. Technically, none of the Dai Li were supposed to have living quarters under Lake Laogai but no one had objected to him transforming one of the cells into a place to sleep. Not only was he one of the four captains, but after the Siege... Well.
No one much objected to him hiding from the world after the Siege.
He changed out of his robes and hat, leaving the scarf that covered his lower face until last. He wrapped a bronze scarf over his mouth, nose, and throat to match the brown clothes he wore, folded his uniform neatly and tucked it away. Last of all, he picked up his writing kit and tucked it under his arm.
He walked through the Dai Li tunnels under the Agrarian Zone, acknowledging the greetings of the other Dai Li. Underneath the Lower Ring, he slipped up into the streets. It was easy to lose himself in the bustle of the crowds, drifting as unnoticed as a ghost.
He stopped to purchase a few things, using chalk and slate to bargain with. He would have preferred his brush and ink to 'talk' to people, but that required too much set up for such a short interaction.
Dusk was giving way to full night when Liu reached the apartment he rented. It was a good apartment near the wall between the Lower Ring and the Middle Ring, very old and made entirely of stone. It was almost too pricy for the freelance scribe he passed himself off as to the landlord, but he was quite certain the landlord thought he did scribe-work for one of the criminal groups of the Lower Ring.
The door was not locked, but it was unopenable. Liu pressed his hand against the door and pushed his earthbending into the stone at the same time. The spikes binding the door into its frame flowed back where they belonged, and he entered his apartment.
His feet knew the way around the apartment even if his mind didn't entirely recall. He'd hardly used this apartment in the past six years, after all. But things had changed, and it was convenient to have an address that was not under the lake.
He set his packages and writing kit down, then got out his spark-rocks to light the lamps. Warm yellow light soon spread throughout the three rooms.
The walls were covered with characters. They looked carved into the stone, some deeper than others, every bit of them one side of a conversation. Liu studied them, then slid into an earthbending stance. A quick movement, and all the conversations were gone, the walls smooth once more.
He paused and laid his hand against one wall. The stone flowed like it was being carved, forming a portrait of a young man dressed in a respectable set of clothes, the spiky disarray of his hair hinting at the lie of respectability. The style of the strokes was a modern artistic style rather than either the classical style he usually practiced when painting or the realistic style he used for Dai Li business. It did not quite hide the Fire features of the young man, but it blunted them.
It certainly didn't hide that the young man was barely out of boyhood, seventeen at best.
Liu stared at the portrait and wondered if Ichiro would come tonight. He might. He might not. He had his work and his siblings to take care of, and he could not go gallivanting across the ring whenever he felt like it.
The Dai Li smoothed the portrait from the wall.
It was very interesting for three full-blooded Firefolk to be living in Ba Sing Se. Especially one as fever-hot to the touch as Ichiro was. People like them were the kind of people the Dai Li kept a close eye on.
Liu suspected Hyo would not approve of how close they had gotten.
Ichiro climbed the stairs to Liu's apartment several hours after full dark. The twins were safe back at his apartment, curled up on a futon together when he left. He'd be surprised if they were still there right now. He had a slate and chalk tucked under one arm, for his lessons with the scribe.
After all, in the Earth Kingdom, it was perverse and wrong for men to love other men. There had to be a reason why a rough young man like Ichiro was visiting a respectable scribe after dark, even if Liu wasn't quite respectable enough for the Middle Ring. But Ichiro was a rough-looking young man with Fire eyes, and people could easily believe he only knew the most basic characters. And learning more characters was always a good way to move up in the world.
He knocked on the door and grinned when Liu opened it. The older man's eyes lit with a smile, and he gestured Ichiro into the apartment. He was dressed all in brown, long robes edged with patterns of narcissus flowers. Ichiro was amused he even knew that, but apparently some of Yui's talk about Ba Sing Se fashions had sunk in.
Most strikingly, a bronze scarf was wrapped around Liu's throat and over his lower face, covering his mouth and most of his nose. It left off just below his eyes, and the ends were tucked back into the cloth below his long braid.
He'd seen Liu take it off once.
It made him wonder how Liu could bear to be kissed by him, with his Fire eyes.
"Hey," he said. "What're we working on tonight?"
Liu laid a hand on a wall and characters carved themselves in stone. 'Contracts. Land contracts, specifically.'
Ichiro nodded and sat down, resting his slate on the table that doubled as Liu's dining table and art table. He practiced stroke-order as Liu demonstrated on the wall, focusing his attention on that. His Lord Father would be pleased with all the complicated characters he was picking up, whenever they met each other again.
Kouji still knew more than him, but his little brother was very smart.
The soup simmering on the stove in the far corner smelled delicious. The fire crackling in the stone hearth was comforting, too. Ichiro let that rest in the back of his mind as he copied strokes to form new characters.
After some time of working on characters, Liu smoothed out the wall. 'That is enough for tonight. Practice as you can, Ichiro.' The characters he used for Ichiro's name were the wrong ones, Earth Kingdom ones that made the same sounds but meant nothing. 'Would you like to share dinner with me?'
"Yeah." Ichiro glanced over his shoulder at the stone stove and the decorated shield of rock projecting heat back onto the stovetop. "What kind of soup are you making?"
'Spiced egg-drop. There was white pepper in the market today.'
Ichiro gave a low whistle. Black pepper was as common as dirt in the Earth Kingdom, but even Earthfolk had a hard time buying white pepper these days. A scribe of Liu's apparent status could certainly afford a small amount, but to use it for such a simple meal with someone as unimportant as Ichiro? Very strange. Like the way Liu wrote on paper when he couldn't write on walls, instead of using a slate and chalk.
Liu stepped away from the wall and collected blue bowls from his cabinets, ladling them full of soup.
The thing was, even if rumors said Liu worked for Master Feng Bao, he didn't read that way to Ichiro. But Liu had to get all the money he spent somehow.
He was a talented artist and earthbender, and the first thing, the very first thing Ichiro had been warned about when he came to Ba Sing Se was the cultural police. The earthbending masters who preserved the culture of Ba Sing Se against destruction. The Dai Li.
People didn't talk about the Dai Li. They talked around them. A person had to listen carefully, but he was good at that and Yui was even better.
If Liu was Dai Li, Ichiro should not be here. He should be running as fast as his legs could carry him.
But he wasn't sure. He wasn't sure if Liu was or not, and... It was nice to have a friend. Nice not to be alone. Sozin's balls, it was even nice to be the younger one, to have someone who would try to take care of him even a little bit.
Liu offered him a bowl, and they sat and ate in silence. The older man had to adjust his scarf to make an opening to raise his spoon to, but it was slight. Liu had a lot of practice with eating without taking off his scarf.
He had a lot of practice with making soup, too. Now and then, he'd offer Ichiro something that wasn't soup, stew, or porridge, but he never ate any himself.
Ichiro picked up the bowls when Liu was done eating and rinsed them in a washbasin. Drying them and putting them away felt surprisingly natural, and when he returned to the table, Liu had a page of mulberry paper on the table. He was sketching on the stone table itself, using his earthbending to work out what looked like a portrait of a young man.
"Who're you sketching?" Ichiro rested his hand on the back of the chair, leaning over to look at the features. It was classical style, though, which he'd never seen enough of to translate the style into what a person would actually look like.
Liu's hand paused, then a character formed next to the young man's face. 'You.'
Ichiro chuckled. "Don't waste your paper."
'As you wish.' The characters and portrait both were smoothed away with a gesture.
Some part of him, the same part that loved to fight and be challenged, preened that Liu wanted to draw him. The older man was a fine artist, and Ichiro had seen some of the pieces he'd made just sitting on the roof and looking out at the city. The smarter part of him knew he didn't want anyone who did read classical style asking Liu where he'd met such a Fire-blooded young man.
He presses a hand to Liu's shoulder. "Hey, look at me?"
Liu did, green eyes amused, and Ichiro bent to press a kiss to his scarf-covered mouth.
The scarf was silk, cool and smooth against his lips. Beneath it, he felt Liu press into the kiss, mouth parting slightly. Sometimes Ichiro almost dared to see if he could slip his tongue into the slit Liu ate through, but he never, ever tried to remove the scarf.
It was a good kiss, and when Liu pushed the table away with a little help of his earthbending, Ichiro climbed into his lap for an even better kiss.